It’s been nearly 27 years since the old Canadian Soccer League folded, but long-suffering soccer fans in Canada once again have a professional league to call their own.
The Canadian Premier League kicks off its inaugural campaign on Saturday with its first match between Forge FC and York 9 at Tim Hortons Field, marking the beginning of a new era in Canadian soccer.
Ahead of the start of the CPL season, here’s what you need to know about the upstart league.
What is the Canadian Premier League?
Sanctioned as Canada’s first division, the CPL was founded by a small group of investors, most notable among them being computer software millionaire Bob Young (who also owns the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats), working in conjunction with Canada Soccer to help fill a major soccer void in the country.
Although Major League Soccer boasts three Canadian clubs (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps), Young couldn’t understand why Canada didn’t have a domestic league, and he quickly became one of the driving forces behind the scenes to launch the CPL.
“It made no sense to me or anyone else in the larger Canadian soccer community that Canada [didn’t have its own league], despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” Young told Sportsnet.
How many teams are in the CPL?
There are seven teams from coast to coast: Forge FC (Hamilton), York 9 FC (Toronto area), FC Edmonton, HFX Wanderers (Halifax), Valour FC (Winnipeg), Cavalry FC (Calgary) and Pacific FC (Vancouver Island).
CPL commissioner David Clanachan has big dreams for expansion, though.
“[By 2024], I’d like to be at a point where we’re somewhere between 14 and 16 teams in the CPL. At that point, I’d be seriously starting to think about promotion and relegation,” Clanachan told Sportsnet.
What’s the league format?
The CPL has adopted a split season format commonly used in South American leagues.
Each team will play 28 regular season games, 14 at home and 14 on the road.
The spring season runs from April 27 to July 1, with teams playing 10 games.
The standings will then be reset for the fall season, which runs from July 6 to Oct. 19, when clubs will play 18 matches.
The spring and fall champions will meet in the championship final in October, with the format still to be decided. If the same club wins the spring and fall campaigns, it will meet the team with the second-most cumulative points across both seasons.
Who are some of the players and coaches in the CPL?
A slew of Canadian internationals have signed with CPL teams, including Nik Ledgerwood (Cavalry FC), Kyle Bekker (Forge FC) and Marcus Haber (Pacific FC).
There are also some familiar names within the coaching ranks, with former TFC captain Jim Brennan taking charge of York 9 FC, and ex-Canadian national team manager Stephen Hart coaching HFX Wanderers.
MLS is already in Canada. Why do we need our own league?
Well, for starters, practically every country in the world boasts its own domestic league. It just makes sense that Canada joins the fray.
Also, the CPL was largely born out of a desperate need for Canadian soccer to develop its players and give them opportunities that they otherwise might not receive elsewhere.
In MLS, each team is mostly made up of domestic players and is granted a limited number of international roster spots. U.S.-born players are considered “domestics,” whether they play on American or Canadian teams. But Canadians are only considered “domestics” if they play for one of three MLS clubs in their native country.
Because “international” roster spots are at a premium, U.S. clubs are hesitant to use them in order to sign Canadian players, who don’t have the same opportunities as their American counterparts in MLS. TFC, Impact and Whitecaps all boast Canadian players, but they are in the vast minority on their respective clubs, and only a small handful are starters or see regular playing time.
Those same Canadian players who routinely fall through the cracks in MLS, and in other leagues from around the world, will be given a chance in the CPL.
The hope is the CPL will also expand the professional player pool in Canada, potentially giving national team manager John Herdman more options in the future, especially with the country set to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup with Mexico and the United States.
What are the roster rules pertaining to Canadians?
The league’s rules mandate that 50 per cent plus one of every team’s roster must be made up of Canadian players (with a limit of seven foreign nationals). Teams must also field a minimum of six Canadian starters per game.
In addition, at least three Canadians on each team must be under the age of 21, and those players must combine to play a minimum of 1,000 minutes per season.
“Those are pretty aggressive quotas, and I’m not sure there’s another league in the world that has those kinds of numbers when it comes to domestic players,” Clanachan told Sportsnet.
Will CPL teams compete in the annual Canadian Club Championship?
Yes, they will!
The Canadian Club Championship has been expanded to include all seven CPL teams. As per usual, the tournament winner will win the Voyageurs Cup and earn a berth in the Concacaf Champions League.
This year, three CPL clubs — Forge FC, Valour FC and FC Edmonton — will vie for a berth in the Concacaf League, a qualifying tournament for the Concacaf Champions League. The team with the best head-to-head record by July 1 will advance to the Concacaf League. Starting next year, the CPL champion will earn an automatic berth in the Concacaf League.
Does the CPL see itself as being in competition with MLS?
Although billed as Canada’s topflight, the CPL, from a standard-of-play perspective, will likely be below MLS, as it will largely feature youngsters who couldn’t make it in MLS, Canadian veterans in the twilight of their careers, and journeymen international players.
That said, Clanachan believes soccer fans in Canada will immediately embrace the CPL.
“Canadians are patient and understand it’s going to take time for the CPL to grow to a certain level, but as long as they see progress, that’s what they want,” Clanachan said.
He later added: “Certainly, we’d like to be competing at the level of MLS where a CPL team is winning the Canadian Championship, and potentially seeing more than one Canadian team in the Concacaf Champions League, and having a CPL team in there and proceeding through the competition.”
What does John Herdman think of the CPL?
Herdman is a big booster of the CPL, but admits it will be difficult for youngsters cutting their teeth in the league to make the direct jump into a national team that can call upon players the calibre of Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and Cardiff City’s Junior Hoilett.
While Herdman hopes the CPL can produce a few “diamonds in the rough,” he views the league as a potential springboard for young players to MLS or Europe, and that will ultimately benefit the national team.
“The CPL is a huge positive, and I’m hoping to see after the first season if a couple of players can make the move overseas or to a higher level. You’d hope to see that, and I think that’s what this league can do,” Herdman told Sportsnet.
How can I watch CPL games?
Spain-based media outfit Mediapro recently signed a 10-year deal with Canada Soccer Business, that company that represents the CPL. The agreement gives Mediapro media rights to the CPL, as well as for the Canadian Club Championship and all home games of the Canadian men’s and women’s teams.
Mediapro subsequently announced a new website called OneSoccer that will live stream all 98 CPL matches this season.
Also, the CBC will air 20 games in 2019 across its multiple platforms.