Or: More than you ever wanted to know about the Australian league system
The general reaction that I’ve seen to the first Canadian Premier League signings has been mixed, to say the least. This is natural, in some ways–the league is getting its feet wet, and it won’t be everything to everybody. It is not going to be La Liga. It is not even going to be MLS.
Some people, it’s fair to say, expected more from the signings than ex-Swedish regional leagues.
I think this is fair, but it’s also superficial. Of course fans want to see players with legitimate reputations in the game, at least in their respective countries. I also don’t think, despite the league’s financial reality, that these signings are totally out reach for CanPL signings, and we may yet see some. It just takes time, connections, scouting, and a good sell from the managers. Time may be the most important–this is a new league, new facilities, no real footprint in the game yet.
And so you get Sukunda. He’s among the less-heralded of last week’s signings. Not as well-known as Randy Edwini-Bonsu, not as proven as Kyle Bekker, and he doesn’t have the youth national team profile of Kadin Chung.
His career path, though, shares certain similarities with all of those players, and he compares very well with York9’s Monday signing, Simon Adjei, whom I wrote about here. Both played in Sweden, but Sukunda actually played a league above Adjei, with Umea FC.
But Sukunda’s career starts before that, and understanding how he’s moved from one club to another can show us a lot about Canadian soccer, the CanPL, and what kind of signing Sukunda really is.
FC Montreal and the numbering of days
First, we take a bit of a detour.
There was a legitimate fear among some in Canadian soccer that, when the MLS academies and USL reserve teams launched, they’d become dead-ends in the Canadian pathway. There’s no question these clubs filled a hole, but most prospects won’t make MLS rosters for one reason or another (positional need, talent, Carl Robinson), at which point they’re released into the barren wilderness of Canadian soccer.
Some, like Kyle Bekker and Kyle Porter, end up in USL. Some end up in USPORTs. A lot end up out of the game altogether.
FC Montreal were always the least stable of the three Canadian reserve sides. When I heard from AFTN’s Michael McColl on the USPORTs broadcast that Frédéric Lajoie-Gravelle had basically just left the system, I was, shall we say, not that surprised. (He would have been, I think, the consensus top pick, and likely a CanPL starter, if he’d wanted to stay in the sport.) There was always a sense that FC Montreal were viewed as a bit of a money sink by Impact owner Joey Saputo. While adidas pays for the MLS academies, the reserve teams cost money. Saputo, who claims to be losing $11M a year on the Impact, shuttered the reserve team before the 2017 season.
Sukunda had broken into FC Montreal in 2015 after graduating from the Impact’s much more functional academy. He played with players like Thomas Meilleur-Gigeure, Ballou now-at-Barcelona Tabla, and Alessandro Riggi, who a lot of CanPL fans were hoping would sign but who’s definitely staying in Phoenix. He was one of Mount Royal Soccer’s players to watch for 2016, a bombing fullback who could put a ball across goal. It didn’t quite come together for him in 2016, with only one assist, but it’s fair to say he had promise, even if he was unlikely to ever be an MLS-level talent.
Then the team died, and Sukunda was caught at that dead-end: out-of-contract, getting towards the end of his prospect years, with no real professional future in the game in Canada.
The European option
Traditionally, and in Sukunda’s case, this is where young Canadian players go to Europe. The list is too long to count: Tosaint Ricketts, Edwini-Bonsu, Adam Straith, and so, so many others. Many, including Sukunda, start out at academies, in his case, Auxerre’s as a 15-year-old before returning to Montreal with their U-18 team.
But across Europe, these academies graduate hundreds of players a year, and release hundreds more. Most end up in the lower, semi-professional leagues, trying to earn a look. The problem with this route for a young Canadian is that most European sides can sign only a couple non-EU players, and often none at all in the very low leagues. A player out of academy options, be they at home or abroad, ends up in the Swedish third division. The only way around this rule is to have access to an EU passport through a parent or grandparent.
This isn’t professional soccer in the true sense. As I wrote Monday about Adjei, this is semi-pro at best. The goal is to play well enough to get a loan or trial at a higher division club. Even then, those upper division clubs still have domestic quotas to fill, and so will bias to a player like Adjei because a.) goals are more impressive on stat lines, and b.) he’s domestic in Sweden.
Sukunda played 15 games with Umea FC, which is a pretty solid team in the Division 1 North, so there’s that. Umea have had a couple other Canadians, which can create the kind of connection to get a player a shot. Sukunda took advantage, and kept his career alive. His spell in Sweden lasted only a single season. I don’t read Swedish, so it’s tough to know if it didn’t work out or if he just moved on, as is common enough for semi-pro clubs. From what I can tell, Umea started the season well and Sukunda was getting minutes.
Australia’s league system should be interesting to CanPL fans for a lot of reasons. The top-flight A-League was created in 2004 and was actually modeled on MLS, making it one of the more recent nascent leagues for CanPL to compare itself to. (There’s even a team called the Wanderers.) It was also terrible in its early years, albeit in an entertaining sort of way–it’s much like MLS in that regard. I may or may not have watched rather a lot of it while putting Dal Gazette editions together.
Like USL, the Australian second division is actually older and, some would argue, better. Unlike MLS, the A-League has never really matured. The whole operation–the old NSL, the A-League, the NPL below it–all play second fiddle to Aussie Rules and the Wallabies. My favourite quote about the A-League: “Then again, everyone supported Perth Glory in the old days, mainly because they were the only club in the NSL not run like a local sandwich shop.”
It’s a standard of entertainment CanPL can really only aspire to.
The National Premier League, despite its name, is actually a regional league with eight divisions (to save on travel costs) and there’s no promotion or relegation to the A-League. Structurally, it’s actually closer to League 1 Ontario in that it’s run by provincial associations. Many of the same problems in Canadian soccer (geography, coach development, regionalism) also plague Australia.
As far as I know, it has no strict domestic player quota, which may be why Sukunda was able to land a gig playing for suburban Melbourne’s Hume City FC. Amusingly, the club’s PR department thought they were signing a former Montreal Impact player. Sukunda was solid with Hume, going 90 minutes in most of their games and starting in a massive 1 – 0 FFA Cup win over local rivals South Melbourne, one of Australia’s more storied clubs (think NY Cosmos in NASL now).
At any rate, his time there was successful enough to be featured in this hilariously awkward shirt reveal video. He’ll likely fit right in with CanPL.
CanPL: For Canadians
National Premier League teams are mostly semi-pro, and Sukunda is 23. He’s getting to a point where earning less than a few thousand a year playing football isn’t really a viable career path.
Despite having largely fit in, it seems, at most of these clubs, there’s every chance Sukunda would have been playing in USPORTs a couple years from now, on his way to a different career, as with many Canadians who didn’t quite manage to make it in football abroad. That has been the pathway for Canadian players for far too long.
“Make it” sounds like such a low bar, but it’s really, really not–there may be loads of football clubs the world over, but there aren’t loads that pay well. Melbourne is not a cheap city to live in, either.
This makes Sukunda an ideal CanPL signing. He’s a Canadian with some promise that desperately needed a more stable opportunity. Good attacking fullbacks are relatively rare, and sometimes need to find the right tactical system and some familiarity to really produce. Sukunda is capable of doing things like this, which I’d say is about CanPL level. Australia’s NPL is not that far off USL level, where Bekker and Porter have plied their trade.
Compared with Adjei, Sukunda actually has the more impressive résumé, even if he is, as many semi-pros are, a bit of a wanderer. He should fit in well at Halifax. But where Adjei is an international and 25, Sukunda is a Canadian with a couple years left to develop. Seen that way, he’s a better use of resources by Stephen Hart. Those five internationals on the field need to count, which means you also need workmanlike or better performances from at least six domestic players. From what I’ve seen digging into him, Sukunda is nothing if not workmanlike, the kind of high-energy full-back that succeeded in the early years of MLS, the A-League, and likely, CanPL.
(Interesting factoid: A-League teams are also limited to five international players.)
None of this is to say he’ll work out for Wanderers. He’s a journeyman at 23, a flyer of a signing, and not every signing fits. He is, however, everything CanPL was supposed to be about: a young Canadian with experience coming home to play. My guess, based on the general level of remuneration in the Swedish third tier and NPL, is he’s probably fairly cap-friendly, too.
The meat signings are still to come. Sukunda’s a sleeper with an interesting story that can tell us a lot about how this league needs to develop. There may come a day when players like Sukunda aren’t signed by CanPL clubs–perhaps they develop playing semi-pro in League 1 Ontario, or go through USPORTs, or find an opportunity abroad like young footballers the world over. That wouldn’t be a bad thing. But to start, if CanPL can mirror the development of the Swedish leagues, the competitiveness of USL, and the local support of NPL teams, it will be doing very well indeed.