‘Breaking through is possible’: Matheson thrilled Toronto joining pro women’s league

Helena Ruken, left to right, CEO of AFC Toronto City; Diana Matheson, co-founder and CEO of Project 8; and Shilpa Arora, general manager of DoorDash Canada, are seen in Toronto in an undated handout photo. AFC Toronto City has signed on as the third franchise in the proposed women’s pro league, after Vancouver and Calgary. DoorDash joins CIBC, Air Canada and Canadian Tire as “dedicated partners” of the new league. (CP/HO-Project 8)

Toronto has been the home of several pro soccer clubs over the past half century or so.

Toronto FC. The Blizzard. The Lynx. The Metros. The Falcons. The Rockets. The Nationals. The list goes on and on. 

Even though these teams played in different leagues, they all had one thing in common: They were men’s sides. Professional women’s soccer has never come to Toronto, but that’s about to change thanks to former Canadian international Diana Matheson.

Matheson’s attempt to start a professional women’s soccer league in Canada gained more momentum on Wednesday with the announcement that A.F.C. Toronto City has signed up as one of its founding teams.

Toronto is the third of eight teams expected to play in the as-of-yet-unnamed league when it launches in 2025. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills are already onboard.  

Matheson, 39, scored 19 goals in 206 appearances for Canada and won two Olympic bronze medals during her 17-year playing career before retiring in 2021. She also had a distinguished pro career, having played in Norway and for teams in the U.S.-based National Women’s Soccer League. But aside from brief stints with amateur clubs, Matheson never had a chance to play professionally in Canada. That’s why Wednesday’s announcement is especially gratifying for the former midfielder.

A.F.C. Toronto City will be Toronto’s first-ever women’s professional soccer club, which is a point of pride for Matheson, an Ontario native who is the co-founder and CEO of the Project 8 company that is the driving force behind the new league.

“Personally, for me, as someone who grew up in Oakville, which is 30 minutes down the highway, I know what it would have meant to me as a kid to have a pro soccer team in Toronto. I didn’t have those kinds of local role models to look up to when I was growing up, and A.F.C. Toronto City is going to help address that. So, this is a little extra special to me,” Matheson told Sportsnet

“The player pools that exist around the GTA are some of the largest in Canada, so being in Toronto was absolutely a target for us from the beginning when we launched Project 8 last year.”

Now that a team is coming to Canada’s largest city, the hope is that the new league can gather more steam as Project 8 seeks to officially name the remaining five clubs by the end of this year.

“This is going to be a truly Canadian league, so I’m looking forward to every single team announcement and I’m genuinely looking forward to getting into smaller markets. That said, we know Toronto is a massive city, we know it’s a massive sports market. So, this was absolutely a target for us from the beginning. It’s a big check mark and now we move onto the next one,” Matheson said. 

The ownership group of A.F.C. Toronto City are all involved with the North Toronto Soccer Club. CEO Helena Ruken is the current president of North Toronto SC, while Brenda Ha (formerly of BMO Financial Group and CIBC) will serve as Chief Operating Officer and Jill Burgin (British multinational Diageo Global) as the Chief Marketing Officer. The other three co-owners are Mike Ruthard, Billy Wilson and Shamez Mangalji, who also have links to the North Toronto Soccer Club.

Finding owners for this new team that had direct ties to soccer in Toronto was a huge selling point to Matheson. 

“The group of owners has come out of the city, come out of a neighbourhood, come out of North Toronto Soccer Club. That was important to us to have a club with deep community roots. That’s really hard to build in North American sports, but I love that this team has come out of the community, and it’s led by women. I’m really excited to see what they can do in this city,” Matheson stated.

While it’s great that this new pro women’s league will have a presence in Toronto, A.F.C. Toronto City faces serious challenges. The city is already home to a host of high-profile and established sports teams, including the Maple Leafs, Raptors, TFC, Argonauts and Blue Jays. 

Matheson argues that in order to make its mark, A.F.C. Toronto City has to do more than just present a winning product on the field. 

“It’s a crowded market but breaking through is possible. What A.F.C. Toronto City has to get right is A) producing some world-class soccer, and then B) building everything around the gameday experience has to be right. We want smaller venues, we want to build the supporters groups and the atmosphere that are unique to soccer,” Matheson said.

“At the end of the day, sports are about having a fun day out with your family, bringing your kids with you, and having a beer with your friends. Establishing that community setting is a part of the magic that we know is at the root of soccer around the world. That’s the stuff we have to get right.” 

Community building, especially in a big sports city, will be critical to A.F.C. Toronto City’s success, according to Katrina Galas, a women’s sport strategy consultant at In Common Consulting.

“With a female ownership team, I have no doubt this will be fundamental to how they approach building and operating this new team. This team has an opportunity to become a mechanism for city and community advancement here for years to come,” Galas said.

“The potential impact [of A.F.C. Toronto City] is endless — both for critical women’s soccer pipeline development driving towards repeated success on the field, and also as a platform for authentic community building that is truly inclusive and representative of our diverse global sport city of Toronto.”

Matheson said that A.F.C. Toronto City has a few options on the table at the moment in terms of where it will play its home games, and that a formal decision will be made in the future. 

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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