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.

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