CanPL fixes the USPORTs draft

Credit where due: ahead of the 2020 CanPL university draft (yes, they’re having one; no, I don’t know why either; yes, the 2020 draft is being held in 2021) the league and USPORTs have managed to fix one of the most bizarre and incomprehensible of its many, many rule quirks.

Players who have been drafted previously will not have to be redrafted again, as Gabriel Bitar and Tommy Gardner were in 2019. If a CanPL team drafts a player and signs him, but wants him to continue to develop in USPORTs come August, the player will be able to do that for the entirety of his eligibility.

This is a very good thing. There’s no real risk to the player–most USPORTs players aren’t so skilled that they’re going to have much bargaining power as free agents, and they’re not required to opt into the draft anyway. The redrafting thing mostly just served to disincentivize teams developing drafted talent, which nobody wants.

The USPORTs draft is still a very new, somewhat experimental thing. It was something I’d always dreamed about when covering university soccer a decade ago, only it was never realistic because having our own professional league wasn’t realistic.

So the draft is one of those things that still had that “new league smell” to it. The opportunity and openness was worth overlooking the inexplicabilities, and indeed the draft produced some wonderful success stories in spite of itself: Connor James has made a career for himself as the Eddies’ #1; Joel Waterman got sold for $100K to MLS a year after being drafted, which is great money in CanPL; Halifax Wanderers have made a strategy out of converting university stars like Peter Schaale and Omar Kreim into key CanPL pieces.

It’s easy to miss, though, that had rosters been more set, a lot of those university players might never have been signed. Give a guy an opportunity, though, and he might just take it. Canadian soccer needs more opportunities.

New ideas and processes, like drafts, always take a few years to get ironed out anyway. So credit where due, but even though I’ve written often on this blog about the bizarre rules of the USPORTs draft, it was only ever out of a desire to see this mechanism become an even greater benefit.

Follow this league for more than a few months and you start to see a pattern to these things. Some ideas seem a bit rushed, a bit less than thought through, and so you get the constant shifting of player age limits, you get a U21 quota that basically isn’t1Though note that’s also going up this year, thank goodness, though only by 500 minutes. 1500 for Canadian U21s is better, but still well less than a full season at one spot in the XI–I’d really like to see double that at least. 5000 minutes would make me even happier. I’m not wild about minute quotas to begin with, either–there are better ways to ensure young Canadians get meaningful playing time–but that’s a different post., the inevitable tweaking of the table format, and so on.

New league smell, yeah?

There’s a legitimate point to be made that a lot of these problems stem from a lack of transparency on behalf of CanPL HQ, but while that’s true, every new league takes some time to figure out what it wants to be.

It’s just time is a finite resource in business.

CanPL, like a lot of new businesses, has a tendency to throw around a lot of ideas. Often the idea behind this approach is to “fail faster” and it’s not unsound–you do need to know what doesn’t work. But you also need an idea of what works, a vision beyond mere buzzwords (development! But development doesn’t matter if nobody comes to you stadium…). Nobody can afford to make mistakes forever. Better make them early, yes, but also better not to make unforced errors, too.

Too many of the mistakes CanPL makes feel like they could have been prevented with even basic consultation or even consideration. The Canadian Premier League set a generous seven-year runway–this was smart–but it has also just lost one of those years to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s very easy for those of us who follow the league regularly, who have already been hooked, to be blinded by what we love–and we do love it–without realizing there are not yet enough of us to make this league sustainable.

I’ve hesitated forever about writing this kind of piece because CanSoc’s default nature is cynicism and I don’t mean any of this cynically. There’s no rational reason to pretend the league is faltering, but there’s also no reason to discount mistakes.

The easy example here is York, of course. It’s a little unfair to pick on them given some of the issues that had to be overcome, but this is a market where CanPL needs to be strong and instead it’s gone wrong. Not incurably, of course–and the new regime is doing what seems like good work on that front, but….

Those initial mistakes can really hurt longer term. That’s business.

The pandemic is a real wrench in all of this. In a weird way, CanPL was among the best-positioned leagues in the world because overhead remains relatively low, there are few commitments even on player salaries2Players who were under contract saw their salaries unilaterally furloughed during the lockdown, which isn’t surprising but is definitely why players need a union., and wasn’t expecting to be profitable yet anyway. At the same time, it’s a year gone, a year less to make mistakes.

Without really feeling like it, we’re going into year three of this seven year Canadian soccer experiment. For every Christian Oxner or Joel Waterman, for every Forge run in CONCACAF, there are questions: can the league draw fans in bigger cities like Toronto? Can it expand, find new owners, get stadiums built? Can it maintain relationships with its players and with casual fans?

All of those are existential questions. They exist for any league, always. But CanPL will return in 2021–when it returns–with a fresh start. A clean slate in terms of presence in markets like York and Edmonton, and new opportunities to experiment–but also to say, “this is how we do things, and this is why, and this is how our league works. Care to watch a game?”

Road hockey is a Canadian wintertime tradition, complete with that wonderful smell of freshly-unwrapped, bright orange balls from Canadian Tire. I love that smell. There’s a pleasure in shooting the ball into the bushes just because you get to unwrap a new one. But, after a while, your friends get mad if you keep shooting them in the bushes. They make you go find them.

Yeah, I’m weird. I follow Canadian soccer. I love new league smell.

But in 2021, we need to make the game as open, simple, and fun as possible.

About Dylan Matthias 178 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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