Friday, April 29, 2011

FC Edmonton: a litmus test for Canadian soccer

Over the past forty years going back to the early years of the North American Soccer League, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have usually been able to field some sort of pro soccer side almost every summer in a top tier league either in a North American or Canadian context. One of the key problems faced by Canadian soccer has always been moving beyond those three cities where the sport is now reasonably firmly entrenched as a spectator sport into the other cities which are successfully able to sustain pro teams in the context of the CFL and NHL. Edmonton has always been the city outside of the big three where pro soccer has appeared to be most likely to make the breakthrough so if FC Edmonton can't make a go of it in the North American Soccer League this summer despite the recent progress in an MLS context many people will probably conclude that soccer remains a niche interest followed primarily by the recent immigrant demographic, which is concentrated to a large extent in the GTA, lower mainland BC and Montreal.

Pro soccer first surfaced in Edmonton during the Pele boom years of the late 70s with a semi-pro side called the Black Gold. They were soon replaced by an NASL team called the Edmonton Drillers after the Oilers' owner Peter Pocklington bought the Oakland Stompers franchise from Milan Mandaric and moved it to Alberta. The Drillers lasted for four seasons at times drawing crowds of up to 10,000 but were one of the franchises to quickly fall by the wayside as the recession of the early 80s and inflated player salaries due to competition from the MISL slowly and the unsustainable spending of the New York Cosmos led to the NASL's relatively rapid death spiral. Along the way the NASL's indoor title was won in 1981, however, and subsequently Pocklington resurrected the Drillers in the context of the now defunct National Professional Soccer League, which eventually folded due to an unsustainable economic model and competition for top North American players from the newly emerged MLS but at times drew highly encouraging paid attendances of between 5,000 and 10,000. In contrast post-original NASL outdoor teams like the Brickmen and Aviators of the original CSL and USL-D1 struggled to make the same sort of headway in terms of fan support and soon folded.

Edmonton Drillers opening game

So why is there reason to believe that things will be different this time? One of the key problems in the past has been that while teams based in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal can always find a number of good players locally who are willing and able to compete against elite teams from across North America for relatively poor salaries, it has been more difficult to field a competitive team on that sort of basis in an Alberta context based on players from leagues like the AMSL due to the smaller population and more mainstream demographics. The positive start made to the season with two wins and one loss during a three game road trip is therefore very encouraging given there are 14 players from Alberta on the roster. Even the 0-3 loss to Toronto FC in the NCC disguises the fact that goal scoring chances were being created even with ten men much to the displeasure of Aron Winter. When the Aviators played in USL-D1 in 2004 they were up against dominant franchises from Vancouver, Seattle and Portland in the Western Conference that have now moved onto MLS. The Brickmen arguably faced a similar problem with regards to the Vancouver 86ers in the context of the original CSL. The recent expansion of the first division of the game in North America to take in most of the traditional hotbeds of the sport may well have created a second division environment where not just FC Edmonton but future entries from cities like Hamilton, Ottawa and Quebec City can easily field teams that are competitive enough to sustain fan interest without having to break the bank by having to bring almost an entire roster in from outside the local area.

The other reason for optimism is the ownership. The Fath brothers appear to be in it for the long haul and have talked about building a soccer specific stadium in the next three to five years. Last summer FC Edmonton played a series of exhibition games after a relatively high profile Canadian born Dutch coach called Dwight Lodeweges put together a roster of players based on a $1 million salary budget. Other ownership groups might have been scared away when attendance at high profile games against Colo Colo and Portsmouth failed to meet expectations but the Fath brothers have stuck with their soccer investment and have continued to make the right moves to field a winning team. Dwight Lodeweges moved onto JEF United in Japan in the off season but was soon replaced by another experienced coach with an Eredivisie level playing career, Harry Sinkgraven. The team recently went on an extended preseason training camp in Arizona, to try to ensure a winning start and a good first impression.

FC Edmonton Drillers 0 Toronto FC 3

Will the fans get behind the team this time? That remains the $64,000 question. The crowd of 5,781 in this week's Nutrilite Canadian Championship game has already resulted in negativity in the local media from a prominent local sports columnist. There were extenuating circumstances, however, like a 6pm kick off time to fit the needs of the broadcaster looking for ratings in southern Ontario, inclement weather and competition for interest from two NHL playoff series which went all the way to game seven. A crowd of that size doesn't look good in the context of the 60,000 seat Commonwealth Stadium even if it's moderately encouraging from a soccer standpoint given what has happened in the past in similar circumstances. Starting on Sunday against the Montreal Impact, the regular season games are going to be played at the far smaller 3,500 seat Foote Field on the University of Alberta campus. Regardless of the spin that will be probably be placed on things by Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun even just being able to approach capacity in a stadium of that size would be a huge achievement for a D2 soccer franchise. If FC Edmonton can successfully achieve that this summer and field a competitive D2 level side based on a roster drawn primarily from Alberta, Canadian soccer will have passed an important litmus test. There will be reason to believe that the sport can finally be made to work in business terms in about half a dozen smaller cities from coast to coast and that a key missing link in the player development system between U18 youth academy level and MLS senior rosters can be filled on that basis in a manner that will provide opportunities for several dozen young Canadian players to earn a living in a fully pro environment while chasing the dream of a lucrative pro soccer career either overseas or closer to home in MLS.

Toronto Lynx vs Vancouver Whitecaps in 2000

It's easy to forget that a decade or so ago crowds of around 1500 to 2000 were very much the norm in Toronto and Montreal at a D2 level and that a heavy emphasis often had to be placed on one off youth soccer group sales to even achieve that. If FC Edmonton can lay the foundation this summer by replicating that level of interest, a decade or so of patient investment by the Fath brothers could easily lead to bigger and better things down the road if a soccer specific stadium similar to Stade Saputo in Montreal can be built in a suitable location. There will be people more used to watching the best overseas pro leagues on cable who will find the D2 level of soccer available locally difficult to take seriously at first but that was very much the case in Vancouver and Toronto as well in the not too distant past. FC Edmonton will initially have to be marketed towards hardcore soccer fan and youth soccer groups sales. It will be interesting to see to what extent the youth soccer registration boom of the last twenty years has changed the landscape relative to the era when players like the late Justin Fashanu and David Norman played for the Brickmen in the original CSL before acres of empty seats. I'm cautiously optimistic things will turn out for the best this time.

Edmonton Brickmen vs Vancouver 86ers in 1989

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Preview of the 2011 PDL and CSL seasons

In the upcoming 2011 season twenty two Canadian teams will compete in two different league structures sanctioned at the D3 or D4 level by national soccer associations (one by the CSA in the case of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) and one by the USSF in the case of the Premier Development League (PDL)) in addition to the four fully pro teams in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal from MLS and the NASL that compete for CONCACAF Champions League entry in the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

As will be described below there is considerable uncertainty over the future direction of both these leagues based on boardroom politics over league sanctioning issues. An eleven month moratorium on entry into USSF sanctioned leagues below the MLS level was announced late last year by Victor Montagliani of the CSA. More recently it has also emerged that the CSL may soon face competition from a rival OSA sanctioned “non-amateur” league. The decisions that will be made over the next twelve months on these issues could help to shape the development of Canadian soccer over the next few decades.

Premier Development League (USSF D4)
Victoria Highlanders (Pacific Division)
Vancouver Whitecaps Residency (Pacific Division)
Abbotsford Mariners (Pacific Division)
WSA Winnipeg (Heartland Division)
Thunder Bay Chill (Heartland Division)
Forest City London (Great Lakes Division)
Hamilton FC Rage (Great Lakes Division)
Toronto Lynx (Great Lakes Division)
Ottawa Fury (Northeast Division)

The Premier Development League is the name the USL operates under at tier four level within the USSF’s league structure. PDL consists of nine regional divisions containing 64 teams in 29 of the lower 48 states of the USA, three of the ten provinces of Canada and on the island of Bermuda. As the name implies there is a strong focus developing on younger players under the age of twenty three. Although PDL is often referred to as being an amateur league this is slightly misleading. In reality players do get paid, it just has to be done in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize NCAA scholarship eligibility, since NCAA scholarship players make up a large proportion of the players. Some teams accomplish this by avoiding using these players completely and through a program called PDL Pro can be openly semi-professional. In a Canadian context, the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program already falls into this category. In the context of most PDL teams players often get paid for coaching youth players in a summer camp environment and this enables a training environment similar to a full-time pro team albeit in a short 16 game regular season plus playoffs format running from May to the middle of August.

WSA Winnipeg commercial

Despite the CSA’s 11 month moratorium on new Canadian entries, two new teams have subsequently emerged in Winnipeg and Hamilton. In the former case the paperwork already seems to have been processed, while in the latter being an addition to an existing USL franchise in the women’s W League appears to have provided a loophole. In Ontario the four teams based in the southern part of the province will be playing schedules that are heavily skewed towards the other three southern Ontario teams. This may be the shape of things to come if/when the moratorium is lifted. With 9 Canadian teams already in place, a critical mass is arguably being approached in numbers terms where Canadian only divisions and a separate Canadian branding may become viable options, although it should be noted that several of the teams including those based in Victoria, Winnipeg, London, Hamilton and Ottawa have been reported to have aspirations to eventually move up to either USL Pro or the NASL at the D3 or D2 level within the USSF’s league structure. In the context of both Hamilton and Ottawa the local CFL ownership groups have announced plans for fully pro level soccer franchises as part of the deals put together for publicly funded stadium upgrades in both cities.

Canadian Soccer League (CSA D3)
Windsor Stars
London City
Brantford Galaxy
St Catherines Roma Wolves
Toronto Croatia
Mississauga Eagles
Brampton City United
Serbian White Eagles
SC Toronto
TFC Academy
York Region Shooters
Capital City FC (Ottawa)
Montreal Impact Academy

The off season has seen considerable changes behind the scenes at the Canadian Soccer League after the first full season operating as a CSA sanctioned D3 league rather than as an Ontario provincial league. The league’s commissioner, Dominic Di Gironimo, stepped down late last year after the league failed to secure further expansion into Quebec and to launch a new regional division in British Columbia amid reports that there had been a difference of opinion between the commissioner and the league’s “equity owners” over the future direction of the league. Two of last season’s expansion franchises, Milltown FC and Hamilton Croatia, who had participated as “playing members” of the league in 2010, subsequently left and are currently involved in a bid to launch a rival OSA sanctioned ‘non-amateur’ league that would move away from the franchise system that has been a feature of the CSL and its predecessors for decades to a more mainstream (in FIFA terms) promotion and relegation model. Several other existing CSL and/or conditional 2011 expansion teams appear to have initially been interested in moving in this direction but sanctioning could not be obtained in time for the 2011 season. The concept of the new league appears to have been well received at the OSA board level so there may be big changes ahead by the time the 2012 season rolls around especially with the recent revelation that a new semi-pro provincial league may also be launched in Quebec.

It's Called Football Podcast - March 1st 2011

{info about the new OSA sanctioned semi-pro league is in an interview with Bruce Henderson and starts about 22:50}

The CSL has added new teams in Mississauga, Windsor and Ottawa. The Mississauga team is associated with a top youth club, the Erin Mills Eagles, while three other conditional entries in Kitchener, Pickering and Ottawa that were announced by DiGironimo at the league’s 2010 championship game have fallen by the wayside amid rumours that they may try to launch in 2012 instead. The new Windsor team was announced early this year after DiGironimo’s departure, while the Ottawa entry that has emerged will be run by an investor, who had previously been interested in a USL-D1 expansion team at the city’s main downtown baseball stadium. It will be interesting to see if the Windsor and Ottawa entries are sufficiently well funded this time around to overcome the problems associated with the excessive demands placed on semi-pro players with regular 9 to 5 jobs of repeated long distance travel to the GTA and beyond over a May to October season, which have led to the demise of franchises based in these cities in the past.

Pro soccer team in Hamilton's future

Until the issues surrounding the CSA’s current moratorium on new entries into USSF sanctioned leagues below the MLS level and the proposed OSA sanctioned “non-amateur” league have been resolved it remains to be seen how these two strands within the fabric of Canadian soccer will develop in the years ahead and whether the current widespread interest in investing in soccer will result in genuine growth as a spectator sport beyond the soon to be three MLS teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. As I have argued previously in an earlier blog entry there is a clear and obvious niche for both a U-23 development league operating under a PDL type format and for open age semi-pro leagues in the major cities operating in a manner similar to the state leagues in Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne, which appears to be the model being pursued by the proposed OSA sanctioned league.

Hopefully the moratorium will be lifted later this year and PDL will continue to expand into Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and the Maritimes, since in cities that are relatively remote from other major population centres, as is the case with Thunder Bay, the CSL open age semi-pro approach would be completely impractical due to the travel distances involved. The use of student athletes similar to what happens in junior hockey is the most viable economic model. Meanwhile, in the major cities, hopefully, the emergence of a new OSA sanctioned “non-amateur” league will finally help to nudge Canadian soccer beyond the anachronistic separation of amateur and semi-pro clubs in elite competition, which was ditched in most other countries 40 years ago when the Olympics movement moved away promoting the virtues of amateur as opposed to professional competition.