When Jacob Shaffelburg scored his first professional goal for Toronto FC in May, it got me thinking. Not about TFC–I try not to think too hard about them right now–but about Raymond Field, where I spent a chunk of time in 2011 or so watching his older brother Zach make that exact same run for the Acadia Axemen, at the time an Atlantic University Sport powerhouse.
I got to thinking about local soccer for the first time since, I suppose, the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Jacob Shaffelburg hasn’t played in Nova Scotia since 2015, save for a fortuitous cameo in the pre-Wanderers Atlantic Selects team (oh what could have been). He followed in the footsteps of many famous Nova Scotians and went to Boston for school, and played with TFC’s youth set-up in the summers. Without question, Shaffelburg and his family have put in an extraordinary amount of work to get to where his career is really only beginning.
But what about every other Nova Scotian kid playing soccer, who, for one reason or another, can’t go to a private school in Massachussets and doesn’t get identified early by a Major League Soccer academy?1Or, for that matter, Canada Soccer–the CSA mostly missed Shaffelburg. He played, as a lot of talented kids do, on the Nova Scotia provincial team, which struggles, outside of national championships and the odd Canada Games, to find competitive games. Shaffelburg only got called into a Canada camp for the first time last year. This is partly why the Canadian Premier League exists: to identify local talent in a massive, sprawling country.
There’s a version of CanPL residing solely in my head that was rushed to launch shortly after it came to light, in 2016 or so. Local players like Zach Shaffelburg, Kouamé Ouattara, and Derek Gaudet would have had to make up the bulk of a Halifax team’s roster in that case, in a landscape where PLSQ and League 1 Ontario were only a couple of years old. It would not have been as good a league, but that league, likely much closer to semi-professional than the current iteration of CanPL2We can have a discussion about whether CanPL is a truly professional league in the comments, if you like, and if I remember to check them this time., would have filled a key hole that has otherwise been missing in Nova Scotia’s development pathway: a place for 18 to 23-year-old players to play.3I’m saying Nova Scotia very particularly here, even though much of this post will apply equally to the other Atlantic provinces. New Brunswick players, however, have always been at least a little bit closer, in language if not necessarily distance, to PLSQ opportunities. Players from PEI have started to drift towards playing in Nova Scotia, and so are somewhat covered by our local pathway, albeit inadequately. Newfoundland is still very far out and would be one of the provinces most able to benefit from a sensibly built CanPL presence there.
Which leaves us with Halifax Wanderers, a fairly lovable collection of 23 players and a few staff who nearly won our new national league in last year’s Covid-concatenated season.
Twenty-three players is not a large roster. It’s a tournament roster, a limit of the salary cap which is, in turn, a product of the financial reality of trying to start a coast-to-coast soccer league in Canada.
The roster–and the cap–limits opportunities, especially for young players. There are some little-publicized exceptions: CanPL teams can sign up to 25 players, for instance, but only 23 can be registered for league play.4If this is news to you, don’t worry, it was also news to me. CanPL head office did not feel the need to inform fans of any of this. It’s been fairly obvious, if you read the tea leaves properly, that teams could keep injured players under contract, as Pacific did with Marcel de Jong. None of this is too complicated for fans to understand, especially if they have a passing familiarity with Football Manager, as I’m betting most CanPL fans do.
There are also four additional spots for U18 players, for a theoretical maximum of 29 contracted, professional players, but they all count against the league’s $850,000 salary cap. The end result is a steady march of young, local players–including USPORTs picks–into and then right back out of CanPL rosters.
Much of the above info comes courtesy Matt Fegan, Wanderers’ VP of Operations, a long-time local coach, and one of the architects of the sort-of-recently-announced Wanderers U23 team. “Unless you’ve got a bunch of cap space and you just feel like blasting through it,” Fegan said, “it’s a bit of a risk to just spend money on players who maybe aren’t going to work into the first-team any time soon.”
To develop players then, be that for the first-team or for higher callings, teams need to take an interest in local soccer and they need to get creative with the football and the financing.
It’s especially important in regions like Halifax and Winnipeg that don’t have as established a pathway to professional soccer. Different clubs have taken different approaches–Cavalry and Edmonton have arrangements with the amateur Alberta Major Soccer League, which Jeff Paulus explained when I asked him about it in 2019. Pacific has a partnership with local clubs on Vancouver Island. Valour have something similar with FC Manitoba in Winnipeg.5The main teams missing one are York and Forge. (Atletico now also own Ottawa South United, a new-ish L1O team.) York do have a relationship with York University, but the real issue here is summer soccer–the university season is just two months. Forge have Sigma, which does field a L1O team, though it’s not a formal relationship.
Wanderers U23 will operate as an invitational team–Fegan likened it to a national team camp where players will be called in to train for a few days before playing two games in short order, then being released. The players will retain their amateur status, which is critical both for NCAA/USPORTs eligibility and to save players having to pay a fee to Canada Soccer to switch between professional and amateur status (and vice versa).
The roster will likely be mostly university players, in keeping with the club’s overall tendency to value USPORTs very highly as a competition. Said Fegan:
“That’s the reality. In this region, the best under-23 players are typically going to be USPORTs.
“There’s a massive drop-off here with 17 to 23 year olds who come out of the youth programs, and unless they’re good enough to make a senior division team right away, they tend to just fall into the abyss of division two beer league.”
Having watched a fair bit of local soccer, I tend to agree with Fegan’s assessment: AUS offers a level above not so much in technical quality but with facilities, opponents, and sometimes coaching, because the university athletic departments can absorb those costs, pay the players through scholarships, and in turn expect significant levels of commitment from players they’ve specifically recruited, often from across Canada.
Turning local players into university–and Canadian–stars is a different challenge, and a known issue locally. Soccer in Nova Scotia has a longer history than most people think and the Nova Scotia Soccer League likewise. Wanderers coach Stephen Hart played and coached in it, as did national teamers in both the men’s and women’s programs. At times in its history, the level of play has been quite high, and Wanderers fans might be forgiven for wondering if the CanPL club might have put its reserve club in our local amateur league.
Some of Wanderers’ rationale is to avoid stepping on both the history and the sanctity of the league. As Fegan put it, there’s little developmental value for the sport as a whole and even less for Wanderers in pulling all the best local players en route to easy wins in NSSL’s premier amateur division every year. The local player pool isn’t deep enough, and such a model also risks burning goodwill.
Indeed, part of the challenge faced by NSSL is that it’s an open amateur league, probably the highest-level league in the region, but the league’s top teams are populated by older players, often alumni from the various AUS programs.
“This is a problem,” said Fegan. “Some kids come out [of youth soccer[ at 17 or 18 and they can’t get into a team like that, and so rather than fighting for a place, they just go, ‘screw it, I’m just going to go play with my buddies and then their levels just drop and drop and drop, to the point that when they are even old enough to be considered, they’re not good enough, because they haven’t been playing properly for the last four years.”
A backwards incentive also exists, in some ways borne of past problems incumbent in soccer development across the country, where it’s both easier and cheaper to play in Halifax’s Metro Senior Men’s League, technically a third-division league that’s currently filling in for a second division like a depth fullback on Valour FC.
“It’s cheaper, you get more games for your money, you don’t have to go to training—or at least, your starting spot is not contingent on your going to training—you play with your buddies, you drink beer after the game, and you don’t have the burden of having to raise money at the end of the year to go to nationals,” says Fegan.
For the sake of full disclosure: I both referee in MSMSL and have friends playing in the league. At its top level, it is not at all bad soccer but it is friendly and informal, if usually hard-fought. A quirk of the league bears out Fegan’s point: among the regular top sides is Athens FC, a long-time NSSL giant now playing in the master’s division at nationals every year, but playing league games against youth and university grads to stay sharp. It can create some bizarre-yet-fascinating match-ups.
“There’s going to be kids who play in that league who we would love to see graduate to the Wanderers,” said Fegan, “but until [NSSL] raises its calibre, the very top level quality of player in this region is not going to be enticed to play here because there’s nothing for them to compete for.”
Keeping USPORTs players in Halifax in the summer is its own challenge, and part of why the U23 side needs to exist. Luke Green, whom Wanderers signed last summer as a 17-year-old, is due to play for St. FX in August, meaning it would make little sense for Wanderers to re-sign him just for the Winnipeg tournament. Instead, he’ll play for Foothills in USL2 this summer because there’s nowhere for a player like Green to develop locally.
“Truth be told, he wants to be here. He would love to play for Wanderers again, he would absolutely love to,” said Fegan. “But it’s just in the short-term, what do you offer him? We can’t offer him valuable development minutes at his age, so instead of going into the NSSL, where there’s an awesome U23 and it’s a really high-calibre and is essentially a summer version of AUS, well he’s going to go somewhere else, because none of that is here. We’ve got to get to a point in the next two years where that is happening, because ultimately, you’re going to get more kids, like him, who are just going to be like, ‘I don’t want to come back to Halifax to play,’ and then you’ve lost someone who’s been in the system all along.”
NSSL, and Soccer Nova Scotia, which now runs the league, is working on this problem. Before Covid-19, there were early rumours of an Atlantic Canadian take on League 1 Ontario, a semi-pro regional league that would serve as a top level for storied local youth clubs like Halifax City and Halifax Dunbrack, as well as some of the newly-amalgated suburban clubs, including Suburban FC, which has already produced three Wanderers in Green, Scott Firth, and new goalkeeper Kieran Baskett.
There are real hurdles, not least a tendency for the focus of local leagues to revert by default to the youth game. This shouldn’t be surprising–the vast majority of people engage with leagues through youth soccer.
A semi-professional, regional league needs interest from outside the existing soccer community, in terms of investors and sponsorship.
In a normal summer, Wanderers U23 is intended to serve as a sort of off-field boon, touring different smaller centres around the Maritimes and Newfoundland. It’s not entirely clear against whom they’ll play, but Wanderers’ first-team has already played summer friendlies against USPORTs teams in pre-season.
Take the case of a player like Jacob Grant, a former Newfoundland provincial team player now playing university soccer who was eligible to be drafted this winter in the CanPL USPORTs draft. All eight teams passed on the Memorial striker, but Grant is only 20 and still has CanPl potential.
“The soccer community, honestly, it’s huge here,” Grant told the CBC’s Lukas Wall just after the draft, and he’s not wrong. St. John’s was rumoured to be in contention to host CanPL’s bubble tournament this summer. Grant’s home turf, King George V Park, is the site of Canada’s lone qualification to the World Cup, so it would have been timely, too. It is true that Newfoundland is often overlooked in Canadian soccer, but that’s mostly indicative of the giant hole left by not having any team at the top of the pyramid.
A U23 team from Halifax can’t fill that hole, but it can provide a model while drawing interest from both fans and, more critically, the investors it would take to make either an Atlantic regional league or any additional professional teams work.
“We’d be crazy if we just saw ourselves solely as a first-team,” said Fegan. “You got to feed the pipeline, right? It’s not going to be a short-term thing, but I think it’ll benefit everyone in the long-term.”