Our excellently-structured all-cansoc episode 67, earlier this week, may have set expectations a little high. Because here in episode 68, which was actually recorded before episode 67 and is therefore temporally a bit of a mess, normal service is resumed.
On this show we go over a week in curling. Mostly this consists of remembering the Canadian mixed doubles curling trials, or as I prefer to call them the Tim Horton’s Double-Double, where MoLaw LawnMo KaMo the team of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes, who were unable to meaningfully communicate, defeated Brad Gushue and Val Sweeting, who were unable to meaningfully sweep. As a result Morris and Lawes will go to the Olympics and try to win an Olympic gold medal. Meanwhile Brett Gallant and Jocelyn Peterman (pictured), who in addition to being Canada curling’s cutest couple are an all-round useful mixed doubles team, were entirely dominant until they somehow forgot how to curl, like, a day early. This is going to lead to a great deal of stress in the Ben Massey household come Olympic time. Meanwhile we’re checking out provincial regular curling and generally reeling off memories from the games we watched which, since this tournament was mostly mid-day on weekdays and CBC’s website showed whatever insignificant draw was only the only sheet they had cameras pointing at, is an inconsistent selection.
And, I’ll be honest, it gets a little unstructured.
So, in 29 minutes of podcast, we discuss:
As alluded to, Ben was hoping Brett Gallant and Jocelyn Peterman, or as we not-at-all-awkwardly call them “Meat and Peterato,” would win, because they appear to be good. Carolyn did not hope that they won, because they appeared to be bad. Mixed doubles are stupid. (This is a motif.)
That said, Ben’s heart was with Swushue. Of course it was, Val Sweeting is Canada’s princess. And Brad Gushue was surely going to take this seriously, since he said curling with Sweeting is “like a first date.”
Probably fifteen minutes of this episode are me ranting about how Gushue actually took this.
In the middle, we briefly discuss some provincial and territorial results. Because Lawes and Morris won, Jennifer Jones will have to rustle up a new third at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts when she almost inevitably qualifies. So we scan the results as of when we recorded this to find entertaining options, and then we give up and start talking about how much fun the Northwest Territories Scotties must be for everyone who isn’t Kerry Galusha.
Earlier this week we recorded a fabulous all-mixed-doubles-curling episode of 99 Friendship. Truly we were on rousing form. But alas, before we could get the thing edited, Canada Soccer went and did the John Herdman thing.
Almost all the commentary so far, including my own, has focused on what this means for the Canadian men’s national team. As a podcast which, in between obscure curling rants, does find the time to analyze the Canadian WNT, it felt appropriate for us to give the distaff element its fair share. So Carolyn and I sat down and did notes and had a chat and got one of our 30-minute shows edited in record time, just for you!
On episode 67 of 99 Friendship:
We go over the coaching history of new WNT boss Kenneth Heiner-Møller. He’s had an interesting career: spy dramas, sports psychology, coaching development, and replacing women’s national team managers who went over to coach the men. (Yes, he has experience at that too.) He’s been to a World Cup and two European Championships and, most of the time, something positive came out of them despite coaching a decidedly middle power.
What does Herdman’s departure, in of itself, mean for the national team? Will relationships be broken? Will players leave? What unbelievably heretical thing does Carolyn actually dare to say on a podcast that she knew was going on the Internet?
And what was the deal with some of the players apparently only having just heard Herdman was leaving when the news became public? We decide that it seems, spoiler alert, fairly amateurish.
It’s a good, informative, thoughtful half-hour on a neglected element of some massive Canadian soccer news. Is it worth a quick listen on the train? Oh, probably. Follow 99 Friendship on Twitter!
I believe it was John Molinaro who broke it, but as soon as it was broken the news rushed through Canadian soccer like water through a breached dam. John Herdman, the most accomplished coach any Canadian team has ever had in any sport other than hockey, is out of the Canadian women’s senior national soccer team… and in for the Canadian men’s senior national soccer team. Octavio Zambrano, after nine months as men’s coach, a Gold Cup quarterfinal that was relatively a success and objectively a failure, and enough enemies in Canadian soccer that every dialed-in media person in the country was saying “well that part wasn’t a surprise” before the ink on the tweets was dry, is out.
This is the most surprising thing that has ever happened. Not just to us fans, though we’ve spent several hours of our Monday evening trying to get our heads around the news. Our players seem just as taken aback. Stephanie Labbé, the starting goalkeeper for the women’s team for almost a year now, kicked things off with:
And, while all teammates are equal, we know in our hearts that some teammates are more equal than others, so take a moment to realize that Christine Sinclair, the best player in women’s soccer history, used her first Tweet since November to give every indication of having found out about this through the press release:
This was handled abysmally. A good rule for the Canadian women’s national team is the “is this going to make Christine Sinclair speechless” test, and this failed1. The new women’s coach, Kenneth Heiner-Møller, was already a first team assistant as well as the former boss of Denmark. He is a familiar face and, professionally, no joke. From the perspective of keeping the women onside he’s probably the safest appointment this side of telling Sinclair “sorry, this happened suddenly and we had to get it out before Sportsnet did, we didn’t have time to ask if you wanted to player/coach.” But my God this is going to be a hard one to swallow for a team that, as of January 7, 2018, was one of the five favourites for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
In the interests of equity I looked through some Canadian men’s national teamers’ Twitter accounts for their reactions. Scott Arfield, Milan Borjan, Junior Hoilett, Nik Ledgerwood, Atiba Hutchinson, Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Samuel Piette, none of them seemed to be bothered. They surely have thoughts and reactions, but aren’t exactly rushing to their cellphones2. Which makes sense. The men’s national team is only a very small part of a player’s life. Julian de Guzman recently retired as the Canadian men’s national team’s all-time appearance leader with 89 senior caps. This would not be anywhere near the women’s leaders: Christine Sinclair has 262 and counting. Women’s players, by various means, almost always get most of their income and exposure through the national team. For men’s players the national team has, if anything, been an impediment except at the best of times.
Which is bad news for John Herdman. Herdman has done some very good things in the conventional coaching arena. His players are consistently fit, which was not always the case under Carolina Morace or Even Pellerud. He is responsible for a couple brilliant innovations, such as the Ashley Lawrence Fullback Experiment, and a bevy of young players who stepped right into the first team and looked like established parts of his tactics. But his greatest strength has always been forging a team that would run through brick walls for each other. That is not a skill that translates to the international men’s game. Training camps are short and infrequent, and you never have the same team for two in a row: player A prefers his club commitments, player B is unattached and trying to find work, player C would love to come but it’s not a FIFA window and he’d have a 19-hour flight with seven connections between Oslo and Fort Lauderdale and his coach told him that if he tries he’ll be training with the junior handball team. And it’s hard to become devoted to your soccer family when half the times you play somebody ranked north of El Salvador you get your ass kicked. It’s also hard for a male Ashley Lawrence to become a world-class fullback when he’s trying to learn with 360 minutes of MNT soccer every year, 180 of which are against countries you forgot were countries. And while Herdman’s tactical history is good, he can get stuck in his ways and has never looked like a Football Manager-style genius who is going to turn an awful team into a great one.
Herdman’s team-building will be an asset for, even if he can’t get the full 99 friendship, he can at least avoid some of Octavio Zambrano’s more flagrant pratfalls—provided he can connect with young men who are only with him because they couldn’t make Portugal and earn $500,000 a year in the same way he can communicate with young women committed to their country doing it for an ordinary middle-class salary. His history with youth players is also positive in the MNT context, and of course he knows how to deal with Canada Soccer and Canada Soccer knows how to deal with them. He and youth development supremo Jason de Vos have a mutual admiration society that can only be beneficial. I would go so far as to say that Herdman will not be any worse than Zambrano, or Benito Floro, or Stephen Hart, or Dale Mitchell, or any of the other coaches who underachieved and did things wrong and left in disgrace. But probably not any better.
Molinaro’s Sportsnet article implies, and Duane Rollins outright says, that he would otherwise have taken the vacant England women’s job; he was certainly being pursued by the FA. While my preference would have been for the Canadian Soccer Association to write Herdman the biggest cheque the bank would cash for him to stay at the WNT, if Herdman was out of the women’s team regardless this may have been the least bad option. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the transition was handled incompetently: if they couldn’t give Herdman a signed contract promising him the MNT in 2020 if he guided the WNT through the World Cup and the Olympics, they could have at least sacked Zambrano today and pushed the Herdman announcement back long enough for all the women to be informed3. This is 1990s CSA stuff, and if it pushes Sinclair twelve months closer to retiring in disgust it’ll hurt us as badly as the actual coaching change did.
Yet even in the best-case scenario, Herdman being “promoted” from the excellent WNT to the abysmal MNT will quite fairly feel like an insult. Many Canadian soccer fans, including me, like the WNT either as much as the MNT or a bit more, because they’re nicer and win a lot. The women get higher attendances (against, admittedly, superior opposition) and have a stronger national fanbase. Objectively, on a national level in 2018, the Canadian women are a bigger deal than the Canadian men. However, John Herdman is not Canadian, he is English. The English women, though quite good, are not a bigger deal than the English men. Herdman’s gaze is not consumed by the maple leaf. World-wide being a good men’s coach is a much bigger deal, with much more fame and enormously more pay, than being the best women’s to ever live. Like any of us he wants to rise to the top of his profession, which is “soccer manager.” Not “women’s soccer manager.” And that would mean coaching men.
I quite understand Herdman’s logic. If he wants fame and fortune outside this humble dominion this is the greatest opportunity he will ever have. There’s been talk that Herdman wanted to coach men going back to after the London Olympics, but I don’t think he imagined he would be thrown straight into the shark-infested waters of a reasonably serious, if lousy, senior men’s national team like it was an entry-level job. Yet he is also forfeiting the best chance he will ever have, barring miracles at CanMNT that lead him to Real Madrid or something, to win silverware: the 2019 Women’s World Cup and 2020 Olympics with the best team in Canadian women’s soccer history.
Soccer coaches have flipped genders at the professional club level, with mixed success. Harry Sinkgraven will be the name best-known to Canadians: the former SC Heerenveen women’s boss went on to briefly coach the FC Emmen men, disastrously, before joining FC Edmonton and accumulating a legacy of failure. Prior to her Canada days Morace coached A.S. Viterbese Castrense, then of the Italian men’s Serie C1, and French legend Corinne Diacre had a respectable spell with Clermont Foot of the French Ligue 2. Hong Kong’s Chan Yuen-ting led powerhouse Eastern Sports Club to the first division title in 2015–16. But all three were all-time great players in their own countries. Morace and Diacre went back to women’s soccer in the end, and anyway none were coaching men at a level anywhere as high as even the Canadian men4. To my knowledge Herdman’s path, from no playing career to speak of to elite women’s coaching to elite men’s coaching, is absolutely unique.
You can’t blame him for trying. You can’t blame the Canadian Soccer Association for resorting to this if it keeps him. The players are shocked but if it works out they’ll be fine, and this is not the fragile group of 2011. The great thing about a team of friends is that they don’t actually need a coach to keep them together; perhaps they will discover the magic was in them all along. And yet this whole affair feels distinctly shabby, in the way only Canadian soccer can.
On this week’s stupendous, 100%-curling-there-is-no-point-in-even-listening-if-you-aren’t-interested-in-it episode of 99 Friendship, Carolyn and I spend the full half hour recapping the Roar of the Rings, the curling tournament in Ottawa where Canada’s curling gods decided that Rachel Homan and Kevin Koe would represent our nation at the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea.
Okay, not quite the full half-hour. We briefly chat about Michelle Englot representing Canada at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and the Continental Cup. But that happened as a result of the Roar of the Rings and, come to think of it, this week’s episode wound up being 33 minutes long…
Other than that, topics of curling conversation include:
Our pleasant surprises and our unpleasant surprises. Good Rachel Homan and Good Jennifer Jones were very pleasant. Good Julie Tippin and Good Brandon Bottcher, less so, especially since Tippin took my predicting her to be humiliated personally and nearly managed to pants every Alberta team in the lady bracket.
RIP Caleb Flaxey.
As mentioned, Rachel Homan was the women’s winner. It was Good Rachel Homan. But she really really thought about being Bad Rachel Homan and did not exactly tear a swathe through the opposition, until the final when she definitely did. This gives us some fodder.
My proud Alberta sisters, Chelsea Carey and Cathy Overton-Clapham, were unstoppable. Until the final. When they were very stopped. There is also more conversation in that.
In man curling, Kevin Koe actually killed me. I am dead now. It took a while to get this podcast uploaded for that reason.
I daren’t try too hard to summarize this week’s episode in my usual bullet point format. It is top #bantz. It is our Christmas present to you. 99 Friendship episode yy!
I’d say I was sorry for missing you guys last week. But, well, if you’d heard what Carolyn and I actually recorded, you wouldn’t believe me.
Anyway, just to kill the suspense for you, this is not the episode where we ramble at length about the Olympic curling trials. That’ll be episode 66, which will be released in the next few days. This week’s show has some soccer in it! An episode which discussed the trials properly would have made that impossible.
Don’t worry, there’s not too much.
On episode 65 of 99 Friendship:
The College Cup ended, like, two weeks ago. We are professionals.
Anyway, after all this long there can’t possibly be all that much to say about it. But we try our best. Carolyn goes all the way back to the Duke – Stanford semi-final to discuss an interesting piece of strategytactics tactrategy that both teams employed to amusing results.
Having shut down the College Desk for another year, we roll over to the College Desk for award season. The grotesquely-named NCAA All-American teams, and the probably even-more-grotesquely-named Scholar All-Americans, were announced by various authorities, so we talk about that. Cynics will suggest that I mention the Scholar All-Americans, who have some thoroughly token Canadian content, as an excuse to make fun of the incredibly soft majors that apparently qualify athletes as “scholars” these days. This is a ridiculous thing to say.
Maybe most importantly, the Canadian Soccer Association named its U-17 and U-20 lady players of the year. The winners were truly shocking. We discuss them at the ten minute mark and I advise that you be seated and have a stiff drink to hand.
As indicated in the little picture we put on the podcast, Kadeisha Buchanan is Canadian soccer player of the year. Both Carolyn and I are broadly fine with this.
This came out too late for recording, but as you might have predicted Jessie Fleming was named UCLA women’s soccer most valuable player. The UCLA Twitter shows us various award recipients coming out in various states of dress-wearing for the occasion, except Jessie, who is apparently off to maintain a database server. I think she might be over winning awards.
At the fifteen minute mark we start talking about curling. (But not the Olympic trials, because that’s next week.) Apparently Glenn Howard is Canada now? You see, every year-ish a bunch of Brazilians from Quebec try to qualify for the World Men’s Curling Championships, and they’re in the same zone as the United States so they play the Americans for the qualifying spot and the Americans kill them. But this year the Americans are hosting the tournament in Las Vegas, so Canada is the team that has to beat Brazil to qualify, and we sent something like our twelfth-best men’s team, Glenn Howard, to London, Ontario to do it. I want to make it clear that not a single word in that sentence is made up.
Also, Michelle Englot is now Canada, at least at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. If you remember Michelle Englot from doing a Rocky Balboa-versus-Apollo-Creed with Rachel Homan at last year’s Scotties, you should know that she has really really really not been playing that well at all.
Last, but not at all least, Jeff Stoughton named the teams that will compete for Canada in the Canadian mixed doubles trials, or as I prefer to call it in spite of the fact that it’s not sponsor, the Tim Horton’s Double-Double. Because not all the top mixed dubz players are available on account of winning real trials (omg spoiler), some of these teams get pretty funny. But not enough of them.
Stay tuned for the upcoming all-Olympic-Trials-retrospective episode that’s entirely me screaming at that Kevin Koe draw attempt.
For Canada’s women’s national team, 2017 was an intermission. No Olympics, no World Cup, no qualifying, 365 days of the calendar you got out of way to prepare for the next thousand. 2018, 2019, and 2020 are what count: Jessie Fleming, Deanne Rose, Rebecca Quinn, Ashley Lawrence, Kadeisha Buchanan, and hopefully players we didn’t expect developing into the most competitive lineup Canada has ever had. If we’re ever going to win some gold these are the women who’ll do it.
However, there’s another piece of history Canada is chasing for which 2017 mattered a great deal. In our last game against Norway Christine Sinclair scored the 169th goal of her international career and fourth of the year. She needs 16 more international goals to pass Abby Wambach for the most in the history of soccer.
16. Not that many, not with CONCACAF World Cup qualifying bringing games against Haiti and Puerto Rico and that lot next year. But Sinclair is 34, old for her position and her sport. It’s not certain she has enough time left.
The good news is we don’t need to put the old lady on the ice floe yet. Sinclair’s scoring rate over the past two seasons is better than Adriana Leon’s career rate and basically tied with Deanne Rose. Behind Nichelle Prince, but Prince has 1,013 senior minutes and hasn’t scored in the last 655. More importantly Sinclair’s been piling up the assists: seven in 2017, four in 2016, four in 2015, our leading playmaker each of the last two years. On a roster that despite Herdman’s improvements can get very direct, Sinclair and Janine Beckie are the only forwards moderately capable of holding up the ball and Beckie has better things to do. Sinclair would be in the eleven on merit if her name was Jane Smith and her idea of leadership was telling Sophie Schmidt “your she-man-bun looks very nice.”
You couldn’t say that about Abby Wambach at this stage of her career. When she retired at age 35 nobody, American or otherwise, argued it was too early. But then her team was a lot deeper. The American attack her last year included world player of the year Carli Lloyd, a not-very-broken-yet Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, with Crystal Dunn the coming woman. Running the attack through Wambach made no sense, using her off the bench rather than Dunn or the Amy Rodriguez/Sydney Leroux depth players of the future set seemed unwise and out of her character. If anything most of us seemed to think she’d gone a year or two late. But selfish old Abby was a much better goal-scorer than kind old Christine.
This graph compares Sinclair and Wambach’s goalscoring records in the seasons in which they turned a given age. For example, Christine Sinclair turned 34 this year, so 2017 was her age 34 season. Abby Wambach turned 34 in 2014, so 2014 was her age 34 season.
Sinclair and Wambach were both early June babies so we are truly comparing their performances at the same age. That’s only the first coincidence; it’s weird how closely they trend together. Right down to both slumping at 31 and bumping back in their age 32 seasons. Of course, when Wambach “slumped” in her age 31 season she started the year ice cold and ended it with four goals in six matches at a FIFA World Cup. Sinclair, with nothing much to play for in 2014, scored once.
My co-podcaster Carolyn reminded me that, as recently as 2009, Wambach and Sinclair were within a few goals of each other. Wambach made her century on July 19, 2009 at age 29 against, coincidentally, Canada. Sinclair scored her hundredth five months later, on February 20, 2010 against Poland despite being three years younger. Sinclair had 130 caps, Wambach had 129. It was only in old age that Wambach pulled away.
All through their thirties, Wambach outproduced Sinclair very heavily. Wambach’s worst 30+ season (2011 at age 31, 0.566 G/90) was essentially identical to Sinclair’s best 30+ season (2015 at age 32, 0.570 G/90). Wambach’s advantages included more home games, more easy qualifiers that Canada skipped for 2015, and teammates who deferred to her on scoring chances. Big goalscorers past their primes can make a lot of hay against CONCACAF minnows. Wambach’s age 30-34 seasons included an Olympic qualifying and a World Cup qualifying campaign, running wild both times. Sinclair only had 2016 Olympic qualifying, where she was mostly injured. But for the moment we aren’t asking who was the better player, but who put the ball in the net more. The good news is that Wambach’s production did not decline much from age 30 to age 35, and if Sinclair can do the same she might win on endurance.
In her last two years, Sinclair has scored 0.439 goals/90 minutes clip. That would put her 3,278 minutes away from goal #185 and immortality, or just about three years. Assuming she isn’t injured any more often, and scores at the same rate, and gets just as much playing time every game. As she goes from her mid to her late thirties none of those assumptions are safe. Healthy and productive 2018 Olympic and 2019 World Cup qualifying runs will help Sinclair; age, wear, and tear will hurt.
History’s best female strikers tend to retire around Sinclair’s age. Wambach was 35, Birgit Prinz, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Carolina Morace all 33, Mia Hamm only 32. The exceptions have either been multi-position stars like Kristine Lilly or Michelle Akers or, encouragingly, super-annuated veterans for second-rate countries who still had roles into old age. Scotland’s Julie Fleeting is 36 and still active. Italian Patrizia Panico hung on until age 39. The late 30s are not quite unexplored territory.
Canada’s second-best all-time goalscorer, Charmaine Hooper, not only kept going up until age 38 but provided value. Playing second and sometimes third fiddle behind Sinclair and Kara Lang, Hooper played 1,683 minutes over 24 games from age 36 and up, scoring 11 times, which for Sinclair would do nicely.
Alas, Hooper’s old age flatters to deceive. In her last eight caps Hooper hit one final vein of form, scoring eight times including a hat trick against Sweden to wind up with 71 senior goals in her career. But that was another age. When she last played in July 2006 (it would be inaccurate to say she “retired”) women’s soccer was still young. Today, give-or-take the inevitable blunders, decent teams can basically defend a savvy but unathletic striker. In 2006 players with sometimes questionable fitness could play 90 minutes every night and chip in multi-goal games. Melissa Tancredi got a miracle brace against Germany at the Olympics, but 2016 Melissa Tancredi was Alex Morgan in her prime compared to some of the forwards you saw ten years earlier.
On the other hand, Sinclair’s a lot better than Hooper was.
The odds may still, just, favour Sinclair. Barring injury or the unforeseen, the natural arc of Christine Sinclair’s career will close after the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when Sinclair will be 37. It’s hardly likely she’ll hang on for another cycle into her forties, but it would also be surprising for her to retire after an Algarve Cup or something unless life makes her. Moreover, and I’m touching wood just typing this, Canada’s 2019–20 team might be highly competitive: the best Sinclair’s ever had, and worth hanging on for at the end of an endlessly frustrating international career. If Sinclair does play through 2020, and has a couple productive qualifying campaigns, that’s just enough time. She’ll never come close to Wambach on goal rate but she might show the fortitude to hang around and catch Abby with sheer guts and longevity, to say nothing of being popular enough that her teammates won’t freeze her out when they don’t need her anymore.
Which, come to think, would be pretty appropriate for a Canadian heroine.
As promised, here is the special 20-minute curling bonus episode of 99 Friendship, in which Carolyn and Ben preview, as best they can given that Brad Gushue and one of Jennifer Jones/Good Rachel Homan look very likely to win, the upcoming Roar of the Rings.
Since we are discussing Olympic curling we trigger each other a little. Viewer discretion is advised.
Carolyn and I had a problem. We had too much #content. As we sat down to record on Tuesday evening, the Canadian women’s national team had just beaten Norway for the first time ever in stirring come-from-behind fashion. There were many things to talk about with regards to this game, and it had just happened so it was very fresh in our mind. There was also the Elite Eight, in the NCAA world, which had been distilled down to the Semi-Final Four (to hell with your misleading branding, Americans) and probably deserved a mention. Also Erin McLeod’s wife wants to play soccer for Canada now, and has apparently also tried curling, meaning she and Erin are the first people I’ve ever thought might make good guests on a 99 Friendship.
We fill half an hour with Canadian soccer, very easily. But the Roar of the Rings also start on Saturday! We couldn’t just ignore the Roar, could we? Unthinkable.
So what we did was we recorded our cansoc, I edited it together, and I uploaded it, and here you are. Later this week, though, I will post a separate MP3 of our curling talk, which will be a bit shorter but full of Roar. That way those of you who love us generally can listen to them both, and those of you who are only interested in the soccer analysis can have lots and lots of soccer analysis, and those of you who are only interested in the curling analysis don’t exist.
So, as I was saying, on this week’s first episode of 99 Friendship:
We review CanWNT’s stirring 3-2 victory over the perfidious Nords, and by “stirring” we of course mean “sloppy” and by “perfidious” we of course mean “mistake-prone.” It was a match with five goals of which four were shambolic.
I have some statistics and some trivia. Carolyn knows the answers to all the trivia, because of course she does. Co-hosting a women’s soccer podcast with Carolyn is like co-hosting an arrogance podcast with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you’re just overwhelmed.
Also the College Desk reviews the NCAA Elite Eight. Deanne Rose lost, Rebecca Quinn and Jessie Fleming are still alive, it’s chilling how many core players we didn’t have because they were busy in school actually. Also three Canadians are up for the MAC Hermann, two of whom you will easily guess, and that’s not counting the American who plays for us sometimes.
The Foreign Desk somehow finds some content during an international break!
It’s not really the Foreign Desk, but I guess Ella Masar wants to play for us now? Is it the Foreign Desk? We should get a FIFA ruling on this.
If FC Edmonton can’t make it in Canadian soccer, nobody can.
Go to Steven Sandor for the news, if you missed it: FC Edmonton is ending operations as a professional team. Their Academy, which has contributed to both the men and women’s youth national team, will continue for now, but against expectations the first team has pulled the plug before the North American Soccer League has.
As the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and Montreal Impact are proving, Canadian cities can make it in American soccer. All you need are brilliant marketers from New York telling you that this is the authentic experience, replete with Italian and English national teamers, and people in a Canadian city will come out in droves. There doesn’t need to be anything Canadian about the experience except the accident of geography; in fact it’s better than there isn’t, beyond a couple homegrown players you keep to wave the flag and visit children’s hospitals.
But Canadian soccer? Meaning not branch plants of an American corporation but clubs owned and run by Canadians for Canadians, which not only say that they’re going to develop Canadian talent but go out and do it? Where the attraction is not “Don Garber tells us this is major-league” but a Canadian-bred culture? If you could sustain that at the professional level, Edmonton would have.
FC Edmonton was not perfect. In their early years they had stadium problems. The team was bad; in seven seasons with a league where it was easier to make the playoffs than miss them, the Eddies played two road playoff games and both stank. Because their stadium is owned by the City of Edmonton the Eddies had mostly Friday and Sunday game days throughout their history, hurting attendance. In 2017, the one year they got a meaningful number of Saturday games, they averaged 3,822 fans a game for Saturdays and 3,085 the rest of the week, meaning that the Eddies perish after their best-ever season at the gate. Now isn’t that funny?
Not that it matters. 3,822 fans a game would be, what, a third of the way to breaking even? Clarke Stadium was too small to sustain professional soccer these days and almost never sold out anyway. This is why I take no comfort from the back door Tom Fath has left open, that he’ll join a Canadian Premier League if his team can be sustainable. Unless Paul Beirne has the money to buy Fath a soccer stadium and the magic to change the country’s culture, that condition cannot be met. The sole hope for FC Edmonton is that the Faths go back on their word and sacrifice more for a dream crazier than co-founding the NASL.
This is not a criticism of the Fath brothers. After eight years’ setting money on fire for the sake of Edmonton despite not particularly being soccer people, they should have the absolute, unconditional, and eternal loyalty of every fan in Canada. If they’d rather close up shop than immolate more of their children’s inheritance with no end in sight, they’ve earned that right.
Tom Fath was a regular on the sidelines at home games, mingling with fans, chatting to players, rocking the hell out of an Eddies golf shirt whenever weather allowed. He even came to a supporters match between Edmonton and Whitecaps fans in Vancouver, not to make a big deal of it (I don’t know that he introduced himself) but just to enjoy what he’d helped create. In every detail except one the Faths were perfect owners: they weren’t oligarchs who could put a 15,000-seat privately-funded grass stadium by the North Saskatchewan River.
What didn’t they try? Local heroes like Shaun Saiko, Chris Kooy, and Antonio Rago helped the Eddies get into the playoffs for one of those two games. Attendance stank. The local heroes were dropped and replaced with Icelandic internationals and Ameobis. Attendance stank. They plastered LRTs and billboards with advertising. Attendance stank. They went to a more grass-roots approach. Attendance stank. The stadium needed new stands and a big screen, so the Faths paid for them though they didn’t own the facility. Attendance stank. Video quality the first couple years was unacceptably poor, so the Faths bought a design company in a successful bid to improve the show. Even in their last season, when games were broadcast on Facebook rather than television, FC Edmonton games were consistently among the best-produced in the NASL. Attendance stank. Criticize the details, as fans of failed teams always do, but the Eddies were not 90% of the way to success. They were 33%.
Unlike most Canadian cities Edmonton now has a perfectly decent soccer stadium. After the 2015 Women’s World Cup brought new artificial turf Clarke became an unimpeachable place to watch a game. Intimate, lots of parking, easy transit access, simple but effective facilities. It had a history of soccer and, with the aforementioned Women’s World Cup, a world-class event that made the sport look good. It began with a hometown star, Saiko, and ends with a nearly-hometown star, Nik Ledgerwood. The ownership was everything I have described and more. These weren’t the Edmonton Aviators, with all their hopes staked on immediate success. They were in it for the long haul and proved it.
A fan who would support a Canadian soccer team if it won lots and had a first-rate stadium and was attractively marketed and had Fernando Torres in a fan of the show, not Canadian soccer. His money counts the same as anybody else’s, but the only way to lure him is the MLS method: to sell out, completely, down to the very bottom of your soul, and make the exercise pointless for anything other than profitmaking. To turn your community club into Molson, right down to being owned by an American conglomerate, because the Americanness is fundamental to the success.
“But it worked before!” True, with the USL Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps living long and happy lives. The Impact were owned by a man who combined the Faths’ willingness to lose money with a fanatical devotion to soccer, were subsidized by government with advertising and generous stadium terms, and gave away tickets like water. The Vancouver Whitecaps were usually close to going broke, performing the soccer equivalents of living in their dad’s van. But more importantly, they played in an age where professional soccer could be credible on a much smaller budget than today, and they had their close American rivals. Seattle, Portland, Rochester. It’s the same old song, though performed more prettily.
The sole exception of this generation has been the Canadian women’s national team, an intersection of ability and charisma not seen elsewhere in Canadian sports. Even they continue to be defined, by and large, by their relationship to the United States. Why did the 2016 Brazil bronze medal count for less in our collective consciousness than the 2012 bronze when 2016 was a more impressive achievement? Because in 2012 we went through the United States and in 2016 we did not.
Maybe Canadian teams can thrive as semi-professional or high amateur outfits, in the way the Thunder Bay Chill have for seventeen years, and that League1 Ontario, the PLSQ, TSS Rovers, Calgary Foothills, and the Victoria Highlanders will hopefully continue to. Your players make a pittance if anything, you take the bus everywhere, if you run a youth academy it’s considered perfectly reasonable for parents to pay for it, life is not easy but it’s easier. There are enough fanatics to make that work, in some format.
But full, national-league professional men’s soccer? With an all-Canadian identity and Soccer United Marketing’s millions against them? Oh I’ll support the Canadian Premier League if it ever kicks off, FC Edmonton or no, and I’m sure you will as well. We Canadian soccer fans are used to lost causes. And maybe the MLS fans have the right idea. Their teams are fake, but at least they survive.
On yet another virtually-all-women’s-soccer edition of 99 Friendship, we catch up on all the stuff we missed.
This is more than you might think. One of Carolyn’s favourite things, the NCAA College Cup, is in full swing (actually, it’s swinging so full that I only just got this podcast uploaded before the next set of games). What does Carolyn think of the college cup? Permit me to answer that question in JPEG form.
As you can see, there are many possibilities for Canadians entering the Elite Eight. If Jessie Fleming and Deanne Rose weren’t in it it would only be the So-So Eight.
But not even that is all! Because we haven’t done a Foreign Desk for something like three weeks, and while no Canadians have covered themselves in glory there have been Events in Sweden and Germany that are worth me zipping through at nine hundred words per minute. In particular, I get to stop knowing Swedish now, as Rosengard’s season has come to an end and they have decided that Canadians are so two-thousand-and-late.
And there’s still more, because the Canadian Soccer Association announced a roster for its trip to the Costa del Sol to play Norway, and Amelia Pietrangelo, The Future of Canadian Women’s Soccer™, is included among other interesting names. It feels like ages since we’ve seen Canada’s best eighteen players in all one place so we speculate about who they are too.
Lively show, this. Well worth waiting until Friday afternoon for.