The Canadian Premier League’s corporate interests are literally represented by a company named “Canadian Soccer Business.” This sounds like the invention of a “PRO/REL NOW”-style Twitter lunatic. Team revelation are cut from a template with dramatic fast-cut footage and weirdly-named colours like “starfish purple,” and their logos somehow all look very samey. It is being marketed to an almost parodic degree. CanPL has done a lot right but apart from the team names1 they aren’t exactly trying to distinguish themselves from MLS, are they?
Well, if CanPL is a crappier northern MLS it will fail and die. Don Garber has a firm grip on supporters for soulless soccer corporations like the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Toronto FCs, which makes even less sense than cheering for Etihad Airways or Verizon. Is there anything more tiresome than people acting like the moral aspect of soccer fandom is irrelevant or? If you’re going to cheer for shareholders you may as well cheer for the big ones; the Canadian Premier League does not want to wrap itself up in a numbers game it cannot win.
Our league will almost certainly always be smaller than American one even if we don’t concede Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to Major League Soccer, which we have. The United States is big and we are little, and trained by decades of practice to attach ourselves to the Americans and hope for the best. An all-Canadian organization needs a lot more than “it’s like the American one but over here!” to succeed.
So we fans try to shape the league while the clay is still soft, turning it into something that suits our Dominion. Already, there are good signs. Many of the league’s brain-men are bona fide Canadian soccer people who have proven that they are interested in the domestic game as more than a temporary source of a paycheque. But fans have been burned before and improvement must be continuous if it is to last.
Example. Earlier in August an anonymous Twitterer shot for the moon by starting an account named “GoderichCPL” dedicated, as their bio puts it, to “bring[ing] the Canadian Premier League to Goderich, Ontario!”
That’s their exclamation mark but they’re entitled to it. Goderich is an obscure little town on the shores of Lake Huron. They won TSN’s “Project Play” this year, which put their name in TV ads. Her Majesty the Queen, who has never visited, is unverifiably said to have admired it. Hockey immortal Father David Bauer is from there. It’s small-town southern Ontario.
This prospective CanPL expansion, alas, is no success story. Momentum has waned in the Goderich camp and they have not tweeted for a couple weeks. A promised website has not materialized, and big-name support is limited to Paul Beirne being one of fifty Twitter followers. Practical concerns may play a role. Their suggestion of a 15,000-seat stadium, for example, seems a bit ambitious given a 2016 census population of 7,628. Cynical though it sounds, there’s just the possibility that their campaign is a bit of a joke.
But why should it be? No, really, why? Goderich is an extreme example but towns that size are not inherently incapable of supporting professional soccer. Look to the mother country. Nailsworth, home of Forest Green Rovers, is the smallest town in the Football League with a population of about 5,800, and though they are newcomers to League Two they had been in national semi- and professional soccer for twenty years before. The second-smallest, Fleetwood, boasts a still-modest 26,000. League Two and League One aren’t even MLS-level but will probably outgun at least the early CanPL. That is a level of play, and a level of success, we should be thrilled to see in 2019.
Okay, maybe Goderich, or Gaspé or Cold Lake or Port Hardy or Dildo or any other city with a thousand locals and shit-all else to watch in the summer, shouldn’t be number one on David Clanachan and Paul Beirne’s hit list. Fans in Saskatoon, Regina, Quebec City, London, Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo, and probably Sudbury-Thunder Bay are organizing to get their teams. These are big markets; the list of Canadian markets bigger than Goderich is actually fairly long.
But thinking in terms of markets is the original sin of Major League Soccer, shared by every other professional sports league on the continent. Who cares about Goderich’s potential MyCujoo market share? Do they even have broadband in Goderich? It doesn’t matter. Can they build a field with the correct proportions made of a reasonable material and send out at least eleven men every week? Then we should work them in. Let the locals roll the pitch themselves and sit on lawn chairs, let the players be recruited at the library and coached by the guy who’s watched the most EPL, that is detail.
Why should they get a crack at the Canadian Premier League? Because they are Canadian, and that’s the end of it. Because spectator soccer is not about fat bloggers devouring press box donuts and 4K coverage of every match, nor about beancounters asking “but will they mock us on Bay Street?”, nor even thousands of raucous supporters bouncing up and down on lavish terraces for a full 90. It is about plain local people going out to watch their plain local team, and if anything dazzling emerges from that plainness, even if it is so-to-speak by accident, then that dazzle being automatically whisked to the big stage for the nation’s admiration and the locals’ deserved pride.
Could CanPL work in Goderich? I have no idea, I don’t know the first thing about the place, we established that paragraphs ago. I don’t even know if they could make it in League1 Ontario. But if Twitter interest is worth anything they could make it in League2 Ontario, or the Huron County Amateur Conference, or any of the other levels of the Canadian soccer pyramid that don’t exist yet but which, if we’re ever going to be a meaningful soccer country in any sense beyond watching foreign players in foreign leagues, we will need. And if they do make it work, and come into a golden generation or get finance from an eccentric vegan businessman who turns them into Canada’s first wind-powered soccer club, then they deserve a chance to promote into the CanPL, if that is where their powers can take them. And if their powers are not so great, which let’s face it is way more likely, then no hard feelings. Play the amateur with your neighbours and look longingly on the steep trail to greener pastures.
Most importantly, this pyramid should not be the pipe dream for ten years down the line. You cannot build the top of a pyramid before you even design the bottom. Sure, promotion and relegation in 2020 is probably impossible, and CanPL’s pioneering investors expect and deserve a chance to succeed without getting replaced by Surrey United. Fair enough! Build the pyramid and worry about the escalators for 2028. But build it. For if you do not have that wide base, why would a local fan care about a lousy Canadian-based soccer franchise when there are so many excellent foreign soccer franchises already on offer? What would a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “York” have to distinguish itself from a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “Toronto”? Appeals to patriotism only work if you have something to feel patriotic about, beyond a team’s mailing address.
CanPL for Goderich? We should all hope so. Not because that town is something special, but because it isn’t.