By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Nov 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Vancouver Whitecaps are the only MLS team from Canada that made the playoffs. Toronto FC and CF Montreal, teams with large fan bases, missed out this fall, meaning most of Canada will be rooting for the Whitecaps. Meanwhile, Canadian soccer fans have other things to cheer about.
After the Canadian Women’s Team won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, Canada’s Men’s National Team is making a real go at in the Octagonal, looking to qualify for just its second World Cup ever and first since 1986. Canada is currently third in the Octagonal after a 1-0 win Friday night against Costa Rica. At the same time, the nascent Canadian Premier League, now in its third season, is entering its postseason. While the league isn’t directly responsible for much of the growth and success of Canadian soccer in recent years, they will certainly play an increasingly larger role in what happens next for the game north of the border.
The league, featuring only Canadian clubs, is primarily located in Ontario. That’s traditionally a hotbed for the game thanks to decades-old immigration patterns and Millennials and Gen Z increasingly interested in the sport. For Canada, this is the first foray into a domestic soccer league since the demise of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992.
Canada’s league is reminiscent of the early days of MLS in the late 1990s. It was a time where MLS had plenty of promise. After surviving some lean financial times, the league blossomed into what it is today and immensely helped the growth of American soccer. The seeds of that early success came at the 2002 World Cup, when the USMNT, coached by Bruce Arena and featuring a backbone of MLS talent, reached the quarterfinals.
The CPL could become a similar pipeline of talent. It already is when it comes to youth players, an added bonus to the success of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in MLS. Until an expansion announcement last week, the CPL had steered clear of having teams in those three cities. That will change in 2023. The league awarded an expansion franchise to Vancouver on November 10. The team is owned by SixFive Sports & Entertainment LP, a Canadian-based investment fund that features former Canada internationals Rob Friend and Josh Simpson.
“Expanding into a great sports city like Vancouver is exciting,” CPL commissioner David Clanachan said in a statement. “We look forward to working with SixFive to continue to grow professional soccer in Canada and create a solid foundation that will be the pathway for players to develop and showcase their skills in front of passionate supporters.”
Also starting in 2023, the CPL will get two spots in the Concacaf Champions League, another chance for teams and players to compete at the highest level within in the region.
Like the other leagues around the world, the pandemic meant the CPL had to revamp its 2020 season. The league postponed its April start date and played a shortened, month-long tournament instead – dubbed “The Island Games” – at the University of Prince Edward Island from mid-August to mid-September. In 2021, the season also started later than planned with a Winnipeg bubble they called The Kickoff beginning in late June. With the season eventually playing out closer to normal over its final 16 games, the top four teams in the single-table advanced to the playoffs
The CPL playoffs begin this weekend in a single-elimination format, with the final set for either November 27 or 28. The semifinals will feature Cavalry FC vs Pacific FC on November 20 and two-time champions Forge FC vs York United the following day. American audiences can watch the CPL on Fox Soccer Plus.
The eight-team CPL is focused on not just crowning a champion and growing the game in Canada with the 2026 World Cup on the horizon, but also cultivating homegrown talent. The league’s focus is to improve talent by requiring a minimum number of Canadian players on each roster as well as starting line-ups.
Earlier this year, the league announced that teams have to hit 1,500 minutes of combined playing time to Canadian U-21 players. That’s up from the 1,000 minutes minimum in place during the previous two seasons.
“Part of the mission of the Canadian Premier League is to foster the growth of young Canadian soccer players,” said James Easton, vice-president of the CPL’s Football Operations. “The success to date of our Under 21 player minutes is a testament to the quality that exists across Canada, which is now being served in a meaningful way by the opportunities provided by the CPL and is why we have decided to increase the minutes for young Canadian players.”
The CPL launched at just the right time. In 2018, a survey on youth sports conducted by Solutions Research Group revealed that soccer was the most-popular participatory team sport in Canada. The survey found that soccer is played by 767,000 teens who are age 17 and under, higher than ice hockey, the national sport, which is played by 531,000 participants.
Canada’s current U-20 team features a mix of MLS and CPL players, allowing for the country to look at a larger pool of players who regularly compete at a high level. Toronto-native Tristian Borges, who plays for York FC, is currently the league’s top scorer with 13 goals and five assists. The 20-year-old midfielder previously played in the Netherlands and Belgium. Instead of sitting on the bench for a European club, he is a star at title-contending York FC and even earned his first senior team cap last year.
The future is bright for both players like Borges and for the burgeoning league as a whole. Canadian soccer is experiencing an upswing. That’s a testament to the proliferation of both MLS north of the border in addition to a domestic league of their own.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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Logo courtesy of the CPL