The history of the Winnipeg Fury is as long and tortured as any Canadian soccer team has ever been. Formed as part of the first-division Canadian Soccer League in 1987 by local tailor Ralph Cantafio, the Fury survived six seasons and one championship before folding after one season in the third-division National Soccer League following the demise of the CSL. And that was it for Winnipeg, starved of soccer above the CIS level since that day. This city of over 600,000 people, national champions in 1992, has gone without a team to call their own for almost eighteen years.
This summer, that will change at last. A syndicate headlined by former Romanian and Canadian youth soccer consultant Eduardo Badescu is bringing a USL Premier Development League team, WSA Winnipeg, to the Manitoba capital. WSA Winnipeg will play out of the Winnipeg Soccer Complex, a multi-pitch facility headlined by an unremarkable but serviceable set of stands and lights at John Scouras Field. The team's front office has deep links to the Manitoba and Canadian soccer communities. They're put up a professional-looking website and are already selling season tickets. For a team in a semi-professional league, they're sure putting up a professional appearance, and have already gotten the right sort of attention from Toronto to, well, Winnipeg. A USL PDL club is far from the pinnacle of Canadian soccer, but from such small beginnings great things may come and, at least early on, WSA Winnipeg is doing it right.
The arrival of WSA Winnipeg is promising for soccer in western Canada, but I'm not just here to tell you what you already know. The club's director of business operations, Lee Haber, was courteous enough to answer a few of my questions via e-mail, and after the jump I'll have Haber's answers and my own appraisal of WSA Winnipeg.
As the name implies, WSA Winnipeg is an extension of Badescu's Winnipeg-based World Soccer Academy. The World Soccer Academy is a fairly typical example of the breed in Canada: a for-profit soccer training group with professionally certified coaches which charges $625 for their invitation-only elite training program. Nobody with any grounding in grass-roots Canadian soccer needs any introduction to these sorts of commercial academies: they remain by far the most common source of elite training for Canadian soccer players, with club-run not-for-profit academies like TFC Academy and the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program only beginning to take up the slack. In destinations as far-flung as Winnipeg, there is often no other practical alternative.
Few such youth setups extend their ambition as far as the World Soccer Academy has. The step into a full USL PDL team is a major one for both the Academy and the city of Winnipeg. It provides an intermediate step between youth academies and professional soccer, what Haber calls "a clear path": once Canadian players on the prairies have moved past the youth ranks, there was nowhere to go except for the very good or very lucky who caught on professionally. Appropriately, WSA Winnipeg will concentrate on recruiting local talent, and Haber was careful to emphasize to me how important the team's connection with the academy would be. That said, the World Soccer Academy will not be taking the next step and providing no-cost training for the most promising candidates: the club plans on offering a bursary program but anything more would be financially prohibitive.
For those of us outside Manitoba, the greatest service WSA Winnipeg can provide would be to develop Canadian talent. The Academy already counts two-time Canadian U-17 international Dylan Carreiro and women's U-17 regular Alison Clarke regular as members of the program. Both are Winnipeg-area natives, but neither is yet in a professional organization. Hardly surprising for Clarke, but Carreiro is the sort of promising prospect who should catch on somewhere. At 15 years old, Carreiro of course has plenty of time, but WSA Winnipeg would give him an option less remote than moving to Vancouver or Toronto or even further afield to continue his soccer career. If WSA Winnipeg can meet that promise, it will expand Canada's player pool in the prairies more than any development since the airplane.
But that's for the rest of us. Winnipeg fans are more likely to care about watching a competitive, exciting team with a high standard of play. USL PDL play does not begin until the summer, but WSA Winnipeg has already selected a coaching staff with first-class qualifications and European coaching experience (although, alas, he would not come out and say who they are). They've set their stadium and their season ticket prices, with sales already in progress. They're actively offering a package for hard-core supporters and looking for fans interested in starting a supporters' group (although none have yet expressed interest to the WSA Winnipeg front office). The team is off to a good start from a non-playing perspective, but at this level getting competitive players can be far more difficult.
Manitoba has only a modest history of soccer success since the Fury left, and unlike the western Victoria Highlanders and Abbotsford Mariners, or the Ontario Forest City London and other PDL teams, there's no history of first-class amateur and semi-professional soccer like the Pacific Coast Soccer League, Vancouver Metro Soccer League, and Canadian Soccer League in Manitoba. There's far less first-class backing for WSA Winnipeg to draw on, although Winnipeg's Hellas SC were of course 2009 Canadian Challenge Cup champions.
Relying upon the local player pool is a dangerous game. Nine members of the current Victoria Highlanders roster, for example, played their youth soccer outside of British Columbia, including places as far-flung as Yellowknife, Scotland, and Trinidad and Tobago. The Highlanders are from much more of a soccer hot-bed than Winnipeg and had to import that much of their talent; perhaps more tellingly, they're also a mediocre team that has failed to make the playoffs in both their seasons so far. Other clubs, such as the 2008 PDL champion Thunder Bay Chill, have even higher import ratios. A Manitoba-based Winnipeg team risks failing to be competitive based off the numbers alone. While WSA Winnipeg will be looking for players further afield if necessary to be competitive, their clear priority is to develop Winnipeg-based players.
WSA Winnipeg wouldn't be the first team to learn this lesson. The Highlanders, too, brought in several Vancouver Island players in their first season. But apart from established amateur stars like Jordie Hughes and Patrick Gawrys, most of those players washed out within two seasons. USL PDL isn't professional, but it's a more competitive league than some people give it credit for. Top coaching and a professional organization counts for a lot, but it can't make poor players into good ones. The question becomes, to what extent is WSA Winnipeg willing to sacrifice the goal of a primarily local club for the goal of a competitive, professional-quality team?
I do say "professional-quality" for a reason. Haber was unequivocal when I asked him about Winnipeg's future aspirations: "If we are a success on and off the field, it is a 100% certainty we will be looking at bringing a professional team to Winnipeg."
They're off to a good start before they've kicked a ball. But this is the easy part.