What does a primary school teacher, a former Major League Soccer star-turned-executive, and a region stretching from Canada and down the west coast of the United States all have in common?
They make up Cascadia – a team comprised of footballers representing an area of North America which stretches from Canada’s province of British Columbia down through America’s Washington and Oregon states. The team just took part in their first-ever Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA) World Cup in England, garnering a series of respectable results.
“We’re looking to build our place in world soccer,” said Aaron Johnsen, the team’s president, in an interview with The Short Pass.
In Major League Soccer, the Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps, and Seattle Sounders all showcase their Cascadia roots. A flag showing a Douglas Fir on a background of blue, white, and green stripes can be seen at many of their games. The Cascadia region has been the site of several loose secessionist plans – none of which have come even close to remotely true – and celebrates west coast culture.
The football team bills itself as a non-political entity, preferring to instead celebrate the region and showcase its residents.
“There’s no political aim, we do not want any kind of association with an independence movement,” said Johnsen. “We’re about playing football and having fun with it, and acknowledging the cultural identity of what Cascadia is.”
The club was started in January 2013, relying on volunteers to both play and staff it.
“Really for the four years after that, we’ve been selling shirts and raising awareness,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of money to advertise or anything.”
Johnsen says the team was given a boost when CONIFA approached them to be the North American representative for the World Cup.
The team is largely made up of semi-professional and amateur players based in both North America and Europe. Johnsen says due to numbers, they had to “adopt” five non-Cascadia players to fill out their squad.
“We joked and said they had a ‘Cascadian state of mind,'” he said.
Their most famous addition is James Riley, a former defender who played for seven MLS clubs – including the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders — who now works for the league as its director of player relations.
“He’s been an incredible leader on the team,” said Johnsen. “He’s been an incredible example for the guys on the team.
The team met for the first time at 10:30 a.m. the day before their first game.
“No one gave us a chance,” said James Nichols, the manager. “I actually thought one of our best performances was the first half of the first game.”
Nichols is a primary school teacher by trade, and also works as Kendal Town’s assistant manager, with a background in semi-professional football.
He applied for the job after seeing a posting online, chatting with Johnsen about the program and its goals.
Nichols says he was attracted to the club for a variety of reasons, but two stuck out in particular. Firstly: the allure of doing something completely different, with a team unlike many others. Secondly, Johnsen’s descriptions of Cascadia – the mountains, the rain and its under-representation from its home countries – reminded him of his own home in northwest England.
Cascadia opened their tournament with a 4-1 loss to Ellan Vannin – a team that represents the Isle of Man – before beating Barawa and Tamil Eelam.
A quarter-final loss to Kárpátalja – representing the Hungarian minority in Carpathian Ruthenia (a historic region in Ukraine) sent the North Americans to the consolation round. A dominant 4-0 win over Western Armenia followed in the placement round, with a loss on penalties to Panjab closing out their run to finish sixth overall.
Elgin City striker Calum Ferguson finished as the team’s leading scorer with five goals.
The Cascadia group has nothing but praise for CONIFA and the tournament.
“I think the professionalism has been massive and great,” said Johnsen. “A small tournament like this that’s entirely volunteer run, you run into issues, but overall it’s been incredible.”
With the tournament now in their wake, the Cascadia group is looking ahead to holding the tournament themselves in two years.
Nichols says there have been discussions about keeping one team composed of Cascadian players in Europe, to allow for easier access to playing friendlies, and another based in North America.
But for the manager, one of the highlights?
“We started as individuals and finished as a group,” Nichols said. “The one feeling people took out of it: pride.”