Two days ago, the Canadian Soccer Association announced a moratorium on sanctioning new Canadian teams in American leagues. Yesterday, I went off in my typical over-excited manner and preached why I think this is fantastic. I'm not the only one: Ben Knight, who has more experience and well-earned cynicism in one of his vests than I have in my whole wardrobe, was very, very cautiously optimistic, and the man who broke the story, Duane Rollins, seemed hopeful. We pundits were in the minority, however: the reaction on most of the supporters' forums was somewhere between hysteria and rage.
It's true that the Canadian Soccer Association doesn't have a great record on these matters. But they also don't have a great record on many of the issues they've been getting right lately: returning the women's national program to international prominence, increasing the number of games and training camps for the men's program from the senior level on down, encouraging the development of merit-based youth academies both as part of our professional clubs and as independent entities. Since the appointment of Peter Montopoli as General Secretary, the Canadian Soccer Association has made several encouraging strides towards competence. They're not there yet, but they're getting closer. It's hard not to have faith and even some confidence in those leading our national soccer programs today.
More importantly, as I mentioned yesterday, the country itself is ripe for its own professional league. I promised at the end of yesterday's article that I'd bring you information on eight markets that could host professional, second-division soccer in Canada for the 2012 season. 3,500 fans per game is the traditional break-even point in the North American second divisions, so I limited myself to cities with stadia of at least 3,500 seats while not being too large either. I leaned towards cities with established soccer histories, with well-known and well-financed owners that have declared interest in professional soccer, or that are large, under-served markets with a good stadium and plenty of unfulfilled potential. With these limitations, I regret to inform you that I did not wind up with a list of eight potential cities.
I wound up with ten.
After the jump, the ten cities I think are excellent candidates for second division soccer teams in an all-Canadian league for the 2012 season. Nor am I done with this tedious topic, either: the next post on the subject will discuss unconventional ways that a new, national Canadian league can avoid repeating the mistakes of its forefathers.
Part One: Minor League Soccer
Burnaby, British Columbia
Metro Population: 2.1 million (Metro Vancouver)
Stadium: Swangard Stadium (capacity 5,288)
Summer Competitors: Vancouver Whitecaps (MLS), British Columbia Lions (CFL), various universities, various Pacific Coast Soccer League teams
Population: 2.5 million
Metro Population: 5.1 million
Stadium: Varsity Stadium (capacity 5,000) or Lamport Stadium (capacity 9,600)
Summer Competitors: Toronto FC (MLS), Toronto Argonauts (MLS), Toronto Blue Jays (MLB), various universities, most of the Canadian Soccer League
Quebec City, Quebec
Metro Population: 715,515
Stadium: PEPS Le Stade Extérieur (capacity 12,257)
Summer Competitors: Laval Rouge-et-Or (CIS)
Some Canadian soccer fans are reluctant to accept MLS reserve teams in a domestic second division. There's the obvious concern that such a reserve team, ideally a profitable entity on its own, could never attract its own fanbase. There's the competitive concerns, and there are questions about just how deep the MLS reserve pool is going to be. The previous MLS reserve team was competitively erratic: the new one is supposed to be better, but we'll see if the demand for dollars get the better of common sense once again.
The ideal solution would be to run these "reserve" teams semi-independently. Located in different stadia, possibly even different cities, than their MLS parent, they'd be (preferably) owned and operated by their own front offices. They'd sign their own players, they'd hire their own coaches. The MLS teams would pay these clubs a modest fee and send a certain number (six, say) of their best and brightest reserves to play in the Canadian second division. The Major League Soccer teams would save money against operating a full reserve team and give their non-MLS-calibre players the best possible quality of opposition. Major League Soccer could hardly object: they would get to cut out expensive and inconvenient cross-border trips for their already pricey reserve league at no cost. Because the clubs signed their own players and had their own identities, fans would be able to cheer for more than just a reserve team and the teams would likely be competitive. Meanwhile, the owners of the smaller clubs get some extra income to ensure it's that much easier to make ends meet and save money on roster expenses.
It would also be easy to find homes for these teams. The greater Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto areas are filled with 5,000-seat facilities being used for local sports or by semi-pro and university teams. These teams could be located in the suburbs, as with Burnaby. They could be located centrally in the city itself, as I suggested for Toronto. Or they could be located in a more far-flung location that's still close enough to be accessible, as a long-rumoured second division team in Quebec City would be. It's easy to move these teams around according to how badly you want an independent market, though: there are perfectly serviceable mid-sized soccer fields in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the Toronto metro region, and in Montreal proper. They're nearby to major transportation hubs, making travel as affordable as could be. I know fans fret about allowing the MLS teams too large a stake in a Canadian division, but if they're properly set up these three teams could be the backbone of a Canadian league.
Part Two: The Old Pros
Metro Population: 1 million
Stadium: Foote Field (capacity 3,500)
Summer Competitors: Edmonton Eskimos (CFL), Edmonton Capitals (minor baseball), Alberta Golden Bears (CIS)
Victoria, British Columbia
Metro Population: 330,088
Stadium: Royal Athletic Park (capacity 4,247)
Summer Competitors: Victoria Vikes (CIS), Victoria United (PCSL)
Forest City London
Metro Population: 457,720
Stadium: TD Waterhouse Stadium (capacity 8,000)
Summer Competitors: Western Mustangs (CIS), London City (CSL)
In picking the North American Soccer League's FC Edmonton, I won't be surprising anyone. But Forest City London and the Victoria Highlanders are both relatively new teams in the USL Premier Development League. They're amateur clubs in modest circumstances, which doesn't necessarily indicate professional success. But Victoria and London aren't just any amateurs: they're two of the best-run and best-supported amateur sides in North America.
Forest City London averaged 1,246 fans per game despite the idiosyncratic USL PDL schedule and moving their home games between three different venues. The Victoria Highlanders did even better, pulling in 1,496 for their home league games at their stadium way out in the boonies. And, for their exhibition schedule against a combination of illustrious foreign opponents and mediocre domestic opposition, FC Edmonton managed an average of 3,506 fans per home game, which will do just fine. There are three cities which have proven that they can support soccer at a professional level. What's not to love?
All three cities do have stadium concerns, of course. Edmonton's are the most serious: the city of Edmonton simply hasn't got any decent soccer fields between a 3,500-seat Canadian football stadium, Foote Field, and the largest outdoor stadium in the country in Commonwealth Stadium. But that is going to be a problem for FC Edmonton whether they're in the NASL or an all-Canadian league, and the team's ownership has already explicited stated that they'll need a new stadium whatever league they're in. Edmonton's stadium is a problem, but it's not a problem specific to a Canadian domestic second division. Meanwhile, the Victoria Highlanders gained some stadium flexibility when the former primary tenant at Royal Athletic Park, the Golden Baseball League's Victoria Seals, folded earlier this month. The Highlanders also have the option of playing in Centennial Stadium at the University of Victoria, which seats 5,000 in its current configuration (although it is also in dire need of refurbishment). Their current home, Bear Mountain Stadium in Langford, only has room for just over 2,000 patrons but could be expanded. TD Waterhouse Stadium in London has plenty of seats for soccer, although it's not the greatest facility in the world and Forest City London was forced to play a few games in other venues in the last two seasons. All the same, a professional team would have a lot more power to book dates of their choosing than an amateur one, and London would probably be fine in their current home.
The truth is that these three teams have good ownership and professional organizations in developed markets with stadia of a professional standard. All three cities are almost sure things to succeed with the proper support. They've earned their chance.
Part Three: The Fresh Faces
Metro Population: 1.1 million
Stadium: refurbished Lansdowne stadium (current capacity 26,559, opens 2013)
Summer Competitors: various universities, future Ottawa Canadian Football League team
Metro Population: 692,911
Stadium: Brian Timmis Stadium (capacity 5,000), Ivor Wynne Stadium (capacity 30,000), new Hamilton downtown stadium (approximate capacity 25,000, opens 2015)
Summer Competitors: Hamilton Tiger-Cats (CFL), McMaster Marauders (CIS), Hamilton Croatia (CSL)
Metro Population: 694,668
Stadium: University Stadium (capacity 5,000)
Summer Competitors: Winnipeg Blue Bombers (CFL), Winnipeg Goldeyes (minor baseball), Manitoba Bisons (CIS)
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Metro Population: 418,261
Stadium: Huskies Stadium (capacity 4,000)
Summer Competitors: St. Mary's Huskies (CIS)
These cities are the projects. None of them have soccer established above the Canadian Soccer League level and lack much soccer history. But there's still plenty to recommend them. Ottawa and Hamilton already have well-heeled local businessmen who are actively working to bring professional soccer to those cities. Winnipeg is reportedly close to getting a USL PDL team and has a tremendous history of supporting both soccer and minor sports in general. Halifax is more of a dark horse, but Atlantic Canada is starving for outdoor sports while Halifax has both a suitable stadium and the young market important to the success of a professional club.
As none of these cities are currently major soccer centres, of course the stadium situation isn't perfect. Even so, each of these cities can boast a respectable current venue and some will offer first-class facilities in the near future. Redevelopment at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa is unlikely to be completed until 2013, but a bit of temporary seating would allow an Ottawa team to play at 3,000-seat Keith Harris Stadium for the 2012 season. Although putting Hamilton's second division team in a CFL-sized stadium seems ambitious, that has been the plan of would-be team owner Jeff Hunt from day one. In the event Ivor Wynne or the new Tiger-Cats stadium prove too large, Brian Timmis Stadium is also a more modest but suitable venue. In Halifax, Huskies Stadium is only a 4,000-seater but has plenty of room for expansion and, indeed, has previously been expanded on a temporary basis to host Canadian Football League exhibitions. The 5,000-seat University Stadium in Winnipeg is natural grass but sees a lot of use from the University of Manitoba: with some improvements the new artificial turf at John Scouras Field at the Winnipeg Soccer Complex could also be a potential home. Winnipeg also boasts a modern, full-sized indoor soccer complex: not suitable for a professional team to play in but perfect for year-round training during the chilly Manitoba winters.
Hamilton and Ottawa already have ownership lined up. Ottawa 67's owner Jeff Hunt has joined forces with the USL PDL's Ottawa Fury to bring professional soccer to Ottawa: they were reportedly interested in moving the NSC Minnesota Stars to Ottawa for the 2013 season. Entering an all-Canadian league for 2012 might be a better solution if Hunt can be persuaded to set aside his dream of stealing an American franchise. Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young has also expressed interest in a professional soccer team to play at a new downtown Hamilton stadium: the Tiger-Cats have been a great success under Young's watch and as part-owner of the Carolina Railhawks he certainly has both the means and the know-how. In Winnipeg, the situation is dicier. Recent reports of a USL PDL team expanding to Winnipeg indicates that there's some interest and backing for soccer there, but it remains to be seen if they could be lured into going professional. Halifax is much more of a question mark, but with the size of its untapped market, generous enough terms from the Canadian Soccer Association could surely lure in some ownership.
Remember that FIFA requires that a national league have a minimum for eight teams to get sanctioning. With a list of ten candidate cities, that gives us some leeway: if Halifax wouldn't ready until 2013, or if Ottawa wasn't suitable, that would not be a long-term problem. In addition, there's nothing written in stone saying that a Canadian league would have to begin play in 2012. The existing teams could remain in their current leagues for the 2012 season. Ottawa wasn't planning to begin operations until 2013 anyway, and Hamilton was probably even further in the future than that. Time is on our side.
But it can't hurt to be too safe. In my next post on this topic, I'll examine ways the Canadian Soccer Association can sweeten the pot and ensure that this league lasts longer than our previous one.