Sunday, 18 December 2016

Russian Bathhouse

One of the final events I attended in my Canadian National Teams Goalkeeper Coach was the 2006 FIFA U20 World Youth Championships held in Russia. I had already experienced the 2000 U19 World Youth Championships in Canada and the 2004 World Youth Championships in Thailand. Our team had finished second at the tournament in Canada. We were knocked out in the quarter-final in Thailand and we did not advance from the round-robin in Russia.

There was a steady decline in funding, which made it difficult to remain competitive with the other countries who were investing in the game. China. Germany. USA. Japan. The sad reality of International Competition is that athletes, teams and coaches require both training and competition, all of which comes at a cost. If I am not mistaken, when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics I am fairly certain that our country won the most medals they have ever achieved at the same time the host country (Canada) had created a program called "Own the Podium" which provided the financial resources and opportunities for coach, athlete and teams to prepare in an equitable fashion to others.

Our team had the priviledge of visiting both St. Petersburg and Moscow on this trip, and to this day I feel very lucky to have been able to see this part of the world.

St Petersburg was fantastic. I remember the Czars Castles which lined the causeway across the street from our hotel, built on the backs of communism that featured massive walls with historic structures inside, a divide between rich and poor was clearly visible. The city was filled with these monuments scattered along the causeway which outlined a water canal. Moscow was even more daunting. I remember walking down the most dramatic combination of stairs and escalators to reach the subway, which, when hundreds of feet beneath the ground there were these marble statues built to recognize important moments in time for the Russian culture. These will remain some of the steepest stairs/escalators I have ever been on. Then there were the "Seven Sisters," which is a series of building (all matching) built all around the city, which were visible at all times from all angles as you traveled throughout the capital. These building were massive, they appeared to reach into the sky and all I could think about was how did they build these at a time when modern technology did not exist? The feeling of walking into and around "Red Square" was simply amazing! You could feel the bloodshed and historical battles in the air as you walked through and around this historical monument. There was no simply way to describe the "spooky" feeling I had being there- so much of this culture had been defined by conflict.

Conversely, when we participated in the 2004 World Youth Championships in Thailand it was the exact opposite. I have come to love and respect Thai culture for many reasons. The people. The food. The glorious combination of nature and Buddhism.

Our team initially spent time in Phuket prior to the start of the tournament. We stayed in a beautiful hotel on the beach and enjoyed each and every minute of our stay. I can assure you this was not the norm traveling with the Canadian National Team Program. There have been some beauties along the way- staying in the University of Prince Edward Island one summer in rooms without air conditioning and then there were the dorms we stayed in when we participated in the Pan-Am Games in Santo Domingo in the Domenican Republic-both of these were the exact opposite of the luxury we were able to experience in Phuket. The team played our last exhibition game here in a stadium which was directly across from the beach. I remember when the game was over the first thing the girls asked was "if they could go swimming in the ocean!" It was brilliant to see them crossing the road in their sweat soaked uniforms heading for a cool down on a glorious Thai beach.

It was also in Phuket that the staff enjoyed their first experience with a Thai Tailor. To this day, I still cannot fit into the set of Canadian Natioanal Team Suits we had made, however, I am pretty sure that Ian Bridge still has his collection of silk shirts. We all took turns having clothes made, which involved choosing a fabric, selecting a style, being sized and returning several days later to be fitted.

I still recall to this very day the feeling of putting on my first custom made silk dress shirt- WOW!

Ian was so excited he walked back to the turn-style with the variety of colors in the silk fabric and said "I will take one of those, one of those, one of those and one of those!"

It was priceless.

The team was fairly competitive in the tournament for which we were then based out of Bangkok. However, we were knocked out in the 1/4 final in a loss to China which I will never forget. From the opening kick-off we played the ball wide and forward only to somehow see the opponent quickly counter and find the Chinese striker moving toward our goal one on one with goalkeeper Stacey VanBoxmeeer. Stacey closed down the player in exceptional fashion only to see the player dive and tumble over the top of her while making the breakaway save followed by the whistle, red card and ensuing penalty shot given by the official.

Just like that we were down to 10-players as the back-up goalie (Steph Labbe) was sent in to try and save the penalty-shot.

We lost 1-0 (scored on the pk) and were eliminated from the tournament. It was traumatic siting in the hotel lobby the day after the game thinking about all the hard work and effort that had gone into the event only to see it so quickly disappear. Mind you, there were some funny moments along the way. Each evening at the end of the day the staff would meet to discuss the days events and plan the ensuing day or days. It was a common ocurance to walk into Bridgie's room and find him wearing a different colored tailored silk shirt with his black adidas polyester track pants! In fact, one evening the staff stepped out to see a movie, which is really cool in Thailand.

We were able to pay for luxury recliners in the back of the movie theater and stretch out completely in the most comfortable seats I have ever enjoyed watching a movie. Importantly, as we left the hotel to walk down the busy corridor or street we had become familiar with this very evening, we noticed Ian was walking ahead of us neatly dressed in a lime green silk shirt and a pair of kakky pants. From across the street we could hear someone calling "Handsome Man!" It was intended for Ian and it came from one of the Lady-Boys who hung out in front of a local bar dancing beside the street morning, day and night.

It was hilarious!

We used to take our team bus each and everyday down this very road from the hotel to the main highway en route for training. On this one particular day the bus we were provided with had an upstairs and downstairs seating arrangement. The upstairs would be the more traditional seating we are familiar with on a bus where the team sat. The downstairs might have been where the luggage was traditionally placed, however, in its place was a huge table and bench which outlined its circumference that the staff sat down at. While stopped at the stop sign waiting for the traffic flow to ease, we peared out the window only to see the same Lady-Boy, now mid-day dancing in the very spot we had seen them the night before. Of course, we were all waving and laughing, but the look on her face when she recognized the "Handsome Man" was remarkable!

A short 50 meter stroll from the hotel lobby I came across "Mr Tippy" who to this day remains my one and only Thai Tailor. We all had more clothes made, this time fitting much better than the first attempt in Phuket. Mr Tippy made a suit for me that would travel all over the world for years, never wrinkle and receive all kinds of positive comments when I wore it. I would revisit Mr Tippy several years later when Paola and I returned to Bangkok on  a holiday and have clothes made for the two of us. I will look forward to the next time we meet and hopefully have something made for Isabella.

There was always time for fun,  the team ventured out to a local bowling alley for a fun-filled evening, many in costume to see which randomly selected pair from the players and staff would become the prize winning team! I do not remember if we won or lost, however, I do remember how much fun it was shopping for costumes for my partner Veronique Miranda and myself in Bangkok!

So many great memories!

I did in fact stay behind when the team returned to Canada for an extended holiday, which in fact took me back to Phuket. It was lovely. I rented a moped, cruised around and found some lovely spots.

I had befriended the local hotel manager from when our team stayed together and was advised to visit Ko Rang. I toured on my moped 30 minutes from Phuket with my travel pack and ventured to the boat dock. When I figured out the situation, I bought my ticket, parked the moped and had time for lunch seated on a bamboo deck overlooking the beautiful bay we were located in. The lunch was spectacular, as were all Thai meals. I recall watching monkeys climb through the trees on shore while I waited for the boat to come in. To my surprise when it was time to leave I noticed my moped being loaded onto a different boat that the one I was seated on!

As we pulled away from the dock I remember trying to communicate with one of the locals that my moped was "over there!" They said it was ok, that the boat would be right behind us. Well, after several moments the boats started to travel in seperate directions- I was certain that would be the last time I would see my rented moped. When we managed to cross the bay and arrive at Ko Rang I walked off the foot passenger ferry service (aka decommissioned Thai wood fishing vessel) and jumped on the back of a "moped-taxi" asking to be taken the the other side of the island where I was informed my moped would be waiting.

Thankfully it was! I spent days, felt like weeks, wish it was months whipping around the island, exploring, savoring the sights, sounds, scenery and people. It was an absolutely fantastic experience! I watched the final with a family I had been staying with inside a thatched roof Thai Hut and could not believe that the referee who had officiated our game was also in charge of the final! Such is life!

Interestingly, upon my return to Canada I made my way to Denman Island, as it was the holiday season. I left Thailand for Canada on December 20, 2004 and remember listening to the radio at the red cabin the day after Christmas to hear about the devastation from the Tsunami which hit the area I had been visiting! It was mind-numbing on a personal note to imagine that I had walked on those very beaches, even worse to learn over time the devastation and toll on human existence this natural disaster would cause.

So, about the Russian Bathhouse. Once we were eliminated from the tournament all be it so early, we had a day or two to pass before returning the Canada. I had noticed an advert for an old fashioned Russian Bathhouse. I canvassed the staff to see if anyone would care to join me, but there were no takers. I sequestered a taxi from our hotel and was dropped off at the front door. I walked up the stairs and around a corner to these beautiful glass doors and entered. It was an old boys club from the early 1900's. There were chubby old Russian men scattered across the lounge sitting with white towels wrapped around their wastes, some smoking, others talking and others relaxing.

Once inside I figured out how to pay and was shown to a locker. I took off my clothes and wrapped myself in the traditional white towel and made my way to the shower stall, water room or massive area that you entered before entertaining the sauna. There were so many varities of showers, soaker tubs and massage tables in this area that was meant for you to cleanse between visits to the sauna. The sauna was massive, two stories. In here men sat with these silly little hats that folded down to cover the top of your ears and whipped one another with water soaked eucalyptus branches. It was a brilliant afternoon spent relaxing, observing and unwinding. To this very day, I severely regret not going to a Japanese Bathhouse when visiting Tokyo.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Voice

Each fall we start watching "The Voice." In fact this past year we came to realize that we have been enjoying the show for a total of eleven seasons. It it a weekly ritual for Paola and myself to watch the episodes the day after the televised version on the internet from the comfort of our home on Denman Island.

Why do I love watching "The Voice?"

In fact, we do not have TV and have not had TV for years. This may be the only show we watch in the house, excluding our Netflix habit which is a story for another day.

I love watching "The Voice"because it is a show about coaching. The series begins with "Blind Auditions" in which the contestants sing on an open stage to convince one of the four internationally renowned singers to turn a chair and entertain the opportunity to become their mentor/coach.

From the very moment these blind auditions start you can sense and feel the amazement of the amateur singers when a chair is turned and they are recognized for their talent. It is such an inspiring moment to see a chair turn, the hear the coaches plea for their acceptance and build their respective team.

Sound familiar?

Each year we process through the VIPL Riptide U14-U18 Youth Soccer Trials in which more than 160+ players will seek selection for a place on one of our eight teams in the franchise. The "Blind Audition" for the players starts with a series of training sessions in which they hope to draw the attention of one of the coaches selecting the respective team. Once they have been selected and accept the invitation to play the mentoring process begins.

Perhaps this is why "The Voice" means so much - the mentoring process.

I am brought to tears on a regular basis as the show progresses and the number of singers is slowly reduced. Today, there are four singers left from forty. The simple fact that as the season winds on each year, the coaches spend more time with the singers, which in turn deepens their respective relationship with one another.

Relationships are a huge part of any successful coach.

There have been so many healthy and positive relationships for me in the game of soccer through the years. First as a player. Second as a Coach. Third as a Technical Director.

As a player, some of my first memories in the game comes from playing with the Lansdowne Evening Optimists (1974 Victoria) coached by John Rudball (to this day, John makes an effort to stop by and say hello each summer when he and his wife visit Denman Island). The team wore royal blue polyester jerseys with two yellow stripes down one side of the jersey. Matching polyester royal blue shorts and socks (also with two yellow stripes which circled the top of each sock when folded over). My first goalkeeper jersey was yellow polyester. My first pair of goalkeeper gloves were a soft cotton mix with green rubberized material for grip (the same material found on ping pong paddles). My first pair of boots were more plastic than leather. My teen years were spent playing for the Gorge Magpies (coaches Dunc McCaig and Ron McClure). This is where I would meet friends who I still see to this very day. In fact, we played school soccer together and grew up both on and off the field.

Interestingly, when I think of my youth soccer coaches there is warmth, encouragement, positivity and motivation coming from all angles. Each of these people would not only support us on the field, they would remain a strong part of all of our lives through the years off the field - and that is what coaching is about! Sure, there are defining moments which are performance based, but I learned early on in life the definitive role of "the Coach" is the lasting impact you can have on people's lives.

Hence my love for The Voice. I sit hear writing this listening to the final four sing for the opportunity to win the season and receive a recording contract. I also enjoy the stories between the coaches and their singers, how they enjoy being able to help their students improve and learn about themselves. These internationally acclaimed artists take time out of their own lives to help the next generation of singers to become famous.

Sound familiar?

There have been so many positive mentors in my life through the years. Grant Darley. Gord Reading. John Baretta. Jerry Knuttsen. I have also had the priviledge to mentor hundreds of athletes and help to develop some very special coaches. Raegyn Hall. Big Daddy Denman. Sian Bagshae. Geoff Hackett. 

There have been a select few athletes who I was able to mentor and develop deep and meaningful relationships with. Taryn Swiatek. Erin McLeod. Nicole Wright. Stephanie Labbe. Erin McNulty. Stacey VanBoxmeer. All of which I was lucky enough to invest time working with as a part ofthe Canadian Women's National Team Program.

Then there are my peers. Lewis Page. Bryan Rosenfeld. Stuart Neely. Ian Bridge. Even Pellerud. Ken Garraway.

Each and every one of these people have made a positive impact on my life and will always contribute to the person I have become.

As this episode wears down, I am finding satisfaction in knowing full well that only one person will be crowned the "winner of season eleven!"

Importantly, each of these final four candidates has grown and developed under the influence of their respective coach and accomplished more than enough on their individual journey to be considered a winner! The coaches push and pull the singers to make themselves more and more unique, pushing themselves to remain strong, confident and determined as they perform each and every week- knowing full well the audience selects who moves on each week in the competition.

Hard work is what is all about as a performer. As an athlete. I have always drawn reference to my travels all over the world as a player, coach or technician to that of a musical performer. Both are welcomed by one and all with open arms. One for the songs they may sing or play. Another for the simple fact that the game of soccer is global- it is appreciated by one and all the entire world over.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Circle of Life

Several weeks ago I was taking the ferry to Powell River in order to run training for the 18 players based there who play for the VIPL Riptide. It was on the ferry that I came to realize how lucky I am to be travelling to the same community I have been visiting for more than 30 years, now in my capacity as the Technical Director for the Riptide.

One of my first memories of being in Powell River for soccer was watching my father play goal for the London Boxing Club (1970's). I then recall playing both youth soccer games and high school or junior high school soccer events up there in the early '80's and of course the legendary matches against the mighty Villa in the VISL quite possibly in the later portion of the '80's and early '90's.

Each and every time I make the trip to Powell River I reflect on these experiences, and the people I have been fortunate enough to meet. Both Tyler Laing and Carly Carson were exceptional goalies who grew up in the community and were introduced to me by Paul Likness when I was running Island Keeper Clinics (est 1993). Carly managed to make her way into the Canadian Youth National Team Program and Tyler and I have remained lifelong friends thanks to his mom's antipasto.

There was one time when he visited us in Victoria to attend a goalkeeper training program and ended up staying with our family (which was a fairly common routine) and his parting gift was a jar of mom's antipasto.

To this day, if and when we see one another, if he does not bring a jar we certainly talk about it- it has been 20 years since the first time we met.

I have now just returned from a trip to Port Hardy to train the 12 players we have based out of this remote community who travel 3 hours each way for training (once weekly) and games. The games are often in Victoria, which means a 7-hour drive one way to compete.

During my time in Port Hardy I had the priveledge of reconnecting the dots with several Native friends.

K'odi and I have know one another for more than 20 years, we first met when I drove him out to play in the Canadian Soccer League for the Winnipeg Fury in 1993. He was just a baby and I recall his mother Tidi Nelson's parting words "take care of my boy!" You see, I had experience playing with Kevin Wasden, who like K'odi grew up in Alert Bay. Kevin was the first professional First Nations Aboriginal Soccer Player since Terry Felix played for the Vancouver Whitecaps circa 1975. Kevin and I first played together for the Victoria Vistas in 1989-1990 and then in 1990 for the Nova Scotia Clippers in the Canadian Soccer League. We also travelled together once to Scotland to train with Dunfermline Athletic Club and the Tacoma Stars in the US in the winter months.

Kevin and I often spoke about returning to the Bay to run soccer camps for the kids in the community, but we were never able to make this journey together.

Kevin's life was  tragically taken in his early twenties driving home from Port Alberni to see his girlfriend in Alert Bay.

Sadly, my first visit to the Bay was for his funeral. It was a memorable experience.

We were welcomed into their family with open arms, and by family I literally mean hundreds of First Nations Aboriginals.

In the years to follow Kevin's passing we started the Ha-et tla las Memorial Soccer School in memory of Kevin. These were some remarkable experiences. I can remember running camps with 100+ kids and having the time of my life. The passion for the game in the First Nations Aboriginal Community is contagious. I was able to observe so many young and talented individuals, some as young as ten years old who had the game in their blood.

Soccer has a lengthy history in these communities scattered up and down Vancouver Island. If I am not mistaken,  one of my first camps might have been in and around 1995. The camps were a combination of soccer instruction, fun and learning about life. Each and every single day brought laughter and happiness to all who were involved. The way these little soccer players eyes would light up each and every day we came together to train, play games and have fun was inspiring.

To this day, I will always recall those special moments plying my trade in the remote Native Village of Alert Bay. These soccer camps allowed my to get closer to Kevin's family, as well as K'odi's family, both of which have always been massive supporters of any and every effort we have made to promote the game and provide opportunity for the children in the Bay.

One such special opportunity came when the U19 Canadian Women's National Team visited the community and played an exhibition game against a local select team. Ian Bride and I had both been connected to the Bay through Kevin, so it was an emotional event for the two of us bringing the team here. I recall talking to the girls in the living area of the hostel we were staying in, both Ian and myself in tears giving them the background on the Bay and why we felt it was special to bring the team here.

As always, we were treated like absolute GOLD by the community,  who have always made me, my family, my friends and anybody else I knew that visited the Bay feel WELCOME!

I cannot specifically recall the first time I attended the annual June Sports Soccer Tournament, however, I can tell you that after travelling the world over coming back to the Bay to play in this annual event (held in June) was astonishing! This would be the first time on the west-coast I had experienced the passion for the game I had enjoyed in my travels in European Cultures. I played for the Cormorants several times through the years, playing as a right back or central defender rather than my traditional role of goalkeeper.

The first year I played we made it through to the final in which I recall the first time the ball went out of bounds behind our goal a fan yelled at the top if his lungs "who is the white girl playing centre back" and stared right at me. It was moving- I quickly grabbed the ball, realized there were several layers of people gathered on the sidelines dressed in Black or White (for the Cormorants) and Red and Black (for the Reds). Two cross-town rivalries which had been battling for the annual championship for years.

We were victorious and it was a memorable celebration.

First there was the parade of Champions, in which were were all loaded into a long line of cars as we drove up and down the main drag hooting and hollering singing the "Tlubani Song" (which still brings tingles as I write)! Second, we stopped along the way to march into and through the Nimpkish Hotel, which was the local watering hole and proceeded back to Emma and Crow's for what would turn out to be a what felt like a 2-3 day party! When the singing and dancing finally came to and end, I remember crawling home to find the door locked at Tidi and Bugsey's who I had been staying with.  Luckily, there was a tent in the front yard which I crawled into to sleep off the victory celebration and wait for someone to open the door.

To this very day, each and every time I return to visit the Bay one of the first things that Tidi will note "is that if they new I was coming they would have set-up my tent in the front yard!"

On this most recent trip to Port Hardy I was able to spend a few moments with K'odi at his school in which he is the Cultural Teacher. He took me on a quick walk-about to show me around the school and get a chance to see what they do with the kids. The first thing I noticed was the way which he treated these young children- stopping to hug, hold and/or say "hello" to each and every little one that crossed our path. It was a defining moment for me, knowing full well the impact of having a positive role model such as K'odi in these young kids lives.

On this day he was teaching them how to smoke fish and was in the midst of a multi-day project in which the kids cleaned the fish, light the fire and tended to the smokehouse.

Invaluable cultural traditions being passed on from one generation to the next.

I find myself enjoying the opportunity to revisit each and every one of these communities, as there are so many wonderful memories!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

“Welcome to Canada, eh you hoser!”

I had the priviledge of seeing the 2016 MLS Cup Final between TFC and the Seattle Sounders live at BMO Stadium on Saturday, December 10, 2016. The game kicked off at 8 pm eastern, the temperature was a balmy -2 and the stadium atmosphere was electric. The fly-over at the end of the Canadian National Anthem set the stage for an exciting evening in which at times, the event took over for the quality of the game being played. TFC got off to a great start with an opening scoring chance in the 4th minute, followed by several glorious chances to score as the match played out and into overtime. The two greatest chances to score being a header from Altidore which Stefan Frei made a remarkable save off of and a glaring miss from inside the penalty area by Ricketts (both of these coming in the overtime portion of the game). The set-up for the crossed ball by Ricketts was remarkable, as he was able to get past Torres (one of the rare occasions) and float a delicious ball into the box with the awareness for a streaking Altidore- as the ball floated in the direction of the TFC striker he took several powerful strides before leaping into the air and at his maximum height attempting to head the ball down and into the goal Stefan Frei was minding. The ball was just an inch or two high for Altidore to achieve full power on the header (which would have likely been the game changer) and floated off the top of his head toward to top left corner of the goal (top left from the goalkeeper perspective) for us all to watch in amazement as Stefan Frei made a world class save with the bottom left hand to deflect the ball out and around the post for a corner kick.

It was sensational, seeing this remarkable moment LIVE!

The Sounders went on to win the game and played an excellent game defensively, both as a team, and as individuals.

The last time I sat with Stefan Frei in BMO was back in the 2012, when we would sit in the player’s box and discuss the “good old days” he had originally experienced with TFC. 2012 was a difficult season for both the team and Stefan Frei. At the start of the season we ventured to Florida for the pre-season training camp to play in the Disney Classic.

My first call of duty as the ‘Performane Analyst” was to sit-up in a high tower and video tape the training sessions in the Florida sun 4-5 hours/day. It took about three days for me to get sun-stroke and suffer the consequences of being exposed to the sun at an elevation of about 100 feet above the training grounds.

The pre-season training also included matches against some of the MLS teams also visiting the area to participate in the event. In fact, we played a local college team in a friendly or two along the way also.

It was then that I started to admire Stefan Frei, as he had spent time in the off-season training with Liverpool FC and came into the training camp extremely sharp and motivated.

Interestingly, when I think about this motivating forces, I think he shares a common thread with Erin McLeod, another great goalkeeper in her time- who also prided herself by being both physically and mentally prepared for each and every movement they made as an investment to become the best they could be. Stefan saved our bacon time and time again in the preseason games against local College Teams and/or MLS teams while we were in Florida.

Upon our return to Canada and the ensuing start of the MLS Season we were due to play the LA Galaxy in the quarter-final of the CONCACAF Champions League, which was a hold-over from the competition TFC had played in the prior season. If I am not mistaken, Stefan played the first leg at home in Toronto when we defeated the Galaxy in front of 45,000 when the game was played in the Skydome. The second leg was played by Milos Kosic, when the team qualified for the semi-final of the CONCACAF Champions League by defeating the LA Galaxy in a two game series.

To this day, the team celebration was legendary and will be one of the many highlights I experienced working for TFC. The coaches had decided to split the games between the goalkeepers to give each an opportunity to prove themselves, which, in hindsight, seemed rather odd, as Stefan Frei had proved himself worthy time and time again during the preseason. Importantly, he soldiered on, which is an invaluable lesson to all up and coming goalkeepers. When things don’t go your way you have choices to make, whether you agree or disagree with the decisions of your coach you have to find ways to keep focused and move forwards. Stefan continued to shine in training, working his butt off to earn the number one spot with the team for the 2012 MLS Season.

Sadly, during one of the final sessions in preparation for the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League Stefan suffered a broken leg which would disrupt his campaign and severely affect the outcome to the start of his season. I did not see the situation unfold, as I was in the stadium at the time, only picked up on the commotion once the training staff had been able to support him where he lay injured on the stadium field in which we were training.

The timing was horrible, here he was, performing at or near his peak for the start of the season, working his butt off to earn and keep the starting spot and engaged in a debate about who should or should not be the number one starting goalkeeper for the team. He deserved so much better, it was heart breaking to see all of his hard work in the off season not be rewarded.  In the ensuing months we would spend time together in the players box on game days at BMO. I remember one conversation in which we were sitting above the crowd, watching the team play in the middle of the CNE. The stadium was more than half empty, as you could see the Canadian Flag painted on the bleachers in white because there were so few people in the crowd. The CNE appeared in the background which presented a “Carnival Atmosphere” fitting to the season, as TFC spiraled downward once again. 

The coaches who hired me to work as the Performance Analyst in January of 2012 (Aron Winter and Bob DeKlerk)  were let go and replaced part way through the season. The replacement coach Paul Mariner would then be fired at the end of that season. So would Ryan Nelson who replaced Paul for the 2013 season. A pattern was well established. Stefan and I sat watching the team prepare to play a likely meaningless game, if they were not already eliminated from the play-offs, they were very close. He told me that when he first started playing for TFC the stadium would be filled with passionate fans 60 minutes before the game. Cheering. Singing and celebrating their LOVE and PRIDE for TFC. It was a very low moment for the team, who knows, perhaps for the franchise.

Stefan Frei would earn his way back into the team the following season and experience a broken nose in the first days of his comeback, once again, setting him back in her personal quest for the starting position with TFC.

I am so very grateful to return to BMO for the 2016 MLS Cup Final between TFC and the Seattle Sounders. Thanks to a former colleague and special friend, Stuart Neely we were able to secure two tickets to the game. I flew out the day before spending my time with Joe Nucifora and his family. It was a remarkable atmosphere in the stadium on game day, which, now residing on Denman Island and living a rural lifestyle I rarely experience. The energy of a stadium on “game day” is electric and overwhelming. Seeing and feeling the intensity of the game, being a part of the energy and enthusiasm of the hometown crowd and seeing familiar faces is a wonderful and rare opportunity. The seats we enjoyed allowed me access to the same hallways I had walked when I worked with the team. I came across Jason Bent, who is now the TFC2 Head Coach and former colleague at TFC. We had a brief chat and acknowledged how times had changed.

“It took Toronto FC 10 seasons, nine coaches, 324 regular-season and six playoff games to finally get to the championship game. Some 3.49 million fans went through the turnstiles before the 36,045 lucky ones Saturday night.”

I simply cannot imagine the number of players the team had chewed through in the 10 seasons as well. It was an honor to be able to sit with my friend Joe Nucifora for the game. We first met 15+ years ago when I was working the Canadian Soccer Association the National Teams Goalkeeper Coach when he attended a GK Clinic put on by Ken McGuinness from Delta Sports at Etobikoe Stadium (the very same venue I had played for the Nova Scotia Clippers in the CSL from my playing days). Joe was a goalkeeper enthusiast who also worked for “Joe’s Hot Sauce” at the time if I am not mistaken. We have been friends ever since. I am fairly certain this would be not the first nor the last time he invited me back to his house for dinner to sample some of his Mom’s home cooking.

If there is one things I learned over the years from my professional travels it was never to turn down an offer to experience a home cooked Italian meal. I had several families adopt me along the way, starting with Mama Maria when I played in Winnipeg in the CSL. She took care of myself and Henry Nelson for the season. To this day I still recall a family dinner in which we were invited and she had made from scratch home-made lasagna noodles, the sauce (with her own tomatoes) and of course the main course to follow. The slice of lasagna covered more than my plate was so delicious. I have to thank the Coppetti family also located in Toronto, actually North York for all the years they fed me an introduced me to “spiducci!” The Pagliaro family. The Bellisimo family, who while playing for the North York Rockets took us in like extended family, myself, Kevin Wasden and often Nic Dasovic to fill our bellies and welcome us into their families.

Joe and I were seated in section 124A, we were seated in the wheelchair section as he has Stage Four Brain Cancer. We are the exact same age. It is awful to see a close friend and colleague fight this terrible sickness, but a priveledge to be able to share this time and special event together. Several weeks prior to the final I had decided to fly out and pay him a visit. I had heard that he might be in a wheelchair. I had known from a conversation during the summer that he preferred to text rather than talk, as talking was more of a challenge that texting. I knew he was sick, but I did not know how sick until my first visit. Stage Four Brain Cancer is not good. But he is fighting with an incredibly positive attitude and not letting on that there is anything negative that would be of any concern to him. This is who he is. Loyal. Compassionate and Selfless.

Our first visit was spent watching all four quarter-final games in the MLS play-offs in one day on TV, after which I promised to return if TFC made the final (which they did) and so off I went. Thanks to the generosity of Stuart Neely, whom we had both known in different ways through the years we were able to secure seats the final which sold out in 3-minutes. 

Joe’s cousin Sal arranged a wheelchair specific taxi to the game which took us right up to the stadium and picked us up right on front immediately after. Sol has a humongous heart and domineering personality- the moment he walked into the door before the game you could hear his thunderous roar as he delivered a newer more comfortable wheelchair for Joe to use for the game. 

When we took our seats in the stadium for the game we were able to watch the Seattle Sounder warm-up. It was time to take some photos to send to my compadres in Port Angeles Washington who I knew would be cheering for the Sounders. 

As we were watching the teams warm-up Robyn Gayle crossed our path, a current member of the Canadian Women’s National Team who we both knew. Joe had worked with her in the OSA Provincial Teams Program and I had met Robin in the Canadian Women’s National Youth Team Program many years ago. She took the time to say hello, ask how were doing and introduce us to her nephew who was 6-years old that she took to the game. Robin has always been a person with a warm heart and lovely smile. 

To this day, she is exactly the same, taking time to say hello and make time for us two “old guys!” 

As the game wore on the crowd and atmosphere were fantastic. TFC had several chances to score, but were thwarted on multiple occasions. 

Seattle played an excellent defensive game and adjusted to playing away from home in a spectacular fashion. TFC carried the majority of the play, often through Michael Bradley who dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball and initiate their attack with his swift and accurate passing. Michael Bradley is also in incredibly hard working defensive midfielder. Giovinco was drawing fouls and pressure from the Sounders all over the attacking portion of the pitch. 

The referee was in control, but not influencing the game in a negative way, leaving the game to be decided by the player’s o the pitch. Tactically both teams made changes to impact the match in the latter stages of both 90 minutes of regulation time, and eventually into the 120 minutes including the overtime periods. It came down to penalties and you had to favor Stefan Frei. Stefan had looked sharp and motivated in the warm-up. He was fired up to play and had soft hands. This was one thing we both noticed when we sat down to enjoy the show. He was kept on his toes and tested several times during the match. Clint Irwin, the TFC goalkeeper hardly touched the ball in 120 minutes in play.

"The Sounders’ zero shots on target and three total shots were both MLS Cup records."

Going into the penalty shoot-out a friend, former colleague and former Seattle Sounder Ian Bridge texted me to ask who I favored in the shoot-out. Hands down, it was going to be Stefan Frei. As much as I wanted TFC to win, for the city of Toronto, for the organization, for the simple fact that I could strut out next summer during the annual Denman Island 7-Aside Showdown when the Damn Yankees come to town in my bright red TFC toque, scarf, pullover, shorts, socks, shoes and blanket. However, this was not to be. The sixth and final shooter for the Reds Justin Morrow hit an awkward ball that hit the crossbar in the center of the goal setting up the Sounders Sixth Shooter Torres, or “Star-Man” to seal the deal.

All game long there were several somewhat intoxicated TFC fans behind us who kept calling him “Star-Man” every time he touched the ball (apparently it was in reference to a local Rapper who had released a hit single in recent months) which was rather annoying. Well,  “Star-Man” delivered. His sixth and final shot won the 2016 MLS Cup for the Seattle Sounders and simply silenced the crowd and emptied the stadium at the exact same time. It is very rare that 36,000 + screaming fans go dead quiet and vacate the premises is such a fashion. However, I do recall TFC emptying BC Place earlier this season when they snuck a last minute victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps to declare the Amway Cup for the 2016 Season. It was priceless, 4-minutes to go, Vancouver was doing everything they could to delay the game and hold on for the win, when out of nowhere in a desperate effort at the final play of the game TFC scored! That was also one stadium that emptied on impact leaving nobody to see TFC celebrate their victory!

Oddly, we were is Seattle a couple of weeks attending a Showcase Event (where the Sounders train) with the 2000-1999 Riptide Girls Team. The only player I saw the entire weekend from the Sounders at the training facility while the tournament was being played was the Panamanian Central Defender. Perhaps this was an omen! Never in a million years did I dream of it ending this way. TFC endured 120 minutes of play at home in front of a sea of red only to lose in the final by penalty shots. Not many of us did. Congrats to the Sounders. You successfully employed a well-executed game plan and did what you had to when it mattered most. Congrats to Stefan Frei for the MVP Award for the game, I simply cannot imagine how powerful that moment was for you. Congrats to my homies in Port Angeles, I will gladly buy your dinners, provide you with the jerseys and be your whipping boy for time immoral.

However, as we left the stadium in the wheelchair designed taxi I came to realize how powerful and lasting these moments were going to be. I could not hide how hungry I was (after not eating since lunch- it was now 11:30 pm) and asked that we forewarn Mama Nooch that we were coming home hungry. We had a 30-minute drive in the taxi from the stadium to the house, which was just enough time for Joe’s 80- year old mom to fry up those delicious thin breaded pork chops in time for our arrival. The game was over, we were disappointed in the loss but grateful for the time together. We shared Mama Nooch’s pork chops, peas and wine as we savored the opportunity to enjoy one another’s company. The game has always been special that way, bringing together family and friends who share a common passion.

Joe and I hugged this morning to say good-bye, hoping to see each other again. I have no words to describe my feelings. I had a heavy heart and tears in my eyes.

Will we see one another again?

In my heart I have enjoyed the friendship of a loyal, loving kind man. In these recent two trips I have come to learn the same about his family. I hope to come back and share more memories regardless of circumstance. I am grateful for the generosity you have all offered along the way.

All of you.