Where’s the BC Semi-Pro League?

By Benjamin Massey

July 29th, 2015 · No comments

Devon Rowcliffe/Groundhopping Canada

Devon Rowcliffe/Groundhopping Canada

The success of League1 Ontario and the Première ligue de soccer du Québec has again raised interest in a provincial, semi-professional soccer league for British Columbia. Some knowledgeable observers have considered a BC league almost more of a “when” than an “if”, yet we’ve hardly moved an inch towards that goal in the past ten years. This league’s inability to just get off the ground has become a very old story.

Semi-professional soccer could be a success in British Columbia. The clubs, the players, and the fields already exist. Much of the province has a history second-to-none in North America and a local soccer culture with fans used to supporting their local amateurs. Attendances aren’t regularly high, but cup weekends can draw crowds good enough for anybody and the quality and professionalism of higher-level soccer means growth. Many organizations already find sponsors, get fields every week, and boast competitive youth programs sending players to university soccer or the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency. That’s half the reason why a semi-pro league is so widely anticipated, and why there’s such frustration as it fails to launch: nobody needs to build anything for the league to work. It’s already there.

A new league has been seriously discussed since before the Whitecaps moved to MLS. In 2010 Ontario semi-pro team Toronto Croatia played Burnaby amateurs Athletic Club of BC at Swangard Stadium, part of a long-rumoured potential expansion of that Ontario league to the west coast. (The visitors got waxed.) That league was eventually reduced to a ruined outlaw league by match-fixing allegations; a lucky escape for the west coast, maybe, but we didn’t build anything on our own either. In 2013 the Canadian Soccer Association aimed to have semi-pro in BC by this year[1], a target that was missed. A BC Soccer committee was to provide an update at its Annual General Meeting this past June[2]. It doesn’t sound like much came out of that either.

We talk about needing investors but several clubs already operate with a budget serious enough to support expanding into semi-pro. This being Canada, of course the big problem is politics. As always. For once, though, we can reserve some sympathy for the politicians.

Yes, British Columbia’s elite adult clubs are divided but that’s on account of differences going back decades. Important institutions would be happy to combine forces if only they could agree on how to combine them. It’s not about power plays (well, it’s not entirely about power plays), but genuinely different visions of elite adult soccer in British Columbia.

Most fans outside the province think of the Pacific Coast Soccer League as a nucleus for semi-professionalism. Founded in 1995, with a name dating to the beginning of the 20th century, the modern PCSL is a summer league with tradition on its side and is therefore sometimes considered, not least by the experts at Wikipedia[3], the top of the British Columbia non-professional soccer pyramid. For its first year the PCSL had twelve teams, including two in the United States, and in 1999 a women’s division (long the best in western Canada) was added. Several players of national prominence have come through the PCSL at the beginning or the end of their careers, most notably Josh Simpson, Johnny Sulentic, Alen Marcina, and the Hughes brothers Jordan and Tyler. It has a serious history.

The present is much less rosy. The women’s and reserve divisions folded after the 2014 season. The last American entry, Bellingham United, left the PCSL after 2013 to join the Washington-based Evergreen Premier League. Only three teams from 2011 (Khalsa, Vancouver Thunderbirds, and Mid Isle) survive, and four of 2014’s eight Men’s Premier teams did not play in 2015. There have been high-profile conflicts between league and team, most notably in 2010 when the PCSL suspended the Athletic Club of BC and forfeited all their games because the Burnaby-based team refused to play during the World Cup final. Notable players rise from the ranks less often and stars have increasingly been Canadian university athletes, like the Whitecaps Reserves’ Jovan Blagojevic, keeping fit during the offseason. Finally, while it’s not the PCSL’s fault, it is said that Washington may not bother hosting the John F. Kennedy Cup between the PCSL, Washington, and Oregon champions this year: a sour indication of how far the league’s prestige has fallen.

Off-field, things are no better. Few teams have much of a community presence, and most of those that do are summer arms of clubs that primarily operate in winter leagues. Their league website averages less than one ill-typed article a month, their Twitter account hasn’t had a post in three years. When Victoria Highlanders supporters tried to cheer on their lads in the Challenge Cup playoffs league executives threatened to call the police[4]. These are examples of what everyone already knew, that the PCSL is not a spectator league. Only the Victoria teams have shown a cursory interest in drawing fans of late, and the Highlanders are in the league only out of necessity[5]. The PCSL remains a high-quality recreational league which, due to its history, occasionally pretends to aim higher. With USL PDL gone, some say it offers the highest standard of play in BC amateur soccer. Such leagues will always be important, but they don’t lead to semi-professionalism.

Benjamin Massey/Maple Leaf Forever!

For competitive soccer fans might actually watch, look elsewhere. The recent centenary of the Jackson Cup, the Vancouver Island Soccer League championship, drew over 1,000 paying fans to Victoria’s ancient Royal Athletic Park, including a boisterous contingent all the way from Cowichan[6]. The Fraser Valley Soccer League didn’t get so many to their Pakenham Cup final but the few hundred they had were loud, making for an enjoyable atmosphere even over the free webstream. Despite their name the FVSL is spread wide across the Lower Mainland; new entry West Van FC plays across the Burrard Inlet from Stanley Park and about as far from the Fraser Valley as you can get[7]. Then there’s the big brother of them all, the Vancouver Metro Soccer League, which is actually the continuation of the pre-war Pacific Coast Soccer League and can boast a reasonably linear history going back almost eighty years. A few clubs, all the way down to bottom-division Bowen Island FC, have good local profiles already, and big games anywhere can count on a few dozen supporters attracted solely by word of mouth.

Devon Rowcliffe/Groundhopping Canada

Devon Rowcliffe/Groundhopping Canada

The VMSL sends the strongest entries to the Provincial Cup, won BC’s most recent men’s national championship in 2004, and boasts a pyramid with promotion and relegation between four divisions plus U-21s, reserves, and Masters. While nominally an amateur league some VMSL players are already… how do I put this… unofficially semi-professional. The Vancouver Island Soccer League has four divisions, though this includes “B” or “C” sides, and the Fraser Valley Soccer League has five, again with reserve teams mixed in. If all you wanted was eight clubs with quality organization, strong players, and a bit of ambition, you could form a semi-pro league tomorrow.

And if it was really that simple this article would be superfluous. While the raw materials exist nothing else does. British Columbia’s top non-professional clubs can’t even agree on whether to play in summer or winter. A winter schedule suits the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island climate, appeals to today’s players, and reflects British Columbia’s soccer history, but it also collides with semi-professional soccer in every other province, poses problems up north and further into the interior, and makes life hard for student athletes. Then each would-be participant has its own history, its own priorities, its own politics, and a championship trophy at least a century old. As for BC Soccer itself, as usual with provincial governing bodies they are the Common Enemy and every attempt to impose a new order is met with resistance. Even forming the youth BC Soccer Premier League, acknowledged by everyone to be a necessity, was met with politicking and proverbial knife-fights.

Our elite leagues have a divide between the “serious” teams (however undistinguished they may be on the field) who’ll go as far as their resources can take them, and the “recreational” teams (however many trophies they win and ex-professionals they start) for whom this is always a hobby, who may play hard and indeed very well but don’t want to spend their weekend busing to Kamloops or training to a higher standard. Not for nothing do our leagues have to warn players against drinking during the game. The recreational players are a huge part of all these leagues, and the added commitment required for a season of province-wide play will be a tough sell to them even in exchange for the limited wage of a semi-pro league.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t enough enthusiastic talent. This past February the Vancouver Whitecaps Reserves held open tryouts and 137 players, mostly from the region[8], paid $150 each[9] to participate. USL is a fully professional league but the salaries for depth players like our tryout hopefuls won’t exactly raise a family; they were paying time and money for hope. BC semi-pro might not draw many of the 35-year-old ex-USLers who still abound in the Lower Mainland, but the dream-chasers, the youngsters looking to catch an eye, and the people who just want to play soccer at the highest level they are capable of will be more than enough. There is a lot of skill in British Columbia, spread across hundreds of miles, waiting for a chance to entertain.

Any serious semi-pro league which lacks the support of the current leagues will be weaker than it need be and, at worst, illegitimate. If more teams are interested than can be accommodated that means finding a fair way to determine which VMSL, FVSL, VISL, and PCSL teams are the best of the best. It might well mean playing a winter schedule, with any national championship against the other teams or Voyageurs Cup participation falling in-between. Finally, there must be a way for clubs interested in recreational soccer to amicably divorce from their more ambitious rivals without hurting their viability. Promotion and relegation, already well-established in this province, could be the solution to that problem, but the power brokers might not see it that way. Then there’s the question of working in new teams, and new financiers. It’s not unheard of for a new organization to buy a higher-division VMSL team just to get their spot in the pyramid without fighting for three years of promotions; is that the sort of setup you want?

The glorious prizes of British Columbia soccer, the Pakenham, Imperial, and Jackson Cups, must be retained: their loss would grieve any supporter with the faintest sense of history. But for those trophies to not only be extant but popular the best teams of the Fraser Valley, metro Vancouver, and Vancouver Island would need to compete for their regional title, regardless of league. That would be politically interesting. (Though I laugh, in a good way, to think of the Vancouver Whitecaps sending a team to go for the Imperial Cup every season: that would make our soccer pyramid look a little more real.)

The final, most serious obstacle is that somebody must lead who the province’s soccer powers will follow. Who can that be? Is there a coalition of strong clubs who, in NASL style, might decide to form a league of their own and win community support with their history and success? Is there a soccer visionary in one of the leagues, or in BC Soccer, who can persuade those strong clubs across the province that taking a step up is in their best interests? It should be possible; we’re not talking about breaking up the existing regional leagues but adding another layer for the strongest and most ambitious. It hasn’t happened yet, though, and it’s been years. Is British Columbia, with so much amateur soccer excellence behind it, doomed to remain second-class?

[1] — Rycroft, Ben. “CSA aiming for 2015 launch of national semi-pro league.” It’s Called Football, May 28, 2013. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.canadiansoccernews.com/index.php?/page/articles.html/_/archives/it-s-called-football1402639984/csa-aiming-for-2015-launch-of-national-semi-pro-league-r3855.

[2] — “BC Soccer focuses on 3 development topics.” BC Soccer, May 22, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.bcsoccer.net/news/post/bc-soccer-focuses-on-3-development-topics. The money quote is:

Regional Tier 3 Adult League

The BC Soccer board formed a committee to investigate the potential for a Regional Tier 3 Adult League. This committee over the last 12 months has been gathering information, feedback and researching other similar leagues / environments, within Canada and Washington, who offer this semi-professional level of play.

BC Soccer is currently in the information gathering stage and not seeking wider comments and feedback, however is very pleased to be able to provide an update to the Adult League membership on this topic at the June 2015 Annual General Meeting.

[3] — “Canadian soccer league system.” Wikipedia, last edited July 28, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_soccer_league_system.

[4] — Godwin, Ted. “One Man’s Experience of the PCSL.” Lake Side Buoys, July 27, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.lakesidebuoys.org/2015/07/one-mans-experience-of-pcsl.html.

[5] — Annicchiarico, Mario. “Khalsa edges Highlanders in soccer final.” Times Colonist, July 27, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2015. http://www.timescolonist.com/sports/khalsa-edges-highlanders-in-soccer-final-1.2013564.

[6] — Massey, Benjamin. “Pacific Heights.” Plastic Pitch, Summer 2015, 30-33.

[7] — Fraser Valley Soccer League. “West Van FC join the FVSL Premier division for 2015-2016.” FraserValleySoccer.com. June 10, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.fraservalleysoccer.com/pdfs/west_van_fc.pdf. Note that it is the provincial champion West Van U-21s who will be playing in the FVSL Premier; the first team remains in the VMSL Premier.

[8] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “WFC2 Open Tryout set to kick off Saturday at UBC.” WhitecapsFC.com, February 21, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2015/02/21/wfc2-open-tryout-set-kick-saturday-ubc.

[9] — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Whitecaps FC 2 Open Tryout presented by adidas.” WhitecapsFC.com, January 30, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2015. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/post/2015/01/30/whitecaps-fc-2-open-tryout-presented-adidas.

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