Canada is widely known as the cradle of hockey, but like much of the rest of the world, the popularity of soccer is growing there. This year will see the birth of its first domestic professional soccer league – the Canadian Premier League.
Canadians, of course, have long played soccer. It’s the home to three MLS teams – in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The Ottawa Fury play in the USL Championship, Toronto FC II competes in USL League One, and USL League Two currently includes clubs in Calgary, Thunder Bay, Burnaby, Victoria, and Winnipeg. Canada hosted the 2015 Women’s World Cup and will co-host the 2026 World Cup along with the U.S. and Mexico. Though the men’s team is ranked 78th in the FIFA rankings and has only reached the World Cup once, in 1986, the women’s national team is ranked 5th and reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup. Until now, however, the nation did not have its own top tier professional league.
The new Canadian Premier League is due to start play this month. Seven teams will be competing in the inaugural season. Teams will be located in Vancouver Island (Pacific FC), Edmonton (FC Edmonton), Calgary (Cavalry FC), Winnipeg (Valour FC), Hamilton (Forge FC), York Region, Ontario (York9 FC) and Halifax, Nova Scotia (HFX Wanderers FC).
This season each team will play 28 games – 14 home and 14 away. The first game will be played April 27, with Hamilton’s Forge FC taking on York9 FC. The two teams for the inaugural game are very close in proximity – the match has been dubbed the “905 Derby” because the two teams share an area code.
The initial stadiums in the CPL vary significantly. Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field, shared with the CFL’s Blue Bombers, is the largest, with a capacity over 33,000. Forge FC will also share their field with a CFL team – Tim Hortons Field holds 24,000, but will be reduced to 10,000 for many games. The other five stadiums range from 5,000 to 8,000, with Edmonton’s Clarke Stadium the smallest at 5,100 capacity. FC Edmonton is actually the only team not formed specifically for the CPL – they formerly competed in the NASL. Our Zach Spedden previewed the stadiums, and the clubs’ future stadium plans, in December.
The format of the season is somewhat unusual but mirrors other global leagues. The CPL will have a Spring season that runs from April through July 1– Canada Day. The Fall season will run early July through mid-October. The table will reset between the two seasons, and the winners of each season will meet in the CPL Championship. If the same team wins both Spring and Fall, the team with the second most cumulative points will compete in the championship game. This format is not unlike Mexico’s Liga MX, and a few other countries, which have an Apertura (July to December) and a Clausura (January to May). The hope is to motivate players and maintain fan interest throughout the season.
The winner of the CPL Championship game will play in the CONCACAF Champions League. There will also be a domestic cup competition, the Canadian Championship, that will pit CPL teams against those from MLS, USL and all professional divisions of Canadian soccer. That competition will culminate in the Voyageurs Cup, whose winner will also compete in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The Canadian Premier League is different from MLS in that it will use the club-based affiliation model rather than teams awarded by the league. Once more teams are added to the league, the plan is to follow the promotion and relegation model. League Commissioner David Clanachan, a former Tim Hortons C.O.O, has said the hope is to expand to 10 clubs for 2020, 14 by 2024, and 16 teams by 2026.
One of the most interesting elements of the league is the strict rules on domestic players. A goal stated by Commissioner Clanachan is to develop Canadian talent, so the league has set strict guidelines – more than 50% of the total roster must be filled by Canadian players, and each team must field a minimum of six Canadian starters in every game. Additionally, to ensure youth development, three domestic players on each team must be under-21, and they must play a combined minimum of 1,000 minutes per season.
The league will not be without its challenges. Paramount among these is the geographical distance between clubs. The trip from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia is 2,781 miles – further than flying from Toronto to London – which reportedly makes it the third longest road trip in domestic soccer worldwide. Competition with established teams in MLS and USL may also pose a problem, though Commissioner Clanachan told the Sportsnet he doesn’t feel that competition will harm either his league or the MLS.
The CPL signed a ten-year broadcast agreement with MEDIAPRO, the Spanish-based company behind beIN Sports, which includes over 2,000 games and related content. The Canadian Broadcasting Company has purchased the rights to stream 20 CPL games this year on CBCSports.CA, with 10 of those games available on the CBC TV Network.
Canadian soccer culture is about to get a terrific boost. If the league succeeds, it will provide Canadians with a domestic outlet for their soccer fandom in the short term, and a significant driver of home-grown talent for the future.