Soccer in Canada
It’s safe to say Canada as a soccer nation has experienced a less than successful history until recent years from a Men’s perspective. The Men’s national team hold an average FIFA ranking of 78 with their lowest ever ranking of a staggering 122 coming as recently as 2014 (1) it has been clear for some time that things have needed to improve. According to FIFA over 2.7 million people participate in soccer across the country (2), which is more than any other sport (yes, that includes Ice Hockey too) and has been heavily female dominant which has led to some successes and sustained quality in the Women’s national team.
A stark reason for the lack of success at the top level has been largely in part to the fact that there has been no professional soccer league in Canada since 1992 with the Canadian Soccer League (CSL). The CSL lasted only 6 seasons (1987 - 1992) and ultimately folded due to financial troubles and dwindling attendances. Only three former CSL teams survived professionally in Vancouver, Toronto & Montreal, who were incorporated into the US league systems of APSL, A-League, USL and later (& at present) the MLS and that’s the way it was - until 2019.
Canadian Premier League (CPL)
The CPL kicked off on April 27th 2019 at the uniquely Canadian named Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario between Forge FC & York United with the first goal coming in 3 minutes and the game ending 1-1. The match was enjoyed by an impressive attendance of 17,611 and both squads, along with all teams were predominantly comprised of successful trialists collected from across the country the year before. Right there, right then, an exclusively Canadian league was born and now, in its fifth season, continues to improve from both a financial perspective and perhaps more importantly a player development perspective. Below we explore the teams that currently compete for the coveted North Star Shield.
City: Ottawa, Ontario
Stadium: TD Place Stadium (Capacity: 24,000)
Head Coach: Carlos Gonzalez (Spain)
Captain: Carl Haworth (Canada)
Perhaps the most unconventional team in the league, Atletico Ottawa, formerly Ottawa Fury, received their new name from their parent club, Atletico Madrid when they joined the second CPL season in 2020 as the league’s first expansion team. Ottleti won the 2022 regular season championship before losing the playoff final to Forge FC at their own stadium in front of a packed 15,000 full house. As expected, their squad comprises a strong Spanish contingent but it is a Northern Irish player named Ollie Bassett, formerly a youth player of Aston Villa, Southampton and Yeovil Town, who stands as the star player having won the 2022 Player of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year awards. Bassett looks a good shout for the award(s) again this year as he finished joint league top scorer with 11 goals alongside New Zealander Myer Bevan of Cavalry. Despite Bassett’s heroics, Ottleti just missed out on playoffs for this season.
City: Calgary, Alberta
Stadium: ATCO Field (Capacity 6,000)
Head Coach: Tommy Wheeldon Jr (England)
Club Captain: Mason Trafford (Canada)
Hot off the heels of clinching the 2023 regular season championship by what looks to be more than 10 point margin, the Calgary outfit look to go one better than they did in 2019 when they first won the regular season but lost the playoff final to Forge FC. Cavalry remains the lone CPL team in the province of Alberta after fierce rivals FC Edmonton fell into financial trouble and left the league in 2022. Headed by Liverpudlian and 2019 CPL Coach of the Year Tommy Wheeldon Jr who ended his playing career at Calgary Storm and began a coaching career in the city they seem to be establishing themselves as a consistently impressive team. The Woodwork will be watching closely to see if they can begin their playoff adventure on October 14th.
City: Hamilton, Ontario
Stadium: Tim Hortons Field (Capacity: 23,218)
Head Coach: Bobby Smymiotis
Club Captain: Kyle Bekker (Canada)
It was almost as if Forge FC couldn’t wait for the CPL to get underway back in 2019, immediately establishing themselves as the benchmark for the league with back to back league titles in 2019 & 2020, followed up with a third in 2022 they also became the first CPL side to qualify for the CONCACAF League and reach the final of the Canadian Championship. Forge’s owner Bob Young, who also owns the Canadian Football League franchise the Hamilton Tiger-Cats was linked with bringing a professional soccer team to the Toronto suburb as soon as rumors of the CPL began in 2013. Young made a seemingly intelligent move to appoint manager Bobby Smyrniotis to the helm, who had spent the previous 13 years co-founding the successful Sigma FC academy in the region after coaching at Olympiacos’ academy in Athens and former successful Canadian national team player David Edgar, formerly of Burnley and other Football League clubs as assistant. Finally, with the signing and appointment of Kyle Bekker in 2018 as club captain and the first CPL player to play 100 matches it seems that consistency and stability has been the aim of the game for Forge FC.
HFX Wanderers FC
City: Halifax, Nova Scotia
Stadium: Wanderers Ground (Capacity: 6,500)
Head Coach: Patrice Gheisar (Canada)
Club Captain: Andre Rampersad (Trinidad & Tobago)
One of the inaugural members of the league, HFX represents the Easternmost club in the league in the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia. The team's best season performance came in 2020 losing the final to Forge in what was referred to as ‘The Island Games’ with all games being played in the nearby province of Prince Edward Island due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The first portion of the 2021 season was played entirely in far flung Winnipeg, Manitoba and thus, upon returning to Halifax and allowing fans to attend it’s likely no coincidence that the club set a club attendance record - sports fans were dying for some entertainment, especially in a city with no major professional sports team around. It appears the club are thinking ahead in terms of fan engagement with HFX’s Wanderers Ground, having many structures built out of shipping containers to not only allow for future growth but also demonstrates Halifax’s long history as a port city.
City: Langford, British Columbia
Stadium: Starlight Stadium (6,000)
Head Coach: James Merriman (Canada)
Club Captain: Josh Heard (Canada)
Pacific FC, as the name might suggest, is located along the Pacific Ocean in Langford, British Columbia, a suburb of provincial capital Victoria. Representing the Westernmost club lying a whooping 6,000 km away from Halifax, Nova Scotia and resulting in one of the furthest away league matches in world football. The club has experienced an interesting start to life with a relatively disappointing first couple of seasons before becoming the second ever team to win the CPL and halting Forge FC from completing a hat-trick of league wins in 2021. That season came under the guidance of Gambian born Norweigian coach Pa Modou Kah, who had become a fan favorite at MLS club Vancouver Whitecaps and also saw them reach the semi-finals of the Canadian Championship impressively beating the Whitecaps and Cavalry FC along the way. The main threat at the moment is 22 year old Dutch forward Ayman Sellouf who has established himself as quite the supersub with 8 goal contributions off the bench and 7 goals and 9 assists overall in the regular season.
City: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Stadium: IG Field (Capacity: 33,000)
Head Coach: Phillip Dos Santos (Canada)
Club Captain: Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Haiti)
Similarly to Forge FC, Valour FC’s hierarchy come from a Canadian Football League background with their President Wade Miller also presiding over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers too. The similarities with Forge FC more or less end there as Valour’s time in the CPL has been much less illustrious with the team only making the playoffs once going as far as the quarter finals. One thing that can be said about Valour FC is that there team is certainly one of the most international in the league with players hailing from Canada, USA, Cuba, France, Mali, England, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Tunisia, Burundi, Ghana, Jordan, Haiti & Algeria and all calling the prairie city of Winnipeg their home.
City: Vancouver, British Columbia
Stadium: Willoughby Community Park Stadium (Capacity: 6,560)
Head Coach: Afshin Ghotbi (Iran)
Club Captain: Callum Irving (Canada)
The newest club to the league can be relatively proud of their first season as although they will miss out on the playoffs, they have not finished bottom of the league (that honor goes to Valour) and have a proud 8 wins to be happy about. Vancouver FC are an interesting addition to the league as they are the first team to exist in the exact same market as a current MLS team in the Vancouver Whitecaps. With the Whitecaps having a pretty uninspired first decade or so in the MLS, it appeared there might be a market to be captured in introducing another professional soccer team in the west coast city. Rather interestingly, the team is owned and operated by SixFive Sports & Entertainment who also run the other CPL team in British Columbia, Pacific FC, showing that the league seemingly has no current issue in multi-club ownership, time will tell if that changes.
York United FC
City: Toronto, Ontario
Stadium: York Lions Stadium (Capacity: 4,000)
Head Coach: Martin Nash (Canada)
Club Captain: Roger Thompson (Canada)
Along with Forge FC, York United competed in that very first CPL game back in 2019 which launched not just the league but the 905 derby between the two teams. The 905 refers to the area code that encompasses the two regions and with only 65 km between them they share the closest proximity between clubs in the CPL. The club is currently managed by Martin Nash, who is a Canadian National Team icon and brother of Steve Nash of former NBA superstardom. The family ties don’t stop there as both British born midfielder Elijah Adekugbe and Portuguese born assistant coach Mauro Eustaquio have brothers who recently represented Canada at the 2022 World Cup. Whilst York United have yet to produce much to write home about on the pitch they do have the proud off the field accomplishment of being the first CPL team to sell a player to a European top flight when Emilio Estevez was sold to ADO Den Haag of the Dutch Eredivisie for $100,000.
With the fifth season coming to its exciting climax at the end of October, the league can be happy with progress thus far. Navigating the global pandemic in your second season and a big chunk of your third season cannot have been easy or in any way predicted by the CPL leadership and to come out fighting and growing is a good sign. Whilst the clear dominance of Forge FC can be seen as potentially detrimental and worrying for the league what we do see is a regular entrant to the CONCACAF League and Champions League plying its trade against the federations best. That exposure on a continental level can only serve to improve the league's reputation and exposure worldwide which helps to establish the Canadian Premier League on the map.
The CPL, at least in the short term, has no intentions of competing with the MLS or Europe for viewers or attention. It is not taking on an aggressive growth model in the same vein that somewhere such as Saudi Arabia is, or looking to attract superstar names on potentially unsustainable contracts to make headlines. The CPL, however, is looking to establish genuine national pathways for youth players and coaches. It is looking to grow competitiveness nationwide and create something that should really have been in place decades ago. It is tapping into the passionate, yet relatively small soccer community that exists in the cracks between ice hockey and basketball fans and connecting and inspiring communities across the provinces for the betterment of the next generation.
If expectations for the league remain balanced, realistic and sustainable, then the future is bright for soccer in Canada.