In a move that could have major and long-term implications on player development in this country, the soon-to-be-launched Canadian Premier League announced Wednesday that it has acquired League1 Ontario.
The purchase means that the CPL, a new professional soccer league that is expected to kick off its inaugural season next April with seven teams from coast to coast, will oversee the management of League1 Ontario, a semi-pro developmental league which previously came under the umbrella of the Ontario Soccer Association. The CPL will use League1 Ontario as feeder league to help develop talent.
CPL commissioner David Clanachan said the idea began germinating last year, but it picked up steam several months ago when he met with OSA executive director Johnny Misley to talk about a possible affiliation deal between the two leagues and throw some ideas around. From there, League1 Ontario commissioner Dino Rossi got involved and the conversation quickly shifted to the CPL buying League1 Ontario.
“One thing lead to another and we worked through it. It was not a difficult deal, and it worked out pretty well,” Clanachan told Sportsnet.
“One of the key tenets of the CPL is to develop key soccer players. We’re committing to developing talent, and we think this helps us.”
Rossi concurred, telling Sportsnet: “Bringing League1 Ontario under the wing of the Canadian Premier League and serving as the CPL’s official development league is a massive opportunity for our league.”
Clanachan declined to comment when asked how much the CPL paid to buy League1 Ontario.
Founded in 2014, League1 Ontario is a semi-pro outfit that began with a 10-team men’s division. It has since grown to 17 teams (which includes Toronto FC’s youth academy side), and a 13-team women’s division.
Ranking third in the Canadian soccer pyramid below Major League Soccer and the second-tier United Soccer League, League1 Ontario has been a developmental division, or a stepping stone of sorts, where young Canadian prospects and amateur players can cut their teeth with a goal towards turning professional. According to its website, over 100 players, both men and women, have moved on from League1 Ontario to sign with pro clubs from around the world.
Under this deal, League1 Ontario will give its players something immediate and tangible to shoot for, namely, a shot at turning pro with a CPL team. You can think of League1 Ontario as a junior hockey league, such as the Ontario Hockey League, where players are trying to land with an NHL team.
“This is a type of model that we see other sports, such as professional hockey and how that works with the CHL across Canada,” Clanachan said.
Rossi added: “With the support of the CPL and working closely with Ontario Soccer, we will have access to greater resources than ever before, allowing us to deliver a much more clearly defined pathway for the most talented players being produced at the grassroots level and to create an even greater stage for our best players, coaches and match officials to perform upon.”
League1 Ontario’s most famous alumnus is Canadian forward Cyle Larin, who played for Mississauga-based Sigma FC in 2014. Larin, a 23-year-old native of Brampton, went on to star for Orlando City in MLS, where he was named the league’s rookie of the year in 2015, becoming the first Canadian to win the award. Larin now plays for Turkish club Besiktas, and he is a regular starter for Canada’s national team, having scored eight goals in 26 appearances since making his international debut in 2014.
Other notable League1 Ontario graduates include Raheem Edwards (formerly of Toronto FC, now with the Chicago Fire), Richie Laryea (Orlando City), Kwame Awuah (New York City FC) and Mark-Anthony Kaye (LAFC).
“We take great pride in the work we’ve done, which has seen more than 100 players, male and female, use our league as a springboard to higher levels of professional soccer in North America and abroad,” Rossi stated.
The purchase of League1 Ontario allows the CPL to test potential markets for expansion franchises.
“It takes us into towns that maybe aren’t quite there yet for a CPL team, but we can establish a great level of soccer in those towns. It’s all about growing the game,” the CPL commissioner said.
Clanachan also didn’t rule out the possibility of the CPL buying other developmental leagues.
“I’d love to see this type of model used throughout the country. … I think it provides a framework that maybe allows us to start from that position. We’d love to be able to do that, but those discussions may or may not happen in the future,” Clanachan offered.