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What a National Professional League Would Mean for Soccer in Canada

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Canada hasn't had much success with professional soccer leagues, but with a World Cup bid around the corner they are trying again.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Issey Nakajima-Farran was just happy to feel at home. Having spent his entire soccer career playing abroad, the 31-year-old always felt like a foreigner. He had seen local players in Japan, England, Singapore, Denmark, Australia and Cyprus all be treated like heroes, and he was ready to finally get his welcome.

That was the dream that Nakajima-Farran was imagining when he signed for Toronto FC in 2014. His return to Canada, however, would very quickly turn into a nightmare. On his birthday, and just five games into his Toronto FC career, Nakajima-Farran was abruptly traded to the Montreal Impact.

"I saw how a Canadian team is virtually an American team," Nakajima-Farran said of Toronto who play in US-owned Major League Soccer. "The club is Canadian, the fans are Canadian, but there was no pride in the organization to be a Canadian team."

With the Impact, Nakajima-Farran was also not given much of a chance, and didn't feel welcomed by his coach. Fed up, he left Canada to play in Malaysia.

"I'm glad I'm out of it and back playing as a foreigner," he says of his experience. "Hopefully someday Canada can have their own league and be able to truly say it's a Canadian league."

It's a feeling echoed by Canadian soccer players around the world, forced to leave home to make a living. Even those who play for Canadian teams do so in an American league, and get muscled out by roster rules that favour US players.

With that in mind, and as part of a bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, Canada is trying overcome past failures and create a national professional league. It's a project that the CSA have slowly been working on for years.

Story continues below interactive.

As the coach of Canada's men's Under-20 national team, Rob Gale has seen first hand how a lack of professional opportunities hurts Canadian players when they come up against countries with established professional leagues.

"That's the big difference why I think we are competitive at the younger ages and then it's hard once players turn 20," he says.

What he has also seen, however, is the national landscape changing at the club level, indicating that a Canadian league might not be that farfetched.

"Calgary has a team, Winnipeg has a team, obviously you've got Ottawa, and Edmonton and Kitchener in Ontario has a team as well," he said of the existing pro teams in Canada.

It's a small start he admits, but it could form the base of what would be an eight team Canadian league. The interest is there.

Not only could it benefit existing Canadian teams, however, it would benefit the existing league structure in Canada as well. League 1 Ontario, for one is hopeful that this league will be created soon.

"We believe that it is imperative for the long term success for our league that there is a domestic league that has demand for the Canadian players," said commissioner Dino Rossi. "We want to be a key source of those players."

The difficulty for Canadian leagues has always been getting past initial interest. This is something Richard Whitall, who helped put together a report for the CSA, on the feasibility of a Canadian league, consistently found in his research.

"They all collapsed for pretty much the same reasons, nobody considered what it's like to keep a league afloat five years down the road from the initial launch," he explains. "Things can change very, very quickly."

It's a cautionary-tale, especially with what another collapse would mean not only for the game in Canada, but for the players who would ultimately be playing the league. In the past the results of league's disbanding have been disastrous.

"What you don't want to do is offer those opportunities and then it doesn't become viable and the players are kind of left without a place to play," explains Gale.

Another concern is whether or not the CSA is rushing this project to get it done in time for a 2026 World Cup bid. Having a domestic league is crucial to securing the global tournament.

Journalist Duane Rollins, however, doesn't see the rush. He broke the story of a new Canadian League for Canadian Soccer news, and sees a measured approach so far.

"I can understand why it would look that way, but I don't think they are rushing this," Rollins said. "They want to make sure there are investors who aren't going to fly away at the first hint of adversity."

Rather, Rollins sees the World Cup bid as a hook that the CSA are using to fish for investment money and infrastructure. If Canada was rushing, he says, the league would have been launched by now.

In order for a Canadian league to succeed, Rollins sees two things as incredibly important beyond just investors and teams: a strong media partner and marketing. He looks at the Canadian Football League (CFL), the highest profile league that is exclusively Canadian, as the perfect example.

"[A Canadian Soccer League] needs to really embrace their Canadianness," he says. "That's the one thing I really do appreciate about the CFL, they've tried to stress their differences from the American versions of the game rather than run from them."

The new league is enough to get Nakajima-Farran interested again. While his last experience is still in the back of his mind, he is cautiously optimistic about what a new league could bring.

"If there was a Canadian focused club playing in a Canadian league it would be a great journey to be a part of. So maybe in a few years I will be back, we shall see."