Last week, reports began to surface about a possible new professional league in Canada that would be developed in partnership with the Canadian (American) Football League (CFL) and the North American Soccer League (NASL). Canada has not had an independent professional league since the Canadian Soccer League folded in 1992, and the surviving teams joined the American professional league system.
For years, Canada’s elite clubs were in the second division A-League (later USL-1). Then in 2005, Major League Soccer (MLS), the first division in the United States, decided it was willing to expand to Canada, and Toronto FC launched in 2007. Since then, Canada has three MLS teams, two of which were founding members of the new NASL in November 2009 (Vancouver and Montreal). By 2011, FC Edmonton joined the NASL, while Ottawa began life in the NASL in 2014.
While many fans in Canada at the time were thrilled by these developments, others were openly unhappy about the growing attachment of the Canadian professional game to US-based leagues whose primary interest was in growing the sport south of the border.
Canada qualified for its only World Cup in 1986. The nation last made it as far as the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 1998. While the nation has developed several decent players who have gone abroad and excelled at European clubs, the top players eligible to play for Canada (more recently such as Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman, Asmir Begovic and Junior Hoilett) have opted to represent other nations, or in Hoilett’s case simply not play internationally at all.
The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) has had a strained relationship with the existing professional clubs in the country. Looking at long-term solutions for the development of Canadian players and the professional game in the nation has split those involved in soccer management in Canada. Now it appears the CSA is interested in working closely with the NASL, rather than trying to work a compromise with the MLS team managements that have been adamant that the governing body make structural changes. It is important to note that the CSA has a marketing agreement with Traffic Sports who have also served in a similar role with the NASL, and currently own two NASL teams, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the Carolina RailHawks.
Canada has a large soccer loving population. Nationally televised MLS games that feature Canadian teams have netted far more viewers than matches in the United States involving two American teams. The Premier League, Serie A and La Liga all have large followings in the country as well, though recent developments with beIN Sports have perhaps dampened some of the enthusiasm for the latter two leagues. But the structure of the domestic game has been flawed for two decades now. While many American fans argue that the NBA, MLB, etc make Canadian participation in US leagues permissible, international soccer is different than the largely Americanized sports structures that exist in those games. Thus, Canada allowing its structure in soccer to be tied directly to the US professional game was always going to result in failures for the nation to develop a long-term identity in the sport.
Having said this, MLS now has the three largest metropolitan areas in the country locked down with successful teams, two of which were founding members of the NASL. So the new NASL/CFL league would essentially combine Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton and a bunch of second-tier markets. While this proposed league may be a positive step for Canada’s development in the game, the business side is questionable. Can second-tier Canadian cities with CFL teams support high-level professional soccer?
We won’t know the answer to that question until this league begins play, but we do know that if this idea comes to fruition the increased opportunities for Canadian players will be useful.