What started as a concept over five years ago is finally coming to fruition for soccer fans across the country.The Canadian Premier League will play its inaugural game Saturday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont., when Forge FC host York9 FC in a nationally-televised contest (1 p.m. ET, CBC).The seven-team league was created to develop Canadian talent and improve the quality of soccer in the country. It is considered a level below Major League Soccer, which features three Canadian teams in a predominately U.S. league.“The world started spinning a lot faster in January, and today, it feels like it’s spinning at lightning speed,” said CPL commissioner David Clanachan. “It’s all the final details. We’ve been so methodical and calculated and disciplined around everything we’ve done so far, now is the time where you really have to buckle down and make sure you get it right. You don’t want to trip coming into the home stretch.”There have been numerous forms of professional soccer previously launched in Canada and all have failed to gain a foothold in the country.Yet, the CPL is different.For starters, the league has solid ownership with deep pockets behind all their flagship franchises; a requirement as professional soccer has never been a lucrative venture in Canada.The seven clubs, spanning the length of the country, are backed by owners who value development of Canadian players, see the growth potential of a professional league, and are willing to wait for a return on their investment.
Valour FC’s Skylar Thomas, left to right, Edmonton FC’s Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Allan Zebie, Pacific FC’s Kadin Chung, HFX Wanderers FC’s Zachary Sukunda, Forge FC’s Kyle Bekker and Chris Nanco, Cavalry FC’s Sergio Camargo and Nik Ledgerwood and York9 FC’s Kyle Porter are shown in Toronto in this Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 handout photo. HO / CP
Bob Young, owner of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ ownership group were driving forces behind getting a Canadian professional soccer league off the ground, in part to incorporate another tenant into their new, modern stadiums. Along with the backing of Canada Soccer, they were able to convince other investors to get on board and the league moved from concept to a planning stage just over two years ago.“We went through quite a bit of visioning and strategic thinking around this whole thing,” Clanachan said. “You don’t always want to use those words, so people don’t always recognized that’s what you’re doing. The key thing for us was to keep people focused on the here and now. You could talk about the vision and the long-term strategy, but it’s almost like you get blinded by things in front of you, in your face, and what you dealing with in the moment.“So you don’t necessarily see far off because of the day-to-day and what’s in front of you and that’s a good thing because in any new venture you’re in to, people can get paralyzed with the idea of how to get there.”The owners hired Paul Beirne to help put the plan in place. Beirne, the CPL president, had years of sports entertainment experience working with the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Toronto FC and Brighton and Hove Albion of the English Premier League. Under Beirne, the league unveiled a logo and began launching franchises.
Paul Beirne, president of the Canadian Premier League. HO / CP
York FC was first to be revealed, followed by Cavalry FC of Calgary, HFX Wanderers FC of Halifax, Valour FC in Winnipeg, FC Edmonton, Forge FC, and finally Pacific FC on Vancouver Island. All the launch events involved local supporters groups, who in some communities pushed for inclusion in the inaugural season.“We always talk about wanting to cultivate the culture of the game, it’s not just seven teams, it’s seven communities that come alive through the game,” Beirne said. “Hopefully, we are delivering on that and we’ll continue to deliver on it.”In Edmonton, owners Tom Fath and Dave Fath, who lost millions funding a team in the second coming of the North American Soccer League, needed reassurances from local fans a CPL club would be well supported before committing to the new league. The Fath Group received overwhelming support and committed to the league, creating a natural rivalry with Cavalry FC of Calgary.
Members of the FC Edmonton supporters group arrive at a launch party for the team joining the Canadian Premier League at Old Strathcona in Edmonton on Friday, June 8, 2018. Postmedia File Photo
“The fact this started at the community level, at the grassroots level, talking to the supporters, making them part of the solution, making them the identity of the league, the identity of the clubs and not just taking them along in the journey with us, but also making them part of the journey, I think that’s what got people involved,” Clanachan said. “When you think about what we did, we were very clear right from the get-go. We called out what our purpose was, that it was about developing Canadian talent and creating a pathway for young Canadians and giving them an opportunity to have a professional career.”Beirne, Clanachan and the CPL staff worked hard behind the scenes to make the league viable. They were able to secure online broadcasting rights with a major Spanish multimedia communications company, Mediapro, for the next 10 years, while also getting CBC on board to broadcast 20 matches this season.The broadcast deals have brought financial stability to the league at the ground level, which puts it miles ahead of predecessors such as the Canadian Soccer League and original North American Soccer League.“Mediapro through their one soccer channel is going to be a massive step forward,” Clanachan said. “It’s something that was not expected from the general public, but I guarantee there were a lot of fans that had their fingers and their toes crossed that we would pull something out of a hat and do something that would elevate the game from a visual perspective around the country. And I think the one soccer channel with all the CPL games, with the men’s and women’s national team games as well, has something for everybody.”Billed as a league for Canadians, by Canadians, the CPL will use a split-season format with the first-half winner facing the second-half winner in the league championship. Each team will play a 28-game schedule with the first 10 games comprising the spring season and the final 18 games making up the fall season. If the same team wins both seasons, then the team with the next best combined record will join them in the final.“You have to give them credit, the biggest risk-takers in all of this to start with is going to be the ownership groups,” said Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. “If you look at Bob Young and Victor Montagliani, who was outgoing as Canada Soccer president to become president of CONCACAF, they saw ahead of time and said we need our own professional league if we’re ever to grow the game and create a bigger Canadian talent pool for the national team.”
The Cavalry FC prospects and Edmonton FC prospects played at Spruce Meadows on Saturday Sept. 28, 2018. Gavin Young / Postmedia
The league will have restrictions on the number of import players each team is allowed to use. Rules mandate Canadians must make up more than half of a team’s roster. Each team must start six Canadians for every game and they must have at least three Canadian players who are under 21, and those players must play at least a combined 1,000 minutes per season.“We’re actually going to be high 60 per cent, close to 70 per cent Canadians on the rosters this year,” Clanachan said. “I don’t think anyone expected that from us this year, but I think that brings credibility for us. We said we were going to do it and we went out and did it.”Based on an expected successful inaugural season, the league plans to expand to new markets, almost on a yearly basis. There are already talks with a number of different groups to bring a team to other communities for the 2020 season.“We’re actively talking with people, but we’re not going to rush into things,” Clanachan said. “I know what’s going to end up happening; we’re going to get launched, we’re going to be playing and the pressure is going to get turned up, and I’ll put is squarely on my shoulders, that we’re sure to be out there talking to people about expansion.“If you create an appetite, you better be prepared to fill the appetite. I don’t see us growing in leaps in bounds in the next year or two years, but we need to show growth. Fans and supporters will demand it. The supporters I’ve seen in this country are very forward of what their expectations are, and good on them, they should be.”Email: email@example.comOn Twitter: @DerekVanDiest