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Canadian clubs turning heads with PDL success

There are eight Canadian clubs in the PDL and this year four of them made it all the way to the final eight and two managed to reach the semifinals. The question is what does all that success have to do with Canadian soccer going forward?

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Carl Haworth, PDL Super Star
Carl Haworth, PDL Super Star
Canadian Soccer Association

The USL PDL final four is all set and it includes a pair of Canadian clubs as both the Victoria Highlanders and Thunder Bay Chill continued their impressive seasons by claiming conference titles over the weekend. The weekend also saw defending champions FC London eliminated in the final eight along with the Ottawa Fury.

That was a whole lot of Canadian content in both the final eight and the final four. Now with Victoria and Thunder Bay set to meet in the semifinals there will once again be a Canadian club competing for the PDL championship. With just 8 Canadian clubs in the league that performance becomes all the more impressive.

Canada is currently represented in the PDL by Victoria, Thunder Bay, London, Ottawa, Vancouver Whitecaps U-23, WSA Winnipeg, Toronto Lynx, and K-W United. It is a good representation across the country in what is supposed to be North America's top development league for amateur players.

For those not familiar with the Premier Development League it is part of the United Soccer Leagues which make up a big part of the American soccer pyramid on both the men's and women's side. The PDL has some unique roster rules that ensure rosters are made up primarily of young players who are looking to move up in the game. Each club's 26-man roster is allowed to include a maximum of 8 players over the age of 23 and at least 3 must be 18 or younger.

That means the majority of players on each roster are university players who are looking for playing time during the summer at a high level. In recent years the league has become a good showcase for some of the top talent in NCAA soccer and with every passing year the number of MLS players with PDL experience continues to grow. It is a list that includes 6 former number one picks in the MLS SuperDraft including the last two as both Andrew Wenger and Andrew Farrell played at least one summer in the league. The league has also boasted 7 players with a MAC Herman trophy on their resume as the top NCAA player.

The league has also been a stepping stone for a number of Canadian internationals over the year. Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Lars Hirschfeld, Olivier Occean, Kyle Porter, Adam Straith, and Russell Teibert have all spent time in the league before pulling on Canadian colours just to name a few of them.

Over the years the Vancouver Whitecaps U-23 team has been the top producer of talent among the Canadian clubs with the team serving as the final step in the organization's development ladder before joining the first team. They joined the PDL for the 2008 season and have been routinely successful since then and have done so with rosters stacked with young Canadian players. Their focus has been on talent development though so finishing in the middle of the division was the norm but this year they claimed a third place finish and a first round play-off exit.

The success has not been limited to Vancouver in recent years though as other Canadian clubs have been producing results to be proud of.

Thunder Bay Chill: the first Canadian club to win a PDL Championship back in 2008, three time playoff finalists, winners of 6 out of the last 7 Heartland Division championships, and the 2013 regular season champions (first Canadian club to do so since Calgary Storm in 2001)

Victoria Highlanders FC: founded in 2007 with their season ticket holders making up a share of the ownership, reached the playoffs for the first time in 2011, won their first Northwest Division title in 2013, and made their first finals appearance in 2013.

Ottawa Fury: founded in 2005 the club has found success with their men's and women's team, won 4 of the last 5 Northeast Division championships, and three time Conference playoff finalists.

FC London: founded in 2008 they joined the PDL in 2009 they became the second Canadian team to win the PDL Championship in 2011, have reached the playoffs every year of their existence finishing in the top three of the Great Lakes division five straight seasons, and won their division for the first time in 2013.

WSA Winnipeg: having been founded in 2010 they just completed their third season in the PDL and despite finishing near the bottom of the Heartland division each season they have become the top club in the Winnipeg area and consistently fielded a team built around local talent.

K-W United FC: 2013 waas the club's first in Kitchener-Waterloo after being moved over from Hamilton. They played two season in Hamilton finishing near the bottom of the Great Lakes division each time and struggling to attract local interest. The move to K-W breathed new life into the franchise which had its best season just narrowly missing out on a playoff spot in 2013.

Toronto Lynx: they took the step down to the PDL in 2007 when Toronto FC came onto the scene as the top club in the city. In their seven seasons since then they have struggled along in the Great Lakes division with their best season coming in 2008 when they finished 3rd making their lone PDL playoff appearance.

There have been mixed results for the Canadian clubs in terms of on field performances with a few clubs languishing near the bottom of their respective divisions but there are also plenty of success stories to be excited about. The continued strong performances from Canadian clubs in the league are something that merits the attention of fans interested in the state of the game in this country.

Each club has developed their own approach to building a roster and have different aims for their club. Some clubs have worked to attract the top talent available to their roster building a squad filled with nationalities from all over the World. Others have built their team primarily around local players and stocked up on Canadians. The last two teams standing prove that both ways can bring success in the league as Thunder Bay have a roster built of players from a variety of countries while Victoria are stocked with local players with many who play at nearby colleges.

The good news is that all eight of the clubs are home to Canadian talent and as they continue to succeed and the league attracts more talent it becomes a crucial part of the development structure for the country. With three MLS clubs now in place and a second NASL club on the way the top of the pyramid is getting stronger with each passing year but young Canadians still lack quality development opportunities which is a void the PDL clubs are helping to fill.

The PDL has 62 teams and only 8 of them are in Canada. It is a start, a solid one, but it is not enough if the end goal is for Canada to finally turn into a competitive soccer nation. Too many talented players still seem to fall through the cracks and miss out on the development opportunities that they need. Every club in place with a clear pathway for players to follow to the top is one step closer to addressing some of the major issues in development.

This is where the Easton Report, the findings of which were published within "In a League of our Own", comes into the picture. The report was commissioned by the Canadian Soccer Association to look into the viability of a national division two league.

The report concludes that the best option for the Canadian Soccer Association to pursue was a regional U-23 league across the country. A league that would have a lot in common with PDL should it come to fruition but instead of providing playing opportunities for hundreds of Americans it would do the same for Canadians.

The Canadian equivalent would likely have its own set of rules for over-age players and international players but the basics would be quite similar to the PDL. Like the PDL it would be built around regional divisions to limit the travel costs teams incur and work around the fact that many players would likely also have jobs during the summer. It would be an amateur league with most or all over the players being under the age of 23.

There are areas that a Canadian league would need to improve upon the PDL mode though. The main concern is the fact that the PDL season is only three months long and the regular season only sees each club play 14 matches. When combined with playing in NCAA that means a young player who is in need of regular playing time in a competitive environment is only getting that for around 5 months out of the year and that is not enough.

There has been a push to extend the NCAA season so that players get more competitive games in outside of the fall season but that has made little progress thus far. The new Canadian league would be wise to address that concern from the beginning and ensure players are in a competitive setting for more than just the short period they currently get with PDL teams and provide development opportunities and training throughout the year for talented young Canadians looking to make the jump to the professional level.

That was what the Easton Report recommended to the CSA and was adopted by the governing body. When it is eventually implemented it would become the third division of soccer in Canada behind MLS and NASL. That would put the National U-23 league a tier above the PDL which is considered the fourth division in US soccer behind MLS, NASL, and USL Pro.

The question now is where will the PDL clubs fit into the future of Canadian soccer. They have managed to find success playing in the American league and many of them field squads in a variety of other USL leagues and are not just concerned with their PDL side. That might make it tricky to convince some of them to move their organization from the PDL but it could prove to be crucial to the viability of such a league.

A new Canadian league will rely on the support of the existing professional clubs who should all field some form of reserve team or senior academy team in the league but that alone will not be enough to bring success to a regional u-23 league. The five professional clubs can lead the way but the viability of the league will come down to attracting other dedicated ownership groups. Some of those potential groups can be found running the successful PDL clubs.

The likes of Ian Campbell (owner of iConect) in London, John Marrello (CEO of the Port Arthur Health Center) in Thunder Bay, Alex Campbell Jr. in Victoria are the sort of people who a new league could be built around. Canadian soccer is not exactly flush with money so when you do find people willing to spend their personal wealth supporting soccer they need to be key parts of moving the game forward.

Ottawa and Vancouver have ownership groups that will be focused on competing in MLS or NASL but they could also field teams in a national league. That leaves 6 other ownerships that are already investing heavily in soccer and should continue to be leaders going forward.

The success of Canadian clubs and the investment of their owners in PDL soccer is a good start towards what the Easton Report calls for but it is not enough. The CSA will need to entice these groups to join any new Canadian League since when you combine them with the existing professional clubs you would have a solid foundation already in place around the country for a national division three league.

In the meantime the CSA needs to continue to extend the olive branch to these clubs and once potential way to do that would be inviting them into the National Championship, the Voyageurs Cup. Their American counterparts get the chance to compete in the US Open Cup and it would be great for the same to happen in Canada since it would cast an increased spotlight on these clubs to see them going up against NASL or MLS clubs in cup competition.

For now it is nice to see so many Canadian clubs doing well in the PDL but it is not enough. Not if the end goal is to have Canada developing players talented enough to carry the country forward to a potential World Cup spot down the road. If that is the goal then there needs to be more done and the existing clubs need to play a big role in moving the game forward. They have made a good start but that is all it is, a start.

Hopefully, the recommendations from the Easton Report will be implemented in the coming years and a new Canadian league will open for more young players to develop at a high level and hopefully reach the professional ranks. Until then though Canadian soccer fans should enjoy the chance to see two Canadian clubs competing for the PDL Championship this coming weekend down in Austin, Texas.

With so little to celebrate in Canadian soccer it is worth taking time to highlight the good things that are being done around the country.