Anyone who watches players on the lower levels of a soccer pyramid for months winds up biased in their favour. There are no exceptions.
The bigger the league, the more accurately you can see what’s going on. When Toronto FC plays the Colorado Rapids you better know the opposition, which means you can better evaluate your friends, and when you’re uncertain there are a plethora of analysts, statisticians, and fellow fans backing you up. Whereas, down in U-Sports or PDL, you’re got your own two eyes, a handful of questionably-accurate statistics, and a couple other fans dealing with the same problems as you try to figure out why your fave is dominating because he’s brilliant or because he’s facing a future sandwich artist.
All fans want to promote their outstanding talents. Seeing their quality week on week, getting to know their traits, maybe even getting to know them personally. Eventually saying “this kid will be a player.” It’s natural bias: you learn everything about a talent while his opponents are anonymous; it’s fun, but a lousy way to scout.
There are exceptional players in the Canadian bus leagues. Guys who saw Alphonso Davies on the Whitecaps Residency teams are walking around with Jeremy Clarkson-sized smug expressions. I named Russell Teibert and Ben Fisk early on as guys who’d have careers and I was right. I also would have bet big money on Alex Semenets and Jack Cubbon; whoops1. There must be a million other players one of us made a mental note about and evangelized for, and it’s merciful for everyone that we can’t remember them all.
This is the joy of the CanPL draft for the fan, and the agony for the pundit. I’m excited to watch Pacific FC and suddenly they draft players I’ve known for years. I got hype. But I am as biased as can be. Pacific FC head coach Michael Silberbauer is a Dane, co-supremo Rob Friend comes out of the British Columbia interior and has been away from provincial soccer for decades, and his fellow boss Josh Simpson is a Victoria legend who played abroad for almost 15 years. Somehow they hit upon three players from the University of British Columbia, which isn’t even the nearest school to their ground in Langford. Funny, that.
I rate two of Pacific FC’s picks highly and the third gets respect. But trying to be objective, UBC made nationals but was briskly dispatched by Carleton (one player drafted; first overall pick Gabriel Bitar) and UQAM (also just one; old man Andre Bona). It’s hard to imagine the best option being a UBC player every single time. Still, Langford is CanPL’s western outpost, there’s a lot to be said both morally and strategically for recruiting from the region, and for all my partiality I still fly the flag for Thomas Gardner and Zach Verhoven.
The Canadian Premier League’s draft of Canadian university soccer players was right on-brand. It was bespoke, with rules seen nowhere else which neither players nor teams will quite figure out for a year or two. The players chosen were a mix of prospects and full-grown veterans looking for the spotlight, with a handful of intriguing second-chancers mixed in. Inevitably most players picked won’t amount to much but there are flashes of quality and the draft looks set to do what it’s meant to: give overlooked or discarded Canadians a fair shot at professional soccer.
Since there were no standings to base a draft order on, they picked one randomly and used a “serpentine draft” familiar to any fantasy player, where the team that picked seventh in round one would pick first in round two and so on. Not that this draft is going to be anybody’s prime way to stock his team. There were only three rounds. According to the league’s release, players in U-Sports, the top level of university sport in Canada, are eligible for the draft regardless of age or years served. Being drafted essentially amounts to a trial, and the drafting team may offer the player either a developmental contract (if he has university eligibility left) or a standard first-team contract (if he has none).
The draft itself was clearly explained, it’s everything around it that we don’t know. What is the motivation for drafting players who’ve used up all five years of university eligibility? They’re out of school, they have nothing left to protect, they are in principle free agents. Drafting graduated players is explicitly provided for by the rules and was positively mentioned by commissioner David Clanachan, so there is probably a puzzle piece we’re missing. What is the Canadian Premier League equivalent of the MLS “discovery process?” Are undrafted U-Sports seniors just out of luck, or could clubs still bring them in? Because at face value the only reason to draft a senior is because you think someone else will draft him later, and as we’ll see there were cases this year where that looked very unlikely.
Then there is the ability for players to return to school after playing a year of CanPL; in fact, given that U-Sports fixtures take priority over CanPL ones1, you might even say university players will be on loan to the Canadian Premier League. This is a bit undignified but good for the players. Canadian universities have always had much looser rules about amateurism than the American NCAA division one: there are men who actually go play professional soccer and come back to compete in U-Sports with, at worst, a few years of eligibility burned off. Players can try to make it in professional soccer with low risk: they are literally still in school. And players who leave their CanPL teams and return to university play will be entered back into the draft, should they so choose.
Probably related is the geographic bias in selection. Some leagues have formal rules about this. In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, for example, players are asked to list which areas they’d be willing to play in when they declare for the draft. It’s not a coincidence that les Canadiennes de Montréal just drafted players named Genevieve Bannon, Caroline Daoust, Marie-Joëlle Allard, and Caroll-Ann Gagné. In a league where pay is extremely marginal2 this is a common-sense way to humanely, and cheaply, keep players in the game.
CanPL hasn’t documented anything similar but there are hints that the team sounded out players they were interested in. A majority were from the region the team represents, or went to school in the region, or both. Even among those who weren’t, there could be similar factors: Joel Waterman both lives and goes to school in the Lower Mainland and was drafted by Cavalry, but played PDL in Calgary this past summer. Another Cavalry pick, University of Alberta forward Easton Ongaro, is from Edmonton, which is an easier commute than North Vancouver to Langford. Players expected to sound out European options, like Caleb Clarke, were not selected.
“Area” is loosely defined as the region a team claims to represent. For example, the University of British Columbia is within the Pacific FC area, and Cape Breton is within Halifax Wanderers’, but the University of Alberta is not within Cavalry’s.
The process is of interest, but so are the players themselves. The 21 selected represents a little cross-section of U-Sports athletics: ex-pros, late-bloomers, Academy players who never got a professional look, former youth internationals who couldn’t make the final step, and players who were in the wrong place at the wrong time to get onto Canada’s elite development pathways. Approaches varied from FC Edmonton pretty much drafting its own guys to Cavalry picking from three different schools, none of which was the University of Calgary. Each of these players deserves a comment, and this article will give it, together with the players’ most recent statistics from the 2018 club and university seasons3.
Later on I’ll take a deep dive into two teams whose draftees I know a bit more about: Pacific FC and FC Edmonton. But until then this article—some 8,000 words, altogether—should provide detail enough.
In the autumn of 1990 the Victoria Vistas were riding high in the Canadian Soccer League. They had rallied from an atrocious debut in 1989 to finish high-mid-table in the regular season, then knocked off the Winnipeg Fury on penalties in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-dynasty Vancouver 86ers beat Victoria on away goals in the semi-final but, especially in hindsight, there was nothing shameful about that. Victoria boasted local talent, led by veteran Canadian international Ian Bridge, and a few foreign stars like former Aston Villa skipper Allan Evans. Head coach Bruce Wilson, already a national legend from the 1986 World Cup and a Canada West champion coach with the University of Victoria, led a steady improvement throughout his first full season as a professional boss. It was a very good year.
Fans walked away from 1990 expecting more in 1991. But by March the Vistas were dead. Their players went in a dispersal draft, Wilson went back to UVic full-time, most of the locals dropped to the amateur ranks. The long story of Victoria soccer would go on, from the return of Victoria United to the Pacific Coast Soccer League, through the storied Vancouver Island Soccer League, all the way to USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders, but this was all strictly local stuff. Victoria, one of Canada’s most soccer-mad cities, was deprived of the professional game for a generation.
On July 20, 2018, that finally changed when former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend unveiled the Victoria area’s new Canadian Premier League team, Pacific FC. The new team is a backup plan after Friend’s attempted “Port City” greater Vancouver team couldn’t find a stadium, they’re playing in the suburb of Langford rather than Victoria soccer’s spiritual home at Royal Athletic Park, and the city is delighted anyway. The Victoria Highlanders’ supporters group, the Lake Side Buoys, are getting behind Pacific FC with hardly a flicker of doubt. Some diehard Highlanders supporters have waited for this moment longer than their future players have been alive.
It’s a beautiful story. It is also far from unique.
The Nova Scotia Clippers played one CSL season in Dartmouth, didn’t win a thing, and went away, but like Victoria, Halifax soccer has always punched above its weight. In the years since Nova Scotia has produced several professionals two national amateur championship teams. Now the CanPL Halifax Wanderers have an exciting “pop-up” stadium on historic ground and the most amazing grassroots supporters group that actually anticipated their team’s name. Winnipeg has been without professional soccer since 1992 and their PDL team has been bad, but fans there will turn out in the hundreds just to look at Desiree Scott and their CanPL team has already registered over 1,200 would-be season ticket holders.
Hamilton, the CanPL’s cradle if anywhere is, has waited as long without being able to enjoy PDL, but has “enjoyed” years of Bob Young almost bringing in an NASL team. It would be a surprise if Forge FC was not the best-supported first-year team of the bunch. Next to them Calgary looks like paradise; they had an A-League team as late as 2004 and today’s championship PDL team is the likely spine of their CanPL entry. York, the butt of jokes, had two at-least-semi-professional soccer teams in the 1990s and zero for the past half-decade. FC Edmonton‘s problems, spending 2018 without a league, are trivial by comparison.
As individuals we feel our excitement for the Canadian Premier League burning within us, a blazing beacon for soccer communities that have seen so much darkness. But taking a step back to look at the rest of the Dominion reveals that the same stories can be told all across the nation. Each of us, with our prayers, our desperation, and our patience, is repeated ten thousand times across four time zones. It’s inspirational. It is also an enormous emotional, historical, and cultural burden, which this new league will have to bear.
We fans—the ones who already exist, not the ones the league will have to attract—are bringing so many years of barely-sustained hope to these little stadiums. Such undying loyalty should be a point of pride, but it is also a lot of baggage. Do the league’s pioneers realize the weight they are responsible for? When the Canadian Soccer League started in the ’80s it was an ambitious but logical peak for our developing soccer pyramid. Our men’s soccer programs were at their very best and there was no serious American competition. It proved a noble failure, noble enough that we are proud of its legacy, but a failure all the same and one that left scars. And the thing about scars is that time does not make them go away.
Without signing a player or playing a game, these teams have become the targets for a generation of hope from the soccer supporters in seven different towns, all of which have been burned before. Such hopes cannot easily be recreated if dashed. Ask fans of FC Edmonton, a team which has had decent performances and all-time legendary ownership but can only slowly attract mass interest because the Brickmen and the Aviators and the Drillers have poisoned the well so thoroughly. What the Canadian Premier League has is one precious, potentially golden, building block, but it is oh-so-fragile.
The Canadian Premier League is not Canada’s last chance for a national soccer league, but it might be our last chance for anything good.
Even a qualified CanPL success, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal permanently lost to MLS and no hope in CONCACAF, one vast Wales, would be a very good thing. We do not need to aim too high. But if it fails entirely, if it turns into MLS-style corporate trash or goes broke, then those lost hopes will maim everything that comes later. The future will look like the new “Canadian” cricket league, where meaningless squads of foreign mercenaries named Vancouver, Montreal, and so on all play in Toronto, and at the end people nobody cared about lifted a trophy with no emotional attachment to it. Great if you want to sit outside for two hours but hopeless if you care about any of what makes sports compelling beyond the literal physical activity.
It’s a hard job. The diehards cannot simply be pandered to; there are too few. To survive any team must attract the common soccer family, this is mathematically unavoidable. Yet experience shows that without those diehards curating an organic soccer culture and bringing an atmosphere to the ground you become Chivas USA. Let supporters support, don’t abandon your community in the name of monolithic corporate genericity, and don’t screw up the business. Most of all, respect your local soccer history. With a league front office full of soccer men and team names like Jim Brennan, Stephen Hart, Josh Simpson, Tommy Wheeldon, and so on involved, that ought not to be too difficult. But you need to be aware of that responsibility.