Canada’s Women’s Championship Challenge

By Benjamin Massey · July 11th, 2017 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

At this moment, Canada is #4 in the world in women’s soccer. On merit we must be in the top eight, in an international pool that’s never been deeper. Our national team is stronger than ever and for once we’ve accomplished as much as, on paper, we should. Yet on the club side, we can’t even decide a national champion.

Every year Canada’s men’s professional clubs play for the Voyageurs Cup. The high amateurs of League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec were excluded, hurting the title’s credibility, but from now on their champions are in, leaving only regional amateurs and USL PDL outside the tent. And they think they have problems! Women’s soccer, miles ahead of the men in many ways here, is behind here.

There are ten reasons for this, but the original sin is that the Voyageurs Cup was financed by, well, the Voyageurs, and for historic and cultural reasons they’ve tended to be more interested in the men’s game than the women’s. A “women’s Voyageurs Cup” has been mentioned on message boards and Wikipedia pages but was basically fictional, even when a heavily-Canadian USL W-League made it easy. The 2014 W-League Central Conference was exclusively made up of every Canadian team in the league, and the Ottawa Fury would have been lady Voyageurs Cup champions had it existed. It didn’t.

Even the name is unsatisfactory. “Women’s Voyageurs Cup?” Nobody really wants to call it that, it’s a concept. “V-Cup” would be a fun double-entendre but it’s not worth it.

For years Canadian club woso roamed the wilderness as teams and leagues collapsed like Alex Morgan being brushed against, but today we’re back to the point where a national championship would be fun. Calgary Foothills currently runs a team in United Women’s Soccer, anchored by former Canadian youth international star Sarah Kinzner. The North Shore Girls Soccer Club plays in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, with a few former senior and youth internationals, and has a fair shot at winning the Northwest Division. Next year NSGSC will be joined by TSS, currently operating a team in USL PDL and soon to bring British Columbia its first ever local lady’s derby. Both circuits claim to be successors of the old USL W-League, once indisputably the top level of women’s club soccer in Canada.

Three teams in two leagues make life complicated enough, but then there’s League1 Ontario. Any so-called national championship which didn’t include L1O’s eleven women’s teams would be incomplete. Familiar Canadian soccer names from both the past and the future are scattered all over their rosters. It would take a gargantuan inferiority complex to assume that the likes of Vaughan Azzurri and Unionville Milliken couldn’t play with North Shore and Calgary just because some of them are in an Ontario league and some of them are in an American one. Remember, we’re good at this game.

Each league is, obviously, amateur. Travel costs are kept low (or, if you’re Calgary flying to Los Angeles and Houston, low-ish) by playing within your region. WPSL and UWS especially serve as summer leagues for NCAA players, which limits how much spare time they have on their schedules. League1 Ontario plays into fall, but every September a lot of students need to be replaced in a hurry. To summarize three paragraphs into two sentences: while L1O, WPSL, and UWS share a niche, it’s hard for them to share an ecosystem. You could not get the teams to play each other, and therefore a lady Voyageurs Cup cannot happen.

There’s just one problem with this conclusion: a lady Voyageurs Cup has to happen. Women’s soccer in this country is too popular. Women’s club soccer in this country is too fragmented. The Canadian Soccer Association is too worried about starting Canada’s third-best men’s league to get us a women’s soccer championship. They didn’t help us start a men’s championship in 2002, either, so we made our own. Sometimes history ought to repeat itself.

Our past has other lessons too. In its early days the Stanley Cup, of which you may have heard, was in a similar boat. Multiple leagues played at a standard sufficient to produce “the champion hockey team in the Dominion.” Most teams were amateur and competitors were spread across Canada in an age when travel was far more difficult than it is now. The challenges to establishing a national hockey championship were daunting… so Lord Stanley, the Cup’s benefactor, embraced challenge. Like a boxing championship, the trophy’s holder would face a challenge for the Cup, the winner would get it, and the process would repeat itself.

Such contests could be farcical, like when the Ottawa Silver Seven beat a Dawson City team 32-4 on aggregate in 1905. The Cup’s champions, like the country as a whole, were centred in the Laurentian corridor. But in general fixtures were competitive. Western teams gave a good account of themselves, and on a few occasions Winnipeg won. After twenty years the challenge format was superseded by a battle between league champions which in turn evolved into today’s NHL championship. But it was the challenge format which got the Stanley Cup started and established, and that is what we’re looking for today in women’s soccer. If our new cup is something else in twenty years that’s amazing: it lasted twenty years. The men’s Voyageurs Cup has already moved on from its humble beginnings, and that’s part of what we love about it.

Anoint the first champion by some fair-ish method: the L1O champion, round-robin, pick two interested teams and have them play off, it doesn’t matter. The point is, that team then fields challenges. The challenger flies out to the North Shore (say) and plays NSGSC. If the challenger wins, they bring the trophy back for future challenges of their own. If NSGSC wins, they keep it.

The challenger pays its own way out, which for the sake of one or two games in a short period would not be brutal. A team without the interest or the financial wherewithal to make a challenge doesn’t have to. The schedule is only congested voluntarily, though there’d have to be some trusteeship to keep a champion from ducking challenges on feeble excuses. Ambitious clubs thirsting to prove their Dominion-championship bona fides can do so. Exotic out-of-town clubs playing for silverware, many of them meeting only with this trophy on the line, would give us a national championship unmatched by anyone else in the soccer world. Distinctive and, in fact, form, and heritage, distinctively Canadian.

Not that this is a panacea. The Voyageurs Cup, and its brothers like the Cascadia Cup and the Juan de Fuca Plate, succeeded by asking nothing of the teams involved. They played each other as they normally would except at the end some fans ran out with a trophy. This tournament, however we try to ease the burden, would unavoidably impose one. More than buying a trophy, we would need to prove that enough fans and sponsors would come out for these games to make it worthwhile.

But couldn’t we prove that?

Goals Galore on the North Shore

By Benjamin Massey · May 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

On Saturday afternoon, four years after the demise of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Victoria Highlanders Women, the North Shore Girls Soccer Club finally re-launched elite women’s club soccer in western Canada. Their new Women’s Premier Soccer League team kicked off for the first time at North Vancouver’s handsome Kinsmen Park, marking the hugely overdue return of elite interregional competition to Canada’s most women’s-soccer-mad province. A respectable crowd of at least a hundred paid $5 each to watch local amateurs in an out-of-the-way suburban park, not counting ten or so freeloaders squinting through the chainlink fence. Organization was good, the free program missed only a little information, the concession did fine business, and the kids had a lovely time. In every area save on the field, it was a terrific start to a much-anticipated story. Their next home game is 4:30 PM on Sunday, May 29 against ISC Gunners FC; do come if you can.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Because this is North America, the WPSL’s place in our soccer pyramid is complicated. Primarily a summer league for college players, and using NCAA substitution rules, it is probably the third-best women’s soccer league in the United States. The best is the National Women’s Soccer League, and the second-best probably United Women’s Soccer, which also played its first ever game yesterday afternoon. UWS was formed mostly from surviving Eastern teams of the former USL W-League, which folded at the end of 2015, plus four of the more ambitious WPSL teams, which had been on the “semi-professional” side of an amateur/semi-pro divide. UWS would have included Quebec City and Laval’s late W-League teams, but the Canadian Soccer Association (and, according to Duane Rollins on the Two Solitudes podcast, the United States Soccer Federation) did not want Canadian teams in the American league[1].

Question: how is the North Shore in the American WPSL, then? It’s a good one. Quebec’s soccer federation supported their teams joining UWS[2] so it isn’t that. British Columbia doesn’t have a high-level semi-professional women’s soccer league, but neither does Quebec. Their best hope is that the PLSQ might form a women’s division in 2017 or so. Then again, British Columbia doesn’t even have a men’s PLSQ, nor does its provincial neighbours. Laval and Quebec could play in League1 Ontario; NSGSC would have no such option. Not that Laval and Quebec thought it was an option for them, preferring to fold. It was also suggested they play in Quebec’s top amateur league, and NSGSC already plays in British Columbia’s. It may be similar to how Ontario’s USL PDL men’s teams are being told to join League1 Ontario for 2017[3] while Calgary Foothills, the Victoria Highlanders, and WSA Winnipeg go unmolested. The west is the hinterland, even in areas (like Quebec semi-pro women’s soccer) where the big provinces aren’t ahead of us.

Theoretically NSGSC enters the first rank of Canada’s elite women’s clubs with the nine L1O sides. In practice, an NSGSC team featuring many of their WPSL players finished second in Vancouver’s Metro Women’s Soccer League and was demolished, 4-0, by Richmond in the Provincial Cup final. Other lower mainland clubs has talent at this level, but only the North Shore had the wherewithal to take a step up. That is a terrific move by them, a risk that deserves reward. We need more clubs to show such ambition. I will give them my $5 a game, and you should do the same. If it’s a success then, with all the talent in the Vancouver area, there’s no doubt the NSGSC can become competitive. But just because they aim at a high level doesn’t mean they automatically achieve it.

That afternoon, the North Shore didn’t belong on the same turf as OSA FC, one of the Northwest Division’s historically better teams but hardly a powerhouse. As FC Tacoma 253, OSA finished second in the division last year behind Issaquah, now called “ISC Gunners.” (Amateur soccer is confusing.) Although many of the NSGSC players knew each other from the MWSL, they didn’t play like it. Possibly it was down to a coaching change; Tony Seddon coaches the MWSL team, but NSGSC technical director and former Whitecaps Girls Elite boss Jesse Symons has the helm in the WPSL.

OSA FC was more connected than NSGSC. They were significantly more athletic, and repeatedly split the North Shore’s defense for stunning scoring chances. The final score was OSA 4, NSGC 1, and could have been worse. OSA scored a 35-yarder. They scored off a volley. They scored off a scramble in front of the keeper. They scored from an own goal. North Shore’s only goal, from midfielder Katelyn Erharden, came from a terrific cross from Margaret Hadley, but that was one of few well-worked opportunities. When the North Shore tried to hit on the counterattack they resorted too often to long balls, and the OSA defenders were so consistently faster than NSGSC’s forwards that it only tired the Canadians out. OSA’s Chyalisa Baysa, Kennya Cordner (man of the match), and substitute Lindsey Patterson had an entire North Shore’s worth of scoring chances each. Our local heroines were badly beaten at home, albeit by a strong team, and have work to do. It was a rude welcome.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

Most of the NSGSC roster is young locals, and three North Shore players have international experience above the U-17 level. The most famous, World Cup observer and frozen yogurt veteran Selenia Iacchelli, did not play. Forward Rheanne Sleiman, an elder statesman at 26 years old and an eleven-time U-20 international, captained the team and put in a decent shift given her lack of service. The last was former University of Victoria midfielder Jaclyn Sawicki. Sawicki is a four-time Canada West first team all-star, played W-League with the Whitecaps and the Highlanders, was a key member of our U-20s in 2012, and in September 2011 made a single, oh-so-brief appearance with our senior WNT against the United States.

I’ve always liked Sawicki, and not just because she’s a UVic alum. She has excelled at every level where she’s got an opportunity. Had she gone to some crappy NCAA school instead of a good Canadian one we’d have heard much more from her. When Andrew Olivieri underused her in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup I repeatedly whined about it, and wrote her onto my imaginary U-20 Women’s Player of the Year ballot. Well, guess what? At 23 years old, with no experience above the Universiade in four years, she’s still good. Unlike most of her teammates she passed accurately at medium range, and it was her superb ground ball down the left that sent Hadley off to create the North Shore’s only goal. When NSGSC had a promising development, as opposed to a big hoof that the forward happened to get on this time, it usually developed through Sawicki. She was substituted off with twenty minutes left, the score 2-1 to OSA, and from then on NSGSC’s resistance essentially collapsed. Sawicki showed a WPSL standard from the off; one of the few North Shore players who did. She is still only 23 and her CIS career is over. Hopefully she has the desire and gets a chance to play at a higher level, because she belongs there.

No other sparks were quite so bright. Midfielder Jenna Baxter was feisty in the early going and made a few good interceptions. Unfortunately she was substituted off after half an hour only to return late in the game, so I suspect Jesse Symons disagreed. Though complicit in a sloppy-spaghetti-mess of giveaways the midfield made of the first minutes, many players on both teams were as they struggled to settle in. Katelyn Erharden, the goalscorer, had another good chance and was extremely vocal trying to organize her teammates. Forward Margaret Hadley, who set Erharden up, had a few good touches in the minutes after she came off the bench. Unfortunately chasing several hopeless long balls seemed to wear her out, and there’s an opportunity to improve there.

As individuals, not many regulars looked really awful. As a team, it didn’t go well, and late in the game they were obviously downhearted. In a debut where everything else went great, that’s a let-down. However, it is at least soluble. Experience will look after a lot. The WPSL season is a short one, two games a weekend until the middle of July, so it doesn’t leave much time to become the Portland Thorns, but let’s face it. If NSGSC’s WPSL team becomes as important to Canadian soccer as it should, it won’t be because they have a great 2016 but because they build something that can last into 2026. The very fact that they’re trying, and taking it seriously, is the most promising thing to happen in western Canadian soccer since FC Edmonton started their academy.

(notes and comments…)