Developing Pro Soccer in Canada: CPL-style                      Who are We?

Developing Pro Soccer in Canada: CPL-style Who are We?

Yeah, who are we?

Or better yet, what are we? As a Hamilton-based footy fan I this is an easy call and answer. It is after all one of our most popular, and basic, chants.

Call: Who Are We?!
Answer: Forge FC!!

But what about for supporters of the league in general?

Scream out the question and you’ll get a bunch of answers.


Call: Who are we?!
Answer: A development league! A farmer’s league! THE Canadian Tier One Professional Soccer League! An MLS afterthought!
A Conspiracy Theorist’s Fever Dream, The Minors! etc.

There are a lot of different ideas swirling around about what the CPL is. I think, despite it being early days, we have to start to step away from the development league tag. Why? Because every league is a development league. After all, what league wants to stunt the growth of its stars? They all want their players to get better. The economics of modern soccer demand it.

Canada’s Joel Waterman, left, controls the ball while being marked by Japan’s defender Yuto Nagatomo during a friendly football match between Canada and Japan at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai on Nov. 17. (KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Furthermore, every top tier league is in service to it national team to some extent. In only four years, we’ve seen a player who played here move up the the NT in Joel Waterman.

How many players at the World Cup played in their Nation’s top league? A lot. I’m too lazy to find the exact number, but y’all have Google.


But of course the goal/dream for individuals is to get to La Liga, the Bundesliga or The EPL. But soccer is popular in almost every corner of the globe. So that cannot be the endgame for everyone, and nor should we want it to be. If soccer is going to be remain the people’s game, it has to be available everywhere: to play, watch and support.

Currently, I think calling the CPL a development league does it no good. Actually, maybe a disservice. Because in North America, a development league means something different than around the world. In hockey and baseball it means the Farm System. A lesser, and necessarily cheaper, version of something else. It is subsidized by the main team, and rarely is it about winning titles. It is about developing players to work in the parent organization’s system. It can mean mid-season call-ups that hurt the farm team’s chances. It can mean the most minutes, not for your hottest player, but for your most expensive prospect. It is one of the reasons that the CPL refused to allow TFC to join initially. To prevent the image of CPL as minor league. (And I have to admit I think the league nailed this. Loans from MLS sides look seem more in line with the international football scene, and having TFCIII line up in your league does look farm system-y).

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It could also be comparable to the CHL (WHL/OHL/QMJHL). An amateur outfit that looks big-time but uses unpaid kids as a way to subsidize its business model. And that in turn, comes with all the ethical dilemmas that fans are forced to ignore in order to truly enjoy it.

Additionally, it is definitely something more insidious. It reminds you that you shouldn’t be thinking local. That’s small time thinking. And to me that’s sad. Local soccer is important.


In the shadow of easily the richest soccer team in Canada, Forge has built up a respectable National Champion. Three titles in four years. And they have given a fanbase that thought pro Soccer meant jumping on GO Train, or fighting traffic, to dress up in Red and pretend to be Torontonians, pretending to be English (or Italian now) for 90 plus minutes of Canadian Corporate patriotism in an American League – was what local pro footy was all about. Phew! (And in case you forgot, it’s called Major League Soccer, what could be more apple pie than that? And what the heck does the ‘F’ in TFC stand for?)

Forge’s Tristan Borges is grabbed by Toronto’s Lukas MacNaughton while going for the ball. (BARRY GRAY)

We are bigger than a development league. The fans, the players, the coaches, the owners, the staff. We are now the start of Canada’s new soccer dreams. (Of course the MLS teams and their subsidiaries are too). In four years, or eight and/or more, Canada’s Men’s National teams may be sprinkled with players who got their start at home in the CPL. Someone who scored their first goals in Halifax (off free kicks probably), or stopped shots in the Hammer, or defended the grasses of Spruce Meadows. We are real. Our players will find success here and go on to flourish at higher levels. But that is not a devaluation. It is merely a reality of the global soccer-sphere.


And if we ARE just a development league. Who is the most successful team then? I mean, titles are afterthoughts when development is key, right?

York United sells off players like McDonald’s flips burgers. So they are the best “developers”, no? (And owned by developers no less).


Or how about PFC? Moved a player to Norway, a couple to TFC and more impressively, 2 more to Forge. (Now that’s development!). And the league has always said it is about more than developing players, but also staff and coaches. Well, now PFC has a former coach in the MLS (only an assistant, but still…), and another in the Eredivisie. So, they must be the clear development leaders.

Díaz scores from the spot against York United (Photo: David Chant/York United)

Bottom line, all us footy fans want Canada to be a footy nation. We all have ideas and goals and dreams and plans for what is needed. But I would argue that a quick cultural shift is needed too. Look in your mirror and repeat after me, “We are big enough and good enough, dang it. And I like us!”

What I am getting at is that we are Canada. We are rarely the best at anything. But we don’t have to be. We just have to be good enough for ourselves. The one sport we dominate (hockey) is one most of the world doesn’t care about. And that hasn’t stopped us. We come to a virtual standstill to watch kids play every Boxing Day. So let’s get out and support local. If you are in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver areas, that can mean MLS. And that’s ok. But the CPL gives us a chance to have a game day experience of our own – outside of the Big Three. Complete with chants, tifos, cheering on local stars and creating your own supporters groups.

Being at the stadium is something that can’t be replicated on the TV, computer or even on your tablet. And so, while other leagues are of higher quality, they are not ours.

The Canadian Premier League championship at TD Place drew nearly 15,000 fans. (Aaron Reid/CTV News Ottawa)

I came to soccer late in life. Always a bit of a fan, but now a fanatic. And I have learned a lot from friends around the world who love the beautiful game. Almost all of them have a favourite EPL or La Liga team. But they often also have a smaller one – one that is their actual heartbeat.


Whether it is the local League One team where they first saw a game with their dad in the rain. Or the team their mum cheered for before emigrating to Canada. Could it be one they played in the youth ranks for? The team their favourite player turned pro with or one they just happened upon one day when looking for something to watch. These little teams took ahold of them. And whether they have seen them play a million times locally, or have been planning a pilgrimage to see them some day in the future, they are their little teams.

And we have that now here. We have that local team we took our kids to for their first pro soccer experience. We have that team that someone came across on TV in the States, the UK or somewhere in the Caribbean for the first time, and now they are planning a trip to see them some day. (This is a real thing. I have spoken to UK fans, made a friend from Germany into a jersey-wearing fan and know of at least one American who wants to hang out in the Bellows. Thanks Fox Sports).


I guess what I am trying to get across is that this should be more than just a business transaction for owners to make money of off by selling up, while keeping costs down. This should be a league we cheer on weekly, hoping for a playoff run. A place where giant-killers await their opportunity in the CanChamps or Concacaf League. A place where smaller city supporters get to come out and back their teams to victory or support them in tough defeats.

We were always more than just a development league, from the second we kicked off. We are a dream factory. For fans and players alike. And that should never be relegated to a league dependent simply on player sales for validation.

(And yes, I am looking at you York).

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