Monday, November 15, 2010

Key problems and potential solutions in semi-pro soccer

When I first arrived in Canada from Scotland in the late 80s, beyond trivial stuff like McEwan's Export, Barr's Irn Bru and a fish supper at the local "chippie", which you soon start to realize have Canadian equivalents that can be just as good or better, the only thing I really missed about my native land was not being within easy travel distance of soccer played at a fully pro standard. I've tried watching hockey, baseball and the CFL but unlike pretty much every other aspect of Canadian life where the Canadian way of doing things is better than what happens in Scotland, they just don't fill the void. Sorry, I know as a first generation immigrant that I'm supposed to say that hockey is the greatest sport known to man and that I grew to love and appreciate it as I have slowly integrated into Canadian culture but the truth is that it isn't and I haven't.

So in the early 90s after the failure of the London Lasers to establish itself in the original CSL, what else was on offer in pro soccer terms in London, Ontario? Well that's answered easily enough, that would be London City on Friday nights at the German Club. There are positive aspects to watching a game at the German Club. For example, it's great to be able to pop into the bar at half time for a beer, something sorely lacking at Scottish stadiums these days due to an alcohol ban enforced after a major riot at a cup final in the late 70s. When it comes to the soccer, however, it's hard to describe how unbelievably bad a City game can seem like when you are used to being able to hop onto a bus headed for either Edinburgh or Glasgow to watch teams like Hearts or Rangers. For a few years I found it very puzzling that a country that put up a reasonable level of performance at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986 and, which can clearly produce some very good soccer players, could have such a low playing standard in a league like the NSL/CNSL/CPSL/CSL, which although semi-pro is still a very high level league in sanctioning terms. Over time and after a greater level of direct participation in the sport I started to see what the problems were and why Canadian soccer doesn't even come close to fulfilling its potential at the semi-pro level. In my opinion, there are two key issues that need to be addressed.

Where's the passion? I have been involved in any number of amateur games in Canada where tempers have become extremely frayed either between the two teams or between players and spectators due to the level of emotion. An attempted Bruce Lee style karate kick narrowly failing to connect with one of my teammate's head being a particularly vivid memory. Don't get me wrong fights have absolutely no place in soccer but the passion that drives those sorts of emotions does have a place in competitive team sports when athletes can channel it properly into a greater level of performance. All too often when I watch CSL games, however, I see two sets of players very much going through the motions in front of a small and somewhat bored crowd. Canadians have the passion culturally when they play and watch hockey but somehow it often seems to be missing when it comes to elite level soccer (recent developments at the MLS level being an obvious and highly welcome exception) and it's not always easy to identify what the root cause is.

The problem probably revolves around the lack of an emotional investment in the teams involved at the CSL level, which are often essentially one man's ego trip rather than a conventional club controlled by a wider membership that a large number of people identify with and care about deeply. The exception to that trend has traditionally been ethnic based clubs, but in recent decades there has been an effort on the part of the powers that be within the sport to move away from that to try to appeal to a more mainstream demographic. Unfortunately this hasn't really worked to any significant extent in a CSL context and has had the damaging side effect of alienating many of the recent immigrants, who used to watch this level of the sport. What is clearly needed in the years ahead is a deeper level of engagement with the communities that the teams are trying to represent. The obvious solution is developing clubs with broad based memberships based on having teams ranging from U-8 to master's divisions. The key stumbling block to achieving this is that a youth soccer culture has developed that is often almost completely disconnected from the senior level of the sport. Elite youth clubs usually don't have a senior team and, therefore, tend to prioritize success at the youth level over developing players to play for a senior level team. Some progress appears to be being made at the moment in the CSL in bridging the divide between the youth and senior levels of the sport with the entry of TFC Academy, which hopefully will lead to better things down the road but I suspect the cultural changes required will take a generation to unfold.

A key issue that flows from this lack of passion about semi-pro clubs is that it is only when a lot of people care deeply about a team that there is likely to be a culture in which it is normal for elite youth level players to continue playing the sport in their 20s and 30s in a highly committed elite amateur or semi-pro sort of way as opposed to a more laid back and recreational "beer league" approach. This has a major impact on the level of play. There is a reason why clubs backed by recent Croatian and Serbian immigrants do so well in elite amateur and semi-pro leagues at the moment. Those ethnic communities have a culture in which elite senior level soccer matters to people and where playing for the team to represent your community is an honour to be sought after. There are some Canadian communities where soccer is treated like that by a more mainstream demographic but they are few and far between. St. Lawrence in Newfoundland and the exploits of the St. Lawrence Laurentians in the National Championships comes to mind, for example. One of the keys to semi-pro level soccer's future progress will be fully harnessing the youth soccer registration boom to create that kind of interest in local soccer clubs in communities elsewhere as the generations that grow up playing the game as a recreational activity move into adulthood.

What is the penalty for failure? The other key problem with semi-pro soccer in Canada is the absence of promotion and relegation. In most other parts of the world if a soccer team does badly in any particular season they will be forced to move down to a lower division and a team that has excelled at the lower level will step up to take their place. The aim is to maintain the highest possible level of playing standards to ensure a schedule of highly competitive games that will be of interest to potential spectators. In the CSL, however, the poorly run franchises hang around regardless of performance and unlike in major league sports there are no measures designed to ensure competitive parity so a set of perennial alsorans emerges. This places a serious strain on the league's overall playing standards and reduces the level of interest in the league by undermining its credibility. The franchise system makes sense at the fully pro level in North America when a risky and substantial financial investment is involved or if a short season local all star team type format such as BC's PCSL is being pursued with long distance travel and overnight stays. In more localized semi-pro league structures, however, where most of the clubs are based within relatively easy driving distances of each other there is no obvious reason for doing it unless the aim is to create a cosy cartel in which league status is bought and sold in the boardroom rather than earned out on the field of play.

For the semi-pro tier of the sport to really make progress the next step should be to create an integrated pyramid of play centred on each of the major cities where new clubs can start off at the bottom in amateur level divisions and slowly work their way to the top where a semi-pro approach can be actively pursued, once they have connected with the wider community sufficiently to be able to field a strong and well-supported team. The state level soccer league structures in cities like Melbourne and Sydney in Australia provide a prime example of how this can be achieved in a society that is broadly similar to Canada in cultural terms.


  1. your article hits right at the heart of the problem.

    the passion is at the ages 7 to 18 due to parents and family members coming out - some because they like to go to see family members play and some because they are the drivers. Once the player hits age 18 the club that they played with do not care any longer; why? there is no higher professional level to stay and play at, the playe moves to another senior club or semi-pro club; that new club has no following as it is as if a 'foreign player coming to play" and because they are not allowed a youth program to have their own players to promote; player plays in front of fans who do not know who they are thus no pasion; the cycle starts again for the next player who comes next year. etc.

  2. I really enjoyed your article about Canadian football, I am a professional player am 23 years old Brazilian will have to play CSL by far WHAT I see, is that problems with teams of Csl is the lack of sponsorship and lack visibility to the championship , What they should do is make the best teams that have stakes in the seasons to participate in tournaments outside of canada as the CONCACAF Champions League, but this could bring investment and visibility for the club and make the Csl stronger global awareness, or they could do something much better, which is a dream of people who care for the South American soccer, and have shares in that, the clubs in north america, Copa Libertadores de America, which is the second continental championship in the world but since this is a dream but it would be nice to see Canadian teams playing against teams from Brazil, Argentina and other South American countries, and a dream that some people here want the South American but it also depends on the willingness of clubs in the north ... that's just an idea I have here and some of south america it might be good for the Canadian clubs.


  3. Hi, what a great post. I am a youth player playing a u17 regional level. I have totally enjoyed my youth soccer experience but I don't know what to to do with my soccer future. I do not have what it takes for the pdl or csl but I do not want to play in our clubs senior level in the cities "beer league". This is one of the issues that you mentioned, there are no competitive mens leagues that lead into higher levels due to the no promotion and relegation law in the Canadian soccer pyramid which means other than the national championship there is nothing to play for. I think the fact that the MLS does not want to switch to a promotion/ relegation system is impeding them from developping more elite level youth players because the ones that are not scouted just stop playing the game. Eventually I will stop playing the game out of frustration (we might not even have a u18 team because of drop outs) and the elite players who do get scouted and never make it don't have that many options to fall back on either. Many former collegiate players thought they had a future in soccer just because they were playing for some small college in mid-western U.S and eventually come back to Canada playing in the local "beer league" team that leads to nowhere with an average job. This is why so many good soccer players lose hope on the sport because competive mens teams lead to oblivion.

  4. By the way I also have a candian soccer blog.

    please take a look. I find you have great opinions and I would love to team up with you.