Heart of Football

Canadian Premier League

When you think of football in North America, you immediately think Major League Soccer, with all the media attention it gets and the superstar signings. It contains some big franchise teams that people the world over have heard of – LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Vancouver Whitecaps; the list goes on – and is getting bigger. David Beckham, arguably England’s greatest export has launched his new franchise, Inter Miami CF.

In Canada, however, they have now completed three seasons of the new CPL – the Canadian Premier League. It started with just seven teams in its inaugural season in 2019 with some quite epic distances between them for fans to travel, but has already expanded to eight sides with the introduction of Atlético Ottawa. The capital was handed the first expansion team owned by La Liga giants Atlético Madrid, which can only provide worldwide recognition and publicity.

Unlike the MLS, the CPL is run more like the leagues we are used to here in England and other countries. Shunning the typical franchise system frequently utilised in major US sports, the CPL are operating with clubs. Their hope is to encourage the spirit of community and develop young players through each club. One of their main mottos is “For Canadians, by Canadians”.

Canada has for a long time been a bit-part player in world football. They haven’t qualified for a men’s World Cup since 1986 and their most famous players have plied their trade in foreign leagues with varying degrees of success. Young players wishing to become professionals in the game have more often than not struggled to progress as opportunities have been scarce. It isn’t a national sport, giving way to ice hockey and lacrosse. Hopefully, this will all change and now the first season is in the books the future looks bright. The attendances were around the 5,000 mark, which for an inaugural season is more than a decent start. This will surely increase over the coming years.

Spruce Meadows, home of Cavalry FC. Calgary, Alberta, Canada [image: Thomas Nef]

Their rallying cry according to their website is: “This isn’t just a League for Canadians by Canadians. It’s a movement to bring the beautiful game back to the neighbourhoods we call home. To build a soccer nation one community at a time. The stage is ours. The journey has begun. We Are Many. We Are One.”

So, who are the teams? Pacific FC, Cavalry FC, FC Edmonton, Valour FC, York9 FC, HFX Wanderers FC, Atlético Ottawa and the inaugural champions Forge FC.

In the finals of the league, Forge of Hamilton, Ontario defeated Cavalry of Calgary, Alberta 2-0 on aggregate across the two legs – a 1-0 victory in each leg. How did these teams reach the final? The winner of each short season (one in the spring, one in the fall/autumn) should play each other for the crown but as Cavalry won both they played the team with the second-best overall record – Forge.

Forge FC have earned themselves a place in the CONCACAF League 2020 where they successfully earned a place in the CONCACAF Champions League in a historic first for CPL clubs. They will make new CPL history in February when they take their first steps in the continents premier club competition proper. Qualification can also come through the Canadian Championship where the seven new CPL clubs compete with the three MLS franchises – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact & Vancouver Whitecaps – and the teams from the semi-professional leagues of Quebec & Ontario.

The standout player of the inaugural season was surely Tristan Borges. A 21-year-old midfielder for Forges FC, he finished the league with a golden boot winning 13 goals including the winner of the first leg at home. His achievements have also earned him a call up to the Canadian National team. It seems that the future career progression for young players is playing out as the Canadian Soccer Association had hoped. If players like the young Toronto-born Borges continue to progress and indeed impress, Canada could well be qualifying for a World Cup again soon. Having said that, Canada – along with Mexico and the United States – will be hosts of the tournament in 2026. The whole world will be watching and with several seasons, by that point, under their belt who knows what Canada will showcase for us all.

For Borges and others, this league has proved to be a springboard into bigger things. He has secured himself a move to Belgian second-tier side Oud-Heverlee Leuven. He’s played in Holland before as a youngster before returning home to Canada. This time however he comes to Europe with a brilliant season and an international cap under his belt. That has to be a good advert for Canadian football and footballers. Long may that continue.

So, what next? I spoke to Canada-based journalist Thomas Nef to see what the future holds for the CPL. He only sees big things coming, with the league currently as a huge developmental system for both homegrown and international talent.

“Every year it will grow and grow. In year one there will be 50% turnover and that’s significant. The league and the clubs won’t, or at least shouldn’t, hold anyone back.

“You’re already seeing Joel Waterman sold to MLS side Montreal Impact and Tristan Borges sold to Belgian side OHL. Amer Didic being the first to play for Canada and score. With many more this season and the years to come, this league has big potential to be known for exporting players. Canada has talent; it was just a time of having its own league to demonstrate it. We should be producing as much talent to the top leagues as possible.”

Canada-based journalist Thomas Nef on the CPL’s development

I asked Thomas if there were plans for a women’s division, with women’s football – and indeed all forms of sport and entertainment – are hurtling to the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“The league has publicly made it known that their goal is to starts a women’s league after the 2026 World Cup which Canada will be co-hosting. First it’s about getting the men’s league established then I don’t see a women’s league wouldn’t work. I think the women’s league would be a big success.”

Thomas Nef on the future of women’s football in Canada

It’s safe to assume the future looks promising for the CPL to say the least. Every club and the governing body are focussed on growing this brand and moving it forwards. If every club supports themselves and the success of the league equally then everyone will benefit. Thomas agrees:

“Watching this grow is excellent but most importantly all teams have to do well on and off the pitch. The business side is as important as on-field competition.”

Thomas Nef on the sustainability of CPL business practices

Season four is on the horizon, with strong plans for at least three more expansion sides in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and another in Vancouver, BC. The future looks bright and the progression is certainly encouraging. They’re still calling it ‘soccer’ but you can’t have everything in life now can you?

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