Hot Takes for Canada

By Benjamin Massey

May 17th, 2017 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

The Canadian Premier League, like Harry Potter, takes up a lot of intellectual bandwidth for something that’s mostly imagination.

It has now been formally announced, along with Canadian Football League-affiliated ownership groups in Hamilton and Winnipeg. The name, hereto a title of convenience, appears official. They have a website and a Twitter account. In addition to at least one full-time employee, Canadian soccer business guru Paul Beirne, they have contracted out for some public and media relations. Judging from the respectful tone of the international press coverage, that’s working well.

We remain a hundred miles from even imagining the first game, but six months ago we were a thousand. Forget the “interested parties,” Canadian soccer’s powers-that-be, and some serious businessmen who know sports, have stopped winking and nudging and stepped forward, on the record, to say “here we are and here is what we are doing.” It shows confidence. Confidence that may prove misplaced, but after years of an announcement being “imminent” nobody’s being rash.

This story has gone on for so long that it’s hard to remind ourselves it’s still early. Until ten lovely millionaires have ten lovely teams in ten lovely stadia, CanPL skeptics will have every chance to sneer. The three MLS franchises, whose existence indefinitely gives the lie to the CanPL’s “first division” marketing, will “certainly stay” in their American league[1]. NASL diehard FC Edmonton is known to be uninterested and the USL’s Ottawa Fury have, as always, been inscrutable to the point of banality[2].

MLS, NASL, USL, order them how you like. On launch day, Canada’s “first division” may be the fourth-best league in the country. This is not the end, this is not the beginning of the end, and with apologies to Sir Winston it’s not the end of the beginning either.

If you are sufficiently hardcore to read Maple Leaf Forever!, this doesn’t matter as such. Sure we want the CanPL to be the top league in the universe, but it would be our favourite if it was Marty Nash and Rick Titus playing futsal on a tennis court. The status quo, however, is not ideal, so we try to improve the outlook by pushing our own CanPL pet projects and agitating for our dreams. We need more Canadian players, or oppose MLS-style single entity, or want promotion and relegation. I still say it should be a women’s league, though I confess that looks unlikely to happen.

Yet, from announcements so far, even that mad pipe dream isn’t literally impossible. The sum total of what we know about the CanPL is Winnipeg and Hamilton. Halifax has on-the-record interest, Regina’s CFL stadium is hosting a New York Cosmos – Valencia friendly[3] this summer that looks inexplicable except as a test of the market, Ottawa is Ottawa, and rumours are everywhere, but that’s all we know.

No doubt Winnipeg and Hamilton ownerships have an idea how they want to operate, with certain assurances that they can stay in business. Equally certainly, they have areas in which they’d compromise to lure new ownership (or, let us hope, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto). But some elements of the league structure are clearly up for discussion.

Paul Beirne appeared on Soccer Today! with Duane Rollins and Kevin Laramee, and told us much the same thing[4]. As part of a friendly and wide-ranging conversation he riffed, off-the-cuff, about what he’d like to see from his league perhaps decades down the line. No doubt he’s put a lot of thought into his visions, but he left doors open, and equally undoubtedly nothing has been set in stone.

Now is the time for fans to be heard. The success of the CanPL will depend disproportionately on Canadian diehards who, above and beyond buying tickets and merch, will lend each team the passionate and marketing-friendly support that has driven MLS’s attendance explosion. We know that the league staff pays attention to fan scuttlebutt. Indeed, its very conception responds to the fandom’s urgent need.

Our ideas and dreams may not be listened to. Indeed, since many of us would support a CanPL almost unconditionally, we have a lousy bargaining position. But we can still encourage the powers that be to make the best league they can. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are not soccer people. Hamilton’s Bob Young knows the game, owned the Carolina Railhawks for half an hour, and has presumably had a reason to spend years laying the foundations of this league. Every other Canadian owner will be new to the game almost by definition. Are we ever going to have a better opportunity?

It is pretty damned millennial to say “we need more bloggers with opinions, more hot takes and drum-banging.” But we sort of do. Canadian soccer is an incestuous little family, with the feuds and fornications of the most obscure mountain compound. Our league deserves to be launched not just with message board posts arguing whether the Blizzard should be brought back, but well-thought-through debates on what world we want to live in. It might not make any difference. But then again, it might. This is the only chance we will ever get.


[1] — TSN Radio 1200 Ottawa. “Corner Kicks – May 8, 2017.” TSN.ca, May 8, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.tsn.ca/radio/ottawa-1200/corner-kicks-may-8-2017-1.746219. Peter Montopoli appears starting at 7:24. Here’s what he has to say about the MLS franchises in the CanPL:

AJ JAKUBEC: Peter, when you mention the two clubs that are founding this, it’s Winnipeg and Hamilton and it’s Canadian Football League involvement. And of course we’ve got a team here in Ottawa Fury FC that’s owned by Ottawa Sports and Entertainment and is also in the Canadian Football League business.

MONTOPOLI: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

JAKUBEC: How will this affect current clubs professionally, whether it’s MLS clubs, whether it’s USL clubs, whether it’s NASL clubs, and is, I guess the goal… well, first off, how will this affect those current clubs?

MONTOPOLI: Well, maybe the question is “what is this league?” and this league will be division one in Canada. So it’ll be our premiere league, it’ll be our top league in our country. And then others will say “well, what about the three MLS clubs?” and that’s a fair question. We would say and look at the three MLS clubs as an American league with three teams in Canada. But we’re looking for the CPL to be our division one league. So the three teams of the MLS will certainly stay and they’re doing some great work on their level. There will be the CPL, and then from there we’ll have to look at where the NASL and USL models fit in to what we’re trying to do as a collective with the CPL. Certainly my hat goes off to the Fury and John Pugh and the work that everybody has done here as well as FC Edmonton and Tom Fath and the work that they’ve done and currently members of NASL. I don’t think there’s a road map now to say exactly where those two teams will fall into place, but we certainly like to think down the road that we would have an exciting proposition for them to be part of the CPL if that opportunity is presented.

[2] — Mactaggart, Stuart. “Ottawa Fury and the Canadian Premier League.” Northern Starting XI, May 11, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. http://www.northernstartingeleven.com/ottawa-fury-and-the-canadian-premier-league/.

[3] — Martin, Ashley. “Valencia CF and New York Cosmos will square off in soccer friendly at Regina’s new Mosaic Stadium.” Regina Leader-Post, May 9, 2017. Accessed May 16, 2017. http://leaderpost.com/news/local-news/valencia-cf-and-new-york-cosmos-will-square-off-in-soccer-friendly-at-reginas-new-mosaic-stadium.

[4] — Rollins, Duane and Kevin Laramee. “Soccer Today! on SPN – May 16th 2017 – CanPL Talk with Paul Beirne.” Soccer Today!, May 16, 2017. Accessed May 17, 2017. https://sportspodcastingnetwork.com/2017/05/16/soccer-today-on-spn-may-16th-2017-canpl-talk-with-paul-beirne/. Beirne’s segment begins at 29:10. The whole segment is informative but here’s the relevant quote:

ROLLINS: Paul, ten years ago, when [Toronto FC fans] sang on the weekend we sang in the 24th minute for the tenth consecutive season, and I don’t think we ever dreamed of that in 2006. How big can we dream now about what we’ll be talking about in 2026 about the Canadian Premier League? Will it be as big as TFC, in your opinion?

BEIRNE: Well, I like to tell people we are engineering this not for a good launch, and not for a five-year-program, and not for 2026. We’re engineering something for the next hundred, two hundred years. This is something that – again, I wax poetic about what a privilege it is for all of us, those of us working in it, those of us supporting the game, you guys and what you’ve been doing for the past several years, all of us, to really see this as a logical progression of all the efforts that people have been putting in. And you guys and me, and everybody else in the game, to a degree we’re pioneers. We’re the ones that are seeing the opportunity and seeing the future and understanding the growth and being the strong, vocal advocates for the game. So in twenty years I can totally see us with… 24 to 32 teams across this country, in communities as small as 200,000 people. I can see local derbies, inter-city derbies. I can see… the aspirational scale for me is about having teams that are geographically close to each other and real, tangible, passionate support for teams, and against teams, across Canada. And probably in multiple divisions. Those divisions could be geographical but they could also be like first and second divisions, with some sort of interaction in-between. There’s no reason why we can’t attain all those things if we play our cards right and if we’re smart and we’re methodical and if we unleash the fans and let them do what they do best. How’s that?

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