BRAMPTON, Ont.—After decades of hoping that Canada might one day have a sustainable, fully-professional soccer league of its own, and multiple failed attempts, 2019 was a big year for Canadian soccer.
The Canadian Premier League played their inaugural season, kicking things off at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont. on April 27, and it’s finally fair to say that the league fans have been hoping for has been established—and it appears that it’s here to stay.
With the goal of giving Canadian players a place to play at home, the league set up two notable roster rules to grow the game domestically: the first was restricting no more than seven international players which was crucial to showcasing homegrown talent; secondly, there were requirements to play Canadians under the age of 21, which forced clubs to invest in more young Canadian talent, and in turn, some previously unknown players have grown into stars across the league.
Whether it was the players starting out their professional careers, finally getting a shot at regular minutes, or returning home to Canada after playing abroad, the Canadian Premier League showed in year one that it is living up to that intial goal.
Tristan Borges, midfielder for Hamilton’s Forge FC, is the perfect example of the kind of player that the league was designed for.
After playing for the Toronto FC academy, Borges joined Dutch club SC Heerenveen. He returned to Canada in the summer of 2018, joining Sigma FC (an academy setup in Mississauga, ON) before joining Sigma Head Coach Bobby Smyrniotis at newly-founded Forge FC for the CPL’s inaugural season.
Borges, 21, stepped almost seamlessly into the professional game, leading the league in goals and tying for the lead in assists, becoming a star in the process. At the first CPL Awards in November, he picked up three of the six awards handed out: the Golden Boot (most goals), Player of the Year, and Under-21 Canadian Player of the Year.
His Forge FC team made it all the way to the two-legged CPL Finals at the end of October and early November, eventually beating Calgary’s Cavalry FC 2-0 on aggregate to win the league’s inaugural season.
However, despite all of his individual and team accolades over the past season, there was an overarching, perhaps more significant, accomplishment by everyone involved: the league established a legitimate foundation to build on.
“It’s very, very bright,” Borges said of the future of Canadian soccer. “I have a brother myself that’s 13 years old, and he’s playing soccer. When we were at that age, players like myself maybe had to leave the country to go play professional soccer, but now we have a professional league here.
“Players who aren’t in the league right now have a bright future to look into.”
Another award winner at the 2019 CPL Awards, Cavalry FC Head Coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr., who picked up Coach of the Year, also heaped praise on the league.
“We’ve defied a lot of skeptics, haven’t we?” Wheeldon Jr. said to reporters at the CPL Awards. “People have said ‘you can’t do this’ and ‘you can’t do that’, and there’s a lot of ‘cant’s’ in there.
“I think what we showed is we can.”
One fan who has been waiting ages for a league to start up in Canada is Forge FC fan Allan Gorman, who is the leader of the team’s supporters group, the Barton St. Battalion.
“There was about two and a half years of waiting for it, and from that first game to now has flown by,” he said. “That first game was incredible, and then a few of us went out to Halifax for the first away game the next weekend.
“We decided to drive up there, which was about 19 and a half hours each way. It was incredible because it was Halifax’s first match.”
Sharing the inaugural season with Allan was his eight-year-old son, James.
“That meant the world to me; he’s taken to the players beyond belief. He looks at Bekker (Kyle Bekker, Forge FC captain) with starry eyes every single time he sees him.”
As a fledgling league, there can be a lot done to continue to grow, and Gorman would like to see a bit more done to promote the league.
“I think everyone can agree that the marketing could probably be stepped up a little bit,” Gorman said. “It’s going to grow over time, but it’s one of those tricky things; whether they spend millions trying to promote it now, or let it grow organically, but I think we’d all like to see a bit more promoting.”
The 2020 season is just around the corner, and with all seven teams already starting to make changes to their rosters, next season already promises to be just as exciting as year one was.