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USL Division 1 Expansion in Canada, Part One: Winnipeg

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This is the first part of what I hope will be an ongoing series highlighting potential expansion markets for the USL Division One in Canada. With the Vancouver Whitecaps and probably the Montreal Impact on their way out but Ottawa likely on their way in, the time is right to build North America's professional second tier north of the border. And with USL-1 clamouring for suitable markets to replace those being lost, we'll never have a better opportunity.

Like so many cities in this country, Winnipeg has a checkered history of soccer success. Their only high-level team was the Winnipeg Fury of the old National Soccer League and bested the Vancouver 86ers 3-1 on aggregate to win the old Canadian Soccer League's last championship in 1992. But the Fury folded with the CSL and Winnipeg fell out of the national soccer consciousness. Occasionally rumours surfaced of the new Canadian Soccer League being interested in the market, but the failure of the A-League in Edmonton and Calgary meant that Winnipeg looked a lot less attractive to patrons of the two higher divisions.

There have always been two gripes about Winnipeg as a soccer market. The first has been the lack of a stadium. Winnipeg has only three stadia capable of seating more than a thousand patrons: the University Stadium on the campus of the University of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Soccer Complex, and Canad Inns Stadium, home of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Canad Inns, besides being booked by the Bombers for most of Winnipeg's short outdoor season, is much too large to support a USL-1 team. University Stadium has the right capacity of 5,000 but is elderly, home to university football, and the pitch and grandstand are both in poor conditions. Winnipeg Soccer Complex has a capacity of 10,000, which is asking a lot from an expansion team in USL-1, although the Fury played there.

Luckily, times are changing on that front. Winnipeg businessman David Asper is in the process of buying the Blue Bombers and building them a new stadium, and part of the deal is that Asper is also financing renovations to University Stadium. Canad Inns will be knocked down for development, but the University of Manitoba football team will play at the new Blue Bombers stadium, significantly easing the pressure on a suddenly-viable University Stadium. With a natural grass pitch, dates available, and plenty of capacity for a team starting out, not to mention easy access, University Stadium is practically the dream field for a USL-1 expansion team.

If a hypothetical USL-1 team does well, of course, the Winnipeg Soccer Centre is available. But it seems too much to hope for that an expansion second-division team in a city without a recent football history will draw about 5,000 fans a match, and playing in the university allows for easier promotion to the students which make up so much of a club's fanbase. It seems better to aim lower to begin with, but it is exciting that Winnipeg has stadia available on both the low and high ends of the spectrum.

The second traditional objection is location. Winnipeg's nearest potential rival in USL-1 today is Minnesota and nobody else is within bus range. Unless a Winnipeg team is accompanied by a large Canadian expansion to Edmonton, Calgary, and possibly northern American sites, it would be difficult to deal with all the travel.

This will be an obstacle. But with so many traditional powerhouses already leaving USL-1, it's an obstacle that the United Soccer Leagues would have to deal with one way or another. If anything, having Winnipeg as a central link may make their expansion plans easier: it's a lot more tenable for Puerto Rico to go on a road trip to Victoria if they also play Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Bismarck on their way through.

Would there be viable ownership in Winnipeg? There are men in Winnipeg with money and ambition, but nobody who's shown interest in soccer. Until the Asper sale, even the Blue Bombers were owned by the city, and no Canadian needs a lesson on what unstable ownership did to the Winnipeg Jets. This is probably Winnipeg's largest question mark. But an entrepreneur able to lose money in the very short term and with an itch to become a player in the community could do a lot worse than to look for a USL-1 team, and the USL would be very wise to give it to him.