Will the Canadian Premier League turn the country into a football power?

Canadian Premier League 2019

Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver compete in MLS, but an exclusively Canadian professional league is hoping to boost the national team.

Just a few years ago, young Canadian soccer players like Ryan Telfer and Kadell Thomas had little shot at professional careers. Without a professional domestic league solely based in Canada players entered their 20s with a sense of uncertainty: despite having the talent to progress into academies, colleges and semi-pro leagues, they would either be forced to play abroad – unless they made it to the handful of Canadian MLS teams – or quit the game altogether. “There are so few options,” said Telfer in 2018.

But this weekend, Telfer and Thomas entered the annals of Canadian soccer history. And more importantly, they now have a pathway to sustained success. On a windy Saturday afternoon in front of 17,611 spectators at Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Field, Telfer and Thomas each scored in an entertaining 1-1 draw between York 9 FC and Hamilton’s Forge FC in the first ever Canadian Premier League match. The seven-team league has been in the works for more than five years now and is sanctioned by Canada’s governing soccer association as the country’s top-tier league. The league has hopes to expand and eventually develop a tiered system with promotion and relegation.

Until this weekend, Canada was the largest economy in the world without its own domestic league. In 2014, the CSA expressed the need for a top-tier domestic league: “Our National Team coaches do not have the benefit of selecting players who regularly compete in an elite level domestic league. The world’s top national teams draw from their domestic leagues. The development of a home-grown system in which our best players can compete is of paramount importance.”

While there are former national team players, such as Nik Ledgerwood and Kyle Bekker, returning to Canada from abroad, the league is light on star power. MLS offers the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney but the CPL is hoping that by forging connections with local youth soccer associations, Canadians will buy in to the idea of seeing players from their own backyard experience success.

“What the CPL will bring, is it will bring back the dream for that young kid and who is going to those games, watching the local professional team play and dreaming of pulling on that jersey and representing their community,” said Canada Soccer Director of Development Jason deVos. “That’s something that was missing when I was a kid.”

Just as the most progressive MLS teams scour local soccer associations in the United States for talent, the CPL sides aim to provide professional opportunities for young Canadians like Telfer and Thomas that did not exist previously. The pair are prototypical CPL players. Telfer was a late bloomer who developed at Toronto’s York University before moving to Toronto FC’s reserve side. He was loaned to York 9 FC ahead of this season. And Thomas spent two seasons at Sigma FC, one of Canada’s most notable youth academies and semi-pro sides, run by current Forge FC head coach Bobby Smyrniotis.

The league mandates opportunities for young Canadians: each team must field a minimum of six Canadian starters per game and more than half of the players on each roster must be Canadian. And three of those domestic players must be under the age of 21. Those three players must play at least 1,000 combined minutes per season. Because playing time will be readily available, the CPL could act as a feeder league: young Canadians could get their start in the CPL before being sold off to other leagues, including MLS. That influx of cash from player sales could then ensure the league’s sustainability.

And if young Canadians have professional opportunities, the Canadian men’s side could benefit. After years of soccer garnering better participation numbers than any team sport among Canadians under the age of 17, the men’s program can now boast young players like Alphonso Davies playing for Bayern, Ballou Tabla developing in Barcelona’s system and Liam Millar on loan at Kilmarnock from Liverpool.

The CPL believes there are more players of that ilk in Canada. They just require an opportunity. “Canada having its own professional league was the missing jigsaw piece. I think for our players, particularly our young players, if they hadn’t made it in MLS or couldn’t crack a European system, this was the gap, this was the black hole that players would disappear down,” men’s national team head coach John Herdman said. “And a lot of young talented players have not reached their potential because of that.”

The men’s national team program will be served with an expanded player pool. As much as they have improved, rising from 112th in the Fifa rankings in 2013 to 78th in 2019, the competition for places on the team is far from intense. The CPL immediately adds over 100 Canadians playing professionally into the mix. And with Canada serving as co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the timing couldn’t be better to build what CPL Commissioner David Clanachan has repeatedly called a “new soccer economy” in Canada.

There will still be lingering concerns over the financial viability of the CPL. The professional Canadian Soccer League was created in 1986 but folded in 1992. The CPL believes financial sustainability lies in the (deep) pockets of its owners, the 10-year multi-million broadcast deal with Spanish media giants MediaPro and the heightened exposure soccer now enjoys in Canada.

“This is going to create a great player pool for our national team down the line, which is going to develop players, coaches, administrators,” said York 9 FC coach and former Premier League defender Jimmy Brennan. “It’s an exciting time for Canadian football.”

What the men’s national team has long lacked is an identity on the pitch. The best teams have over time developed a style of play that runs deep from the national side down through to the lower domestic leagues. Perhaps with the advent of more regular professional opportunities for Canadian players, a more cohesive identity among young men’s players will develop.

CPL Commissioner David Clanachan boasted about the style of play in the league’s first game. “I’m seeing a tough, hard-fought, let them play [style],” said Clanachan. “No diving, no rolling around, no embellishment, none of that stuff. This is the kind of game this country wants, and I think Canadians will respect that level of the game.”

And now that the CPL has its first game under its belt, there is a hope that more people will understand what many in Canadian soccer have long understood: the country’s players have talent, they just need the opportunity.

“That’s the most important thing. As coaches and players we always want the three points, we want the win,” said Smyrniotis. “But we want to make sure that its also an entertaining product for everyone’s that’s coming out to show that Canadians can really play the game.”

Published by ” The Guardian “

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