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Nothing Good Ever Comes From Ottawa

It's a peculiarity of the Canadian game that, while football was practically the seminal working-class sport in all the old footballing powers, here true enjoyment of the game is largely limited to the upper and middle classes. Except for those lucky souls living in Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto, attending a high-level match in this country requires a considerable investment of both time and money, to say nothing of the cost of truly being a supporter.

A Southsider in Victoria I know manages to get to the majority of Whitecaps home games every year. He does this by hopping on a float plane (ticket cost $120) from Victoria's Inner Harbour, flying to Vancouver, going to a game, staying overnight with his parents, returning by ferry - unless he has to work early, in which case back on the float plane. And that's just from Victoria to Vancouver; a trip that thousands make every day. I, personally, am going to the Vancouver - Puerto Rico match at Swangard Stadium on Saturday: staying one night (since the ferry doesn't run late enough to catch after the match) in the cheapest hotel practical will mean that one game will cost me an entire weekend and about $120.

Southsiders who ask why I don't go to many matches? That's why!

And I have it easy! Imagine being in Winnipeg, with your nearest Canadian team above the college level being the Premier Development League's Thunder Bay Chill. Or in Edmonton, where your home team would be in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

This is a large part of the reason I support the Canadian men's national team playing in as many cities as practical. Yes, the support in Toronto is superb, but if we play all our matches in the east the result is that western Canada won't give a hoot. Football is the canonical example of a sport that is better live than on television, and no number of 1080p broadcasts and imported British announcers on the allegedly Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will change that. There's a world of difference between a Calgarian seeing Toronto FC take on FC Real United or whatever and having a team to cheer for in his hometown, if only for a day.

This is also why, even if Montreal and Vancouver move on to greener pastures, I desperately cheer for the USL Division 1 to remain competitive. There will always be cities which won't support MLS, and USL Division 1 is perfect for the Edmontons of the world (I've written about Edmonton's A-League experience elsewhere on this site). Barring a remarkable change in the very structure of the league, the Canadian Soccer League will never fill that role. It will be up to either a Canadian league conceived from the ground up as a USL-1 replacement, or we will once again have to rely on the Americans.

So I should be happy with the much-reported news that Jeff Hunt and the gang in Ottawa are getting a USL Division One expansion team. Ottawa is already served by the Fury of the USL Premier Development League, but they are by and by large ignored by capital city citizens. The average attendance of the Fury in 2009 was 495 fans a night, the highest season total in franchise history. Compare this to another oft-rumoured USL-1 destination, Victoria, where the expansion Highlanders averaged 1,750 fans per game, according to the club.

The Ottawa USL franchise will have an uphill battle from the start. They'll have an unusual amount of local competition for a Canadian football club, with MLS's Toronto FC and the soon-to-be-MLS Montreal Impact a day trip by rail for the discriminating football fanatic. There are very few parts of the country that can be said to be well-served by football, but Jeff Hunt will try to give it a go in one of them. Moreover, Ottawa discards sports franchises like most people discard lovers, with only the Senators and Hunt's 67's showing any long-term success.

For all of the success in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, Canada is a young football market in many ways. The A-League's Toronto Lynx were notoriously poorly supported, aside from the diehards in U-Sector, and only the prestige of Major League Soccer shook Toronto's dormant football fandom from its post-Blizzard slumber. The Whitecaps were always successful but have only recently started selling out 5,288-seat Swangard Stadium on a regular basis. The Impact were the anchor of the A-League for most of its history but their ticket numbers are dipping.

Meanwhile, failures in Edmonton and Calgary in the 1990s scuttled A-League and USL-1 expansion into Canada for over a decade. We forget that when the Aviators joined the league, there was talk of expansion across Canada; possibly an entire Canadian division. Plagued by bad ownership, both Calgary and Edmonton folded in disgrace and the continuing success in Montreal and Vancouver did nothing to persuade USL-1's administrators and prospective investors to take another chance. Ottawa's failure may have the same cooling affect, a general shrug, "only immigrants care about soccer in Canada, so you can only have it in the big cities", and further obscurity for most of the country.

Jeff Hunt has been using the USL-1 idea essentially as a carrot to persuade Ottawa to approve his stadium proposal. He never comes off as a football fan; never looked like he really cared about USL-1 beyond its immediate money-making potential. Well, USL-1 doesn't make much money for most of its owners, and if Hunt pulls his backing it will be a disaster for the whole country. Let's hope that Hunt is in it for real.