CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · 1 comment

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

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 is 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.