Stewie the Starfish’s stalwart seamen have become impotent.
From first place in the Canadian Premier League they have dropped to a lowly sixth after a mid-week 3-0 battering by Forge FC. Vainly do we say that first place was after the second game in league history, or that our two losses were another midweeker to better-rested Valour and a game well-earned by the Hamiltonians but not the worst 3-0 ever1. Pacific has not looked great by eye or numbers and this weekend’s tilt, away to FC Edmonton, will pit us against tenacious defending and lots of athleticism to weary a tired team.
We knew Pacific’s defensive depth would be a problem but maybe not so early. Former League1 Ontario man Lukas MacNaughton had two games full of quality and violence. But he was suspended for the Valour match, while Hendrik Starostzik has missed two and counting with a foot problem. In their place Ryan McCurdy was abominable and Émile Legault, a neat little player, is too short and inexperienced to play centre back professionally right now. Given Starostzik and MacNaughton Pacific likely beats Valour, and while Forge was another thing altogether being able to spell fullbacks Blake Smith and Kadin Chung with Legault would have done a power of good.
Pacific have recently added Saudi youth trainee Ahmed Alghamdi and former TSS FC Rover Zach Verhoven to their roster. Even so they stand at 20 players signed, counting the seriously injured Marcel de Jong. They had very few reserves to draw upon, have drawn upon them early, and didn’t even get wins out of it: add depth, please, and the sooner the better.
But there’s no merit in complaining about a lack of signings if you can’t suggest any, and while Sergio Ramos would be a quality addition my source at Pacific says they’re unlikely to agree terms.
Here are three ideas for Pacific FC. All are meant to be realistic. They are professionally out of contract but have played recently at a high level (no stirring Luca Bellisomo comebacks). They are not so accomplished as players that they’d automatically demand large wages, and possess some tenuous connection to British Columbia soccer. We are looking for useful players here to fill out the back of the roster, not superstars. They might make a disproportionate difference.
Born: December 10, 1997, St. Albert, AB Height: 6’2″ Weight: 195lbs Last Club: University of Alberta (Canada West) Tenuous BC Connection: member of the 2018 Victoria Highlanders (USL PDL)
There were serious rumours that Edmonton would sign Cunningham, who in fitting with some of Jeff Paulus’s goals is an old Edmonton Academy boy and played at the University of Alberta. In the event the Eddies managed to land Amer Didic to finish off the defensive core, then lanky local striker Easton Ongaro became available from Cavalry as Paulus’s last pre-season signing. Fair enough, everyone would take Didic over Cunningham and I’d have a hard time turning down Ongaro. But Cunningham is therefore available, and the Ongaro precedent suggests he’s a free agent.
Cunningham is not a household name. He appeared in one of Rob Gale’s U-18 national team camps in 2014, alongside Marcus Godinho, Thomas Meilleur-Giguère, Shamit Shome, and David Choinière. But you’re not expecting household names in this part of the roster; you’re hoping for underrated young players and Cunningham is all that. His university career at Alberta has covered him in laurels, while his USL PDL career has been mixed but positive. Neither athletic nor flamboyant, you won’t confuse him for Franz Beckenbauer, but he has size and smarts. He seems like a good guy to have around, and just because he wasn’t Jeff Paulus’s type of player doesn’t mean he couldn’t fit in at Pacific. He also provides versatility, having played a fair bit of central midfield in his time.
If Cunningham signed it would mean the 2018 Victoria Highlanders, a poor defensive team, had put two defenders in the inaugural CanPL plus goalkeeper Nolan Wirth. This does rather offend reason, especially since Cunningham’s partner Peter Schaale doesn’t look overwhelmed at HFX. In Cunningham’s defense he played only 725 minutes across 10 matches last year (Schaale had 1009 in 12) and with Calgary Foothills in 2017 he was a key player on a fine team. Victoria’s struggles were down to lacking a consistent lineup and having to gun for goals as much as anything. He was by no means the problem, his other PDL campaign was good, and surely his USports excellence earns him the benefit of the doubt.
By all accounts Cunningham is a serious student, working on his education degree: he aspires to teach high school and has at least a year left. But that just means he should get used to summers off. Van Isle could do a lot worse than giving Cunningham a developmental deal.
Born: May 3, 1995, Edmonton, AB Height: 6’2″ Weight: 181lbs Last Club: Calgary Foothills U-23 (USL PDL) Tenuous BC Connection: Whitecaps Residency and Reserves from 2011 to 2016
Jackson Farmer just turned 24 years old. Time flies when you’re not having fun. He got a full senior international cap in his teens (against Mauritania on September 8, 2013) and peaked right there. Captaining the Whitecaps U-18s and dominating the centre back spot next to Alex Comsia, Farmer graduated to play regularly for the Whitecaps reserves under Alan Koch and trained with the first team, but never received an MLS contract. He was one of several young Whitecaps to be neglected in an ill-fated affiliation with the USL Charleston Battery, making only a handful of appearances. Farmer got in for Canada’s U-20 and U-23 teams at every opportunity, and played at home in the Pan-American Games, but those teams never went far.
The Calgary Foothills had Farmer for their 2018 championship season, and in dropping down to USL PDL he became a bench player, getting eight matches for 299 minutes plus two stoppage-time appearances in the playoffs. He lost minutes to Jordan Haynes, Nik Ledgerwood, Dean Northover, and Chris Serban, slotting in at centre back or fullback as opportunity allowed. There was never much talk that Cavalry would bring him to the Canadian Premier League, and while FC Edmonton had him in pre-season, where he played another Al Classico on the opposite end, he didn’t stick. Koch, Mike Anhaeuser, Tommy Wheeldon, Jr., Jeff Paulus, and a few Whitecaps bosses all gave Farmer a good long look and said no thanks.
There are some good coaches on that list. We can’t kid ourselves: Farmer is going the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean he’s done. Pacific, who are desperate for a decent, affordable, versatile domestic defender acquainted with CanPL-level competition, might be the perfect landing spot. Moreover, context flatters him. The 2018 Foothills must have been one of the best teams in USL PDL history: their defense allowed 7 goals in 14 regular season games and two in four playoff games. And yet, by goals against per minute, Farmer was better than average on his excellent team: Calgary conceded only one goal (to TSS FC Rovers’ Daniel Sagno) while he was on the field. When he played for Calgary against an FC Edmonton XI in the 2018 Al Classico friendly at Clarke Stadium he was a star of the day. A natural centre back, Farmer has played quite a bit of right back lately and has even suited up at DM. Versatility is good for a depth player.
FC Edmonton loaded up on attractive ball-playing defenders with high athleticism, and their big blonde guy, Amer Didic, is much bigger and almost as blonde as Farmer. The Whitecaps and their reserve teams were notorious dumpster fires, and it was no shame for Farmer that he couldn’t be a regular USL defender when he was 18. He’s played so many quality games against his peers over so many seasons, it’s hard—impossible—to believe that Farmer just turned bad. If I was Pacific and had the option I would let him and Cunningham duke it out. I might sign both, short-term, if I could.
Born: 1993, Victoria, BC Height: 6’4″ Last Club: Bays United (VISL) Tenuous BC Connection: Born and raised in Victoria, now plays amateur soccer there.
Alas, despite their Tenuous BC Connections, both Farmer and Cunningham are Alberta boys who may not want to move to Victoria on the cheap. So we should find a local option.
Ryan Ashlee is your classic centre back. Tall, lanky, likes nothing better than getting his forehead on a soccer ball and sending it far, far away. Though born and raised in Victoria Ashlee gave the other coast a try for college, spending four years at St. FX and making all sorts of Atlantic all-star teams. But he came home for the summer, playing PDL (and PCSL) with the Victoria Highlanders and growing into the level, winning the Juan de Fuca Plate in 2014 and supporters’ player of the year in 2015. After leaving school he played first-division amateur with Coquitlam until in 2018 Ashlee starred with the awkwardly-named Surrey BC Tigers Hurricanes, a name we’ve all had to get used to as they won the national amateur championship.
Moving back to Victoria for the 2018–19 winter campaign, Ashlee joined the Vancouver Island Soccer League’s Bays United and was most unsurprisingly named rookie of the year. He also came up in the most valuable player conversation, a rare thing for a centre back in a metro league, and was most valuable player of the league All-Star game against the Fraser Valley. Bays United had an average defensive record, relying on a killer attack but still only finishing mid-table; the fact that Ashlee was so highly-touted all the same is major praise.
You see the theme. Never given a chance at a truly elite level, but everywhere Ryan Ashlee has gone he has succeeded. Without a doubt, if the Canadian Premier League had started in 2014, somebody would have brought him in. Instead he arrived too early. Yet he hasn’t gone away. The VMSL and VISL, where Ashlee stands out, is good soccer. We’ve seen what some unheralded League1 Ontario players, like MacNaughton, can do given full-time training and elite teammates, and Ashlee is certainly in that class.
And while one hates to build his first team this way, considered as a gesture, signing Ashlee could not be bettered. The VISL has been an enthusiastic promoter of Pacific FC since their announcement, a friendship which the team reciprocates, but turning Island amateur players into professionals is the real holy grail. McCurdy and goalkeeper Nolan Wirth, who both played with the Highlanders and Vic West last year, made a good start. Ashlee would keep the pipeline flowing. He would also, somehow, be the first Victoria native in team history2. From a tactical perspective, his aerial game would be valuable both defensively and on the attack, given Pacific’s overreliance on the high cross and the set piece. He’s taller than any other defender on the team, and while not a natural ball-player in the same way as Cunningham or Farmer the best-case scenario has him as the no-nonsense bastion for Starostzik to free-wheel around.
The problem is that it probably is too late: Ashlee has his degree and a real job, he’s a grown man with responsibilities now. Probably there’s no realistic offer Pacific FC could make to have him put in two weeks’ notice. But I’d like them to try. At least pick up the phone and ask the question. Ashlee’s generation has mostly either made it or moved on already, but sometimes life does have a second act.
Never go into the archives of Maple Leaf Forever! without expert supervision. Any post written before about 2016 is pretty much unreadable. But this morning I dove into the crap to get a particular nugget: my first visit to Langford’s ironically-named City Centre Park in May 2010 to watch the Victoria Highlanders host the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s in the USL PDL season opener.
A lot has changed in nine years. For one thing I ripped Russell Teibert, who was a year or so from becoming Canadian Soccer Jesus. Both the Highlanders and the Whitecaps U-23s folded then came back as completely different setups. Also, the ironically-named City Centre Park is almost unrecognizable. 2010’s aluminum-bleachered main stand now has beautiful purple seats with “PFC” picked out in white and wouldn’t look out of place in England’s League Two. The “Bear Mountain Stadium” sign now says “Westhills Stadium” (though it is otherwise exactly the same, which is fun). The neighbourhood has built up; a weirdly obscure tree-shrouded ground nestled in with the industry and parking lots is now in a fast-growing part of Langford that’ll probably be 50% condos by the time Noah Verhoeven gets his testimonial.
But a few things are the same. Quoting myself:
God, what a fantastic place to watch a soccer game! The sun is shining, the birds are tweeting, there’s a little man-made lake at the east end of the park which is simultaneously incredibly twee and incredibly cool. The plastic pitch is still new enough that the game is quite enjoyable on the surface, security guards aren’t uptight bag-checking assholes, and the fans have the good-spirited nature of people who are watching a semi-professional soccer game in the middle of nowhere and just having a whale of a time.
[. . .]
3-2 Victoria stood as the final, and the better team won. But it was a good contest and one that involved some pretty good fans from the Highlanders, who sang and made noise that you associate with a far higher level than USL PDL. Even the soccer parents in the grandstand were more involved in the game than your stereotypical Canadian fan, applauding and following events with visible agitation. I know there are travel issues, and stadium issues, and all sorts of issues in the way of further growth. But if the Victoria Highlanders keep this up and they’re not in the second division within five years, it’ll be a disgrace.
It took nine years, and they’re not the Highlanders, and it’s actually the first division. And security checks bags now, though they’re still human beings rather than dicks with badges and let us bring in cookies for Clare Rustad1. Otherwise 2010 Ben would be pretty happy with how those paragraphs worked out.
In April 2019 Langford hosted another opener, when Pacific FC welcomed Halifax for the second game in the history of the Canadian Premier League. The fans are still fun and, like the stadium, mostly new. In 2010 the approximately 2,000 people at that game were considered a massive success. In 2019 official attendance was 5,154, which as far as I can tell is the best-attended soccer event on Vancouver Island since the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup2. And those 5,154 men, women, and children were bouncing. The Lake Side Buoys tailgate was not only visited but largely manned by people I’d never met in the PDL days. Many of them packed into the bustling general admissions supporter stands where they cheered, shot the shit, and had such a great time that the organized chanting, for all the numbers and enthusiasm, was drowned out by spontaneous fun.
Fans lined up in the sun for merchandise and refreshment; the fish-and-chips guy probably put his kids through college. They went berserk for Hendrik Starostzik, the 3. Liga veteran who not only scored the first goal in club history but showed that Albert Watson-like ability to impose his will aerially despite not being that tall and has “fan favourite” written all over him in pen. They crowded in the general admission area, or congregated in the very handsome beer garden, or hunkered down in the new seating, howling at the fouls, cheering the passes into space, and were engaged for all 90 minutes; when the Pacific players sprinted over to the supporters after the final whistle to celebrate their win it felt completely natural despite both groups having literally just met3. It wasn’t all perfect; there were not one but two appalling DJs vomiting noise and queues for almost anything were long. The game-day experience needs some refinement. Oh well. When we have to search our memories for minor flaws in the name of balance, you did a good job.
Day one, for Pacific, was nigh-perfect. But we will need many, many more such days. You may have been surprised by that 2,000-strong USL PDL crowd at a lesser version of this stadium in 2019. The problem is they didn’t stay around. In their debut 2009 season the Highlanders’ averaged 1,734 fans per game. In 2010, 1,375, still fourth-best in the league. In 2011, 992, at which point they moved out of Langford into historic Royal Athletic Park near downtown Victoria. A more convenient stadium, attention-grabbing promotions like “supporter ownership,” and some preposterously cheap tickets brought attendance back to a high-water mark of 1,637 in 2013 but by then the business model had become completely unsustainable4.
PDL has big problems as a spectator league. The level of soccer is way below what the Canadian Premier League has shown. Media coverage and match-day operations comes from amateur enthusiasts. Probably most importantly, teams play only seven or eight home games in a season that lasts three months, then in the winter half the roster changes. It’s easy to enjoy a PDL game but really, really hard to form a lasting connection to a team. CanPL has none of these issues: Pacific FC is trying to build on more solid ground. But right now good seats are available across Westhills Stadium for the Wednesday night game against Valour. Even with the opening-day excitement over, momentum has to build.
The Highlanders would have been laughing had they brought 2,000 fans to every game; Pacific FC will need more than 5,154 every game to make money. This is why the City of Langford, the province of British Columbia, and BC Hydro are exploring how they can spend millions of dollars moving a hydro pole that prevents building stands on the north side of the ground5. Getting Westhills Stadium as ready as it was for opening day was a triumph of public works but, in five years, that stadium probably needs double the capacity it has today. There is ever-so-much to do.
Then again, think about how much was done to get to this point. Every word of this sentence deserves to be printed in bold: 5,154 fans just sold out a stadium in Langford and paid to watch a Vancouver Island soccer team play Halifax in a Canadian Premier League match. Three years ago nothing about that seemed possible. There was never going to be a Canadian Premier League, and if there was Halifax and Vancouver Island wouldn’t be in it, and if they were nobody would come. What we saw on Sunday was unbelievable. Every expectation was blown out of the water. The mountains we still have to climb don’t seem so tall today.
Terry Dunfield nailed it on the OneSoccer post-game show: “if you’re a young boy or girl watching this, how do you not play soccer tomorrow?” Or watch it, for that matter.
On October 4, 1992, the Winnipeg Fury tied the Vancouver 86ers 1-1 and won the Canadian Soccer League title on aggregate. The next match in a Canadian national soccer league comes 9,701 days later, tomorrow, April 27, 2019. Forge FC versus York 9 (10 AM Pacific, CBC television). We’ve waited long enough.
Nobody knows how this league is going to shake out, and unusually for Canadian soccer, nobody pretends they know. We’re all excited. We’re all smashing rosters with the hammer of criticism on the anvil of looking players up on Wikipedia. I am trying to track publicly-made predictions, because that should be good for a laugh; in fact I can’t remember the last time I had this many laughs just reading about and listening to Canadian soccer takes. There are well-respected veteran pundits who were not alive the last time a national Canadian soccer league played a game and they’re gushing with the best of them. Enthusiasm is more contagious than measles in a Montessori.
Coming up is Maple Leaf Forever!‘s official 2019 Canadian Premier League preview. Like all the others it is insane in spots, biased everywhere, and probably wrong more than it’s right. But who cares? Our hopes are unblemished by the scars of experience. Here’s the one prediction you can take to the bank: there won’t be many better years to be a Canadian soccer fan, ever, than the year 2019.
York 9 FC
Consuming other league previews has been instructive. While most pundits pick the two coastal teams to struggle, Halifax-based Dylan Matthias at The Merchant Sailor favours the Wanderers to beat expectations, and Ben Massey at British Columbia-based Maple Leaf Forever! thinks Pacific will do fine, though he’d like them to sign enough locals to fill out a bench. Duane Rollins, based in Toronto, has York 9 ahead of some others. Edmonton’s Loyal Company of the River Valley podcast argues FC Edmonton’s depth is underrated. TSN 1290 Winnipeg’s Ryan Brandt told the Young Gaffers podcast that Valour is going to come together and win the fall season. Strange coincidences, these.
So given regional bias, we should pay attention when it’s absent: almost everybody has got Forge and Cavalry in the top three. Cavalry took the best part of a hilariously dominant 2018 USL PDL championship team then added a bunch of quality. Forge has a respected Ontario coach and more Canadian glamour boys than anyone else in the league. This blog is not going to dissent.
When previewing the league much is made of home-field advantage. It sucks traveling to Halifax or Langford, which means that it’s equally hard to travel from them. We each know our local ground fairly well, but the CanPL is changing them so much that the only way we’ll know what playing in each city is like will be experience. Making predictions about a brand new league is a fool’s errand; trying to guess at the differing home field advantages doubly so. Other analysts try to draw conclusions from preseason games in the Dominican Republic, or the lack thereof, that we’re hearing about second- or third-hand. This doesn’t seem a lot better.
So, in an effort to make my preview actually useful I have chosen to break the league down position-by-position rather than team-by-team. You can see my ranking of each team by position above, but if you want the details, keep scrolling.
Cavalry (Marco Carducci, Niko Giantsopoulos)
Forge (Quillan Roberts, Tristan Henry)
Pacific (Nolan Wirth, Mark Village)
Valour (Tyson Farago, Mathias Janssens)
York (Nathan Ingham, Colm Vance, Matt Silva)
Halifax (Jan-Michael Williams, Christian Oxner)
Edmonton (Connor James, Dylan Powley)
Cavalry walks away with this category. Everyone who has ever seen Marco Carducci has waited for him to get this chance in the serene knowledge that he’d be good enough. Among the players with less professional experience he’s almost the only lock in this league. Right now Maxime Crépeau is in Vancouver seizing the MLS chance that, had Marc dos Santos arrived a couple years earlier, would have been Carducci’s, and I promise Crépeau is not intrinsically any better. Marco will be fine. Probable league goalkeeper of the year. Giantsopoulos is kind of a fun guy, an attractive-playing goalie whose time in the lower Australian leagues means he’s used to tough travel and dodgy conditions. There’s certainly nothing to complain about in the backup department either.
Forge is also going to get a lot of love because of Quillan Roberts; I personally have never rated him at the Carducci level but he has some strident and knowledgeable defenders, while Tristan Henry is a well-known League1 Ontario name. Those from east of Thunder Bay can swap Forge and Cavalry around if they like. Pacific has a couple good underrated pros in Wirth and Village, both of whom definitely belong in this league; like Edmonton they haven’t got a clear number one at all, but unlike Edmonton it’s in a good way. That probably ends the list of “teams that should be happy in goal.”
By comparison, Valour suffer; while Farago is nice he’s had a rough couple years and his enormous right foot is less of a game-changer than Carducci’s shot-stopping. Young Janssens is a complete wild card, an admittedly unready European signed for the future. Unless you really know this guy’s the next Kaspar Schmeichel that’s a weird use of an international spot. Farago’s as good as Village or Wirth, but it’s a long year and Farago/Janssens together will not surpass Wirth/Village together.
HFX’s Jan-Michael Williams was a pretty good goalie before the last war but is now in the “late-stage Rein Baart” stage of his career, albeit taller. Enormous crowds of pundits tab him for CanPL goalkeeper of the year but he’s barely been a club starter for the past decade and his continued presence in the Trinidadian goal is more a reflection on the country than the keeper. Christian Oxner is an Atlantic favourite waiting for a chance, and there’s every chance he gets the gloves and doesn’t let them go for ten years, but it hasn’t happened yet. York is Nathan Ingham, who has already proven less good than two of the other starters on this list, and two other guys from deep in the Football Manager database. And while I know my low ranking of the Eddies will generate feedback that’s not angry, just disappointed, Connor James and Dylan Powley will be making a big, big step up into the Canadian Premier League without support and without much to suggest even a Wirth/Farago-like ceiling.
Cavalry (Nik Ledgerwood, Nathan Mavila, Dean Northover, Chris Serban, Mason Trafford, Jay Wheeldon, Dominick Zator)
York (Diyaeddine Abzi, Morey Doner, Steven Furlano, Luca Gasparotto, Daniel Gogarty, Justin Springer, Roger Thompson)
Edmonton (Amer Didic, Kareem Moses, Ramon Soria, Mele Temguia, Allan Zebie)
Forge (Kwame Awuah, Klaidi Cela, Jonathan Grant, Daniel Krutzen, Monti Mohsen, Bertrand Owundi, Dominic Samuel)
Pacific (Kadin Chung, Marcel de Jong, Emile Legault, Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, Blake Smith, Hendrik Starostzik)
Valour (Martin Arguiñarena, Raphaël Garcia, Adam Mitter, Jordan Murrell, Skylar Thomas)
Halifax (Andre Bona, Alex de Carolis, Chakib Hocine, Ndzemdzela Langwa, Chrisnovic N’sa, Peter Schaale, Zachary Sukunda)
Good news for those worried that 0-0 draws will turn off casual fans: CanPL will not be a defensive league.
The season-long injuries to Pacific’s Marcel de Jong and Cavalry’s Chris Serban have knocked the whole league down a peg. de Jong is well-known to us all, of course, but his loss not only mauls Pacific’s competitive chances but apparently still counts against their salary cap. It is insane that the Canadian Premier League has a salary cap and no way to account for a third of your budget being injured before kickoff, but for preview purposes it doesn’t matter. They have a problem.
Serban was going to do very well in the Canadian Premier League. He’s struggled with injuries the past couple years, which is the only mark against an otherwise-excellent young player. Even accounting for that, and Nik Ledgerwood getting old, Cavalry’s going to have a deadly backline: Mason Trafford might be the best defender left in the league, Dominick Zator is little-known but very good, and Northover and Wheeldon are fine. I’m not sold on Mavila, the former West Ham trainee who made a Europa League bench but is now best known for insurance fraud, and with Serban gone he might have to carry a lot of mail, but Tommy Wheeldon has a good record here. (Though not listed, Joel Waterman can also fill in at fullback.)
York also has a first-ballot CanPL Guy With Something to Prove in Luca Gasparotto, who I have never failed to see at least decent for the Canadian youth teams. Beyond that stand Roger Thompson, a quality veteran, some pretty good semi-pros, one of the better university guys in Daniel Gogarty, and help out wide from Kyle Porter when needed. That is, by the standards of the league, a quietly solid unit. Edmonton is similar: a couple dandy fullbacks (Zebie and Soria) plus a fair one (Moses) all held together by literally and figuratively enormous centreback Amer Didic. The other spot is a problem, whether it’s dodgy journeyman Mele Temguia, Moses, or (my suggestion) underrated but so far unsigned draft pick Noah Cunningham. More top-end talent than York, less all-round quality.
Forge is like York but a bit worse, and rather than hoping Luca Gasparotto can develop they’re hoping Bertrand Owundi has anything at all. Kwame Awuah is the big dog here, but for all his enthusiasm and MLS experience he’s never gotten me excited. I’d rather have, say, a young Jim Brennan, and as it happens Brennan is constructing his roster on a similar principle.
Pacific’s not great either but has a sneaky asset. Without de Jong the Van Isle fullbacks offer the best combination of youth and excellence at any position in the league. Legault is raw and will probably be exposed but has high potential, and right-back-presumptive Kadin Chung is a fine youth and ex-USL player who has never yet failed to move up a level. Given that the CanPL is set to require a quota of U-21 starters, having Legault and Chung available gives tactical versatility. Among the oldies ex-Montreal Impact man Blake Smith, on loan from MLS, will probably swallow up as many fullback minutes as he can handle and do an unspectacular but commendable job with them. Unfortunately their centreback situation is catastrophic: lanky German Hendrik Starostzik is an intriguing signing, but “part-timer in the lower German leagues” is not something to anchor your backline with, while Ryan McCurdy was an underwhelming PDL player and Lukas MacNaughton is a versatile League1 Ontario guy trying to walk into the starting eleven. Talk that Adam Straith will join after the German season is hopeful, but a tired 3.Liga player rumoured to be arriving later is not salvation.
Halifax has nothing but issues: plenty of PDL experience and a few guys who hung out in USL or got a half-season with the Montreal Impact reserves or something but not an established name in the bunch. Their veteran is an 29-year-old from USports. Their prospect is a former Victoria Highlander also from USports. Not all these guys will be duds but they are set up for problems. At least Valour, who are otherwise in similarly dire straits, have the thoroughly tested Thomas and Murrell to lend some poise, plus the admittedly slim possibility that Martín Arguiñarena turns out to be good. They could play Michael Petrasso at right back, I suppose, but he’ll have better things to do.
Forge (Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Elimane Oumar Cissé, Giuliano Frano, Alexander Achinioti Jönsson)
Cavalry (Elijah Adekugbe, Julian Büscher, Sergio Camargo, Jose Escalante, Mauro Eustaquio, Malyk Hamilton, Victor Loturi, Oliver Minatel, Carlos Patino, Joel Waterman)
Pacific (Matthew Baldisimo, Victor Blasco, Jose Hernandez, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Noah Verhoeven)
Edmonton (Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ajay Khabra, Philippe Lincourt-Joseph, James Marcelin, Edem Mortotsi, Son Yong-chan, Bruno Zebie)
Valour (Louis Béland-Goyette, Dylan Carreiro, Nicolás Galvis, Josip Golubar, Diego Gutierrez, Glenn Muenkat, Raphael Ohin, Federico Peña, Michael Petrasso, Dylan Sacramento)
Halifax (Scott Firth, Akeem Garcia, Juan Diego Gutierrez, Kodai Iida, Elton John, Kouamé Ouattara, Andre Rampersad, Elliot Simmons)
York (Manuel Aparicio, Joseph Di Chiara, Emilio Estevez, Wataru Murofushi, Kyle Porter, Ryan Telfer, Emmanuel Zambazis)
Forge has got probably the best player in the league, Kyle Bekker. It’s got one of the most promising, David Choinière. Neither Tristan Borges nor Giuliano Frano are at all jokes, and though Borges has got everything to prove this is the right environment for him. Alexander Achinioti Jönsson is a sneakily good-looking import. Most of these players, and all the stars, are moderately-sized, vivacious, attacking players, but balance is for sissies. This midfield is going to be a hell of a lot of fun and in this respect, if no other, I envy the people of Hamilton.
Not that I’ll be watching trash rolling around for Pacific FC. The excellence of Bekker elevates Forge, but Noah Verhoeven is a first-rate prospect for the level who certainly sustains comparisons with Choinière, Matthew Baldisimo could be a dangerous box-to-box player if he doesn’t have to line up at fullback, and while the depth is young and occasionally highly-touted. Given how many roster spots Pacific has open one has to provisionally leave room for draft picks Thomas Gardner and Zack Verhoven in these calculations, which would only add to Pacific’s punch.
Rounding out the top half of a good midfield crop are the two Alberta teams: Cavalry gets the nod over Edmonton because of the excellence of former Eddie Mauro Eustaquio, a player who alternates between getting the credit he deserves as a potential Julian de Guzman and completely forgotten behind his brother depending on how much he’s on Canadian TV. Julian Büscher is an established, highly-credible import who deserves more press than he’s been getting, and while Oliver Minatel gets a bit too much credit for his time in Ottawa he’s fine. Calgary already knows their depth well and they’ll do what’s asked of them. Edmonton’s midfield is less spectacular, relying too much on a mid-career resurgence from Randy Edwini-Bonsu, and James Marcelin had been called underrated so often lately he’s becoming overrated. But he remains Marcelin a fine player (perhaps a Eustaquio without the potential to get better) and if anyone is going to rediscover his magic in CanPL, it’ll be Edwini-Bonsu in Edmonton. Son Yong-chan is a wild entry who I once heard called the best training-ground player of all time, the Cavalry absolutely would have taken Bruno Zebie if he was available, and Ajay Khabra gets praise as an electric prospect from Edmonton observers.
There is a bit of a dip from number four to number five. Valour boasts Michael Petrasso, who will be first-rate if he can recover from a depressing few years, Croatian Josip Golubar, a quality veteran from the lower Balkan divisions, and some locals who are reasonably well-liked. They won’t be badly let down but, bar Golubar, lack star power. Louis Béland-Goyette is the man to watch; his getting his career back on track would do more for Valour than almost any equivalent player around the league.
Halifax and York are in similarly depressing situations, but for totally different reasons. The Wanderers have a tantalizing young local, Scott Firth, who we should all hope gets his minutes, plus a procession of extremely unremarkable foreign imports who will be expected to step right up and hang with Bekker and Fisk. York’s midfielders are mostly domestic, and import Wataru Murofushi is not likely to be a star, but those midfielders are fairly well known and not of a very high standard. Aparicio, Di Chiara, Porter, and Zambazis have all fallen out of higher leagues and weren’t missed. Telfer is a 25-year-old on loan from Toronto FC and is not getting his option picked up. Good on the Canadian Premier League for giving these local players second chances; that’s why we want this league. Aparicio in particular is a pro. But a bit unfortunate for York that they’re all in one place.
Edmonton (Prince Amanda, Tomi Ameobi, Oumar Diouck, David Doe, Ajeej Sarkaria, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye)
Forge (Chris Nanco, Anthony Novak, Kadell Thomas, Anthony Novak, Emery Welshman, Marcel Zajac)
Pacific (Terran Campbell, Ben Fisk, Marcus Haber, Issey Nakajima-Farran)
York (Simon Adjei, Michael Cox, Austin Ricci, Cyrus Rollocks)
Cavalry (Gabriel Bitar, Jordan Brown, Dominique Malonga, Nico Pasquotti)
Valour (Tyler Attardo, Calum Ferguson, Stephen Hoyle, Ali Musse)
Halifax (Mohamed Kourouma, Vincent Lamy, Luis Alberto Perea, Tomasz Skublak, Abd-El-Aziz Yousef)
Stereotypically, a new league loads up on famous, high-producing strikers who’ll sell kits and draw fans. In CanPL, though, the talent appears to have concentrated in midfield, with defenders and strikers nearly an afterthought. I could make an argument for any team ranked from one to six having any other ranking, with only the seventh-place team as an outlier (and even they have one gun). Does that say something?
Edmonton’s struck the right balance. Tomi Ameobi, one of the all-time leading scorers in the Voyageurs Cup, a popular player, and a very well-established (if streaky) goalscorer at this level who knows Edmonton well, should lead the line and be among the league scoring leaders. Diouck is too old to be a prospect and couldn’t stick around even in Belgian semi-pro soccer but you could have worse depth. Of the prospects Amanda is the biggest name, partially on account of his brother Gloire, but I’ve seen Doe good and as Steven Sandor mentioned Velado-Tsegaye is getting a lot of hype ahead of his professional debut.
Pacific’s trying something similar but less effectively. Their depth is not as bad as it looks on the official site: if Issey Nakajima-Farran is a forward then Ben Fisk is and I bet Terran Campbell’s going to spend time up top. But Haber’s strengths and limitations are perfectly clear to any Canadian fan, Issey is not a young man anymore, Fisk is a terrific player but not a prime goalscorer, and guys like Campbell or Victor Blasco are question marks. None really have pace; with a dynamic midfield they can generate offense but will need flowing soccer unusual at this level to excel. They could really, really use a Dario Zanatta type but should be fine.
On the other hand, very high marks to Forge, who have no “names” beyond Guyanese international Emery Welshman, but have assembled a first-rate collection of hungry overachievers who need a serious professional opportunity. I am very excited to see League1 Ontario star Anthony Novak, a fine goalscorer and apparently an absolute bastard to play against, getting a chance at a higher level; he will turn heads in this first season. Novak’s 24. If not for CanPL nobody in North American pro soccer would have given him a second look, but he might be good for ten goals next year. Valour and York both have decent strike-forces-by-committee: York should be headlined by Michael Cox, a pacey and unsophisticated but prolific classic striker, and people like the thicc Simon Adjei. Ali Musse’s left the spotlight but produced here and there in PDL and has gotten stronger, while Tyler Attardo gives Valour another young guy Rob Gale can develop. Stephen Hoyle’s move from New Zealand to Canada might be lateral, and he scored enough against kiwis to be rated against beavers.
Cavalry’s managed to find two players who, five years ago, would have been hailed as stars. Jordan Brown is a former English youth international and Dominique Malonga has scored in Scotland while repping the Congo. But for all the pedigree, breaking down Malonga’s past five years makes him look like a poor man’s Marcus Haber. Brown has gone from West Ham to western Canada for a reason and just flunked out of the Czech Republic. I dislike total washouts, as a rule; USL and NASL teams often take chances on such guys and usually leave disappointed. From the opposite end of the career spectrum, first overall USports draft pick Gabriel Bitar needs to prove he can replicate his sensational shooting percentages against pros. On the other hand, likely at least one of Bitar, Brown, and Malonga will adapt to this league, while Nico Pasquotti is an underrated, versatile player. Though they’re ranked deceptively low in this category we can promise that Cavalry will put the ball in the net.
Halifax has almost nothing. Up top that is a PDL roster apart from 32-year-old Luis Alberto Perea. Perea is only a year removed from being a goal-per-game striker in the decent Salvadoran league, but he’s scored at much lower rates in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Halifax is his ninth club in the last five years. He’s aging, living out of his suitcase, and the very opposite of a sure thing. Nobody else there is anybody. It will be a long year on the east coast.
Predicted CanPL Best XI
Marco Carducci (Cavalry) Nik Ledgerwood (Cavalry) – Luca Gasparotto (York) – Mason Trafford (Cavalry) – Blake Smith (Pacific) Kyle Bekker (Forge) – James Marcelin (Edmonton) – David Choinière (Forge) Ben Fisk (Pacific) – Tomi Ameobi (Edmonton) – Michael Cox (York)
Predicted CanPL MVP
Kyle Bekker, with say seven goals and ten assists. If not him then Ben Fisk; if not them then Ameobi.
Coach of the Year
Probably Tommy Wheeldon,. Jr. at Cavalry, who has all the qualifications: his team will be good, he’ll deserve a lot of credit for that, he’s photogenic, and he’s a good quote. An extremely tough candidate to beat, but coach of the year is always implicitly a reflection of team results. If Halifax gets into contention, and this league is so unpredictable that they very well might, Stephen Hart will charge into pole position.
Young Player of the Year
Pacific FC right back Kadin Chung is a fine U-21 player who will probably see at least 1,500 minutes and should do well with them. Should he stay healthy and Pacific even produce respectable results he has to be a very large favourite. But I’m also looking at Valour’s Tyler Attardo. Winnipeg has always been better than you might think at producing very good U-20 players; they just haven’t had the opportunity to develop into adults. Attardo is a rare player who’ll be getting a big chance on a strike force that’ll be hungry for anything it can get, and he’s got the rep of a kid with ice in his veins who knows where the goal is.
2019 Canadian Premier League champion
While I think Forge is the best overall team in the league, it’s by a very narrow margin over Cavalry. And Cavalry knows how to win championships. Most of these guys just did it, and while the quality of play in CanPL will be higher than USL PDL the travel, playing conditions, and other off-field obstacles are if anything going to be easier in Canada. Nobody in Cavalry’s starting eleven is going to be intimidated by a big final, and many of them will have faith in their teammates established by experience. Forge has its share of winners, Bekker best among them. But in a very close struggle, Cavalry’s superior experience over two legs would give them the edge.
Technically, Pacific FC and the Victoria Highlanders are in competition. Pacific FC plays in the Canadian Premier League, and has in fact taken over the Highlanders’ original home ground in Langford, British Columbia. They are hot new things and have the more famous players1. The Highlanders’ are the more established team in the more established league, though the name “USL League Two” sounds strange and foreign compared to “Premier Development League.” But a lot of their thunder has gone. Even their old supporters group, while it carries a torch for them, now decorates their website in lagoon blue and starfish purple.
Today the Highlanders play at Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, a decent drive from Langford, and USL League Two is quite a different vibe from whatever CanPL is going to be. Greater Victoria has a population approaching 400,000, always supports local soccer well, and gets great tourism traffic. With season tickets starting at $75 and handy availability to bored summer students, the Highlanders can hit markets Pacific might miss. In principle there is room enough on Vancouver Island for both. In practice the Highlanders have never been so flush with fans that they’ll happily give many away and, with a relatively small suburban ground, some fairly expensive players, and Victoria’s perpetual shortage of corporate support, Pacific FC is going to want every dollar they can get. We fans, who want both teams to try their hardest and have a good time, should realize they may not necessarily feel that way about each other.
The other argument, that a rising tide lifts all boats, is made more from hope than experience. In Victoria it hasn’t worked that way, though this is the first time the city has had two serious franchises simultaneously offering at least a semi-professional product. The Pacific Coast Soccer League’s Victoria United, a high-amateur team which charged for tickets, and the Highlanders had a good relationship, played near-annual friendlies, but the Highlanders ate too much of United’s pie and a club dating back to 1904 died in 2014. A lot was going on there but even mutual best intentions couldn’t beat economics. In the United States we have the examples of then-NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. USL VSI Tampa Bay, or FC New York versus the Cosmos, or OKC Energy versus Rayo OKC: in each case two lower-level franchises were at loggerheads and one won and one lost.
But none of those American entries really tried cooperation (USL and NASL being friends? Don’t make me laugh). The Highlanders and Pacific FC could. There’s no bad blood, unless you count Pacific hiring the former boss of summertime rivals the Victoria HarbourCats. When Pacific FC signed ex-Highlander Nolan Wirth the Highlanders proudly slapped it on their front page. Nobody would mind if the Highlanders brought a few underappreciated Callum Montgomery or Josh Heard types to Pacific’s attention. Loaning a player the length of the #51 bus has its attractions too, if the Highlanders are willing. The growth of League1 Ontario in Ontario, and particularly in Toronto, has done nothing but good to Toronto FC: they benefit from player development opportunities, lose no fans to speak of, and any increase in the amount of local soccer occupying Toronto’s consciousness can only benefit the biggest manifestation of local soccer there is.
Look at Pacific FC’s home schedule. Sunday, June 23 at 2 PM, the Highlanders play Foothills at the University of Victoria. At 3 PM, Pacific hosts Edmonton in Langford. Obviously you have to pick one, which is a shame for fans. It would have been nice if both clubs could have made the one day they both have games a true double-header. The Lake Side Buoys could have laid on a bus. As a traveling fan I would have appreciated it very much.
Or get non-traditional. Why couldn’t Pacific and Victoria play their games that day at the same ground? Make it Westhills Stadium or Centennial, or go crazy and play it at Royal Athletic Park, the ancestral home of Victoria soccer2. Alternate every year if you can. Leave it at Westhills because it’s the only one that meets CanPL’s standards if you have to; whatever. The details are just that; what matters is the one big summer weekend that’s a paean to Victoria soccer. Get to the stadium at 11 AM, have beers, watch Highlanders play Foothills, have more beers, watch Pacific play Edmonton. Pacific FC’s season ticket holders plus the Highlanders’ season ticket holders won’t add up to more than a sellout. The organizations get along well enough, nobody needs lose out financially. It would be a day that offers something a bit different, gets a few more people through the turnstiles, and that should delight every local fan, running out to his car at intermission to trade his old colours for the new ones.
These are the terms we should be thinking in. Of course the Highlanders and Pacific FC are in competition. So are Valour and WSA Winnipeg3. Hopefully some day they’ll clash in the Voyageurs Cup and partisans of each team will abuse each other. But there’s still a lot of good they can do for each other. They are parts of one larger whole, that of local soccer: they can cooperate to advance that without giving up their individualism. If the Victoria, or Winnipeg, soccer scene is healthy and vibrant, it’ll make it all the better when it competes with itself.
The thing about starting a seven-team league up from scratch is that you get a lot of new players.
Praise be to Edmonton and Cavalry; they’re signing alumni, academy products, and old Foothillers to go with the obscure guys. But we still have dozens of players piling into the league who the casual fan, if he has heard of them at all, hasn’t followed for years. Early imports have, typically for this level, been nobody you’d have heard of in your deepest Football Manager dives. A few of the Canadians are bigger names but even they need to be put in the context of this new league.
If the fansites and forums are any indication, we are mostly using interviews and press kits to convince ourselves that our team’s players are all the best. This is a lot of fun. Duane Rollins is doing one-sentence capsule reviews of each signing and that’s useful. But when we decide how we think our teams will do, we should probably know a bit more about the players on them.
This article is one small attempt to achieve this. In the spirit of my USports draft deep dive, I picked one player from each Canadian Premier League team and looked at his career in depth. This brings me less than 5% of the way to figuring out the whole league, but it’s a start. And if this format is a success, I might do it again (so please like and subscribe).
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.