Commissioner Clanachan Q&A: Return to fans, choosing Winnipeg for The Kickoff, CPL’s ‘flexibility’ in face of COVID-19

The 2021 Canadian Premier League season is (finally) about to arrive.

Revealed Saturday live on OneSoccer, the league announced all eight clubs will begin the season in Winnipeg, Manitoba at Valour FC’s IG Field in a 32-match single-site opening to the season, dubbed “The Kickoff.” The four-week event will start on Saturday, June 26 and is akin to last Summer’s Island Games, which saw the entire 2020 CPL season played on the shores of Prince Edward Island.

Each of the CPL’s eight clubs will open their season on the weekend of June 26, with FC Edmonton and Atlético Ottawa getting things started on Saturday at 2 pm ET (1 pm CT). They will be followed that evening by Pacific FC versus HFX Wanderers FC (5 pm ET/4 pm CT), and Sunday’s slate will feature Forge FC versus Valour FC (2 pm ET/1 pm CT) and Cavalry FC versus York United FC (5 pm ET/4 pm CT).

CPL commissioner David Clanachan sat down for a one-on-one interview with’s Marty Thompson just before Saturday’s announcement to go over the process of picking a single site start to the season, why Winnipeg was the best choice, plans to return to CPL club markets and play in front of fans by the end of the season, and much more.

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Marty Thompson, How did you get to this exact point: Starting the season at a single site and what were some of the factors that went into that?

David Clanachan: At the end of the day, the reason why we’re in a single site is because we want to get started and we were never going to get started this way, based on the geography of the country, in our home markets. When we made the decision to bring everybody together, at least to start the season, it made the most sense. The good news is we’re in a fluid situation right now so we’re already starting to see things improve – the weather is getting better, vaccines are starting to get into people — we’re over 60 per cent of single doses or more now in Canada, which is fantastic. Canadians are doing what we know – we want to do the right thing. The world’s starting to look a lot brighter.

We still need to be in a single site for the foreseeable future but we’re dedicated to going back to play in our own home markets — and focused on getting playing in front of our fans and supporters again by the end of the year. It’s all coming together now.

Having said that, we have to remain flexible — you don’t know what curveball you’re gonna get thrown. What we have in front of us for the next month in Winnipeg is the start of our season — we’ll adjust from there. Give us a snapshot of the planning and processes that led to Saturday’s announcement – how did it come together?

Clanachan: We followed the same format we did last year for PEI and the Island Games, just in multiple markets. First of all we had many scenarios that we were working on — internationally, in the US, and five different provinces — but always thinking which of the constituencies we’d be able to work with the best and towards the safest outcome — especially for a league that’s spread across a vast country like ours. Really, what we’ve been doing in the last couple months is whittling down the options. Once you realize we’re not going to kick off the season in April and we won’t be playing in May, you start to begin course-correcting, if you want to call it that. You’re constantly redoing the scenarios; what can we do, how do we do it. Whenever new information comes in you bake it into our plans again.

But there comes a point in time when you have to move and we knew all the way along that we had to start playing sometime in June to fulfill our promise to play a full season. It was very, very important that we get going. A lot of it was planning, some of it came down to the chips falling the right way. There’s no exact science to this, but you have to remain positive that you’re going to get through it. That’s what the league office has done. To be able to do it in a city that one of our clubs plays in is another advantage. So, that begs the question: Why Winnipeg?

Clanachan: Well, for starters, IG Field is a world class facility. We have Valour FC that operates out of there daily which means we’ve got a built-in off-the-field team there. Not only do they also do it for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL, they’ve also hosted Canada Soccer events. They know how to do this.

Plus you’ve got the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg that want us there in a big way — they see this as an opportunity to get people thinking differently coming out of this pandemic. People have come together and put their hands up in the air and said we want it, we want to be part of this. That’s why Winnipeg – and I’m very pleased with it.

Valour FC’s inaugural home match against the visiting FC Edmonton. (Valour FC)
Valour FC’s inaugural home match against the visiting FC Edmonton. (Valour FC) What kind of involvement would the City of Winnipeg and Province of Manitoba have in a selection like this?

Clanachan: We’re getting support from the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development Winnipeg through a provincial long-term recovery fund they established back in 2020.

These groups in Manitoba know they need to get moving on the recovery piece of this post-pandemic world. They also saw what we did with the Island Games and how we’re able to profile the city and the area and that we have a further reach than what you would expect from us, as a brand new league. There’s an economic piece to this too, of course — close to $5 million economic spin off in the city. It’s 5,500 hotel room nights, other expenditures, and international media coverage that gives Winnipeg that global spotlight as a premier city that can host events like this. What’s one unexpected challenge of putting something like this together that you don’t think people realize?

Clanachan: Last year, for the Island Games, it was full-on lockdown. Let’s be honest, there was one rule everywhere: be safe and don’t move. It was very, very clear cut.

Whereas this year, the rules are moving and changing. Being able to be flexible and still maintain the number of safety protocols that we have put in place and that we’ve shown through the Island Games, we still need to not let our guard down and do it properly.

Our protocols are second to none and I have full faith in them and our people because protocols are only as good as the discipline that comes with them. You have got to be careful that people don’t put down their guard so we’ve got to keep everybody on point.

There was never a roadblock that would have stopped us from starting a season — the bigger issue was the number of places that wanted to host us. That really surprised me. How many potential locations for this single site start were there?

Clanachan: By the end we had 11 places that wanted to host — multiple countries in the Caribbean, one in Europe, places in the US, and we had five provinces interested. There were multiple sites and in a couple of those jurisdictions, too.

But we chose to stay home in Canada because it was the right thing to do and we were able to do it in a market where we have a club. To me, that was massively important — it’s more efficient and it keeps us home because that’s who we are — “for Canadians, by Canadians.” It should stay that way. So the pillars of this decision come down to the facility, the fact it’s where Valour operates, obviously that it’s within Canada, and the government involvement?

Clanachan: You’ve got municipal and provincial support, level of professionalism in Valour FC, because of their relationship with their older sister in the Blue Bombers and everything they do there — that’s a big advantage, right? There are built-in capabilities.

CPL Commissioner David Clanachan.
CPL Commissioner David Clanachan. Alright, so “The Kickoff” starts in a couple weeks and, while some teams have been able to train in full groups, York United and Forge FC haven’t had that luxury. How is the league planning to mitigate some of the discrepancies in training time between clubs?

Clanachan: It is what it is — we can’t say one team’s gonna play with 11 players, the others with fewer. These are things you’ve got to adapt to and I think the teams will do that. You have to remember the players have been training on their own — what they’ve been missing is working together with tactics and things like that. I’d be shocked if someone told me that those teams that weren’t allowed to train together weren’t doing Zoom calls and all the things that businesses are doing to stay abreast of things, right? You can’t mitigate things like that.

Is this the best scenario that you would want? No. But given the alternative of not playing at all, I’ll choose this. We’re dealing with professional athletes, these are not 12-year-old kids. They should be ready to go at any time. So, the league says it plans to “reevaluate” returning to home markets, potentially with fans, after The Kickoff. So what are the benchmarks you’d need to hit to go back to home markets in August?

Clanachan: We’re going to follow the lead of the provinces but right now we’re over 60 per cent of Canadians with one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or greater. We’re on a path now, as we watch other countries operate as these test cases. We’ve positioned ourselves to be flexible at the end of July. That word “flexible” is important — we could extend our stay, we could go back to home markets, we could only play in the markets where games will be allowed to be played. We’re very confident that we’ll see that — all the way to playing in front of fans and supporters by the time we get to the end of July and into August. The biggest thing is we are prepared to be flexible, nimble, and adjust — and that’s how we have positioned ourselves going into Winnipeg. That’s the best way to be. If you plan this all the way up to November written in pencil, you better have the eraser ready. What needs to happen for supporters to see games live in Winnipeg? We’ve seen the Winnipeg Jets have fans in stands for their NHL playoff games. What needs to happen for that?

Clanachan: I would love to see that if it was safe and the protocols were in place. Having said that, Manitoba Public Health and Valour FC will be the ones who make that decision when they see it’s safe to do so. That’s the important thing — and similar to what we found in PEI — it’s really up to the powers that be.

By and large, people are willing to look at it in the conversations that I’ve been part of. People want this to happen and want it to go forward but they’re going to do it properly and safely. Manitoba Public Health and Valour have a great working relationship and they’re going to do what’s right for the people in that marketplace. So keep your fingers crossed. I think it will be phenomenal. What’s next for the league in the next coming weeks?

Clanachan: The planning is almost done — now you’re entering into execution mode. Teams have to start arriving so you’re booking teams, you’re booking hotels. Everything has to come to the surface because we’ve lifted the curtain. We’re moving 300 people into that market in multiple bubbles. All of this is done to make sure we do it properly and we observe all the right protocols to keep everybody safe, including Manitobans. Is a full 28-game season still on the table?

Clanachan: We are absolutely laser-focused on getting our full season in. It is so important to us. We know what the top of the mountain looks like — the top of the mountain is to get a full season and that’s what we’re going to do. You can’t be any more flexible than what we are right now, but we’re always fixated on our goal of getting the full season in while preserving our reputation of doing it the right way and keeping people safe. Who’s left to be acknowledged through this whole process?

Clanachan: It starts with our partners — obviously OneSoccer is going to play a big part in this as our broadcaster. The province of Manitoba, the provincial government, the people of Manitoba, Manitoba Public Health, the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Winnipeg because of their support.

I should thank all of our clubs and our owners because they’ve stuck with it — they bought into the plan, they’re engaged in the process, they understand the importance of the mission of playing a full season. You’ve got Canada Soccer, the officials, the coaches, and most importantly our players have been great through the whole process. There’s a level of trust in the fact that we’re going to do it the right way with our players.

Our own personnel at the league office have made sacrifices in the work done there. It takes a village to do something like this. Everyone is contributing and everybody is supportive and I like that. As opposed to saying all the reasons why you can’t do it, everyone’s working towards getting it done. Anything else you wanted to add?

Clanachan: We’re playing at a phenomenal facility, our clubs have played there before and they love it. We’re going to have great games in Winnipeg — I expect that we’re going to see better matches than in the 2019 inaugural season and our Island Games in 2020 because I see the clubs and the level of talent rising in this league. I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the new players that are coming into the CPL too — we’re attracting new, impressive players all the time. I’m happy to see them get out there and kick the ball, after all this time. Let’s get competitive again because there’s nothing better than the competition. That’s a key thing for us — but we need to do it right, stay safe, and continue to enhance our reputation as the new league that just wants to be better.