Monday, November 8, 2010

Better days ahead for Canadian Pro Soccer

From the 1970s to the 90s tough economic times have tended to spell doom for the dream of having a viable and sustainable pro soccer league emerge in Canada, but in contrast with decades past the past three years have been really positive times despite the credit crunch of 2008 and the subsequent deep recession. The landscape has been well and truly transformed by Toronto FC's ability to operate profitably in MLS due to regular sellout crowds of over 20,000 and that is leading exciting developments from coast to coast. Don't believe me? Well let's take a look at what has been happening in the twelve cities, which were able to field a team in the original Canadian Soccer League between 1987 to 1982. I don't think I need to describe what has happened in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver over the past few years in detail or explain the fact that in 2012 Canada will have three teams playing in a fully professional top tier D1 league for the first time since 1983 so the focus instead will be on developments in the other nine cities, which have received considerably less coverage in the national media. 

Victoria - After the Vistas folded soccer in Victoria was confined to the local Vancouver Island amateur league and Victoria United of the PCSL, a regional elite amateur league in BC and the Pacific northwest of the United States. Since 2009, however, the Victoria Highlanders of PDL, have emerged as the focus of spectator interest. Having drawn crowds of up to 2000 at times there has been talk of stepping up from the short season PDL format, which is designed primarily to cater to players with NCAA scholaships, to the new USL Pro setup. If, as is  rumoured, a western USL Pro division is launched, Victoria would be a natural fit. 

Edmonton - Over the past two decades since the demise of the Brickmen there have been failed attempts to make pro soccer work both indoors and outdoors in Edmonton in the shape of the Drillers and Aviators, but things finally appear to be on the right track with the newly emerged FC Edmonton. The key difference this time around is playing games at the smaller Foote Field rather than trying to use Commonwealth Stadium. After playing a series of exhibition games this past summer, the team should be ready to finally make their debut at the D2 level in 2011 in the NASL (assuming that league is sanctioned by the USSF) with the added bonus of Canadian Championship entry along with TFC, the Whitecaps and Impact. FC Edmonton are talking about building their own SSS over the next few years, which may prove to be the key to finally making pro soccer work financially in Alberta.

Calgary - Calgary has already been through the process of having a PDL team, the Storm, which moved up to USL-D1 as the Mustangs. Unfortunately the step up to the pro level was premature in the absence of a suitable stadium. The Mustangs had to play on astroturf with CFL permanent CFL markings at McMahon Stadium. If things work out in Edmonton in an NASL context, however, odds on a Calgary franchise won't be too far behind. The Boomers soon followed in the footsteps of the Drillers in the original NASL after all.

Winnipeg - After the Fury briefly attempted to continue in the CNSL (a merger in 1993 of what remained of the CSL and Toronto's NSL), very little has happened in Manitoba other than rumours of a PDL team called the Sundogs possibly being launched by local amateur team Lucania. The good news is that according to a recent post on the Voyageurs board a formal announcement will be made of a new PDL franchise for the 2011 season complete with talk of higher ambitions in the years ahead should that initial step work out well. 

London - No doubt inspired by the success of Toronto FC two hours down the 401, FC London started play in PDL in 2009. Crowds have consistently been in the 1000 - 2000 range prompting recent talk from FC London's ownership of possible entry into USL Pro along with conference rivals like the Dayton Dutch Lions and Michigan Bucks. As is the case in Edmonton the building of a new SSS appears to be part of the franchise's plans and could be the key to making pro soccer work in what would until recently have appeared to be an improbable location.

Kitchener - Since the Kickers folded in 1991, soccer in the wider KW region has been limited to the local amateur setup, the KDSL and the occasional foray into the Toronto area's elite amateur league, the OSL. D2 level soccer does not appear to be in any way imminent in a Kitchener and it looks like for now at least soccer fans will have to be content with the more limited horizons of the present day CSL, which continues the legacy of the Toronto based National Soccer League, a semi-pro league that has operated from the late 1920s to the early 1990s.

Hamilton - A relocation of the Toronto Lynx to Brian Timmins stadium has been rumored in recent years but never materialized, but there now appears to be very good chance that pro soccer will return to Hamilton again for the first time since the demise of the Steelers. Earlier this year, a conditional NASL expansion franchise was awarded to Bob Young, the owner of the CFL's Hamilton Ticats, who is already heavily involved in that league as part owner of the Carolina Railhawks. The plans appear to be contingent on a new stadium being built for the Ticats as part of the preparations for the Pan-Am games so it still remains to be seen whether the Canadian Championship will feature a Golden Horseshoe derby by the middle of this decade.

Ottawa - Unfortunately Eugene Melnyk's recent efforts to land an MLS expansion franchise failed when Ottawa's city council opted to approve plans for a new CFL stadium at Landsdowne Park rather than Melnyk's own vision of an SSS located close to the Senators'  hockey arena in Kanata. There is still plenty of activity in Ottawa where pro level soccer is concerned, however. There are two rival groups aligned with the NASL and USL. The CFL ownership group plan to field a USL Pro soccer team in the new CFL stadium. The local PDL franchise, the Ottawa Fury, form part of this bid. The rival NASL group have floated the idea of using a downtown baseball stadium formerly used by the now defunct Lynx AAA franchise. It appears highly likely, therefore, that the nation's capital will soon have a pro soccer franchise.

Halifax - Since the Nova Scotia Clippers folded there has been very little indication of pro soccer returning to Nova Scotia. A PDL franchise would be the obvious first step to achieving that goal.

It seems clear then that by the middle of this decade there could easily be up to five pro soccer franchises in the smaller non-MLS cities playing in D2 level leagues (with D2 being defined from a CSA rather than a USSF standpoint). The prospects for the emergence of a viable D2 tier to the sport would receive a further major boost if MLS teams were allowed to have an affiliated D2 level team similar to Major League Baseball's relationship to the AAA minor leagues.

If several D2 level teams do emerge and they prove to be economically viable, the issue that could soon loom over the horizon at the CONCACAF and FIFA levels will be whether Canada should be forced to have its own D1 national pro league. The exemption that Canada currently receives, which enables entry into USSF sanctioned leagues by Canadian teams, is based on there being no prospect of a viable domestic D1 or D2 level league emerging. Should that change Canadian soccer might start to be viewed as an awkward precedent that could cause problems for the integrity of the national league structure elsewhere. Given where we have been in the not too distant past with pro level soccer that would be a wonderful dilemma for Canadian soccer to suddenly have to face.

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