Canada is getting a new national men's soccer league! Pick your reaction:
"Finally! This is awesome!" or "Really? Why?"
If it's the former—congrats, my fellow, nerd! If not, let's try to make some sense of it.
This month, Canada Soccer officially approved the creation of the Canadian Premier League, our first national pro soccer league in a quarter-century.
Hamilton and Winnipeg will have teams, led by the CFL ownership groups in those cities. Up to eight more teams will be added in the coming months, with the hope that play will begin in 2018.
Other CFL cities, such as Calgary and Regina, have been floated as potential sites, while existing soccer teams in Edmonton and Ottawa could make the jump to the CPL. There's even a proposal for a new soccer stadium in downtown Halifax.
But Canada's three highest profile teams—Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and Montreal Impact—will be staying put in Major League Soccer. The reality is that the CPL won't immediately rival MLS in terms of quality.
Making the CPL an even tougher sell is the fact that a Canadian league has been tried before, and failed. The old Canadian Soccer League launched in 1987, riding the excitement of Canada's appearance at the 1986 FIFA World Cup. That league peaked at 11 teams across six provinces, and even had a national TV deal, but behind-the-scenes instability led to its demise in 1992.
So what's to stop the CPL from following that same trajectory? I asked Peter Montopoli, general secretary of Canada Soccer, who says the landscapes of both Canadian soccer and sports marketing have changed dramatically since then.
"We're looking for strong and solid ownership groups that are willing to commit a number of years to grow this league and be a part of this league," he told me last week. "Twenty-five years ago, there wasn't the business model there is today."
It sounds like we won't have sports-ownership neophytes out for a quick buck—that's good, because this is definitely a league that'll crawl before it walks or runs.
The CPL's raison d'être, after all, isn't gigantic and immediate profits; it's to help get Canada back to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. That drought is due to a number of factors, but a massive one has been a lack of professional playing opportunities for Canadians.
Virtually every other country on Earth has a domestic league where its teenagers can test themselves against men, where youngsters can play week-in, week-out to sharpen their skills, and where veteran players can find a safe landing spot to stay fresh and earn that next deal abroad.
Sure, Canada has produced some stars in the past three decades—but without a league of our own, the overall player pool has often been dangerously thin.
MLS's expansion into Canada in the past decade, including the establishment of academies in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, has helped. But most academy players eventually hit a wall, and many of them wash out of the game prematurely.
For them, the CPL could be a crucial bridge to successful pro careers, either at home or abroad. More Canadians getting regular minutes at the pro level means more competition for national-team spots, which raises the team's overall level. That depth is what Canada needs to finally break through in World Cup qualifying.
Now, maybe you don't care about how our men's national team does. You just want entertainment. So I asked Montopoli: With so many soccer-watching options these days, why should anyone care about the CPL?
He cites the story of FC St. Pauli, a club that's spent most of its 106-year history playing in Germany's lower divisions, but has nonetheless cultivated a worldwide reputation for its distinct, explicitly political culture.
"There's only one St. Pauli in the world," says Montopoli, who suggests CPL clubs could connect with Canadians by forging their own distinct, evocative characters.
"It's up to these clubs to craft what they want to be, and cater to their supporter groups and their community. If they want to be who they are, they can be what they want to be."
So we're talking about a league full of quirky and authentic teams, in cities itching to support top-flight soccer for the first time, with the goal of helping our national team finally get back to the World Cup?
If your soccer fandom begins and ends with hunting vicarious glory through some collection of international superstars half a world away, that may not sound too appealing.
But if you're anything like me, and the many members of the coast-to-coast Canadian soccer community who feel the same way, then the next few years are going to be a hell of a lot of fun.