Montreal Memories

By Benjamin Massey · May 15th, 2013 · 3 comments

memories

It turns out that I hate Marc Dos Santos more than I hate cancer.

Toronto Leads 5-1: A Stream-of-Consciousness Narrative.” Maple Leaf Forever!, June 18, 2009. (Montreal Impact 1-5 Toronto FC)

Gutted. Horrified. Infuriated. A whole bevy of emotions, each of them negative.

I’m Sorry, Did You Think We Were Good?Maple Leaf Forever!, May 26, 2010. (Montreal Impact 1-1 Vancouver Whitecaps)

Someday I’m going to snap, leap on the field after one of these Gantarized shit shows, and start fighting him.

Double Game Day: Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Edmonton, Voyageurs Cup Day Two.” (Comment) Eighty Six Forever, May 4, 2011 (Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 aet, Vancouver wins 2-1 on aggregate)

I remember that last game like I was still there, half-collapsed in the south stands of Empire Field, soaked through with sweat and fear and the pouring rain which lent apocalyptic majesty to the most terrifying victory in Whitecaps’ MLS history. Even when they beat the Montreal Impact in this competition the Whitecaps tear my heart out. Sometimes when I close my eyes I still see Ali Gerba, abandoned by an exhausted Greg Janicki, lashing a wide-open header off the bottom of the goalpost in extra time. We all remember how that tournament ended, of course, with the Rain Game robbing Vancouver of the Voyageurs Cup for the second time, but it’s the second leg at Empire Field against Montreal that still makes spots dance in front of my eyes.

I’ve been writing about how sick the Montreal Impact make me in the Voyageurs Cup for almost four years. I didn’t even know I had been writing about soccer for four years. Time flies when you’re having the exact opposite of fun.

There was a time, a couple years ago, when I was tired of the to-the-death Whitecaps and Impact rivalry. There had been all these games, each of them a little Somme in the Western Front that was the Voyageurs Cup, as well as the 2008 and 2009 USL First Division finals. The 2008 edition was before my time; in 2009 I took the ferry from Victoria to Vancouver just so I could see the away leg at the Lions Pub with the Southsiders instead of on my computer at home, and we lost, and I could quote bitter tears from that article too if it were germane.

But after a 2012 where we played the Impact in one regular season game, well, what’s the opposite of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? I’m trying to combine that with “from hell’s heart, I stab at thee.” It’s how I feel about this game tonight. Whenever Vancouver and Montreal collide in the Voyageurs Cup, even indirectly (see 2009), the result is enough stress to fill an ordinary season, condensed into ninety minutes and slammed right into every fan’s mind like a brand steaming in the rain.

So much has changed in two years. In 2011 the Impact finished out of the North American Soccer League playoffs. This year they are certainly favourites to qualify in the East; they may not be as good as their early record suggested but they’re certainly fine when healthy. In early 2011 the Whitecaps, expansion team though they were, were buoyed with optimism until the premature sacking of Teitur Thordarson led to the Tommy Soehn Death March. This year the Whitecaps are still optimistic, particularly after that Galaxy game, but on the other hand are a semi-strong team in a year when semi-strong teams may miss the Western playoffs and may be the worst performers away from home since Napoleon’s army in Russia.

With both teams having played 10 MLS games, five home and five away, the Impact have a +0.200 SoG/90 differential, as compared to +0.700 for the Whitecaps. Wow! Go ‘Caps! But it’s so early in the season. The Whitecaps are flattered by their latest game when they smacked the life out of the Los Angeles Galaxy; the Impact are hurt by their latest game, where they had a lucky win at home to Salt Lake. This time last week the Whitecaps were on +0.111 and the Impact were on +0.444.

The Whitecaps and Impact have faced many of the same opponents and Vancouver comes off looking worse. Both teams have played at San Jose, where Montreal was better, at home to Toronto, where Montreal was better, and at home to Columbus, where it was close but if anyone was better Montreal was. The Whitecaps probably looked better than the Impact in their home game against Salt Lake, but then again the Whitecaps drew and the Impact won (I call it luck). That’s a 3-1 Montreal advantage in my books.

The Whitecaps are a terrific road team as you know. So far this year on the road they average -1.400 SoG/90 in MLS. That’s not good. The Impact, by way of comparison, average -0.800 SoG/90 on the road and that’s with three of their five road games being trips to the west coast.

In short, the Impact are likely to win this game. They are a good team and they have home field advantage. Away goals count, so better to go down 2-1 than 1-0. But we’re likely to go down by something, barring either the second elevens of both teams turning the odds around completely, good luck, or the Whitecaps playing their road game of the season before what is not expected to be the mother of all Stade Saputo crowds.

If I were to, reluctantly, offer two thin reeds of hope, they would be as follows. First, I suspect the West is stronger than the East. I can’t yet prove it; it’s way too early. It’s just what I feel right now. Second, Marco di Vaio single-handedly accounts for 38% of Montreal’s shots on target (19 of their 50) and, having just gone 90 minutes on Saturday, seems unlikely to start again. Both the Whitecaps and the Impact will play a few depth players, but none of them will have as dramatic an impact as replacing di Vaio with any other Montreal attacker except maybe losing Reo-Coker. (If Felipe, who is generally half-fit at best and played 88 minutes on Saturday, also sits then that’s half Montreal’s offense down the tubes.) The Whitecaps will miss Camilo a fair bit, they’ll miss Kobayashi a little, but nothing like di Vaio or Felipe.

I’ll tell you what, though. This is going to be another one of those stressful damned Montreal-Vancouver games that ages me ten years in 90 minutes. The soccer gods gave us Vancouver-Montreal because they couldn’t give us cholera.

A Message from Vancouver, BC to Edmonton, AB

By Benjamin Massey · May 1st, 2013 · 2 comments

See you next year.

The Voyageurs Cup is Awesome

By Benjamin Massey · May 1st, 2013 · 4 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

The Voyageurs Cup has long been one of this site’s major obsessions. This is because the Voyageurs Cup is the best. It’s been proven by science. Heaven knows the Canadian Soccer Association tries to screw it up (more on that another day) but it’s still just amazing. And that amazingness has nothing to do with how competitive it might be.

Tonight’s game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and FC Edmonton should go the Whitecaps way. Vancouver has a one-goal lead in the two-legged tie and a titanic three away goals, meaning Edmonton must either win by two or score at least three away goals of their own to have a chance. Last year, famously, Yashir Pinto gave Vancouver a scare by heading home an Antonio Rago cross for the first goal at BC Place[1], but they’ll need a hell of a lot more than one shocking moment now.

Edmonton has only won a road game by two goals twice in their NASL history, both against the then-hapless Atlanta Silverbacks on May 7, 2011 and May 12, 2012. They have lost every game they have ever played against MLS competition with a cumulative goal differential of -9 in five games. Edmonton looks set for, at best, mid-table mediocrity in the NASL this year (1W-1D-1L and the one W was by no means convincing), and while the Whitecaps are probably no better in MLS they are at least reliable with home field advantage. Even bearing in mind that the gap between MLS and NASL is smaller than most MLS-only fans think, if Edmonton were to get that two-goal win at BC Place it would be by far the greatest away result in their history. Oh, by the way, Edmonton is still without its two best central defenders (Albert Watson: injured, Carlyle Mitchell: ineligible to play against Vancouver) and its head coach (Colin Miller: suspended).

This tie is as sure a thing as soccer ever can be. There’s not one chance in twenty that FC Edmonton will go on to the Voyageurs Cup final.

So why am I still so thrilled for this game? Why should it fire the hearts of every Canadian soccer supporter, even when the result is by no means in doubt?

The FC Edmonton Supporters Group has sold ten tickets for BC Place tonight, which doesn’t sound like a lot but is a better traveling contingent than non-Cascadian MLS teams bring and is great by the standards of the North American Soccer League (to say nothing of a weekday game where Edmonton has small chances of winning the tie). Their fans are excited, not because of the MLS star factor (oh wow we get to see Greg Klazura said nobody except Mrs. Klazura) but because it’s a nearby regional rival in what will be, bar a miraculous run to the top of the NASL table, the biggest game the Eddies will play all season. An even larger group of Whitecaps supporters went out to Commonwealth Stadium last week; the Whitecaps have a better chance of playoff soccer than Edmonton thanks to MLS’s more forgiving format, but this is still a championship semi-final. The two groups played a supporters match at Clarke Field (Vancouver won 6-2) and drank together in friendly rivalry which in no way diminished the enthusiasm with which each fan called the opposing team a bunch of cheating shitsacks when the whistle blew.

So how about the other side of the country? I don’t know how many supporters U-Sector and the Red Patch Boys are bringing to Montreal but I bet you’ll be able to hear them. U-Sector self-deprecatingly tweeted that they expected “not too many” supporters. “Perhaps a few dozen[2].” On a Wednesday. Oh well then. Maybe Toronto is getting a little bored with victory (maybe), but to hear their supporters celebrate that 2-0 win over Montreal last week you wouldn’t think so. The Montreal Ultras made waves last week when they brought banners to Saputo Stadium condemning the Impact’s prioritizing regular season matches over the Cup[3], my favourite being “nous on l’a pris au sérieux.” We took it seriously. Fucking rights. The supporters care out east for sure.

All because of the Voyageurs Cup. Without that Cup, bought and paid for over a decade ago by Canadian soccer supporters in an era when cheering on domestic clubs was by no means trendy and the games were never televised, put their money where their mouths were. Sure, it took the Canadian Soccer Association to formalize the Voyageurs Cup as the end result of a Canadian Championship, but the way the supporters created the Cup made it all the easier for them to embrace the Championship. Look at the US Open Cup south of the border, which has the same stakes, the same environment, and which is taken seriously by supporters in only a few MLS cities. There’s are reasons we see so much more passion up here, and one of them is that the Cup has always felt like our creation, the one completely beautiful thing to emerge from the past 13 years of drama, dysfunction, and disappointment.

Of course the Voyageurs Cup isn’t there with casual MLS fans yet. In Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver Voyageurs Cup matches are among the less-attended matches of the season. But in Vancouver attendances are generally over 15,000 despite tough time slots and have resisted the decline we’ve seen with regular season attendances. Media attention and awareness has progressed with every season and one hears less from the “what is this?” crowd each year. We’re getting there, and as always the supporters are driving the atmosphere for their own cup. Once upon a time the Cascadia Cup was just a thing fifty people cared about and which hammered down the I-5 bouncing in passenger seats; now it is the marquee event on the MLS regular season calendar for casual and hardcore alike. It all takes time.

What am I trying to say? I don’t know. I just love this shit. I love that it happens, that we live in a world where a serious Canadian soccer championship is bringing away fans across the mountains just to experience it. Soccer in this country is screwed on a few levels but clearly, we did something right here.

(notes and comments…)

FC Edmonton Got Robbed By Camilo (Twice)

By Benjamin Massey · April 29th, 2013 · 5 comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

I like occasionally pulling a Simon Borg and looking at contentious refereeing decisions. Last month I appraised Erik Hurtado’s non-goal against the Columbus Crew[1], deciding that the call on the field was incorrect but that, arguably, the goal shouldn’t have counted anyway.

Well, we Whitecaps fans have had a week full of controversial refereeing. FC Dallas’s visit to BC Place on Saturday was fraught with diving, fake injuries, time-wasting, an elbow to Alain Rochat, and all the shenanigans which earned Fuck You Dallas its well-deserved nickname and which, with two exceptions, went unpunished. The leg at FC Dallas Stadium was only a bit better because Dallas was in such control over the game. But I’m going to look at the match in-between, the Voyageurs Cup game in Edmonton where the Whitecaps went up 1-0 early, were almost immediately pegged back, and actually went down 2-1 through a Chris Nurse header before eventually clawing their way back in front for a 3-2 win. It was a great game, but one marked by a controversial decision where a Camilo dive led to a penalty kick and the equalizing goal.

However, I’m not going to look at that one. What can you say about a dive? It’s disgraceful, every time Camilo flops it’s an embarrassment to Whitecaps fans, and every time a referee buys it it’s an embarrassment to soccer. But diving is subjective, hard to break down, and leads to a world of arguments over how much it’s part of the game, how much embellishment is permitted for the sake of drawing a penalty, whose fault it is, etc. etc. bullshit bullshit. We can argue about it for days without deciding anything because there is no absolute truth, no clear divide between “dive” and “not dive” which determines whether Camilo was right or wrong. Most Whitecaps fans, anecdotally, seem to think that Camilo’s dive was awful and that it was a cheap way to win while, of course, happily taking the goal. This seems like the correct point of view.

No, we’re going to approach the controversy from a different angle. Today we’re going to look at the first goal, when Camilo flighted home a free kick for a very-shortly-lived-indeed 1-0 lead. The Canadian Soccer Association has highlights up[2] for your reference. Our goal begins at nine seconds.

As always, I am not a certified referee and I have not played the game at a higher level than first division supporters soccer. My only qualification is that, unlike most pundits and a frankly alarming number of players, I have a copy of the FIFA Laws of the Game and have read it.

This article is image-heavy, so the good stuff comes after the jump.

(more…)

That FC Edmonton Primer for Vancouver Fans, In Full

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2013 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

As one of the few FC Edmonton fans and regular observers in the Vancouver Whitecaps world, I feel obliged to give you my estimation of the Eddies in advance of the Voyageurs Cup match on Wednesday.

Edmonton is off to a mediocre start, with one draw and two losses in three road games. The draw in Fort Lauderdale and the loss to Carolina were both reasonably respectable; the loss in Minnesota wasn’t, particularly. Road games in the NASL are just as tough as road games in MLS and Edmonton looks improved from last year’s nadir, but under new head coach Colin Miller they aren’t nearly knocking at the championship door yet.

Both Vancouver and Edmonton are likely to use weakened lineups; in Edmonton’s case, it’s not voluntary. Centre back Carlyle Mitchell, as we all know, is ineligible to play for Edmonton as he’s on loan from Vancouver. Wes Knight left the Minnesota game after seventeen minutes with a broken left foot[1] and is certainly out for the Voyageurs Cup. Right back Edson Edward also left that game injured in the second half; no word if he’ll be back or not, but that would deprive Edmonton of its two right-side starters. The Eddies are also missing captain and centre back Albert Watson, who hasn’t played this year due to a knee injury, and centre back/defensive midfielder David Proctor, who’s a native midfielder but played in the back alongside Paul Hamilton last year, still has a calf problem. If Edward is out then Edmonton will be missing five presumptive starters.

FC Edmonton expert Steven Sandor reckons that Mallan Roberts will make his professional debut at centre back alongside Adrian LeRoy[2], a 25-year-old who was a part-timer with USL Pro’s Harrisburg City Islanders last year (10 matches, 586 minutes). LeRoy has, in my books, not looked like an NASL-level player, and while Roberts is hugely hyped as a prospect that doesn’t amount to much for his debut. LeRoy is basically limited in every way; Roberts is huge, commanding, young, and looked surprisingly quick for his size, but also raw and without high-level experience. The third centre back is likely Chris de Guise, a 19-year-old who has never played above amateur soccer and spent last year at the NAIT Ooks in the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association.

So the Edmonton defense is in serious trouble, almost regardless of who Martin Rennie starts. Minnesota United’s attack gave the Eddies fits on the weekend and Minnesota was missing both Etienne Barbara and Pablo Campos while Edmonton played Mitchell for 90 minutes and got a good hour out of Edward. Tom Heinemann, Darren Mattocks, Camilo, Caleb Clarke… they should be able to find room against that lot. It’s probably closer to Erik Hurtado’s level than MLS too, although if he plays out right he’ll go up against the only quality, healthy NASL starter in Edmonton’s back four: left back Lance Laing. A possible right-sided replacement, Antonio Rago, is also quite a respectable player who was one of the few Eddies to pleasantly surprise in 2012. (Sandor projects that Edward will start.)

(EDIT, 9:45 AM MDT April 24: I have been assured on Twitter by both Steven Sandor and the FC Edmonton Supporters Group that Edward trained fully and looks set to start.)

Defensive midfielder Neil Hlavaty is a good sort, probably MLS level and a talented free kick taker to boot, but he’ll have his hands full trying to help LeRoy and Roberts. Chris Nurse can also help defensively. The rest… well. Linfield loanee Robert Garrett will probably play his second game with FC Edmonton. Against Minnesota he looked entirely out of sync with his teammates and unclear on the idiosyncrasies of the NASL; three days’ training will not help with that. But he also showed promise and had a few good touches. As for the famous Shaun Saiko, he’s been clearly Edmonton’s best player in its NASL history but Colin Miller has predominantly played Saiko wide left this year where he has achieved, basically, nothing. He’s had a few half-chances and not forced great saves, and his trademark powerful shots or incisive through balls have been lacking. If Saiko finds his stroke again the Vancouver defense might be in for a shock, but there hasn’t been much from him three games in.

As on the defense, Edmonton will probably have a fistful of young midfielders in their eighteen. One will be Hanson Boakai, who you remember from the Canadian U-17 team earlier this month. He was promising as could be, scored an excellent goal, and if you try to imagine the Whitecaps putting Marco Bustos on their bench you’ll realize what Boakai’s presence might mean for Edmonton. (Boakai is another player who hasn’t yet played professionally.) 19-year-old Edem Mortotsi is also a possibility; another NAIT alumnus, Mortotsi debuted April 6 in Fort Lauderdale. The “experienced” bench midfielder would be Massimo Mirabelli, who scored on his debut for Edmonton in Carolina and is all of 21 years old. I like Mirabelli, who plays aggressive offense out wide left even if he’s inconsistent in every way. He is just a kid: he played on the same Canadian U-20 team as Russell Teibert and Ben Fisk for chrissakes.

I do like the team up top in spite of a lack of production. Daryl Fordyce is another former Linfield man and is off to a great start that’s seen him get everything except statistics. He’s one of the team’s best dribblers along with Saiko, an accurate passer, and an enthusiastic shooter. He’s generally in good positions, impressive given his lack of NASL time, and is handling physicality well. I like Fordyce, even if he’s still waiting to get on the board. Michael Cox has a reputation as a one-dimensional speedster but has been showing a bit more this year: he’s had a few good flick-ons, he’s shooting well, he’s even trying to hold up the ball. Of course, this being Edmonton, the depth is young: Sadi Jalali has promise (he played with the Whitecaps Residency late last year and was too good for his age group) but is just a kid, Ajeej Sarkaria is older but has even less meaningful experience, and while Elvir Gigolaj got a few minutes with Edmonton last year, he’s still developing and has been fighting his way back from injury.

If the Whitecaps get too cheap on the defending, Edmonton might just be able to find scoring chances. Underestimate Fordyce at your own risk, and while he isn’t the most technical guy on two feet Cox is fast enough to create danger on the break and brings enough other skills that he’s rounding into an acceptable NASL starter. So if Johnny Leveron starts and is feeling uninspired, or Fordyce finds mismatches against the likes of Greg Klazura, that’s where the Eddies have a chance to make inroads. Particularly if Saiko finally gets himself going.

Okay, short version. MLS fans, in general, need to give the NASL more respect. They see the words “major league” and assume that their teams must invariably be superior, forgetting that the NASL has no salary cap and that, unlike in real soccer pyramids, there’s no promotion-relegation to ensure the best teams and the worst get their just desserts. Toronto FC has learned this lesson a few times in Voyageurs Cup and CONCACAF Champions Leagues over the years.

But Vancouver, even with a B or B+ lineup, is just better than Edmonton. Edmonton’s defense is running on fumes, starting fourth-stringers. The midfield has also been caught in an injury crunch and is relying on players without NASL experience or without consistency. The forwards are good, but not so good as to make up for the other two. In goal Lance Parker is fine but not a game-stealer. The remaining depth is nightmarishly inexperienced. This Edmonton lineup would not do very well in the NASL, and indeed hasn’t been. Why should we give them more than a puncher’s chance against the Whitecaps?

Finally, a note for the Edmonton fans. Southsiders Travel Goddess Rebecca Contant posted that the Southsiders have sold 21 tickets for Commonwealth Stadium[3]; add in a chunk of Curva Collective supporters and there’ll be at least a couple dozen Vancouver supporters in attendance. This seems to promise a fun atmosphere with more of the good-natured chant wars between the combined Vancouver supporters and the FC Edmonton Supporters Group we saw last year. If you’re around Edmonton and on the fence about attending, general admission tickets are still available online for $23 plus a $3 convenience fee. I have a press pass and I still bought a ticket; five bucks from each sale goes to the United Way.

(notes and comments…)

Priorities and the Voyageurs Cup

By Benjamin Massey · April 23rd, 2013 · 2 comments

How seriously should the Vancouver Whitecaps take the Voyageurs Cup?

I was already thinking about this but was really spurred on by Kristin Knowles’s article on Waking the Red asking “Should Toronto FC Go for Five?”[1]

Knowles comes down in favour of letting the kids and the bench play, which is interesting given that Toronto FC’s first-round matchup is against the Montreal Impact, a team better than they are. If Toronto plays scrubs and the Impact (who have historically taken the Voyageurs Cup seriously even in the pre-Canadian Championship days) play starters, the Impact will be heavy favourites. Knowles seems to implicitly acknowledge this, and is clearly willing to accept very low odds in the Voyageurs Cup in favour of, as she sees it, helping Toronto FC long-term by providing 180 important minutes to fringe players.

The Whitecaps are against FC Edmonton, and while I am of the opinion that the gap between the NASL and MLS is vastly overstated by pro-MLS partisans, I am also of the opinion that this year’s FC Edmonton team (and last year’s, really) should be inferior to this year’s Whitecaps. It’s early days in the Eddies season but they haven’t looked great and will be missing as many as four players out of their best eleven on Wednesday. Vancouver has a considerable number of established second-division players such as Knighton, Watson, Rusin, Heinemann, and Davidson. If the Whitecaps played a strong reserve team incorporating four of those guys (not Davidson), players like Koffie and Mattocks who are trying to bust slumps and get back into the starting lineup, and round it out with the Klazuras, the Harveys, and the Leverons, Vancouver should have the better chances against Edmonton. But it won’t be nearly a sure thing: certainly not as sure as playing the first team would be.

So should the Whitecaps take it easy against Edmonton, even at the risk of handing the Rally Rabbits their first point against MLS competition? And if they get past the Eddies, what level of squad rotation should they employ against the winner of Toronto – Montreal? Last year, Martin Rennie was criticized by fans for not using his depth enough (then again, this year he’s been using his depth and has been criticized by fans because a lot of them are fucking imbeciles); the Voyageurs Cup was a major part of that.

Winning the Voyageurs Cup should be a priority. Yes, even over league matches.

Firstly, it would improve the team, meaning it would ultimately help even the most hardcore MLS-first fan. By winning the Voyageurs Cup the Whitecaps would qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and therefore receive an extra pot of allocation money. Allocation is the butt of a lot of jokes but it’s important, as it lets us spend money that doesn’t count against the salary cap. The reason we got Jay DeMerit was because our hefty pot of expansion team allocation money allowed us to buy down his contract and keep him below Designated Player status. CONCACAF Champions League play is the only way MLS teams can get allocation money by winning: other than that, we’re looking at missing the playoffs or selling a player to increase our team salary budget[2]. Generally MLS rules are designed to make good teams worse and bad teams better; allocation money for CONCACAF Champions League qualification is the only exception. MLS’s front office wants their teams to look good in CONCACAF, and that lets successful teams improve in MLS.

Secondly, it’s a trophy. I mean, isn’t that why we’re here? To win bloody champonships? For all its flaws the Voyageurs Cup is still the universally regarded and widely respected championship of Canadian soccer. And as trophies go it should be relatively easy to win, yet the Whitecaps never have. In eleven Voyageurs Cups the Whitecaps have zero victories compared to Montreal’s seven and Toronto FC’s four. Obviously Vancouver has two moral victories: when Marc dos Santos gave Toronto the Cup at Vancouver’s expense in 2009 and when the Canadian Soccer Association did the same thing in the rain in 2011, but those didn’t actually get engraved on the trophy. The Whitecaps also lead with six second-place finishes, behind the Toronto Lynx’s four. That is actually a pretty shitty record. Let’s win one. Let’s just win one, no messing about. Holding that trophy at last is certainly worth the difference between losing in the first and second rounds of the MLS playoffs.

Thirdly, the CONCACAF Champions League itself. The Champions League is another part of the MLS calendar that’s often joked about and seldom respected. Until the Montreal Impact (2008-09) or Toronto FC (2011-12) make a deep run, securing glamorous knockout-round matches against excellent Mexican teams giving it their all. Toronto FC drew 47,658 to SkyDome for their first Champions League quarterfinal match against the Los Angeles Galaxy. And the Montreal Impact set the modern-day record for Canadian club soccer when they brought 55,571 fans into Olympic Stadium to watch the Impact beat Santos Laguna 2-0 in a game even I, an Impact hater of the old school, get chills remembering (Eddy fucking Sebrango, eh? Fucking rights).

Short of an MLS Cup final, a major CONCACAF Champions League game is the only conceivable way the Whitecaps will be able to justify opening the upper deck at BC Place. If you don’t want to see 50,000 Whitecaps fans roaring on their heroes against Monterrey or Cruz Azul or even FC Fucking Dallas in the middle of February, you’re not human. And winning the Voyageurs Cup is the only way the Whitecaps can get there. The Champions League berths attached to the MLS Cup and MLS Supporters Shield are for American teams only. So yes, I want the Whitecaps to win the Voyageurs Cup. Montreal and Toronto have had their turns; it’s high time the most successful team in Canadian history showed how it’s done.

(notes and comments…)

Toronto – Vancouver Post-Game: May Contain Game-Related Content

By Benjamin Massey · June 3rd, 2010 · 4 comments

This is one of those nights where it hardly seems to be worth talking about the game.

The match was utterly dire, a bore of a scoreless draw between two clubs that could not possibly have cared less. The Whitecaps, playing predominantly a first team, came out like they had nothing to play for and knew it. The Toronto regulars were similarly disposed. Less frequent visitors to both lineups, like Philippe Davies for Vancouver and the TFC Academy kids, had a lot more heart and a lot more hustle but less skill. The catastrophic weather, with levels of rain that would make Vancouver blush and a pitch so slippery the Blackhawks and Islanders later skated on it, also inclined the veterans towards conservatism, and so boredom reigned.

I thought Marcus Haber deserved his red card. From where I was sitting at BMO Field, he began the slide after Toronto’s player had got rid of the ball, had his spikes up, and was generally launching an utterly reckless sliding tackle from a player who ought to know better. On a level I was relieved because it meant I wouldn’t have to watch Marcus Haber any more, but on another level it shattered Vancouver’s already slim chances of grabbing a goal. I thought that playing Cornelius Stewart and, later, Randy Edwini-Bonsu alone up front after Haber’s ejection was overly conservative on Teitur Thordarson’s part. But two records remain standing as a result of that conservatism. The Whitecaps complete an undefeated Voyageurs Cup with no wins, no losses, and four draws, and Toronto FC completes an actually triumphant undefeated campaign where they never conceded a goal.

So rather than talk about the game, let’s talk about something else.

As you’d know if you read this site (and if you don’t read this site how did you get this far?), I went to Montreal and Toronto for the away legs. In the course of my travels I hit Bar 99 with the Montreal Ultras after that particular disappointing draw. I hit the Duke of Gloucester with U-Sector to watch Canada take on Venezuela, and after this match I was snared by a Red Patch Boy on my way out of BMO Field and went to Shoeless Joe’s for a thoroughly enjoyable post-game. With apologies to the North End Elite and Tribal Rhythm Nation, I’ve spent more time around away supporters than half the supporters do the last two weeks.

And, you know, it’s the damndest thing. When I was in Montreal I laughed with the Ultras and talked about how, whatever our differences, one thing we had in common was that we all hate Toronto FC. Down at Shoeless Joe’s, I laughed with the Red Patch Boy who brought me in and we agreed that, however many differences we have, we both know that we all hate the Montreal Impact. I can imagine Montreal and Toronto supporters commiserating over a beer and saying that, for all their many disagreements, they know that at least they’re not fucking Southsiders.

It’s easy to forget for those of us who spend more time trolling the discussion boards than actually meeting with our fellow supporter, but ultimately, we’re all coming to matches for the same things. We want to hang out with old friends and make new friends and sing and chant and make a ruckus and cheer our team on to victory, and with all of that common ground the colour of laundry we’re cheering for is really a very minor detail.

I don’t want to get too maudlin here  (although I’m writing this with a fair bit of liquor in me), but I think that we sometimes exaggerate the rivalries forming between us supporters groups. A bit of heat is a good thing. A Whitecaps game, to me, means more when it’s against the Impact or the Timbers than it does against AC St. Louis or the Carolina Railhawks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But that’s not an excuse to go around picking virtual fights with the Timbers Army or the Montreal Ultras and generally being an asshole. There are few enough Canadian soccer supporters in this country as it is without dividing ourselves further and driving each other away with a constant avalanche of hostility and abuse masquerading as rivalry.

There’s nothing wrong with giving each other the gears, or building those rivalries. When I call Toronto FC supporters “plastics”, it’s a shot but it’s meant in good spirits. When Toronto FC supporters call us Whitecaps fans pot-smoking hippies, I can take it in the same light. Nobody is saying that everybody needs to join hands and sing and dance, or even particularly get along. Just that we can’t let the comforting veil of Internet anonymity divide our too-small community and turn us all into complete cocksuckers.

When I whine like this I’m not so much referring to guys at usector.ca talking shit about their opponent du jour, or the pro-Montreal blogs saying pro-Montreal things, or similar internal affairs. I’m talking about the fact that even the Voyageurs forum has, in some parts, become a cesspool for intra-club rivals sniping at each other. I’m talking about the fact that, more and more, the sort of soccer fan you are in this country depends on which of the big three clubs you support, and if you’re a neutral (or, God help you, a third-division supporter) then you’d better just get out of the way before you wind up crawling under the bed and sobbing at how stupid a bunch of otherwise intelligent people could be.

It bears repeating. When we actually meet up, be it under the national team banner or because some of us are going to support our club on the road, we tend to get along pretty well. Almost every story you hear about particularly infamous club supporters runs something like “yeah, on-line he’s a real asshole but he’s pretty cool in person”. It’s early days for Canadian soccer fandom, and for the most part we don’t actually hate each other quite yet.

There is, after all, quite a large gulf between rivalry and hatred, between wanting Dwayne De Rosario to get hit by the team bus and wanting the supporters to get dragged under the wheels with him. I hope that we never bridge that gulf, because one of the best assets of the Canadian soccer community is that, for all the countless differences between us, we are a community. The Canadian soccer world is united in a way that most countries can never be because, ultimately, we’re all in the same boat. We’re all cheering for a team ranked sixty-third in the world when most of us think that’s too high. We all support clubs that are in leagues of dubious stability and we all have a history of watching teams we loved suspended or killed off. Whether you root for the big bad MLS boys in their soccer-specific stadium or the Canadian Soccer League team whose games are sporadically canceled because the pitch has plywood under it, you’re an underdog.

The success of Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto is terrific. The future success of Edmonton, Ottawa, and others is something to hope for. But if that success comes at the cost of fracturing the Canadian soccer world and destroying the unity that brought us the Voyageurs Cup in the first place, it’ll be of questionable value. For now, I’ll rejoice in the fact that when we gather, nobody can celebrate the beautiful game like a Canadian regardless of what colour he wears. I’ll cheer for Toronto in the CONCACAF Champions League not because I like them but because they’re Canadian and that’s what counts. I’ll adopt the Red Green philosophy: “remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”

And next time some opposition fan on some message board says something so stupid and inflammatory it can’t help but be destroyed in rhetorical rage, I’ll take a deep breath and I’ll leave it alone. And I hope you will too.

Toronto – Vancouver Preview: It Doesn't Matter (Except That It Does)

By Benjamin Massey · June 2nd, 2010 · No comments

The Voyageurs Cup is over. After the match tonight, Toronto FC will be presented with their justly-earned championship trophy even if they somehow contrive to lose this game by sixty. There’s more of a chance of that than usual, given that Toronto has called up seven TFC Academy kids to at least observe proceedings tonight. But even if it did happen it wouldn’t be in the least relevant.

This being Canada, there’s still controversy over this meaningless game and Toronto’s possible decision to play a bunch of its youngsters in a game that has no relevance to them. Okay, there’s not really any controversy, just a few blindly anti-Toronto people saying their usual blindly anti-Toronto nonsense and a few blindly pro-Toronto people blowing it up into something more than it really is. But it still merits comment, on account of all the actual controversy last year when Montreal played its scrubs in a game irrelevant to them but still very relevant to the country.

Of course, this game is nothing like Montreal – Toronto last year. The tournament is decided this time around and Toronto has every right to play whichever useless pieces of Academy detritus it desires. But I hope they do run out a strong lineup, because this game is on Sportsnet (East and West) and as such is something of a showcase for soccer in this country. It’s true that Sportsnet has always given soccer short shrift, and restricting it to East and West when the two competing teams are in the Pacific and Ontario regions indicates once again that they don’t really care about the game. But people from Edmonton or Halifax channel-flipping and ending up on a tepid BMO Field half-heartedly cheering an avalanche of guys only the hardcores have ever heard of as two teams fight not to get embarrassed by the other… that’s not a very good sales pitch for soccer in this country.

Besides, I’m selfish. This is the last time Vancouver will ever face an MLS team in a competitive match before they move up to MLS themselves. There’s a certain joy in giant-killing that’s lost when you simply beat a rival that’s an equal to yourself. But that giant-killing only counts if the giant hasn’t tied both hands behind his back. I’m sure that the TFC Academy players would be fired up to play the Whitecaps, and I’m also sure that they’re highly competent. They can probably stand up to a Vancouver second eleven better than most non-observers like me would give them credit for. But I’m also sure that if the Whitecaps beat them that’s not an accomplishment, and that if they beat the Whitecaps… hoo boy.

We don’t actually know how many of those seven Academy kids will play, yet, or if any of them will start, or how many of them will even be on the bench. We don’t know if Dwayne De Rosario will get a half, or the start, or a night off. Preki plays his cards irritatingly close to the vest. We don’t know how good the support will be. It is a Wednesday night and for a meaningless game, will some of the supporters stay home? Certainly some of the casuals are (and who can blame them?). Will the cheering be as raucous for second- or third-tier players in a meaningless game? Heck, from what they say Toronto fans don’t even hate the Whitecaps that much, which would take away that little zest that can fire up a crowd in an otherwise dull game (but also means that I may not get beaten up unless I get drunk and start shouting about how plastic all the supporters are, and from what I understand of BMO Field beer that’s an expensive proposition).

I want the Whitecaps to win, because they’re my team and I always want them to win. But it doesn’t matter if they lose. It’s sort of nice, having all the pressure off.  I mean, boy, it would be embarrassing if TFC Academy whooped us but it wouldn’t actually affect anything. I can walk and talk and watch and smile and generally have a good time, and if Vancouver somehow pulls the rabbit of a victory out of their hat then I can sing and cheer and have a gay old time. Either way the game’s at beautiful BMO Field, which I’ve never been to before but seems like a lovely facility, on what will either be a lovely night or a thunder-and-lightning hellstorm fully suitable for football drama, depending on which weather report you believe.

Even though I probably shouldn’t, I’m looking forward to it. The Whitecaps might lose, but their supporters can’t, and that’s a rare thing in sports. Best to embrace the moment.

A Brief Essay on Time-Wasting

By Benjamin Massey · May 27th, 2010 · No comments

Somewhat to my surprise, upon getting up this morning I discovered that a minor imbroglio has broken out over Marc Dos Santos and the Montreal Impact’s flagrant time-wasting last night at Stade Saputo. Not merely “oh, that’s annoying” like you hear every time a Jose Mourinho team gets a 1-0 lead, but actual debate. Controversy, even. Nothing on the order of Trois-Rivieres Attak 1, Toronto FC 6, but all the same.

I’m not just referring to my esteemed Copper & Blue colleague Bruce’s comments in my tipsily-written recap from last night. At Bar 99 with a few of the Montreal Ultras last night, I heard a draw called “the worst possible result” since the Impact fans didn’t get the delight of a victory and the Whitecaps fans were knocked out of the tournament, but I really didn’t think any more of it. Yet this morning, the Voyageurs board and to a lesser extent the Southsiders forum are alive decrying, or at least considering, Montreal’s decision to waste time and go for a 1-1 draw. Even occasional Maple Leaf Forever contributor pRoke chimed in on my Facebook wall, saying “if I were the referee I would have given Djekanovic a 2nd yellow for time wasting”.

I haven’t really changed my position from last night. I think dos Santos was entitled to sit on a draw if he wanted to. There was no danger of his delegitimizing the championship as he did last year with the reserve fiasco. Montreal is a fiendishly talented team but Vancouver showed the better offense last night, even after the Impact parked the bus: perhaps dos Santos simply made a tactical assessment that if he opened up, his chances of getting burned for a Vancouver goal were too great. That is a coach’s job, after all, and had he gambled and lost the excoriation in the Montreal and Toronto soccer presses would have been considerable.

What’s most important is the dignity of our championship and the worthiness of its winner. The best contribution Montreal could make, once eliminated, would be to play their last match like it meant something. If it had been a league game, would dos Santos have bunkered like that in such a context? Maybe, but he certainly wouldn’t have blown open the barn doors looking for a goal.

Oh, how I wish dos Santos had thrown caution to the wind, said “dammit, my fans paid to see us win,” and sent Byers, Sebrango, and Placentino thundering down the pitch like their hair was on fire. Because the Whitecaps might have snatched one on the break and we’d be talking about the game next Wednesday in terms other than “how many Academy players should Toronto start?” At the very least Montreal might have scored and the Ultras would have been charmingly insufferable instead of vaguely depressed. But as a manager, Marc dos Santos did his job, and as a Canadian he did right by his national tournament. The prick.

I'm Sorry, Did You Think We Were Good?

By Benjamin Massey · May 26th, 2010 · 6 comments

Gutted. Horrified. Infuriated. A whole bevy of emotions, each of them negative.

Should I be pleased that we deserved the result we got, that there’s no “you lucky skunks” 6-1 victory hanging over our head like the Sword of Damocles, that Toronto FC has won our national championship in unimpeachably, impeccably pure and correct fashion? Probably, from an intellectual perspective, but I genuinely don’t care right now. We came all this way just to draw. Just to draw.

Where was the urgency, the desperation, the drive? It showed up in spots, once in a while. Martin Nash had a chip on his shoulder. In spite of his lack of pace he can be omnipresent in midfield when he has a mind and he nearly achieved those rarified heights tonight, with the Impact having no answer to his effective distribution and his surprisingly strong positioning. There was a man who wanted to win. So, too, did Wes Knight, who flew up and down the right-hand channel and whose clean tackles saved the Whitecaps at least one goal against. Nowhere else, from the bench to the starting eleven, was there a player who left me consistently pleased with his effort. The headlines said that the Whitecaps would hold nothing back, but their effort showed a team that thought there were games yet to play.

I am so flabbergasted that I am beyond speech. The questions are bubbling in my head, overriding any effort at analysis. Why was Marcus Haber so utterly decrepit? Perhaps his transfer to West Brom convinced him he is better than he actually is, for Haber was full of athleticism. He thundered with that ball down the wings and no Impact defender could get that thing off of him for love of money, yet what on earth did he achieve with it? What did he even come close to accomplishing?

It has been one long season of struggle for Haber, once the USL-1 golden boy, whose only moment of glory this season has come courtesy a Voyageurs Cup penalty. But Teitur Thordarson’s faith in young Haber is unshakable. Teitur cannot be building for the future, as of course Haber’s loan spell ends soon and he will be returning to West Bromwich Albion. So why the continued selection? Cornelius Stewart, once again, left the older and larger Haber in his dust. Even debutant Doudou Toure was far Haber’s superior, and I’d have rather had Marlon James than Haber ten times out of ten.

Yet James, though healthy for once, sat on the bench for the duration. Why, Teitur? Why? Perplexing decisions were not limited to the players, after all.

One decision that did not perplex me was Montreal’s; to waste time and go for the draw. Last year, we criticized them for not caring enough about the Voyageurs Cup and not giving Vancouver a fair chance. Now, we criticize them for caring about Toronto’s rights too much and not opening themselves up to go for a victory they didn’t need. Time-wasting is despicable anti-football and Montreal was right to employ it.

The problem was that we made it so easy for them. Credit to Ansu Toure, whose goal was a lovely thing, the sort of scrappy blue-collar effort the Whitecaps have had the devil’s own time getting this season. His celebration was worth the price of admission on its own. But when Toure scored the Whitecaps grew complacent – in the stands, even I said to myself “here is what we’re good at, defending the lead”. Marc dos Santos was having none of it, bringing in his best striker Peter Byers for his worst midfielder Tyler Hemming and going with a 4-3-3. The Impact promptly proceeded to shove it down Vancouver’s throat.

Fat son of a bitch Philippe Billy. By the author.Everything went wrong. Greg Janicki, who until that moment I was convinced had super powers from his omnipresent cranial bandage, was beaten cleanly; torn between dropping back and challenging the ball he did neither and was shredded for his trouble. The ball instead found its way at the top of the box to defender Philippe Billy. I don’t really know much about Philippe Billy beyond what I hear from the Montreal Ultras, and what I hear is that he’s a fat tub of lard not worth the all-too-considerable salary the Impact are paying him. So imagine my horror when that round mound made a nifty side-step and pounded the ball past a helpless Jay Nolly to level affairs.

Such a lovely goal from such a fat man. And the astonishing thing was that as the game wore on and Billy went to the sidelines for water during stoppages and was so drenched in sweat it looked like he had come out of a wet t-shirt contest he just kept going, virtually toying with the Whitecaps, and only Zourab Tsiskaridze came anywhere near being able to cope with Billy.

As the game wore on, the Whitecaps started to realize their dire straits, but they reacted in entirely the wrong fashion. Rather than build up and generate attack they sprayed the ball wildly, wasted corners and free kick opportunities, and generally acted like they had ten seconds left rather than twenty minutes. Doudou Toure made his first appearance as a Whitecap, was fast as hell, and in my opinion drew a foul in the area during stoppage time, but lacked the skill to put the Whitecaps over the top. Marcus Haber was terrible. Cornelius Stewart, bless him, was too exhausted to make a difference. The midfield and the defense hoofed the ball up, and as the game wore on only Takashi Hirano (of all people, he of the utter awfulness against Toronto last week) showed any touch or patience whatsoever.

There was nothing. None of the competence or confidence we saw as recently as Saturday. There was merely offensive impotence, midfield idiocy, and defensive ineptitude. There was nothing we could hang our hat on. Even Doudou Toure’s missed would-be penalty felt like a cheat – we didn’t deserve to win on a ninetieth-minute penalty anyway.

There was no question about who deserved the Voyageurs Cup this year, and when I gird myself to cheer for Toronto FC in the CONCACAF Champions League I will at least have the comfort of knowing that our best representative is taking part. Their supporters must be thrilled. But I hope you’ll excuse me if I take some more time to wallow in misery and the humiliating defeat of a team that is, technically, undefeated in the tournament.