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Canadian Premier League: What we know so far about CPL soccer

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New to our nation’s proposed professional men’s league? Here’s your primer.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, May 6, the Canadian Premier League became a reality with the Canada Soccer (CSA) board’s unanimous decision to formally endorse the league. After years of quiet planning and discussion, Canadian football fans finally have something concrete to look forward to.

In the aftermath of the CSA’s decision, more details about the league have emerged. Below is a summary of what we know so far and some of the big questions still lingering.

What is the Canadian Premier League?

The Canadian Premier League (also referred to as the CPL or CanPL) is a proposed new professional soccer league in Canada. It would become Canada’s highest level of domestic men’s football, as the country’s current professional clubs all play in U.S. Soccer-sanctioned leagues.

Who is behind the CPL?

The idea for the CPL seems to have originated from talks between a group of potential investors - led by Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner Bob Young - and the CSA under the stewardship of former president Victor Montagliani.

The Tiger-Cats have undoubtedly been a driving force and it has been clear from day one that Hamilton would, in all likelihood, be the first city to form a club.

In November of 2016, the CPL hired its first employee in project manager Paul Beirne, who had also been Toronto FC’s first employee back in 2006. Beirne has been at the forefront of the league’s planning and development since then.

The CPL also announced in January 2018 that David Clanachan, formerly an executive with Tim Hortons, will be its first commissioner.

When will the CPL start?

UPDATE: The CPL has announced that they’ll kick off in spring 2019.

While Rollins projected an August date for the soft launch, Beirne has since stated that the week after the World Cup final (which will take place on July 15) may be targeted to capitalize on the interest around the sport’s biggest event.

That will have afforded Beirne nearly two years to settle on franchises and ownership groups as well as all the necessary financial, organizational and technical components. It also gives the league time to sell not just the league itself, but also get some level of public buy-in on the CPL’s long term goal of contributing significantly to the improvement of Canadian (men’s) football.

That will be essential, of course; the CPL needs to contextualize its ‘story’ within this overarching goal in a compelling and engaging way to expand interest beyond local supporters’ groups and, ultimately, to mitigate against a poorer on-field product than MLS (at least to begin with).

What teams and cities will be in the CPL?

The league has received expressions of interest from 10 cities across the country which are now being evaluated. It is likely that the shortened 2018 season will not feature a full lineup, with six teams a number often touted for the soft launch.

Hamilton - where the league is expected to be headquartered - and Winnipeg are the first two cities to have their franchises confirmed. They will be owned by the same groups as the cities’ respective CFL teams (the Tiger Cats and Blue Bombers respectively).

The CSA has announced that the remainder of the bids will be assessed in a surprisingly short period over the summer of 2017. The league may already have a pretty good idea of which cities will be awarded franchises given the accelerated timeline for approval.

Beyond Hamilton and Winnipeg, Halifax, Moncton and Regina - who hosted a friendly between Spanish side Valencia and the New York Cosmos at Mosaic Stadium in July and a CPL summit at the same time - look to be furthest along the line in their pursuit of a CPL team.

Saskatoon, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Victoria, Quebec City, the Fraser Valley, Mississauga, London and Kitchener-Waterloo have also been linked with clubs to varying degrees.

In Ottawa and Edmonton’s case that would likely mean their existing teams - the Ottawa Fury and FC Edmonton - switching from the USL and NASL respectively, though it has been suggested Edmonton may not be interested in doing so as things stand.

Canada Soccer / Steve Kingsman

Then there is the big three of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Toronto FC have stated their interest in switching TFC II from the USL to the CPL, but some CPL supporters have called for no reserve teams and an independent Toronto club that would compete with TFC - an idea that was not warmly received by Reds president Bill Manning.

How will the league be structured and financed?

This is yet to be confirmed. Some have suggested the league will be run in a single-entity format like the MLS, with club owners holding a stake in the league while the CPL owns players’ contracts. Others, however, believe that while the CPL will run a salary cap like MLS, contracts will be held by individual clubs, as is the case in Europe.

Most sources predict players’ salaries in year one will range between $60,000 and $100,000, putting the cap ceiling at around $1.5 million. For a new league, that is reasonably ambitious and would enable CPL clubs to make realistic offers to most players struggling to earn MLS minutes.

Beirne has denied suggestions the expansion fee for each club will be $1.5 million, but confirmed on the Vocal Minority podcast that some kind of fee is likely.

Will there be promotion and relegation?

Beirne has stated - again, to Vocal Minority among others - that down the line, a two-division setup with promotion and relegation between the leagues is the target.

That will not happen immediately, but Beirne has made it clear that he believes the CPL can expand well beyond 10 or 12 teams in the long term, arriving in smaller communities across Canada as well as the obvious ones.

What will the stadiums be like?

Stadiums will be a mixture of new builds and existing CFL venues.

Hamilton, for example, will play at Tim Hortons Field, the home of the Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg’s Investors Group Field is only four years old and has previously hosted soccer matches.

China PR v New Zealand: Group A - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In Halifax, the plan is to open a pop-up stadium with a 7,000 capacity before considering longer-term options depending on the success of the team’s first few years of existence. The same could happen in Regina.

Beirne told the Away From the Numbers radio show that the league would be looking for all of its clubs to play at grounds with a minimum capacity of 7,000.

How will Champions League qualification work?

One of the big looming questions is how Canada’s single spot in CONCACAF Champions League will be decided, and what will become of the Canadian Championship. Will CPL teams simply add their names to the mix for the Voyageurs Cup? Or will there be a route through league placement? Will anything change for Canada’s MLS clubs? And if Ottawa and Edmonton remain in other leagues, will they still be invited to participate in the qualification process?

This passage is included on the CPL’s new official website:

Launching in 2018, clubs will vie to capture the Canadian Championship.

The Canadian Championship winner then moves on to compete in the CONCACAF Champions’ League with winners from the region, with the ultimate prize of reaching the annual FIFA Club World Cup.

That is a little bit ambiguous, but the most likely option would seem to be that the new Canadian Premier League clubs will enter the existing Canadian Championship, going up against MLS teams for a place in the Champions League.

The longer-term aim may be to persuade CONCACAF to allocate a second Champions League place to Canada, perhaps in ‘phase one’ of the new tournament format. That could then be a prize for the CPL winner.

What will happen to Canada’s MLS clubs?

Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact will all remain in MLS and carry on as normal.

As previously mentioned, the relationship between those three teams and the CPL - and the issue of whether or not their reserve clubs could play in the league - has been the subject of much speculation. TFC president Bill Manning upset many by coming out strongly against a second team in Toronto, but later softened his stance. “We want to have collaboration, we don’t want to be competitive,” Manning said, “and that’s what we’re trying to find out too because a lot of it we’re in the dark, as well, in terms of what type of league it is going to be.”

He should get more clarity in the coming months, but there remains no word on whether any of the MLS clubs have applied to enter a team into the league under their ownership. Affiliations with independent clubs could be a possibility.

How will CPL clubs develop players?

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

With more detailed plans for the league’s operation not yet public, how talent will be developed - one of the CPL’s foundational goals - remains a big question still to be addressed. It has previously been suggested that all clubs will be required to run academies, though partnerships with established local teams (such as Sigma FC in Ontario) are also possible - or a hybrid of both.

Beirne told Vocal Minority that he prefers a limit on the number of imports permitted by each club rather than imposing a Canadian player quota.

How can I get involved in the CPL?

Supporters’ groups are already popping up across Canada in anticipation of CPL teams being confirmed. The most notable is the Barton St. Battalion, who have been closely involved in the process of bringing a Hamilton club to the league. Others include the Halifax Wanderers, the Grand River Union (for Kitchener-Waterloo and the surrounding area), Red River Rising (Winnipeg) and the Mississauga Supporters’ Group.

You can also now sign up as a fan on the new CPL website to, as it states, “be one of the first to learn about the details of the league, its teams, matches, and ticket information as it is announced”. Members will also get “exclusive access to the first wave of tickets, news, and promotional offers” and can express their support for particular cities they would like to see CPL teams awarded to.

Sources and further reading

Canadian Premier League official website

Ticats involved in early days of new vision for Canadian soccer | Hamilton Spectator

New Canadian pro soccer league makes major hire | Hamilton Spectator

Pro soccer pitch pitched for Halifax Wanderers Grounds | The Chronicle Herald

Soccer stadium, team touted for downtown Halifax | The Canadian Press

Moncton eyes spot in professional Canadian soccer league | CBC News

Pro soccer in Saskatoon? Ownership group explores its options | Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Monthly CanPL rumour round-ups | Northern Starting XI

Interview with Paul Beirne | Vocal Minority podcast

Interview with Paul Beirne | Away From the Numbers

Interview with Paul Beirne | Under the Cosh podcast

Potential CanPL owners talk about their big dreams for Saskatchewan soccer | The 11

New Canadian Soccer League Faces Many Of The Old Problems As Well As Some New Ones | Forbes

This article will be updated by the Waking the Red staff as more information emerges. If you have any suggestions or spot any errors, please feel free to leave a comment or email wakingthered@gmail.com.