If you ask fans of the Canadian national soccer team - men’s or women’s - how their fandom began, the story is usually the same. Either because someone dragged them out or just out of curiosity, they went to a match.
The stands weren't necessarily full, although that has changed of late. The team on the field, particularly the men, weren't always putting on the best performances. But watching Canada play at home is infectious.
With that in mind, Canada Soccer deserves credit for putting together a strong lineup of cross-country matches this summer. Having 35,062 combined people attend Canadian women’s national team matches in Winnipeg and Toronto will go a long way toward continuing to cultivate that fan base.
“Unfortunately with soccer you [only] have a major tournament once every two years,” said Christine Sinclair after the 6-0 win over Costa Rica in Toronto. “It's nice to bridge the gap. In Winnipeg and here in Toronto you saw the massive amount of support we had.”
On Tuesday, the men’s national team takes on CONCACAF rivals Curacao in Montreal. Also announced yesterday was a friendly between Canada and Jamaica on September 2 at BMO Field.
With a team featuring exciting young players like Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin and Raheem Edwards, this is a good time to market the men's side. Canadian fans now have legitimate names to get excited about that they can see live playing for their respective clubs.
The women’s team has even more exciting young players, who were on full display in Sunday’s thrashing of Costa Rica. That’s why it is important not only that these friendlies happen, but that they aren’t all played in traditional places like Toronto and Vancouver.
This recent lineup of games accomplished just that. The men haven’t played in Montreal since 2010. The women had only played in Winnipeg once in the 21st century (a friendly back in 2014).
Identifying markets where home games will be successful will be a lot easier once the Canadian Premier League opens up play. Then legitimate soccer fan bases in different locations can be unearthed.
These sorts of matches also provide opportunities for Canada Soccer to work with local youth clubs and bring them to matches. There were plenty of clubs from all over the province of Ontario at the Canadian women's match in Toronto.
Not only does this fill the stands, it fills them with prospective players. Hopefully, one day, a few of those players will be of national-team calibre. Even better would be those players reaching that level as well as being passionate about Canadian soccer.
“That's the future of this program, the 10 and 11-year-olds in the stands,” said Sinclair. “I was once that kid. I got a birthday card from one of the teams and I read it and it said 'we hope to play with you one day'. They're dreaming big and it's awesome to see.”
Having players arrive in camp like Davies did makes all the difference. Canada wasn’t his second choice; he made it clear from the start that he wanted to play for the national team. That kind of attitude hasn't always been prevalent in the men's team, but needs to be to take the next step.
This summer is a start, but Canada Soccer needs to make sure that these friendlies happen consistently in the future. It is one of the easiest and most effective ways to grow the national teams’ fan base in this country.