Vision to reality: CPL first kick opens new chapter in our soccer story

Let’s go back in time nearly five years.

It’s the summer of 2014. Victor Montagliani is the president of the Canadian Soccer Association, and is still a few years away as taking the reins at CONCACAF.

Canada has announced plans to bid for a World Cup. And, Montagliani discusses his long-term vision for pro soccer in Canada. Or, rather, what it would soon be.

“One of our next priorities in Canada is to develop a Division Two and a Division 1A … We believe that these leagues can co-exist with MLS and NASL. But, for such a league to exist, it needs to show it can be successful on a commercial basis. The days of cutting a cheque and handing it over are gone.”

Less than five years after Montagliani unveiled his grand vision for professional men’s soccer in Canada, a new Canadian Premier League kicks off on April 27. It is a league that will coexist with MLS; in fact, York9 FC, one of seven founding CPL clubs, could be starting Ryan Telfer, a loanee from Toronto FC, as his new team takes on Forge FC of Hamilton later this week. This week.

Also on offer this week? Two communities welcome professional sports to their landscape for the first time, as Pacific FC hosts HFX Wanderers FC, the first and only professional tier-one sporting outfits in both Vancouver Island and Halifax.

Meanwhile, FC Edmonton, a refugee from the NASL fallout, will begin CPL play a week later, as will Cavalry FC of Calgary, a team made up of much of their PDL-winning outfit, who will now try to climb even greater heights. Winnipeg, Canada’s oldest soccer community, welcomes the sport back to the province of Manitoba, too. The storylines here are endless.

When Montagliani unveiled his vision, it was talk. To think that, less than five years on, someone will be kicking a ball in anger in an all-Canadian league, that’s the culmination of an incredibly accelerated schedule. Even though the league’s owners and management decided to not rush to start CPL in 2018 and wait till 2019 to begin play, we are still talking about an incredibly short timeline from vision to realization. Sure, over the last five years, supporters groups have moaned about what they see as a slow trickle of information; but, in truth, this is a league that has come together in fast-forward mode.

What will it mean? No longer will we need to fret all that much about how much on-field time Canadians are getting in MLS or USL. Sure, we’ll still be applauding the efforts of Canadians in the league, but we no longer need to rely on them to be our developmental bases. The foundation of our professional development plan will now be the CPL.

As well, MLS is never going to expand past three Canadian teams. That league has many unserved American markets and, as a U.S.-based league, it’s own ambitious expansion plan is going to naturally focus on America. But, at the same time, Canadian sport isn’t truly “Canadian” if it’s only in the three biggest cities. A Canadian league needs to be about Alberta and Manitoba and the Maritimes and the Canadian west coast. It can’t be locked away in three spots. Places like Edmonton and Calgary, all metros with over a million people each, can’t be forever locked out of first-division soccer.

When the first ball is kicked, the “Division 1A” part of Montagliani’s vision will be well on its way. With invested owners who have made long-term commitments, national sponsorships and, well, an inaugural match broadcast coast-to-coast on the CBC, this is a league that shows that it understands the need to be self-sufficient, which was part of that CSA mandate.

And, as for Division Two? Commissioner David Clanachan has repeatedly stressed his support for promotion and relegation; he’s said he’s spoken to up to 18 more interested parties, those who potentially want to bring teams into CPL. That means a Division Two would become a product of this league’s growth — that it would be linked to CPL in a proper pyramid, not through a loose association of affiliations like MLS has with USL south of the border.

If this works, we’re looking at the construction of a real soccer pyramid, not a pseudo-developmental path like we’ve had, since, well since Canadians first kicked a ball. If this works, Canadians across the country will have home teams to cheer on.

But, wow, after five years of speculating about ownership groups and sponsors and kit designs, this coming Saturday we’ll be talking about the most important topic of all — the soccer itself. Can York9 limit Forge’s attacking waves? Will Bobby Smyrniotis be able to break through York’s resilient backline? Who will win the midfield battle? Who will be better on set pieces?

After all, that’s what we’re in this for. That’s the real beauty of the beautiful game. And that’s exactly what we’re getting, at long last, on a Saturday afternoon long in the making.