Editorial Note: This represents the first instalment in a series Waking the Red is conducting on the league situation in Canada, exploring the possibility and viability of a new professional league in Canada. In order to start the series, it is important to explore the league system that is already in place.
Molham Babouli doesn't know where he would be without League1 Ontario. That isn't to say he wouldn't have followed a similar career path, he still would have played for Toronto FC Academy in 2014 regardless of where that had been. It's an interesting question nonetheless.
"I'm now sure what league [Toronto FC Academy] would have played in if it wasn't for League1," Babouli tells Waking the Red. "But you can't really say where a person would be without a league."
It's a fair point, there are a lot of factors that make up a player's career. What can be said, however, is where Babouli's career went after his MVP winning year in the inaugural season of League1 Ontario.
This past year he led Toronto FC II in scoring in their first season as a club, scored Canada's only goal at the Pan Am Games and also scored for them in their fourth place finish at the Olympic Qualifiers earlier this year.
That makes for an impressive success story, especially considering the fact that before being picked up by TFC Academy last season he was considering leaving professional soccer altogether. For ANB Academy's Anthony Smith, who has played in both of the league's first two seasons, stories like this will continue to make the league and it's player development successful.
"It's good especially for the younger kids who need that inspiration of the Canadian talent coming from Canadian leagues,"Smith tells Waking the Red. "You don't really hear about Canadians who were successful."
Babouli is far from the only notable graduate of League1 Ontario. MLS rookie of they year and Orlando City striker Cyle Larin spent time in the league during its inaugural season, as did Jonathan Grant, Chris Manella, Raheem Edwards and several others who have gone on to the professional ranks. Babouli, however, is not surprised at how many high end talents the league has seen.
"It's not surprising, there is a lot of talent here in Canada so putting in a league that definitely helps," says Babouli. "It's a stepping stone for a lot of kids."
Babouli explains that part of that development is teaching kids both to play at a professional level and the physical aspects that are required. Its purpose is to aid the transition into pro soccer.
"It was a good step, training every day, training with the right people in a professional environment," Babouli said of his time in League1 Ontario. "Going up to the first team and coming back down, just a more organized structure was a good experience for me."
Smith agrees with this sentiment, he has seen major growth in his game since joining ANB Academy and playing in a variety of different positions for the club.
He does think the league can take things a step further however, not just cultivating the talent but taking things a step further and doing a better job of showcasing its players.
"Having people come from overseas to look at this young talent, actually have it shown on like Rogers TV to help the exposure of the league, that kind of thing," says Smith of what the league can improve on going forward.
Smith believes this is ultimately what will define the future and sustainability of the league, whether or not it is able to consistently develop notable talent. The more players that transition from League 1 Ontario to MLS, or the Canadian National team or Europe the more notice the league will get from the public.
"When people see the growth and success of Canadian players within this league I believe it will just continue to be successful."
Just two years into its existence the long-term success and sustainability of League1 Ontario is still in question. Any soccer league in Canada is going to face similar questions until they are well established.
Nobody knows where these young Canadian players would be if it wasn't for League1 Ontario. There is a chance that talent would have won out and they would still have risen to the heights that they have.
However, without League1 Ontario where that transition to the professional ranks would have taken place is unknown, and that is the importance it has already demonstrated, and will continue to be underlined in the future.