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Stability, opportunity central as soccer’s Canadian Premier League kicks off

Six years into its mandate, Canada’s pro soccer league ‘in a good place’

The Canadian Premier League kicks off its sixth season this weekend, still a work in progress but with a sense of stability in most quarters.

Toronto-based York United FC, sold in November after being taken over last April by Canadian Soccer Business (which shares the same ownership as the CPL), has enthusiastic new Mexican owners and all eight clubs enter the season with the same coaches. There seems plenty to build on.

“Stability is a great word for a young league and that’s where we are,” said commissioner Mark Noonan. “It’s stability tied with growth. That’s the focus.”

“We’re in a good place to continue that path,” he added.

B.C. teams in Langley and Langford are part of what Noonan calls a “league of opportunity” with 75 per cent of its minutes going to Canadian talent.

The CPL saw five of its clubs separated by just six points, from second to fifth place, in a competitive 2023 season. And the campaign concluded in a doozy of a final that saw defending champion Forge FC win its fourth title in a dramatic 2-1 win over regular-season leader Cavalry FC with all three goals coming in extra time.

Forge coach Bobby Smyrniotis, a constant since Day 1 likes what he sees over the first five years.

“More talent, more players, more ability,” said Smyrniotis. “And I think that’s going to become more entertaining for all the crowds that are coming … As long as we keep putting the right product on the field.”

Noonan says the news was good off the field as well.

“Every kind of business metric that we measure went in the right direction,” he said in an interview.

But building a league is a costly, challenging task. Observers got a peek into just how costly when the community-owned Winnipeg Blue Bombers, which operates Valour FC, released its 2023 annual report this week.

Valour, which finished last in the league at 6-14-8, lost on and off the field. Some $1.25 million advanced to the team by the parent Winnipeg Football Club was recorded as a loss “because there is uncertainty on Valour’s ability to repay the loan.”

In December, Noonan said CPL owners were “probably $125 million in the hole” from developing “an ecosystem for soccer in Canada that didn’t exist.”

On the plus side, a disagreement with media partner Mediapro Canada that led to legal filings appears to be settled, with OneSoccer once again airing all of the league’s games.

“Business as usual,” said Noonan.

The season opens Saturday with Atletico Ottawa hosting York United, Cavalry visiting Forge in a rematch of last year’s championship game and Pacific FC entertaining Halifax Wanderers FC.

On Sunday, it’s Valour at Vancouver FC.

There are two trophies up for grabs with the CPL Shield going to the team that finishes first in the regular-season standings and the North Star Cup to the last team standing in the playoffs. Both come with berths in the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, the confederation’s elite club competition.

Forge is looking for a three-peat. Smyrniotis knows it will take supreme effort.

“I think one of the most difficult things in sport is keep on winning in a salary-cap league,” he said.

Atletico Ottawa has restocked its roster after finishing sixth last season at 10-12-6, missing the post-season by just two points. Additions include defenders Amer Didić and Jonathan Grant, midfielders Manny Aparicio and Aboubacar Sissoko and forward Ballou Tabla.

“It’s a completely new team,” said coach Carlos Gonzalez. “We’re trying to blend them into a good team, a great team together.”

Game Plan Sports Group, led by Mexican brothers Eduardo, Miguel and Ricardo Pasquel, now own York, the second franchise with foreign ownership. Ottawa is part of Atletico Madrid’s worldwide network of clubs.

“This is the world’s game,” said Noonan. “And bringing in a group like the Pasquel brothers and all their connections opens up a great new window for us in a lot of ways … CPL is now on the radar in Mexico.”

And elsewhere. The CPL is shown in 35 countries with plans to grow that coverage.

As for expansion, Noonan says there are 15 groups interested in a CPL franchise on non-disclosure agreements. But Noonan says the league won’t add teams until they tick all the necessary boxes.

He expects the league to likely remain at eight teams in 2025 and look to expand in 2026.

“But I’m bullish on expansion. We will double the size of this league in the next decade or so. But we have to do it smartly, ” he added.

The league implemented an “exceptional young talent” designation last season, allowing teams to sign two additional under-18 domestic players who don’t count against the salary cap or roster number.

Vancouver FC took advantage of that last season to sign T.J. Tahid and James Cameron, both of whom went on to represent Canada at the youth level.

This year’s phenom is 16-year-old Grady McDonnell, who was 15 when he signed with Vancouver in January. He is on a regular three-year pro deal.

“We’re not going out and buy Lionel Messi. But we might develop him,” said Noonan. “And that’s what is really exciting. It’s a good reason to come to the matches, to see this next generation of players that are going to start coming up through our league.”

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