Since the dawn of the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) in 1912, our sport has been plagued by a constant, undeterred theme: Why has Canada consistently lacked a competitive national side? Over the years, our federation has struggled to develop an effective program, resulting in generations of similar, mediocre, displays by the Canadian Mens National Team. We have qualified for the FIFA World Cup once, in 1986. At the time, this was seen as a potential break-through in Canadian soccer history. Since then, however, we have largely returned to a country plagued by mediocrity.
In analyzing the state of the Canadian national team, many have drawn our meager showings to a simple fact: the continuous lack of a domestic soccer scene within the country. It’s a simple observation that almost all nations world wide, from Germany to Panama, right through to St Lucia, attempt to develop their national sides through the running of domestic competitions. Successful nations, such as Germany, make use of their leagues to offer playing time, development, and chemistry to their nationals. Why then, has Canada never followed the world’s lead and established a sound internal structure which fosters growth and development? In answering this question, we can begin to address the issue of a continuously mediocre national team.
With a strong advent in global transportation and communication in the late 19th century came an increase in exposure for international soccer. Canada was no exception, as the sport was booming in this period. While today’s popular clubs, such as Manchester United, were taking hold in many European cities, similar teams were founded in areas such as Toronto and Montreal. Canadian based teams were competitive in this era, achieving results against their European counterparts and aiding Canada as it won the Gold Medal in soccer at the 1904 Olympics.
Interestingly, soccer’s popularity in Canada parallels the enthusiasm it is shown in many of the world’s English-speaking countries, with the notable exception of England itself. In the aftermath of the First World War, a desire for independence and unique culture overtook nations which were formerly English colonies. Such a desire played an instrumental role in a diminishing popularity for ‘football’ in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and, indeed, Canada. With time, other variations of localized ‘football’, including Canadian, American, or Aussie Rules, grew in popularity within these countries, while ‘soccer’ was perceived as an ‘old country’ game. While domestic leagues developed for the local variations of ‘football’, the growth of the beautiful game was effectively halted, and has arguably yet to recover in countries such as Canada.
It wasn’t until 1968 when a large-scale resurgence for association football was attempted in Canada, with the emergence of the original North American Soccer League (NASL). Such a competitive league, in the United States and Canada, strengthened the sport in terms of domestic popularity and quality of our national team players. For the first time, Canadian players were given the opportunity to develop in a professional environment and ply their trade in front of their home supporters, while developing chemistry with fellow Canadian players. It is difficult to argue with the success of this league, as it was largely responsible for Canada’s qualification in the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
Following our lone appearance at the World Cup, enthusiasm for the sport in Canada had grown to a point where a domestic league was indeed established. The original ‘Canadian Soccer League’ (CSL), which played its first season in 1987, was put forth by the CSA in response to an anomaly which saw Canada as one of the only countries to feature at a World Cup, but does not possess its own domestic league. The CSL, which showcased teams in a total of thirteen Canadian cities, came with a promise of continuing the success of the nation’s World Cup qualification. The league’s promise was evident by the fact that the national team was competitive in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, as Canada reached a final inter-confederation playoff round. Many current and former Canadian soccer icons, including Bob Lenarduzzi, Alex Bunbury, Dale Mitchell, Pat Onstad, and Jason de Vos, began their careers in this domestic league.
Such promise was short lived, however, as both the original NASL and CSL ceased operations by 1992. In the immediate aftermath, Canada’s domestic soccer presence returned to its historical void, a fact reflected by a return to mediocrity by the national team. Now, over twenty years later, many are curious if the country is finally ready to welcome a new, sustainable domestic presence.
In any sport, sustainable leagues are a product of interest. A committed and passionate core of fans is necessary to spark the league’s creation and subsequent well-being. With this in mind, a question emerges: since the demise of the original CSL, has enough changed in Canada to ignite and maintain a national league? To answer this, it is best to offer a historical narrative of changes to soccer in Canada over the past twenty years.
By 1996, the Canadian national sides benefitted from the creation of a supporters group, The Voyageurs, whose aim is to create boisterous atmospheres for international matches that feature Canada. Members of this group are located all over the country, and would serve as pioneer supporters to local clubs in a domestic league. With this came early renewed calls, from grassroots fans, for a national league. In 2002, these calls had morphed into ‘The Voyageurs Cup’, a trophy which is maintained by the group and features a mandate to be presented, on an annual basis, to the best club team in Canada. In a way, this was a return to a small-scale domestic competition.
Five years later, Canada was provided with an opportunity to showcase its footy passion through the hosting of a major tournament, the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup. As a nation, we responded with enthusiasm, breaking attendance records and showing that we have, at least, a basic appetite for soccer. A legacy of this rush was the building of BMO Field in Toronto, and, with it, a 2007 expansion side, called Toronto FC, in Major League Soccer (MLS). From its outset, TFC’s popularity was extraordinary, and has since lead to two additional MLS clubs in Canada, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. All three clubs are successful in terms of attendance, generating high revenues to their US-based league.
Successful integration of MLS led to a further surge of clubs in Canada. Since 2011, an additional two cities have been added to the domestic scene, with FC Edmonton and our Ottawa Fury featuring in a reborn NASL, a US second division league looking to continue the legacy of its namesake predecessor.
With all this in mind, we are currently in an intriguing phase of Canadian soccer history. There is little doubt of the sport’s popularity within our nation, with MLS clubs experiencing healthy attendance and TV viewership, in addition to high viewership for international soccer. At the recent 2014 FIFA World Cup, hosted in Brazil, Canadians were the eleventh-most present travelers to the event, the highest of any unqualified nation. Had we sent a team to Brazil, would our national side have experienced an unparalleled amount of support relative to its mediocre history?
So, 102 years after the creation of our national federation, is it safe to say that excitement for the sport has grown to a bursting point? Are we ready to release this passion through the creation of our very own league? Unfortunately, to answer these two questions, we must satisfy two much older ones, which are ingrained in Canadian soccer history: 1) why have we never had a lasting domestic league? and 2) have we learned enough, from both past mistakes and potential analysis of leagues in other countries, to plot the path towards a viable domestic league?
Such questions, and more, will be explored in ‘The Case for a Canadian Domestic League: Part Two’.