During the 2010s, Canada hosted a women’s World Cup, won the rights to host a men’s World Cup and successfully launched a domestic league. As far as sporting decades go, that’s pretty darn good.
Well, on the surface at least.
Look a little bit deeper at the results themselves and, on the men’s side especially, Canada still hasn’t lived up to the potential that the country’s soccer participation, increasing infrastructure and investment should dictate.
The turning of the calendar will bring a chance to change that, as 2020 ushers in what is likely the most critical decade in Canadian soccer to date. The men’s World Cup alone brings with it an opportunity to elevate the game in the country to new heights.
The past 12 months showed that those heights might not be as far away as they once seemed. In the year 2019 alone, Canada Soccer formed a league, saw a star born and secured a historic result against their biggest rivals. There is reason to believe it is a sign of more moments to come.
A League is Born
In terms of the long-term future of Canadian soccer, no action was more vital than the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League. What this league could mean for the sport in this country has been well documented at this point, but the fact that it is already paying dividends after one season is a massive positive.
Three players from the league were just called up for the Canadian men’s national team camp in January, and earned caps. The bigger test for what CanPL might mean for the Canadian talent pool, however, will likely come at the Olympic qualifiers in March where the majority of the roster is expected to be domestic based players.
While developing national team calibre talent is one of the biggest ways the league will be judged, they passed a lot of other early tests as well. Thriving fanbases, a solid level of play, strong coverage both on broadcast and online and their success against MLS sides in the Voyageurs Cup contributed to an exemplary inaugural season.
Evidently, the league now has to carry that momentum forward. Roster turnover, broadcast changes, expansion and economics among other factors will determine the league’s success in year two and beyond. Making a good first impression was paramount, however, and the league surely did that. With the addition of Ottawa, not to mention its Atletico Madrid ownership group, things are pointing in the right direction for year two.
A Star is Born
As much as having a domestic league increases the profile of the sport in this country, so does having a globally recognizable star. For years, Canada Soccer has talked about needing a Sidney Crosby on the men’s side—a recognizable figure who they could market the program around.
Alphonso Davies has been the great hope of this team for several years now, but in 2019 he emerged on the global stage. Due to a variety of injuries, Davies was handed the starting left back role at Bayern Munich. Since then, he has made the position his own as a standout performer for one of Europe’s best teams.
Having a Canadian playing consistently at the highest level the game has to offer is one thing. But in Alphonso, Canada Soccer have a ready-made star, who has a likable personality, social media presence, style and work ethic. This makes him equal parts a role model for young Canadian players as well as someone who the CSA can easily market around.
The 19-year-old also scored on the biggest goals in recent Canadian memory this year, the winner in a match against rival United States that broke a 34-year drought. This wasn’t quite the moment that changes soccer in this country forever that Herdman has made it is his goal to create since becoming Canada manager. But it was certainly a moment that increased the level of belief within the team and the fanbase.
The Next Step
On the men’s side, the 2010s didn’t bring much to write home about beyond this past year. The national team suffered its worst ever defeat, went a year in which it only scored one goal and generally struggled to live up to its potential.
The women’s team, meanwhile, enjoyed a golden age of which the men’s team could only dream. Two Olympic medals, a home World Cup, among other big wins and ranking among the top teams in the World made it a memorable decade.
But whereas the men’s program as a whole ended the decade on largely a positive note, the women’s team did so with a number of question marks. It should be mentioned, of course, that the standard by which both teams are judged is significantly different. At this point in time, qualifying for major tournaments is a measure of success for the men, while the women’s team are expected to beat the World’s best.
They struggled to do so this past summer at the 2019 World Cup. With only four goals scored at the tournament, Canada’s offensive abilities have become a big concern. Last year, they scored only 15 goals in 16 games, and were shutout seven times. This will only get more difficult when Christine Sinclair, the most prolific goalscorer in international soccer history, inevitably retires at some point during this decade.
Meanwhile, the game internationally on the women’s side is on a massive upwards trajectory, with the quality and depth of talent improving with every passing tournament. This correlates directly with the level of investment countries are now putting into their teams, particularly in Europe where the increased level of club football domestically has benefited several countries.
Canada still doesn’t have its own league on the women’s side. It doesn’t seem like it will be coming in the next few years. Without one, Canada will start to lose the competitive advantage that they have enjoyed previously.
There is reason to hope, however, that the infrastructure being put in place by the current Canadian Premier League will eventually lend itself to launching a sustainable women’s league. There are certainly no guarantees it would be financially viable right now, but neither is it that the CanPL will be, although early signs are immensely positive. At some point, Canada Soccer needs to take a measured risk, like they did with the CanPL, on a women’s league.
The success of this decade for women’s soccer in Canada likely directly correlates with how quickly a league can be created, and what that does from the rest of the development pathway.
The dueling narratives around the two national teams make the start of this decade intriguing. The women’s team have had world class results, but there is concern about their future. The men, meanwhile, have provided no shortage of optimism, but have struggled to back it up with meaningful victories.
"Beating USA showcased the potential of this team"— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) January 30, 2020
Canada coach John Herdman talks #WorldCup targets and explains why @alphonsodavies is "one of the world’s brightest prospects" @coachherdman | @CanadaSoccerEN | #WCQ
A men’s World Cup on home soil, however, gives incentive for both sides. The level of investment and exposure that this tournament will bring over the next decade will be unlike anything the country has previously seen. It is an opportunity that the program cannot afford to miss.
With that in mind, it is critical that Canada Soccer makes sure its house is fully in order. The coaches and officials in charge of the program over the next ten years will have an immense impact on the future of the game in this country.
It’s an opportunity that cannot be missed, an opportunity to unite a soccer country that has been divided and unfocused for too many years. This past year was proof that the program as a whole is trending in the right direction.