Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where now for D3 level soccer in Canada?

A couple of key snippets of info from the Canadian Soccer League this week suggest that the landscape of Canadian pro soccer isn't going to be changing as much as some people have been anticipating in the short to medium term. Firstly, Dominic DiGironimo stepped down as league commissioner after he tendered his resignation and it was accepted by what was described in an official CSL press release with the explanation provided being "The league has been charting its future during the past year and differences eventually appeared which became irreconcilable, leading to the commissioner’s departure". The sticking point would appear to have been some aspect of DiGironimo's aggressive push for coast to coast expansion and the insertion of the phrase "long-term expansion" at the end of the press release suggests that plan may have been placed on the back burner by the "equity owners" (i.e. the older members of the league with full franchise rights). The second snippet on twitter from London City, mentioned that there are only four expansion teams for 2011 (i.e. the previously announced teams from Ottawa, Kitchener, Mississauga (Erin Mills) and Pickering). That means the fifth team from Quebec City that was expected to be announced later has fallen through.

The problems that the CSL always seems to face in adding additional franchises in Quebec are a bit of a mystery with Quebec City having been announced as a target for expansion as far back as 2007 with a team called FC Quebec later being mentioned as a new team that would start play in 2009. The two rumoured explanations have been that the Montreal Impact hold the CSL franchise rights for the entire province and are not letting anybody else in, or that the Quebec provincial association has plans of its own where league structures are concerned and is blocking the sanctioning of any additional CSL teams in that province for that reason. My guess would be the latter explanation is closer to the truth based on the fact that the CSL seemed reasonably confident that Quebec expansion would happen up until almost the end of the 2010 season, which is a better fit for something that was pending approval by a provincial board than a case of waiting on a member team (i.e. Montreal Impact Academy) to grant permission.

So if a transformation of the landscape at the D3 level no longer seems imminent perhaps the powers that be in the CSA should stop and consider exactly what they are trying to achieve at this level of the sport? There are two issues that really need to be looked at before progress can be made, in my opinion. Firstly, what exactly is the rationale behind having separate elite amateur and semi-pro tiers to the sport in southern Ontario and Montreal in the early 2010s? Historically the amateur level of the sport was kept fully separate from anything that involved open above the table cash payments because of the ideals of amateurism that used to be promoted by the Olympics movement. When that changed in the early 70s, any lingering distinction between being elite amateur or semi-pro were erased in many other parts of the world. For example in England top amateur divisions like the Isthmian League turned semi-pro and are now fully integrated with historically semi-pro divisions like the Southern League, which used to form a separate tier of the sport leading to rival divisions with similar playing standards covering the same geographical area. In Scandinavia, the top national divisions finally became openly professional at around this time for similar reasons leading over time to a marked increase in playing standards.

Up until recently the issue of NCAA eligibility provided a reason for continuing to keep the distinction in North America but now even that has fallen by the wayside with recent changes to NCAA regulations enabling several openly semi-pro teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency and the Kitsap Pumas to compete in PDL against amateur teams comprised of NCAA scholarship players. Instead of having a small cartel of "equity owners" setting the agenda in the CSL and dictating the pace of change in creating a new separate semi-pro tier to the sport from coast to coast maybe maybe it is time to move in the opposite direction of having greater integration by creating a conventional promotion and relegation style league structure in each major city that is open to both amateur and semi-pro clubs with the existing National Championships for the ten provincial cup winners used to crown an overall national winner?

The second issue that needs to be examined is how do you create a single league format, which provides the highest possible level of competition for amateur and semi-pro players based in heavily populated area like Toronto, while at the same time also catering to the needs of those based in remoter cities like Thunder Bay? The answer is clearly that you can't in a sparsely populated country with a continental scale geography and that there should be no attempt to force everybody into a one size fits all league system but I'm not sure that concept is firmly grasped by the powers that be. In the most heavily populated areas nothing is gained through long distance travel and playing standards can be diminished if travel demands become too onerous as players are scared away by the time commitment that is required, while in smaller cities travel on an all star team sort of basis is a necessity for the best younger players to be exposed to a higher level of competition and get noticed by scouts elsewhere.

Leagues like the CSL, OSL and VMSL are the answer in the big cities, while leagues like the PCSL and PDL have an important role to play in remoter areas like the interior of BC and northwestern Ontario in other words. That means that there is a very real need for two parallel league systems at the D3/D4 sort of level on an ongoing basis not based on an amateur vs semi-pro split but on an open age division vs U-23 development format. An open age format with pro/rel similar to the state leagues in Australia is the key for the big cities, while a short season PDL type franchise format with a greater emphasis placed on U-23 pro player development is the only viable approach for providing a flagship franchise to make soccer a successful spectator sport in smaller communities from coast to coast in a similar manner to the niche in the entertainment market that is currently filled by junior hockey in the winter months.


  1. Since your last eight blog entries have received no comments I thought I'd make one: happy new year!

  2. You make some great points. I think is time for the CSL to completely overhaul the league systems in Canada. In the Pacific coast region we have several high caliber amateur leagues– Vancouver Island Soccer, Vancouver Soccer and the Fraser Valley Soccer leagues. Last year there had been a proposal to adopt a BC Super league, similar to what Rugby has adopted. Negotiations were at an advanced stage when Vancouver pulled the plug. This "super" league could have been a great stepping stone for players seeking advancement to PDL or D3 soccer. This league could have been considered a D5 or D6 league. What must be remembered by those trying to establish teams at D3 or D2 is that they must demonstrate that the product is significantly better than what a fan can watch for free on any given Sunday. Unfortunately the CSL has stuck its head and the sand and has not provided any direction at all.