The history of Canadian football is permeated with geographical complexities, infrastructural failings, and a collective exasperation amongst native fans—but has a newly-established league put an end to decades of disillusionment? In this five-part series, Ryan Murray attempts to understand whether the Canadian Premier League is the vehicle that will help to awake a sleeping giant from its slumber, and re-address the balance of power across the North American footballing landscape. Legitimate hope or another false dawn? Let’s find out.
With every passing decade, Canada’s need to establish a viable top-tier has become increasingly pressing. The commercial strength, mass appeal, and broadcasting reach of the world’s best leagues has effectively raised the bar. To even hang onto the coattails of these all-powerful institutions, less high-profile competitions must always find new ways to improve their outputs.
We see these efforts manifesting right across the global footballing landscape, as national and league governing bodies undertake a host of measures in a bid to develop the quality of their domestic product. Football Australia have mandated that all A-League sides (men’s and women’s) are subject to club licensing regulations (a tool used to manage and support clubs in relation to five key areas of focus—sporting, infrastructure, personnel and administrative, legal, and financial), Liga MX and the MLS have united forces to create a competitive dual-league tournament (uninspiringly dubbed the ‘Leagues Cup’), and we’re perhaps already a little too familiar with the money-spinning methods deployed by Saudi Pro League stakeholders in this respect. Yet, these are just a handful of examples. Indeed, even leagues which are based outside football’s traditional epicentres of power are becoming increasingly more professionalised, as they continue to follow the blueprint set out by their ‘elite’ counterparts; the Zambian Super League, Bhutan Premier League, Costa Rican Liga FPD, and Singapore Premier League are all reflective of this current trend. Eventually, the Canadian Soccer Association may have managed to engineer a similar vehicle for success.
Although still very much in its infancy, the Canadian Premier League appears to be the vehicle that will eventually free Canadian football from its self-imposed shackles and enhance its status and credibility amongst international observers. Everything about the league—from its format to its functionality, its principles to its personality—feels, looks, and most importantly is different to projects that have gone before.
The Canadian Premier League’s accompanying mission statement tells you everything you need to know about its ambition, positive outlook, and determination to be a success. Frequently framing its objectives in context of the league’s potential influence on the composition of the Canadian national team, the CPL sets out a compelling vision for the future of the domestic game. Organisers envisage ‘a league for Canadians, by Canadians’ which ensures ‘players and supporters from coast to coast will finally have a competition to truly call their own’ and serves as the ‘main stage for our very best to compete for the right to represent the Maple Leaf’.
The idea that the league’s primary purpose should be to supply the national team with a pipeline of homegrown talent was a key catalyst in its creation. ‘Our National Team coaches do not have the benefit of selecting players who regularly compete in an elite-level domestic league,’ cited CSA’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan, a policy document developed throughout 2013 which outlined the organisation’s short-term aims and aspirations (including its desire to bid for the 2026 World Cup). ‘The world’s top national teams draw from their domestic leagues. The development of a home-grown system in which our best players can compete is of paramount importance.’
A cursory glance at recent Les Rouges squads suggests the CPL hasn’t yet developed into a springboard for international involvement. Only one current Canadian top-flight player—Doneil Henry of HFX Wanderers—has been called up within the last twelve months; the former West Ham United, Blackburn Rovers, and Toronto FC defender only signed for the Nova Scotia-based outfit in July. Nevertheless, one could hardly expect a fledgling league to overturn such an entrenched historic trend in the mere blink of an eye. For decades, the most-gifted native players have quickly sought pastures new, exiting the disorganised and disillusioning nature of the Canadian system to ply their trade elsewhere, in turn robbing local leagues of national team representatives. We can chart this pattern of player movement all the way back to the early twentieth century, when Whitey MacDonald, an Irish-born immigrant who previously appeared for Hamilton Thistle and Toronto Ulster, and Joe Kennaway, a goalkeeper who started his playing career in his native Montreal, signed for Rangers and Celtic respectively. Both had been spotted during separate North American tours, having already earlier been poached by U.S-based sides.
More recently, Cyle Larin and Atiba Hutchinson, who both hail from the city of Brampton, endured only a brief stint in the local leagues before venturing to more salubrious surroundings. Striker Cyle Larin, the first-ever Canadian to be selected as opening pick for the MLS SuperDraft, featured for academy side Sigma FC during their inaugural season in League1 Ontario, while the legendary Atiba Hutchinson, who was capped 104 times for his country before his recent retirement, made a handful of appearances for York Region Shooters (now defunct) in the Canadian Professional Soccer League (now the CSL). Ironically, the duo would later end up playing together at Turkish giants Beşiktaş.
The CPL certainly has its work cut out; traditionally, the Canadian conveyor belt of talent only moves in one direction. Furthermore, there has historically been a tendency for the national side to defer to foreign-based players, drafted in to the Les Rouges set-up after close examination of family trees without so much having kicked a ball in anger on Canadian soil; Scott Arfield, Iain Hume, and Jayson Leutwiler all fit neatly into this category. The desire to perpetuate this approach for so long was at best a demonstration of a lack of confidence in the quality of domestic leagues, at worst a prejudicial statement regarding the innate capability (or incapability) of native Canadian players. Although their ranks are still peppered with players born on distant shores, with the likes of skipper Milan Borjan (Yugoslavia), Watford’s Ismaël Koné (Ivory Coast), former Chelsea trainee Iké Ugbo (England), and of course star-man Alphonso Davies (Ghana) all starting life thousands of miles away, the key difference is that each of these individuals acquired Canadian citizenship at an early age, and honed their skills in local youth academies and development leagues. Thankfully, it appears the previous, counter-intuitive methodology has now been largely abandoned.
A positive start
Despite its initial momentum being undermined by the small matter of a global pandemic, the first five editions of the Canadian Premier League have been, by all intents and purposes, an unmitigated success. In the years following the COVID-ravaged 2020 season (which saw the CPL exercise impressive flexibility to stage a condensed mini-league series, coined the ‘Island Games’ as a nod to host territory Prince Edward Island), spectator numbers have consistently improved, with average attendances comfortably eclipsing 3,000 for the current season. Atlético Ottawa, a subsidiary venture of La Liga powerhouses Atlético Madrid and the best-supported club in the division by some distance, regularly see gates of over 12,000 at the TD Place Stadium.
Rising attendance figures is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is an entirely different proposition. Buoyed by a collective spirit which has materialised from the ashes of previous failures, and galvanised by a fervent belief in the CPL project, Canadian football fans are now experiencing a tangible feel-good factor on matchdays. Furthermore, given the quality on show, spectators piling into CPL stadiums are also being thoroughly entertained.
It’s often challenging to determine the standard of a league—particularly in the context of a global debate—by exclusively presenting evidence gleaned from fixtures between its participant clubs. Usually, the best barometer for judging a domestic league is its performance on the continental stage, a ‘measure’ we see frequently adopted by European fans attempting to settle disputes on the superiority of their respective clubs. Clearly, we have a slight anomaly in Canada, in that local top-tier sides may compete against a stronger, ‘external’ (MLS-based) opponent in their domestic cup competition (the Canadian Championship), and therefore an analysis of their efforts in this tournament (as provided) also affords us a decent insight into the league’s merits. Even so, assessing the displays of Canadian Premier League clubs in continental competition arguably provides us—and international observers—with a more comprehensive view on the standard of the league, and its early developmental progress since launching in April 2019.
Two CPL outfits (regular season and play-off winner)) now advance to the CONCACAF Champions Cup each season. However, prior to the 2023 campaign, Canada’s newly commissioned top flight was awarded a single berth in the CONCACAF League. Not to be confused with the recently discarded CONCACAF Champions League (due to be replaced by the aforementioned CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2024), the CONCACAF League acted as a feeder tournament to North America’s most-prestigious club competition, and saw the best sides belonging to leagues with the lowest coefficient ranking vie for one of six available CONCACAF Champions League places (N.B. Caribbean-based outfits were made to navigate a slightly different path. The annual Caribbean Club Championships would decide which teams in this region would progress to the CONCACAF League, and which would qualify directly for the CONCACAF Champions League).
As part of CONCACAF’s wholesale reshuffle of their continental competition format, resulting in the CONCACAF Champions Cup permitting more sides from so-called ‘weaker’ leagues to qualify for the confederation’s showpiece tournament, the CONCACAF League was disbanded in 2022. Nevertheless, North America’s secondary club competition was the avenue in which CPL clubs (the league’s play-off winners) were given the opportunity to face foreign opposition. Only two clubs—Forge FC and Pacific FC—have represented the CPL in continental competition so far, but both have exceeded expectations in each season of their involvement.
The Canadian Premier League certainly wasted no time in providing a platform for their sides to compete on foreign soil With the 2019 CONCACAF League landing mid-way through the league’s inaugural season, the CPL could have easily ceded their tournament berth, instead delaying its participation until a first ‘champion’ (the side who wins the league’s playoff tournament, originally contested between the league’s two strongest sides, before being expanded to the top four in 2021, and now top five in 2023) had been crowned. However, with the league barely three months into its tenure, Forge FC would assume the responsibility of carrying the CPL torch in the CONCACAF League, after emerging triumphant in a head-to-head battle with the league’s other two founding member clubs (FC Edmonton and Valour FC) during the ‘Spring’ stage of the regular season (as per the ‘Apertura’ and ‘Clausura’ split-season model in the Liga MX/many other Latin American leagues, the CPL adopted a two-part—‘Spring’ and ‘Fall’—season in 2019. This system was only used in the league’s inaugural campaign).
The Hamilton-based side performed commendably. After navigating past Antigua GFC of the Guatemalan Liga Nacional in the preliminary round, Forge FC would face C.D. Olimpia in the last sixteen. Impressively, Forge FC overcame the two-time CONCACAF Champions Cup winners at Tim Hortons Field, before being comfortably beaten in San Pedro Sula in the second leg. As 2019 Canadian Premier League champions, Forge FC would return to a streamlined CONCACAF League in 2020, as organisers sought to reduce the fixture congestion preempted by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forge would this time go one better, eliminated at the quarter-final stage after edging past El Salvador’s Municipal Limeño and Panamanian Football League outfit Tauro in the competition’s opening exchanges. A win in the last eight against unfancied Haitians Arcahaie would have secured an unlikely appearance at the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. However, the Ontarians fell to a heartbreaking defeat in Santo Domingo, losing 4-2 on penalties after throwing away a one goal lead in regulation time—a huge opportunity missed. Bobby Smyrniotis’ men were then unable to capitalise on a second, slightly more challenging qualification chance, losing out in the Play-In tournament (a single-round competition played out between the four losing CONCACAF League quarter finalists for the remaining two CONCACAF Champions League slots) to CD Marathón of the Liga Betcris de Honduras.
Victory in the Island Games would ensure Forge continued as the CPL’s sole participant in the CONCACAF League for a third consecutive season. The Hammers would once again defy the odds, surpassing their previous efforts to reach the semifinals. Ironically, they would be struck down for a third time by Honduran opposition, after succumbing to Tegucigalpa-based outfit Motagua on away goals. However, by virtue of making it to the last four, Forge had already sealed their place in the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League; some achievement for a side established in the summer of 2017. Unfortunately, Forge were unable to progress beyond the first stage of the CONCACAF Champions League the following season, as Mexican powerhouses Cruz Azul, six-time winners of the competition, eased past the newcomers 4-1 on aggregate.
Following their 2021 playoff victory, Pacific FC advanced to the 2022 CONCACAF League, the final edition of the competition. Despite a disappointing goalless draw in Kingston, the Tridents would thrash Jamaican representatives Waterhouse at the Starlight Stadium to progress through the preliminaries. However, just as Forge had failed to do in their first attempt four years prior, James Merriman’s side were unable to defeat their Round of 16 opponent, as Costa Ricans C.S. Herediano beat Pacific on spot-kicks following a 1-1 aggregate scoreline.
With the CONCACAF League scrapped in preparation for the forthcoming CONCACAF Champions Cup, and no avenue for entry into the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League provided, the current year enforces a continental hiatus on CPL clubs. Had there been an opportunity to put forward a locally based Canadian representative for any pan-North American competition (Vancouver Whitecaps participated in the CONCACAF Champions League after winning the 2022 Canadian Championship), a familiar candidate would have once again taken the reins—last October, Forge put Atlético Ottawa to the sword to become Canadian Premier League champions for a third time in four seasons. Can a CPL side progress to the latter stages of the inaugural 2024 CONCACAF Champions League? Based on current evidence, one would assume they could.
In the final instalment of this five-part series, the CPL’s early successes and projected future performance will be analysed, alongside its potential impact on the long-term prosperity of the Canadian national side. Has Canada turned over a new (Maple) leaf?