Monday, November 29, 2010

A possible pathway to a U-23 focused Canadian league

I've always been slightly wary of nationalism when it leads to people making decisions based on irrational emotions rather than pragmatic considerations but those emotions of tribal belonging are very much part of the human condition and participation in modern society inherently involves being part of a wider society of people governed by a set of shared laws and social values so the nation is a concept that most definitely exists and plays a huge role within our lives. It's understandable then that some people have a problem with the fact that Canada currently doesn't have a national level soccer league of its own even if it's somewhat odd that the people who tend to make the most noise about this issue online never seem to spend any of their time on hockey forums arguing that the Canadian franchises should leave the NHL to form a separate exclusively Canadian hockey league.

It's Called Football interview with Victor Montagliani

Judging from comments made on an It's Called Football podcast a few weeks ago, the concept that Victor Montagliani of the CSA seems to be pursuing at the moment where a national league is concerned is a D2 level league based primarily on a U-23 development format. This recently led to the current moratorium on sanctioning new NASL and PDL teams and some very skeptical comments in response from people involved with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Victoria Highlanders. Given the NASL usually operates in media markets comparable to those in MLS, the NASL component of the moratorium seemed to me to be bizarre to the point of being irrational and very much a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has already bolted. There are seven cities that would be credible entries at both the D1 and D2 levels i.e. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with Winnipeg and Quebec City being too small for MLS but close to the NASL's 750,000 market requirement. With arguably the four strongest available markets amongst those nine already operating in USSF sanctioned leagues there really isn't a niche available now in the sports landscape for a D2 level Canadian league.

From a pragmatic sort of standpoint it seems strange then that Montagliani didn't simply focus on the PDL part of the equation particularly given his stated interest in U-23 player development, which lies at the core of the PDL business plan. Indoor soccer provides a model for how a Canadian league could be formed in that context. The Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League plays an interlocking regular season schedule with the US-based Premier Arena Soccer League, while retaining separate Canadian branding. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that Canadian PDL franchises could do something similar? There are already teams based in Victoria, Vancouver, Abbotsford, Thunder Bay, London, Toronto and Ottawa with a Winnipeg team rumoured to be starting next season (assuming the moratorium didn't get in the way) and talk of a number of would be teams in Quebec failing to gain sanctioning from their provincial association. That would clearly form a solid nucleus for having a coast to coast U-23 development league with a Canadian brand, while retaining the economic benefits that flow from having regular season games with American teams based just across the border.

Thunder Bay Chill in 2010 PDL final

A key advantage of PDL is that the use of younger student athletes enables a level of travel, in a similar manner to junior hockey, that would be very difficult to sustain in an open age semi-pro context. One potential objection to a rebranding and refocusing of Canadian participation in PDL might be that the league is viewed by many as "amateur" but that would be based on a misconception. Changes in NCAA eligibility rules have made it possible for NCAA athletes to play against professional players as long as they do not play alongside them during the course of their scholarship. A number of PDL teams, who do not make use of NCAA players, including the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program now operate on an openly professional basis based on a program referred to as PDL-Pro. The greater flexibility of CIS rules on eligibility in this regard (even MLS players are able to play for CIS teams if they are on development roster deals) would help greatly as would the flexibility of PDL's rules on using overage players. Up to 8 are currently allowed on a 26 man roster with three having to be under 18 years of age.

TFC Academy visit to Thunder Bay

A CPDL may not be what some people really want with regards to a national league but bearing in mind that the horse has already very much bolted on that it would represent a rational and pragmatic approach to achieving a viable and sustainable economic model for getting pro soccer into smaller cities from coast to coast including many like Thunder Bay that can not be easily catered to by the GTA-centric CSL. Most importantly perhaps it mimics junior hockey by providing a mechanism for moving promising young players out of the three main metropolitan areas where spectator interest in lower level soccer is likely to be limited at best due to the presence of an MLS team into cities like London and Victoria where a PDL soccer game is a significant news story in the sports section of the main daily newspaper and on the sports roundup of the local TV channel. This makes it easier to generate the ticket and sponsorship revenues required to fund the operation of strong U-23 pro development teams and as the youtube clip immediately above describes could help to spread the influence of the youth academy programs of the soon to be three MLS franchises out into smaller towns and cities from coast to coast.

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