A day after the USPORTs draft, the Canadian Premier League now has a reserve league.
It’s hard to overstate how much this came out of nowhere: CanPL has just purchased League 1 Ontario.
A league that has yet to announce its first contracted players has just purchased about 600 more, plus 13 women’s teams.
Various major outlets are covering this in more detail than I can because this is a major story. Here are John Molinaro, Neil Davidson, and the league’s own website (Kurt Larson). The general gist is that CanPL will takeover the management of the league from the Ontario Soccer Association. Even that bureaucratic changeover signals a critical shift for soccer in this country, but the move also means CanPL teams will now be able to get prospects who aren’t yet ready reliable, competitive minutes.
This is a move that took MLS more than 15 years to properly implement. CanPL has done it before a ball is kicked. That’s not a knock on MLS, by the way–this whole move shows how much has been learned about soccer management since the US was last awarded a World Cup, and had to scramble to create a domestic league in accordance with FIFA standards.
League 1 Ontario fans, fret not–it looks like the league will continue more or less as-is. Its focus has always been on development, and will continue to be. It had been speculated, credibly, that CanPL teams would be looking at L1O heavily to fill out rosters anyway. Obviously, that just happened en masse.
It’s not yet clear how players will be allocated. CanPL commissioner Clanachan apparently doesn’t know yet, which continues the trend of the league announcing things before it knows how they work. It likely makes more sense to do a team affiliation, as that would allow easier movement between the two leagues, but this could disadvantage the CanPL teams not in Ontario. Clanachan also compared the move to the move to the CHL-NHL pathway, which suggests they might draft the top players and leave L1O as a broader pool of younger players, as is done in hockey.
Either way, this move solves a decades-old problem in Canada.
League 1 Ontario teams are affiliated with local youth teams. This bridges a development chasm that has long plagued players not just in Canada, but the US as well: most parents sign their kids up to play for a local youth club, which doesn’t itself run any kind of pro or semi-pro outfit–or sometimes even a senior amateur team at all–leaving players rudder-less when they turn 18 and age out of the youth pyramid. League 1 Ontario was created expressly to give youth players somewhere to play, and has been reasonably successful in keeping more players in the game longer, which gives them more time to develop talent, mentality, and football intelligence.
CanPL adds the golden crown on the pyramid, giving not just L1O players, but youth players, a clear and direct pathway to a paying professional contract.
The only bad news in the announcement is that it’s just Ontario. But this whole deal was kept under wraps incredibly well. Clanachan’s saying he has no plans to add Premier Ligue du Soccer Quebec or the BC Premier Soccer League, and in the immediate I’d believe him, because money, but the next step is clearly to grow this coast-to-coast in accordance with CanPL’s overall vision and brand.
The business of soccer
It’s natural to think of the players, the pathway–all these things we haven’t had in Canada. Those should be number one.
But this is a terrific sign for the health of the league as a business. Any soccer league in North America is going to have its viability questioned, thanks to the old NASL. MLS still gets questioned on the regular. CanPL, with its massive geographical challenges and an untested fanbase, has some very special questions to answer.
Those are still there, but a league that’s worried about viability doesn’t go out and buy another one. Money changed hands here. I don’t imagine it was a lot, but it does represent CanPL owners taking on infrastructure, overhead, and risk. It’s fair to ask questions about that, but it’s also not the sort of thing a business does when it’s scrounging for nickels under the office sofa.
Stability is critical in a league, not just because it makes ownership happy and expansion possible, but because it attracts players. People undervalue how much this matters. Many, many leagues in CONCACAF are dire operations, financially. Panama, Guatemala, many of the Caribbean countries, and increasingly Honduras are all terrible places to play. The infrastructure is decrepit or non-existent and players are paid very little, assuming their cheques don’t bounce. There are great players in those countries who will jump at a chance to play in a league that can offer stability for themselves and their families. (And, in turn, they can and often do reinvest in trying to improve the situation in CONCACAF, which is hampered by regional geopolitics and social problems beyond soccer.)
All of which improves the standard of the Canadian Premier League, both for fans and for players competing to play. Yes, domestic quotas are critical. So is having those Canadians compete against driven, professional colleagues. Fans will come to see players like Alberth Elis, Kendall Waston, Amado Guevara (remember him?), and the like. Not always the biggest names, but good CONCACAF players who have made their teams better because MLS long ago figured out how to leverage stability as a recruiting tool.
In amongst all of this excitement is a little detail that probably doesn’t matter right now but which absolutely matters on a larger, long-term level: the purchase of League 1 Ontario also includes its women’s teams. There are all kinds of ways that could go.
Don’t hold your breath for a Canadian Women’s Premier League. But also don’t despair that it’s an impossibility. It would have been a disaster to leave the women’s L1O clubs out in the cold. Having them under the CanPL umbrella means CanPL now has resources in place and voices that understand the women’s game at a semi-professional level.
A lot will depend on the longer-term viability of the CanPL itself, as adding a women’s division is unlikely to rake in revenue. It’s the right thing to do, though, and this move quietly leaves clues that the league gets this.
If and when such an announcement comes, it’ll be similar to today’s–out of nowhere, but massive for the game in this country.
The rest of this gets even more geeky. I’m sorry.
Nobody excited for the launch of the CanPL cares that much about CSA/OSA politics. They matter, though, and this move signals a very profound shift in the way Canadian soccer is structured.
Historically, the CSA has shouldered the entire burden of fixing soccer in this country. “Sack the CSA!” fans proclaim after we bomb out of World Cup qualifying again. Except a national football association, which the CSA is, is not actually supposed to be running every facet of a domestic league. It’s meant to be an overseer, running the national program and centralized outreach like coach education/certification and referees rather than spending its scant resources running league offices and supporting clubs.
Because of that CSA focus, and because of social factors, “soccer” in Canada has always been an activity, something you take Little Johnny to on weekends in the summer. The money in that system comes from youth club registration, which means the CSA is heavily made up of parent voices, which means development takes a back seat, which means you get 8 – 1 in San Pedro Sula.
The CanPL was already changing this, bringing in outside money from corporate partners, from local government, from fans themselves. Yes, we can bemoan and criticize the money in football. But getting professional soccer out of the parent pyramid was the keystone for everything else we want to build.
League 1 Ontario came before CanPL in this. It was a movement, itself somewhat out of nowhere, to add that (semi-) professional structure on top, with support from loyal businesses, established clubs, and fans. It was still, however, run by a CSA provincial association. It was still subject to the whims of that association.
Now it is not. The OSA can run U-8 jamborees. It can hold more coach education sessions. It can certify more referees. It can run more provincial high-performance programs, which get a lot of flak but which are also not supposed to be developing professionals but instead serving as a scouting network for the youth national set-up. League 1 Ontario, in turn, scouts the youth and high-performance streams locally, and develops players for professional play. CanPL in turn scouts L1O. This is how it is supposed to work.
Pour one out tonight for Dino Rossi, by the way, who was instrumental in creating League 1 Ontario and was the exact kind of champion Canadian soccer needed back when it was less fashionable to think this way. Hopefully he stays on as L1O commissioner, but even if he doesn’t, he’s just achieved a miracle.
So has the CanPL.
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