Four years ago, soccer fans in Western Canada lamented the demise of a formerly-strong tradition in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League. USL PDL is an unglamorous amateur or semi-professional summer league, aimed largely at NCAA athletes looking to fill up the collegiate offseason. But it is excellent, and underrated, soccer which can lead to the professional game and, in some cities, produces great entertainment for four-figure crowds in communities that could not support the trials and tribulations of USL, let alone MLS.
But in the middle part of the decade we lost every single team west of Winnipeg. The Fraser Valley Mariners, playing at Abbotsford’s pretty but isolated Bateman Park, couldn’t justify the expenditure for tiny crowds and put out a lousy team anyway, folding after 2012. The Vancouver Whitecaps, stocking what had once been a highly successful PDL program with CIS players and Residency alums they had no interest in developing, pulled their team after the 2014 season when it somehow failed to pay dividends. Deprived of local rivals and denied a chance to move up to USL by Canadian Soccer Association restrictions, the Victoria Highlanders shut their doors. In the winter of 2014–15, the semi-professional game in western Canada looked very bleak.
The turnaround since has been gradual, unexpected, but brilliantly total. In 2015 Calgary Foothills, a prominent youth soccer organization, made the move up to USL PDL. Though they pay heavily for their distance from the Pacific Northwest and draw only average crowds, they have been a remarkable on-field success while in the stands they are slowly but surely developing a core of passionate support. Brilliantly-coiffed supremo Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., an English-born alumnus of the USL Calgary Storm, emerged unexpectedly as a great champion of Canadian soccer and has been building on his legacy since.
2016 saw the return of the Victoria Highlanders, now based at the University of Victoria. Victoria’s soccer community is quietly one of the best in the country, supporting teams down to the metro-league amateur level in 1,000-man throngs, defying changing demographics to maintain an old Canadian localist tradition in sport. The knock on Victoria has always been “there are enough fans, but you can’t get the corporate support;” well, when an amateur Highlanders team entered the Pacific Coast Soccer League in 2015 their fans were so numerous and raucous that the league president wanted them to calm down. Maybe devotion is enough. In 2016 local owners with no capital to speak of brought Victoria back to PDL through sheer willpower, and so far it has been a success. While nobody is tapping them for the Canadian Premier League, they’re doing something even better: they’re running a low-level, strictly local club and making it work.
And in 2017 we added TSS FC Rovers, another expansion of an existing organization, playing out of Burnaby’s hallowed Swangard Stadium. Like the Highlanders, their ownership hardly has more money than you or me but was willing to stake a successful business on building a spectator-friendly soccer club at a level high enough to be expensive but not so high as to be glamorous. So far their remarkably accessible ownership has not gone broke or suffered from embarrassing Twitter meltdowns, and while the crowds have not been universally excellent this is an organization that always looks like it’s having a good time. They have even entered a team in the WPSL, surely one of the most frustrating experiences a Canadian soccer sponsor can ask for, and emerged with good humour.
This gave western Canada three semi-pro teams again. But in the old days one of the western teams was always a weak sister, neglected or incompetent or otherwise dodgy, restricted to lunatics who would come watch soccer in a garbage dump if there was grass and sunshine. In 2017 TSS was interesting to devotees but, objectively, a pretty poor soccer team that took a three-point penalty from a paperwork mistake. Victoria underachieved while counting pennies; Calgary was excellent but fell short of the highest honours. It was the best summer western Canada had enjoyed in years, but not quite enough.
So far, the 2018 USL PDL season has been different. All three teams are proving well-worth following for even the ordinary fan.
The fans of TSS FC Rovers still bill them as “all-Canadian.” It’s slightly shame-faced since they must also say things like “Nick Soolsma1 is pursuing permanent residency” and “William Rafael’s from South Sudan, he didn’t come here for the soccer!” There’s no need to be embarrassed, really, since even by the strictest possible criteria the Rovers count as “very, very Canadian indeed” on the field, on the coaching staff, in ambition and mindset. They are bringing up underappreciated players such as the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello, and Erik Edwardson, who will deserve at least a look when the Canadian Premier League comes into its own. Goalkeeper Andrew Hicks is continuing from a sterling 2017 and establishing himself as one of the best Canadian keepers outside the professional ranks, and this year he’s platooning with a remarkable duo of ex-Whitecaps Residency star Luciano Trasolini and former PLSQ and British Columbia provincial standout Mario Gerges. Their roster can no longer entirely qualify for our national team, but they’re still doing as much for our country as anybody this side of the Ottawa Fury.
No, no, that’s unfair. Take for example Calgary Foothills. If Foothills don’t win the Northwest Division it’ll be because the season is too short to show their excellence, but they’re as Canadian as it gets. The one all-out foreigner on the Foothills roster is defender Jay Wheeldon: he’s English but also coach Tommy’s brother, which surely gets him some slack. They also boast a legion of noteworthy dual-nationals like Carlos Patino (Colombia), Ali Musse (Somalia), Elijah Adekugbe (England and Nigeria), and Moses Danto (Sudan), but so does TSS. The fact that Foothills don’t get the same “all-Canadian” reputation as Rovers is down to a failure of marketing, not on-field focus. In fact, if you’re looking for really excellent Canadian players who are of an undisputed professional standard but need a fair chance, you’re looking to Calgary: Marco Carducci, Jordan Haynes, Jackson Farmer, Nathan Ingham, Dominick Zator, all men who should be making a living playing this game, and I haven’t even said the words “Nik Ledgerwood” yet, who with 50 senior international caps must be among the most accomplished men ever to walk onto a USL PDL pitch.
Calgary is stunning. Honestly, stunning. This site chronicled one of their demolitions of the FC Edmonton academy back in April, Already this year they have two wins over the Victoria Highlanders and a win and a draw against the Portland Timbers U-23s; the draw was a game Calgary absolutely deserved to win. Moses Danto has four goals, neither Carducci nor Ingham have put a foot wrong between the sticks, and across their first five league games they allowed only fifteen shots on target. (Rovers, by comparison, have allowed 30.) Add in shots directed and Calgary outshoots their opponents two-to-one, and they have not played anybody bad yet.
So the Victoria Highlanders, who have lost four of their first six, are the forgotten men. Which is too bad because Victoria’s assembled what would, in most years, look like a very interesting team. Cam Hundal and Noah Cunningham are both players who wouldn’t be playing PDL if there were decent professional opportunities in this country. Utility man Blair Sturrock, though aging, actually is an old pro in England and Scotland. Goalkeeper Simon Norgrove looked good last year but has been supplanted by Canadian senior international and Vancouver Island native Nolan Wirth. Most interestingly their coach is a very familiar name, Thomas Neindorf, the native German who’s earned a hell of a reputation for developing first-class youth prospects all over western Canada. After a few turbulent years the team enters 2018 under new local ownership that, to pick two well-known names from a long list, includes former salesman/general manager/front office do-it-all-man Mark DeFrias and a man with one of Canada’s most difficult but remarkable playing resumes, former CIS Canada West MVP, Highlanders goalkeeper, and, after a traumatic concussion, Canadian parasoccer international star striker Trevor Stiles.
We now know that Victoria, or rather the Victoria suburb of Langford, looks set to get a Canadian Premier League team in 2019 as Josh Simpson’s audacious Vancouver Island bid absorbed Rob Friend’s stadium-deficient “Port City” entry. The Highlanders are not yet involved but have made all the right noises about working alongside the CanPL crew. Local derbies between the professionals and semi-pros will be a delicious prospect to a community that still embraces its Vancouver Island Soccer League and turned out in big numbers for the old Community Shield matches between the Highlanders and the late PCSL Victoria United. We all want to see local rivals duking it out in defiance of North America’s geographically-restrictive franchise system, but Victoria is especially suitable, and looks likely to get it.
Friday night at Swangard, TSS and Calgary met for the first time all year and put on a gem of a game. The Rovers won 2-1, which was harsh on the Foothills, who despite lacking Ledgerwood demonstrated remarkable quality in all areas of the field. But that sentence in turn is harsh on the Rovers, who rose to the levels of their opponents to play a very good match on their own. With the Vancouver Whitecaps playing at the same time and rain in the forecast attendance was lower than usual, but those fans who did take the time were well-rewarded with ninety entertaining minutes. This follows TSS’s first ever road points, taking all three from the Victoria Highlanders a week earlier in another brilliantly fun game, and ahead of a Sunday return tilt against Victoria that promises more excellence.
The Canadian Premier League is drawing all the ink, for very good reason. But it is not the only part of the Canadian club soccer renaissance. Those of us on the right side of Saskatchewan are already enjoying some of the best soccer we’ve been able to see in many years. If CanPL can build upon this, ours will be a very fortunate country.