“Imagine your local club has just won promotion to the Canadian Premier League after dwelling in the lower leagues for the last fifteen years. That moment the final whistle goes and you know the club has done it. Everyone in attendance knows the club has done it. The stadium is in rapture. Jumping out onto the pitch from the stands, you don’t care what the consequences might be, because you’ve been a part of something magical, something beyond exhilarating. After the party has ended, can the club fight to stay up? Perhaps even eventually challenge for the Canadian Premier League championship? Imagine…”
This is a concept that I hope will eventually move from imagination to reality for Canadian soccer. At the moment we’re on the precipice of a new pan-Canadian professional league taking flight – the Canadian Premier League – and I, for one, am beyond excited. My very being is vibrating with the anticipation that finally… FINALLY Canada will have its own professional, top-tier soccer league to give a place for both Canadian and other professional players globally to call home. There have been other leagues that have attempted this in the past, namely the Canadian Soccer League in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That league still has its praises sung by former Canadian internationals who were lucky enough to be a part of it. An imposter CSL showed up in Southern Ontario and, as far as I am aware, still sort of exists in an unsanctioned, laughable manner. This time seems different, though, because there are BIG MONEY owners involved. Perhaps sadly for sports to flourish in this day and age, money means everything, including survival.
While I am simply over the moon for the arrival of the new league, I understand that it alone isn’t the answer to all what ails Canadian soccer’s player development issues. It is a piece, and an important piece, of the overall equation. This equation, in my mind, includes the need for a full league pyramid with logical progressions for players to move from youth to academy to initial pro environment to cut their teeth, and finally, to the nation’s top tier league. I will fully admit I romanticise about the way the rest of the world has soccer set up in their countries. I romanticise about the league systems with multiple tiers where teams can fight their way to the top league. Leicester City’s unfathomable ascent to becoming Premier League Champions only adds to the delusion of league system grandeur. While I understand these leagues took decades if not over a century to take shape, that doesn’t mean we can’t take the positive aspects and emulate them in Canada.
By this point I’m sure you realize this is a vision that demands promotion and relegation to exist in our professional soccer system. When most people hear pro/rel, they immediately default to the English or German or any other Euro nation’s league system. From what I’ve heard and read, pro/rel creates competitiveness between clubs to ensure there’s a reason to both bring in and produce the best talent possible. There’s a reason clubs like Puebla in the Mexican Primera are bringing in young, hungry players along with producing their own – they need to do everything possible to stay in the Mexican top flight. I won’t go into any further details as this isn’t an argument piece for pro/rel, but rather a concept that works it into the system as a necessity.
What I would love to see in this country are three league levels connected with promotion and relegation. Starting at the top, you would have the Canadian Premier League – Canada’s top flight, on par level-wise with the English Premier League, German Budesliga, Spanish La Liga, Brazillian Brasileirão, Japanese J-League, etc… Note that I did state level-wise, as we all know this country simply isn’t close yet to producing the talent needed to bring the Canadian Premier League competitively on par with any of those above-mentioned leagues.
Beneath the Canadian Premier League, which would see Canadian Premier League teams relegated to it, would be a Canadian Division 1. Hopefully, over time, individuals in many major cities across the country would be enticed to create clubs to compete at this level with the knowledge their teams could win promotion upwards, but also with the fear they could be relegated to the regional leagues #foreshadowing. This Canadian Division 1, which is a horrible name by the way because I am bereft of creativity in that department, would be the only other level outside of the Canadian Premier League to feature full professional contracts. I would love to see St. John’s taking on Lethbridge in the Division 1 promotion playoff. I’d die of stress as Saskatoon faces fiercely hated rivals Regina in the final match of the Division 1 season as the loser finds themselves getting the drop. Saskatoon would win, of course. The firm details of this Division 1 could be ironed out over a bit of time as the Canadian Premier League expands in its early years. I believe it’s necessary as there needs to be a level of division between the top of the pyramid and semi-professional regional leagues.
With that lovely segway, the bottom level of this pyramid would feature the Canadian Regional Leagues. This would include League1Ontario, PLSQ, a Prairie Super League, an Atlantic Premier League, and a BC League1. I should probably trademark those names for zero future profit as no one will ever use them (again, this isn’t where my creativity lies). I believe the L1O/PLSQ model needs to be replicated across the country in geographical regions that make sense. The Atlantic provinces combined together, to me, makes sense. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Northern (read: Thunder Bay) Ontario makes sense. The BC League1 would most similarly reflect League1Ontario and the PLSQ as a majority of the teams would come from a major center, in this case metro Vancouver. With these five regional leagues, you’d have the level where youth players would transition from local academies and youth programs into more of a semi-pro environment. Poking holes in this structure myself, how could you sustain this level if the pay is at a semi-pro level while the other two levels above would see fully professional contracts? I’m simply not familiar enough with the pay structures in other nations so I invite people to explain it, as it must work because those league systems exist. I’m thinking Germany in this case.
Promotion and relegation from these leagues could inspire an article all unto itself, so I’ll toss an idea out, again welcoming other concepts. The Regional League league winners are entered into the Regional League Promotion Tournament at the end of the season, where the top three at the end of a single round-robin group stage move up to Division 1. Why three? Pulled it out of thin air. The three bottom clubs from Division 1 get relegated to the regional league they would fall into (ex. if Kingston gets relegated, they go down to League1Ontario). Division 1 would feature guaranteed promotion spots for the Division 1 champion and runner-up while 3rd to 6th would enter a playoff to see which team earns the third promotion spot. Yes this is stolen from the English Championship, but it’s a really neat end-of-season mini-tournament that adds a ton of excitement. The Canadian Premier League would see three clubs relegated down to Division 1. Perhaps due to my romanticising of leagues around the world I think the battle to avoid relegation is, at times, equally as intense as the battle for the league title. Take this season’s English Premier League – only 5 points separate 10th from 18th (3rd last) in the table as of the writing of this article. That’s not even two matches worth of points! Two losses for Watford and two wins for Stoke could see those clubs switch spots with Watford now being in the drop zone. Imagine that in our Canadian Premier League! Hamilton and Ottawa could be heated rivals with one in the drop zone and the other 8 spots ahead in the table, but separated by a mere 5 points. One of their last matches is against each other – a potential six point swing! Personally I’d be rooting for Hamilton to go down, but that’s just me (X’s & O’s James). Players coming through this system could see themselves being brought into a PLSQ side despite growing up and playing through the Coquitlam youth system. Maybe that’s a stretch too far, but you get the idea. Clubs would need to be motivated to seek out the best talent they can find to try and help their cause at gaining promotion or avoiding relegation.
With a system like this in place I believe we’d stop seeing kids having to leave their families to go to Europe to have a shot at the pro dream. We’d stop seeing kids fall for the MLS satellite academy promise that the Whitecaps, Impact, and TFC have been selling the last number of years. Perhaps we’d see an Emery Welshman, Matt Stinson, Ethan Gage, or Simon Thomas (I’m sorry I’m blanking on Impact academy products who got dropped by the Impact MLS squad) blossom as a late bloomer while playing for Brandon in the Prairie Super League. Again, this is romanticism run wild, but why can’t Canada produce a late-bloomer like Jamie Vardy? Why can’t Canada produce national team players from its domestic league system like all of the Central American nations we struggle against during World Cup Qualifying?
A league pyramid is one of the key components for HOW we will be able to do those things.
What are your thoughts on how our Canadian leagues could take shape? Have I expressed a concept more common than I thought? I invite you to come @ me on Twitter at @jeffdsalisbury to throw around ideas or see why some or all of this is or isn’t possible. #CanPL haters bugger off.