Larson: Transformative year in Canadian soccer paves way for even bigger 2019

TORONTO — Imagine, for a moment, overlooking the pitch above a raucous crowd inside Moscow’s iconic Luzhniki Stadium while contemplating if a World Cup final would be your biggest soccer moment this year.

Imagine looking down at world class footballers like Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Luka Modric from a World Cup press box and knowing, on a personal level, there were even bigger soccer moments to come in 2018.

I joined Editorial less than two weeks after covering this summer’s World Cup — the pinnacle of soccer and the greatest sporting event the world has known.

But covering another major tournament was reduced to a bullet point in what has been a transformative year in Canadian soccer.

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Canadian Premier League coaches during a meeting in Toronto. (CPL)

One look back at the Canadian Premier League’s year-end timeline brings that into focus.

Seven founding CPL clubs were established in 2018.

Seven coaches were introduced to lead those squads.

Venues across Canada are being revamped and refurbished to host top-tier soccer in an emerging soccer nation whose continued growth I believe hinges on the establishment of a league that’s for Canadians, by Canadians – a league that’s supported by our communities and gives Canadian players the sort of priority they haven’t previously been afforded.

Wanderers Grounds. (Handout)
A rendering shows Wanderers Grounds in Halifax. (Handout)

It’s a league whose mandate is to do more than entertain; it’s to improve all aspects of the Canadian game — refereeing, administration, coaching, player performance — from coast-to-coast, providing more and more opportunities to build something in this country.

It’s a league that’s here to inspire the next generation of Canadians to aspire to compete for a pair of senior national teams that, as demonstrated recently, are on the cusp of breaking new ground.

Canada’s women will be at next summer’s World Cup. Canada’s men are beginning to grab their share of the spotlight with exciting young names who are looking forward to next summer’s Gold Cup.

From Halifax to Vancouver Island, I had the privilege of traversing this country during the CPL’s Open Trials, an inspirational initiative I admittedly had reservations about.

Lukumbi Tshindaye. (Lucho Calderon/CPL)
Montreal trialist Lukumbi Tshindaye. (Lucho Calderon/CPL)

Would prospective footballers turn up?

How would the trials be received in soccer hotbeds like Montreal and Toronto?

What would the level be?

They’re questions I remember CPL coaches putting forward the night before the first stop (Halifax) of a nationwide event that served to remind Canadian communities of one thing: We are coming.

It set the tone for impressive showings by hopefuls in Quebec and Ontario, followed by impassioned performances from trialists in Winnipeg, Alberta and Vancouver Island.

In an honest one-on-one outside a University of Victoria locker-room last month, Trials coach Alex Bunbury told me the months-long talent search left him “emotional.”

“I didn’t expect to be,” the Canadian soccer legend added, a statement echoed by numerous CPL personnel involved in a process that reiterated the passion and audience that already exists for this league.

Alex Bunbury speaks to trialists in Winnipeg. (CPL)

On a more personal level, the chance to engage Bunbury, CPL coaches and league leaders on a weekly basis throughout that process offered invaluable insight into the mindsets of those who are helping lead Canadian soccer into uncharted territory in 2019.

But the conclusion of this year offers more than an opportunity to reflect on a series of announcements and events that laid the groundwork for what’s to come.

The new year will undoubtedly see another uptick in the kind of news — schedules, rosters, and more — staff have been anticipating alongside our audience.

It’s the kind of news and stories I’ve pondered and debated and looked forward to detailing since July, when the World Cup in Russia took a back seat to what was happening in my own backyard.