The Value of U-21 Minutes May Be Overstated.

The Value of U-21 Minutes May Be Overstated.

Ok, kinda part two of my rants series…or is it three? So hard to keep up. I think I need to write a fluff piece soon. Mascots Part Deux? Get back to my forgotten travel series? Ah well, this week it’s rants.

So today’s rant is all about U-21 minutes. And my editor is working overtime cutting out expletives. Because, c’mon man why the @#$* do we have these things?

Look, I am not a complete jerk. I get the idea. We are developing the stars of tomorrow on the Canadian soccer landscape. So every minute counts.

But this is a bit of a scam. For a bunch of reasons. So I want to break them down for you, before I build the league that I love, right back up.


Who Are We?

That’s a Forge chant that really gets the masses fired up. But it is also an existential question for the league. So let’s get philosophical for a minute, who are we?

Well Descartes said it best, “I play, therefore I am.” Or something like that. He was a solid D-Mid on the French Philosophers’ Footy side that was narrowly beaten in the semis by the Greeks on their way to that famous final. And that got me to thinking, the CanPL finally exists now, but where do they exist? Do they exist as a Tier 1 soccer league poised for greatness down the road? Or are they a minor league only concerned with teaching kids on their way to higher things? Or are they more likely existing in some liminal space between these two realities? Let’s dig in and discuss it a bit.


Are We a Real League?

FIFA bestowed tier one status upon this league. But what does that mean? To a lot of Canadian footy fans it means big fat nothing. But to some of us it means everything.

Scotland, Wales and a Northern Ireland’s soccer fans all spend a lot of their time watching the English Premier League. But they’ll still turn out to their hometown grounds to see their local heroes. And it is the best of both worlds as you get to be part of a place that isn’t too corporate locally, but still enjoy the the big money circus on the telly.

I am not naive, the MLS still rules the roost around these parts. Much like the Barclay’s Premier League in the UK does. MLS teams’ roster earnings eclipse the CanPL’s many times over. Some of the players on CFM, VWFC and TFC make more than entire CPL teams do. So I get who the real big boys are in the grand scheme of Canadian Soccer. But that doesn’t mean we have to look down on our national product. We can be proud of it and support it, while enjoying Apple’s product too. There is room for lots of footy fandom in Canada.

Despite being in different leagues Forge (CPL) and Montreal (MLS) have faced off against each other for three successive seasons (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Allen McInnis

So that brings me back to the question at hand, are we a real league? And to that I say emphatically, yes! But we have work to do to make people believe it. And the one concept I am going to focus on, in this article, is the U-21 minutes.


We Are a Development League

No we aren’t! I just said we are a real league. So why are so many articles about this league littered with takes about our importance first and foremost as a development league? Well that is multi-faceted, so let me dive in and attempt to enlighten you gentle reader.

Canadians are in love with their national teams. And who could blame them, they are home to some of the biggest names in football around the world. On the men’s side Phonzie is arguably the best in his position in the world and playing for an international giant at Bayern. Johnathan David is on the cusp of a big money move to England on the back of some great seasons in France. Cyle Larin is starring in Spain and Alistair Johnston at Celtic. Women like Kadeisha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming are playing at Chelsea. Grosso is a star in Italy with Juventus and Jayde Riviere is at Man U.

And we realize that a lot of these players developed despite our federation, not because of it. And truthfully, pro leagues and their academies are where players are developed around the world, so we should probably move away from CSA development and more towards the CPL.

Wait a minute I hear the readers scream, you said the CPL isn’t a development league. Right, it isn’t. It is just a league that will help to develop Canadian talent. Clear as mud, right?

Okay I will try to break this one down further. The Canadian Premier League is not just a development league because every league in the world is a development league. Every kid in the soccer world dreams of playing for their nation at the World Cup. And tons of them dream of starting for their local side first, before being transferred to a top 6 club in England or one of the top two Spanish sides, or perhaps, to their parent’s favourite team from back home. But that is as true in Canada as it is in Scotland, Honduras, Nigeria, Japan, Portugal or almost any other country in the world.

But those nations don’t call their top flights ‘development leagues.’ And neither should we. Because right out of the gate we are advertising, minor leagues. And that is a bad thing in Canada. As soon as we stamp something with minor, it becomes inferior, in our brains. What I’d like it to become in our brains is, different.

Sure this ain’t MLS, but it is different. It is accessible. Both in cost and in location, since not everyone in Canada lives near Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

It is local. I know I talked about location already, but by this I also mean their are a lot of Canadians involved. MLS has done a great job of getting Canadians into the game, but the CPL just flat out has more positions. Eight teams for now, with growth to come. That means positions for eight coaches, GMs, training staff, players, even agents, all, potentially, with Canadian passports.

This league has money behind it. I know there are issues with the CSB/CSA deal. Everyone does. But there is no denying that there is some real money involved here. The Southern Family are billionaires who own their pitch. Atletico Madrid has a few euros to spare. Bob Young started this league to get another tenant in the building in Hamilton and just had Stelco buy into his Hamilton Sports Group which includes the Ti-Cats and Forge for a substantial amount. About $20 million for a 40% share. Not bad.

The league gets bums in seats in most locales, despite some definite roadblocks. Neither Cavalry nor PFC are exactly downtown-adjacent. And Forge, Ottawa and Valour all share outsized stadiums for their product. Yet still, they are on the rise.

So this league is real. Pinch me!

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What is this Article Even About?

Sorry I had to set up that context before the unbridled attack that is upcoming.

U-21 minutes are window dressing at best, and a cynical corporate ploy at their worst. Welcome to the Darkside (Vancouver FC haven’t copyrighted that yet, have they?).

Ok, let’s start with the window dressing. 2,000 minutes in a season is about 72 minutes per game of play time that each team must dedicate to under 21 players. That’s it? Each team as far as I can tell has at least 4 players that can help make up those minutes. Most have between six and eight. So this shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish in a ‘development league’. But since we aren’t one, it gets sticky.

Despite leading the league in U21 minutes, both Vancouver and Valour are at the bottom of the CPL (James Glezos/@jg.visuals__)

This could be correlation over causation, but the leaders last year and this year were teams that really kind of stink. And this year Valour and Vancouver will only see their logos at the top of the youth minutes chart, as they are locked in the basement on the “for-realsies” table. And that is a weird kind of benefit for being crap, you get a lot of free marketing, because the league and OneSoccer keep pushing this as a selling point. Which is doubly-weird when you consider it seems to show that only crappy teams really buy into this hard.

So how important are these minutes? Well if you are one of the teams with 6 youth players, you’d better be ready to have these kids on the pitch for at least 12 minutes a game. That doesn’t sound like that much if you are trying to develop the stars of tomorrow.

While young players like Tristan Borges, Aribim Pepple, Diyaeddine Abzi and Victor Loturi, have all moved on to greener pastures, at least for a time, a lot of the league’s big money transfers or league jumps have been over the age of 21 by a fair margin. And this is where the darker side starts to leak in.

Joel Waterman became the first CPL alumni to play for Canada in 2022 (KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Lukas McNaughton, Kadin Chung, Alejandro Diaz, Joel Waterman, Dominick Zator, Marco Bustos have all made successful moves to higher divisions. They are players who need further developing too. We have a ton of players with real talent in academies across the country, but we also have guys on their last opportunities playing semi-pro looking for a chance to learn how to be full pros. Sometimes I feel like the league’s efforts to show us as a development league skips over spotlighting the other development that needs to happen. Players like the ones mentioned above, need to polish those rough edges on their way up. Veteran players need to develop into future coaches and front office execs like David Edgar, Nik Ledgerwood, Drew Beckie and Mason Trafford. And while these moves are proof it is happening, they are overshadowed by the constant refrain of youth minutes in the press, in my opinion.


Step Into the Shadows

And this is where I become a bit cynical.

We are celebrating year five in the CPL. But we are still awaiting the league’s first Collective Agreement. And while I see positive signs in having a new open, and player-positive, commissioner in Mark Noonan, we still have a way to go. And all these agreements on u-21 minutes have impacts on all sides of the game.

For example, the cynic in me would see that more youth contracts artificially depresses wages. Team cheque books (and therefore owners) are far happier with the low wages of first year developmental players and U-Sports contracts than with full senior ones. And there is the rub. How many mid-twenty something players have been cut loose for one reason or another at clubs to be replaced by someone before a raise came due? The league/team almost always enjoys an option year in contracts so far. That gives them the freedom to drop a player if he looks like he is going to cost more than he is worth. And that’s good business. But it also lets them lock him in at a cheap rate if they decide to squeeze another season out of him.

So this has the potential at least, to incentivize teams to cut talented players who’ve grown up in their structure to bring in cheaper contracts and to try to flip players early. Cutting a kid with two-years experience in your system for financial reasons, to bring in a noob, is not really culture-building.

And flipping players early can have a negative impact too. If too many young guns go out, and don’t make it, the league gets a reputation as sub-par for talent. By holding on a bit you have the hope to develop them a little more professionally and more polished, which benefits the whole league. Especially since CSB probably has some type of profit sharing, so who knows if that applies to transfers?

Another issue is, what do the players want? As mentioned they do not have a Collective Agreement. So that means all these rule changes have little, if any, player input. Isn’t it possible that players want to be challenged by the best talent available in practice? Or that they would want the most professionally adept and experienced players possible on the pitch with them as they try to win it all?


Helping or Hurting

So how does this all impact the product on the field?

The Helping

Well their is no doubt that there is a feel-good factor. Seeing local kids get a chance on their local pro soccer team is awesome. Something we couldn’t even have dreamed about a decade ago (Unless you lived in the Big Three Cities or Ottawa or Edmonton).

So how does this help the kids?

I think minutes for kids is important. Maybe more important is just being on a professional side. Learning what it means to be a full-time footballer day in and day out.

Being on time for team meetings and training. Learning what to do with all your free time afterwards without hurting your game shape. Staying focused. Learning to channel frustration into increased effort. And of course learning to take advantage of opportunities. These are all things that are difficult for talented youth to learn at amateur/academy levels. Awesome.

14 of the 18 kids on developmental contracts have yet to see the pitch. So let’s hope the things I wrote above are true.

USports kids don’t fare much better. There are only six in the league, and half of them have played minutes so far. Three of the eight CPL teams don’t even have a USports player.

So basically this comes down to developing a few quality players per team with significant game time. For example, Forge have focused their minutes on Poku and Kane (Costello injured, and Kalongo behind Henry was never gonna get many minutes) And I think that is great. Giving kids quality and quantity minutes really helps their game. This is a better focus, in my opinion.

But the u-21 system in general does beg some questions. Like, Are we about developing young talent in and for our league specifically, or the Canadian landscape in general?

I ask because Atleti has played a CF Montreal player for fully half of their U-21 minutes. This is a kid who already had the advantages that come with playing in a massive (by Canadian standards) professional team system. I mean, I don’t really have an issue with it, because game time for young Canadians is important to building the game here. But it feels a little too easy to do it with MLS Academy kids. That work is already being done by MLSNextPro and the MLS Academies. It feels like the CanPL could be better served by finding those falling through the cracks. Maybe a lower credit cap of 500 usable minutes for loans instead of the current 1000 would shift focus a little?

Youth minutes are important, and overall that’s what I’ve shown so far. But wait, wasn’t I supposed to be showing why the U-21 minutes were nonsensical? Oops.


The Hurting

Actually, that’s what I am about to do. Because the idea of these minutes is a bit of a smokescreen.

Look, the fact is, even without these rules, teams were always going to sign young Canadian kids. There are at least three reasons:

1. They are cheap. Canadian kids keep costs down. They don’t have the cachet to sign wherever they please in the world. Especially if they don’t have a second passport.
2. Hometown discounts. Players here want to play locally. Make a name for themselves, and let’s face it, live at home if they are gonna be on small contracts.
3. It’s good PR. Local soccer fans love to get behind local talent. So why not sign a couple of local kids and have them sign autographs and visit schools? That lets kids dream big themselves.
So again, what the heck is the problem?

Well one of the problems is, we don’t know what the players themselves want.

As mentioned as naseum, CanPL is still a league without a Collective Bargaining Agreement. So the rules that are made are all made without any real, substantive negotiations with the players. And the people on the frontlines have a good perspective on what is needed for success.

But it’s more than that. In my mind, there is no way that the developmental players currently on Forge FC are better than Miles Green. Miles was a stand out university player. Scored goals for fun at both the university and L1O levels. And I have had the benefit of watching him train with Bobby’s boys as a member of the press. He looks like he belongs. Comfortable on the ball and with his teammates. And while there are no guarantees in life, that could translate to some real additional firepower exactly where Forge need it. Well, at present, he can’t crack the Forge line up, and that’s not because of talent.

And hey, it’s not just my team. If you want to see proof of how important it is to develop the over 21 crowd, take a peek at the HFX Wanderers. Dan Nimick does not count towards u-21 minutes. But his development is crucial. He is being talked about as the next possible CPL-connected player for the CanMNT. Should HFX be sitting him out in games so that they can play a younger kid and guarantee those u-21, playoff-mandated, minutes? Of course not, from a quality of play or development of Canadian soccer perspective. But from a league gimmick point of view, it may be smarter to find him some pine. (I know benches aren’t pine anymore but more like race car seats, but you get me).

Dan Nimick (aged 22) looks set to be the next best thing to come from the CPL (HFX WANDERERS

And that’s a problem. Because these are the type of players that we want to watch. Because they are in the CanPL sweet spot. Developed enough physically to play amongst men, but still raw enough to need the polish to hit the next level. After seeing the success of those 22-25 year-olds who’ve moved up from CanPL, we have to learn that they are in our wheelhouse too.

And they are doubly important. Because this league’s insistence on us being a development circuit is obvious obfuscation of the primary job of any professional league. Entertainment.


Are You Not Entertained?

Minor leagues don’t have this issue to the same extent, because they are subsidized by their parent clubs. But as a tier one soccer league, we have to stand on our own two feet. So bringing in the top level of talent possible is paramount. People want to be entertained. The CanPL should be focused on that.

And I understand that there is a subsection of us soccer nerds who love diving into Salary Cap rules like TAM/GAM and the salary cap hit based on the mid-season release of a player. But it is probably more important to cater to a slightly broader contingent of fans at least in the early going.

And that means talent first in my books.

The Journeyman’s Journey

Also bringing in talent with experience to play with these youngsters is important too. And that means attracting Canadians who may have peaked abroad and are ready to bring their talents home.

I’d argue that the David Edgars, Nik Ledgerwoods, Drew Beckies and Marco Bustos’ of the league were critically important. They brought leadership to their teams, and it is no mere coincidence that teams with these type of guys are near the top of the table fairly consistently. Because there is no sense having a ton of youth running around like chickens with their heads lopped off. (See early season TFC as a case in point.) You need to pair youth, with experienced veterans and talented 23-28 year-olds.

Drew Beckie (Atletico Ottawa)

Bringing in the type of guys who can be solid talent, provide competition in training, and bring in international experiences to the camp is invaluable.

Playoffs?! Don’t Talk About Playoffs, You Kiddin’ Me?” – Jim Mora

I left the most obvious for last. We have teams in one of the best playoff races* in league history with a potential elephants in the room. Those elephants of course are u-21 minutes. Ask HFX Wanderers fans if they are happy with this season’s product on the pitch. You will get an overwhelmingly positive response. I’m sure you’d get a pretty similar response at York too. But both those teams need significant minutes to cross the u-21 threshold down the stretch.

* It remains to be seen if this is the best playoff race ever. An HFX win vs York on Natal Day coupled with continued u-21 minutes mismanagement, may mean that York is out of the playoff hunt earlier than hoped. And that means unlike the 3 team chase for the final spot last year, all the teams will be decided very early and just the seeding will be up for grabs. A little anti-climactic for me, but a check in the box for those who think the home field advantage of a one-and-done is the be-all-and-end-all.

Now I mentioned earlier that these minutes are window dressing. Easily attainable. But when you are building a new culture (Halifax) or trying to build the game in a city that hasn’t fallen in love with you yet (York) you need to be as entertaining, well-drilled and together as possible. Add to that any injuries to key youth players and any potential mid-season sales (which the league are high on) and you have a recipe for potential disaster. Ok, maybe not disaster, but definitely uncomfortable finishes.

York specifically is in an really uncomfortable spot. They need to average approximately 152.5 minutes/game in their last six matches. That is a substantial amount for a team fighting for that last playoff spot. You can argue it is their own fault for leaving it late, but an injury to their best young player, Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy, (and a controversial sitting out for “religious” reasons) hasn’t helped. In some of the most important games of their season they will need to play some inexperienced guys in big time moments.

The most obvious move, which they’ve already started is playing De Rosario in goal. While he has looked ok, he is not as experienced a leader at marshalling his back line as Giantopolous is. And if a De Rosario miscue or two costs this team key points down the stretch, that u-21 rule (Or its application by York) will be a hated component of an otherwise fun season.


That Other Rule

All of this is ignoring that new rule about non-domestic u-21 minutes:

  • A maximum of seven (7) International Players. At all times, 50% of all CPL Club’s International
    Players must be U23 (born January 1 st , 2000 or later). If a CPL Club wishes to utilize the
    maximum seven (7) International Players, the 7 th signed International Player must be U21 (born
    January 1 st , 2002 or later)

I don’t know why the league felt it necessary to limit the number of veteran foreign players…

Just kidding. It may have something to do with contract costs. Or the fact that they may speak out about union/player issues since they have international experience.

It also seems counter-productive since prior to this week, the second biggest transfer in league history was of a foreign-born player, Wero Diaz. And I am not sure why we need to be in the business of developing international youth players (Of course, just kidding again. It is the idea that buying young and cheap and selling on high is a money-making style). Of course it begs the question why you wouldn’t just leave that to individual teams to decide for themselves how to run their businesses.


A bit late for this, but here is my synopsis for anyone with enough time on their hands to read my epic saga.

U-21 minutes are basically PR fluff. They are meant to make it look like we are doing a much better job at developing youth than our competition at the Big Three. (Although the Big Three have academies and MLSNextPro teams full of young Canadians so…).

Constant reminders that the worst teams in the league (by far) are always the best at racking up u-21 minutes is not the big sell you think it is corporate boardroom types.

While the idea is laudable, it is unnecessary. A league trying to keep payrolls low is always going to turn to a cheap source of labour. Young Canadians are it.

Drawing up a complicated and unproven new playoff system with all the media-promotion bells and whistles is anti-climatic if teams end up disqualifying themselves, or knocking themselves out of contention with poor youth minute management.

U-21 minutes are an effective way to cloak attempts at artificially suppressing wages. Pay a kid living at home peanuts rather than signing a young man to a fair, professional contract is arch-capitalist 101. I know this is a business, but fool me with the romance once in a while.

All of these rules are unilaterally formed as best we can tell. No Collective Agreement means no real contribution from the players. And that is no way to build a league in a time where youth respect for unions is at generational highs. (And this is an American link. Imagine what it means in Canada, where unionization is more popular across all demographics).

People love a meritocracy. U-21 minutes can give off the vibe that a player is only on the pitch because he has to be, not because he desreves to be, and that is unfortunate.

What Do You Think?

I love the CanPL. I know I complain a lot, but that is because I always want it to be a little bit better than it is right now. And progress is important. Letting things slip the wrong way in the early days entrenches bad habits and practices.

So let me know what I missed. There is definitely a need to grow youth talent in Canada. But maybe that should be the job of the semi-pro L1C to manage. ( I should point out that the use of L1C affiliates to give u-21 players valuable minutes is a positive I overlooked. I’ll dig into that a little more and get back to ya).

Let me hear your feedback. Heaven knows this league can use all the discussion possible in all the mediums available.

And it has been suggested that my arguments are not always infallible. Hmm, who knew.

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