The Canadian Soccer Association finally released the Voyageurs Cup (or the Nutrilite Canadian Championship for those who prefer advertising Amway to advertising supporters) schedule last week, and there was not a surprise in the bunch. The Vancouver Whitecaps will begin their tournament in Montreal on April 27 taking on the Impact (again) before returning to Empire Field on May 4 for the return engagement. Having handily disposed of the Impact, Vancouver will then doubtless face FC Edmonton in the two-legged final on May 18 and May 25.
I won't bore you by once again ranting about the new and significantly worse format. I've expressed my opinion on that back in December when it first came out, and my opinion hasn't change a whit since then. A round robin tournament is both fair and practical, and seeding teams for a cup tournament based on last year's results when one team is new and the other team has switched leagues is hilariously inappropriate. It's a format that's bad for competitiveness, bad for marketing, and bad for Canada.
There's not much to say from a Whitecaps perspective. I'm really sick of watching the Montreal Impact in do-or-die games. For my sarcasm in the first paragraph, Montreal is a first-class team and, with the pending addition of goalkeeper Bill Gaudette, my provisional favourite for the 2011 North American Soccer League title. They'll give the Whitecaps a very good game and may not just be our equal, they may be better. But, of course, neither side has a set roster yet. Montreal has a lot of proven talent, but if Vancouver's unproven players step up and are as strong as we all hope they'll be then things will change. Add a couple strikers, maybe a left winger, and all of a sudden Vancouver's looking strong again. If nothing else, the Vancouver - Montreal games will be very competitive and probably very, very close.
So far, the real hubbub's been about FC Edmonton. As with most hubbub surrounding FC Edmonton, it's been a skeptical eastern Canadian media leading the way. Edmonton has announced that they'll be holding their match against Toronto FC (and presumably a second round against Vancouver or Montreal if they get that far) at 60,081-seat Commonwealth Stadium, the largest sports venue in the country. Nobody (least of all the FC Edmonton front office) is under the impression that Commonwealth Stadium will come close to selling out, but there's a lot of concern that a small batch of FC Edmonton supporters will be lost in cavernous Commonwealth. The attendance will still be mediocre, the atmosphere will be awful, the appearance on television will be disgraceful, and FC Edmonton will come a little closer to failure.
Not so fast. Moving to Commonwealth Stadium might just be the best decision FC Edmonton could make.
I'm not going to fully endorse FC Edmonton's off-field strategy. Their website is still, ehrm, questionable. They still charge a mint for tickets: their cheapest season ticket package is $330 for general admission, compared to only $319 for the cheapest seat with the freakin' Whitecaps. To get assigned seating you have to pay $400, which on a per-game basis is awfully close to the $418 I paid for my Whitecaps season seat. They're charging expansion MLS prices for expansion NASL product, and while the FC Edmonton front office says their season ticket sales are doing well and the $400 reserved tickets are the hottest of all, their refusal to provide an actual numbers of tickets sold brings back all the old feelings of suspicion and fear. I'm an unabashed FC Edmonton partisan and I hope they sell out every game, but that only means I worry more.
On the other hand, FC Edmonton hosting their Voyageurs Cup fixtures at Commonwealth Stadium is perfect sense. First off, it's actually necessary. The Canadian Soccer Association requires that fields hosting Voyageurs Cup games have only soccer lines on the pitch, and that rules out FC Edmonton's regular home right there. Foote Field, capacity 3,500, is shared with the University of Alberta Golden Bears and CIS lines on the field will be a fixture of FC Edmonton's life until they get a soccer-specific stadium built. With Foote Field ineligible, Commonwealth Stadium was the best of a very, very small number of possible choices.
But even apart from the throwball lines, Foote Field could never be a showcase for FC Edmonton. It's a dreadful stadium for professional sports, essentially a main stand risen out of the ground around a relatively new but mediocre artificial pitch in a not terribly inspiring part of town. It has lights and seats and a press box, but if somebody thought FC Edmonton was minor league, seeing Foote Field on television wouldn't change their mind even if it was packed full. Picture the stadium of a typical moderately-important CIS football program. That's Foote Field in a nutshell. As NASL stadiums go, it's in the bottom half of the league.
Commonwealth, on the other hand, is a serious stadium. The old, awful grass is now mercifully gone, replaced with artificial turf that may sacrifice some credibility with narrow-minded soccer fans but at least means the ball will go more-or-less where you kicked it. Media facilities are first-class, and with an expansion team where first impressions from the media mean so much, that may be more important than you think.
People are concerned about the cavernous Commonwealth losing "atmosphere". Well, to be honest, there was never going to be much atmosphere at huge, open Foote Field anyway no matter how many seats were filled. It's a small, all-but-unenclosed stadium in the middle of a university campus; you weren't getting the Stretford End in any case. The Edmonton supporters group is a great bunch of guys but I could count the number of true-blue supporters I sang with last year on my fingers. In Edmonton, supporters' culture really is going to have to be created out of whole cloth. FC Edmonton games aren't the trendy place to be, and it won't get people who see Liverpool on television going "wooo! major league soccer!" and coming out to sing and chant and realize that North American soccer is better than they thought. Apart from the spectacular stadium, the second-division Vancouver Whitecaps only ever had good atmosphere for the biggest matches themselves. "Atmosphere" in the sense most people mean was never going to be there anyway. Professionalism will have to do.
And remember, Edmontonians do like soccer. People out east have their perceptions coloured by the Edmonton Aviators debacle while forgetting that the Aviators were a horrendous team run by, quite literally, crooks. People out east laughed at the attendance of the FC Edmonton - Portsmouth friendly, but the overpriced exhibition game featuring a non-name English team which most fans thought would be utterly uncompetitive (it wasn't) with a team that wasn't even in a league yet still drew 9,000 fans through the turnstiles at Commonwealth. FC Edmonton's attendance during their exhibition season would have placed them middle of the road in the 2010 USSF D2. Edmonton is a soccer city through and through, and they've proven it time and time again. They've lacked the facilities and the ownership for the past twenty years but that's no slight on the fans.
Commonwealth Stadium was the only permissible choice for the FC Edmonton - Toronto FC game. More than that, it was the best possible choice. I think eastern Canada might be in for a pleasant surprise when April rolls around.