Welcome to CPL DEEP DIVE, a CanPL.ca series that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject matter of interest in the Canadian Premier League, examining it from a variety of angles and perspectives.
When members of the Wheatpool and Bridge City Firm supporters’ groups met Thursday evening, they were oblivious about what was going to happen the following day.
The COVID-19 pandemic had left them wondering for the past year whether their aspirations of a professional football team coming to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan would be realized.
“We were focused on keeping that little bit of momentum going because, you know, it sounded like nothing would be happening for potentially years now,” Saskatoon resident and Wheatpool member Jeff Salisbury told CanPL.ca.
“We thought it was dead in the water.”
‘You cannot knock the smile off my face’
On Friday morning, the CPL revealed it had awarded the exclusive rights to an expansion club to Living Sky Sports and Entertainment Inc., a Saskatchewan-based company led by Al Simpson. The deal in principle is contingent upon LSSE building a soccer-specific stadium that meets the league’s standards.
Longtime boosters of the professional game in Saskatchewan were left bewildered by Friday’s announcement. They had no idea what the CPL was planning to announce or, perhaps more significantly, that their city would be awarded a club so soon.
Many in the Bridge City Firm, Saskatchewan’s unofficial supporters’ group, had been working on bringing a pro team to the province since July 2017. Members helped develop the Saskatchewan Summer Soccer Series, a run of professionally-run friendlies in Saskatoon that drew thousands of fans to see the “Saskatchewan Selects” play the likes of Toronto FC II and Vancouver Whitecaps’ U-23 squad.
For Salisbury, he was convinced any momentum created over the collective’s first three-or-so years had been wasted after the past year of inactivity.
“I was convinced things here were done,” said Salisbury, recalling a cancelled pre-season friendly with FC Edmonton last March. “We were getting down to where the supporters sections would go – we even had a tifo made.
“We figured that, you know, maybe they would circle back to Saskatchewan in a few years closer to the 2026 World Cup… or even afterwards.”
Flash forward to early Friday. Self-described Saskatchewan soccer super=fan Rob Williamson had seen the CPL’s coy tease on social media hinting at potential expansion, but was quick to pour water on the thought of his province being its target. Other supporters suggested a few expletives were uttered when the announcement came down at 10 a.m local time.
“I was posting in our group chat ‘hey, let’s just be happy for whoever this is, whichever city wins,'” Williamson recalled. “A couple of hours later at work and I was floored – I couldn’t concentrate.”
Speaking to a group of fellow supporters, Bridge City original Lee Kormish recalled seeing his phone ringing and flashing as he was out doing errands Friday morning.
“You cannot knock the smile off my face. I haven’t been this happy in two years,” Kormish stated. “We met three and a half years ago and I felt we could have done this for another five, six, seven – maybe eight years before we had a club.”
“Now we have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s real.”
The impact of professional football in the province in terms of player development was not lost on Lisa Bagonluri, president of the Saskatchewan Soccer Association.
“It gives people something to aspire to,” Bagonluri told CanPL.ca. “It’s really hard for a kid coming out of Saskatchewan to get noticed. This is a game-changer and getting more kids playing and continuing to keep them playing.”
Only a handful of players from Canada’s breadbasket have made the national stage. Valour FC wide player Brett Levis is the lone Saskatchewan native in CPL. Going from local club soccer to the University of Saskatchewan in 2011, Levis made the U SPORTS (then-CIS) national championships twice with the Huskies and won the CanWest conference in 2014, both firsts for the program. Levis’ 29-goal return in his 50 matches for U of S caught the eye of the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he went on to make 24 appearances in MLS.
Levis made the jump from U SPORTS to the professional level without something like the CPL-U SPORTS Draft – let alone a professional team in his backyard.
“I just hope it has the same impact this league has had on Canadian soccer by offering a more tangible thing for young players to aspire to in this community,” Levis told CanPL.ca after Friday’s announcement.
Salisbury added: “I’m excited for how this is gonna revolutionize the sport in the province.
“We’re fortunate to have players like Levis, Drew Beckie, Kailyn Kyle, and these players to come out of these provinces and make a career of it.
“But, ultimately, it’s still just been a recreational sport that parents drop their kids off at the park for. It can be a lot more.”
‘We don’t have much that binds us’
Wheatpool member Bimal Panthi couldn’t help but look to the future after Friday’s announcement.
Panthi has immigrated to Saskatoon from Nepal and has two young children. Showing the sport he loves and grew up with to his daughter and son was always going to be a challenge in a new country.
“You realize that we could have a future in soccer – the kind of a dream that you see in your child’s eyes and you feel emotional about it,” Panthi told CanPL.ca. “You see kids like mine see glimpses of the game and players from Calgary, Edmonton, or Vancouver. Now it’s coming here.”
Panthi, a diehard Liverpool fan, sees the power of a professional Saskatoon soccer team as a potential connection between other immigrant families in the city of just over 246,000.
“We land in this province and we don’t have much of anything that binds us,” Panthi said. “Back home we would stay up and watch as much soccer as you could overnight.
“This team could be the thing that brings together and translates to their kids too – all of these people from diverse backgrounds suddenly find soccer as a big connection point. Hopefully future immigrants coming to Saskatoon could experience that on arrival, too.”
A second meeting, 24 hours later
Saskatchewan soccer supporters will gather again on Friday – only 24 hours since they last spoke, but a 24 hours that promise to change Saskatchewan soccer forever.
“It’s pretty easy in Saskatchewan to talk yourself out of the idea of a professional team coming here, simply because we’re a bit of a have-not province,” said Rob Notenboom, the voice behind prominent soccer podcast From the Black Hole. “This suddenly makes it feel much more like we’ve got a toehold into something that’s going to be there in the future.”
That “toehold” into the future depends on the construction of a soccer-specific stadium. Prairieland Park in the city’s south end has been pegged as the first ideal location for such a construction.
For Bridge City Firm and the Wheatpool, their fortunes have reversed in the most unexpected way. Now, it’s up to building again, now with a clear – and public – goal of bringing a club to the city.
“We’re having a call in an hour and a half to discuss that very question,” Salisbury concluded. “Right now it’s about keeping organization in the growth we’re about to see in this group because I have a feeling this is going to take off.”
From “dead in the water” to “take off” in a matter of hours. Such is the world of Canadian professional soccer.