Canadian Premier League roundtable: Coaches weigh in on challenges

James Sharman and Craig Forrest discuss the launch of the Canadian Premier League.

How do you go about building a professional sports team from scratch?

That’s the challenge faced by seven coaches ahead of the inaugural Canadian Premier League season.

The CPL officially kicks off on Saturday with its first match between Forge FC and York 9 FC at Tim Hortons Field, marking the beginning of a new era in Canadian soccer. The new league is comprised of 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).

On the eve of the launch of the CPL, Sportsnet chatted with all seven coaches to get their views on a variety of subjects.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s been the biggest challenge in building your roster from scratch?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): In a country this size, you can’t scout a lot in person, so you have to rely either on your trusted references or know the players. It’s much the same with international players. I live by the “rule of three,” meaning I get three valuable references on players before I even have a conversation with them. So, the biggest challenge has been that we’ve had to get creative with our scouting.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): Making sure that the international players that I bring in would be a good fit with the Canadian players. The chemistry of the team is vital to me, so that was probably the biggest challenge.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): You’re building from zero, and every decision you make is a building block. You’re not coming into a situation where you’re adding three or four players during a transfer window to an existing team. That’s also exciting, though. It’s something you can shape into what you want right from the beginning. That’s been the most intriguing component of this. I’ve identified how I want to play, what I want the identity of this club to be, and then gone out and slowly picked the players to fit into that vision.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): The real challenge for me has been that we don’t have a large, local playing population to draw from, so almost all of the players have to come in and be housed and everything that goes with that. It limits how you can go out and sign players and distribute the financial side of the salary cap.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): The biggest challenge is just that – that you’re starting from scratch. It’s all brand new. It’s a bunch of players being brought together for the first time.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): Making sure that you’re doing due diligence on everything you can to ensure that the vision and philosophy you have in your mind and on paper, and the values and culture you want to bring to the club, are 100 per cent aligned to your player recruitment.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): It’s been trying to find the right balance. As we started to build the team, we needed to add some experienced players – we have quite a few younger guys. But then it was also about trying to identify and scout players who you feel deserve a crack at it, that haven’t had the opportunity to be a professional for whatever reason. The biggest part was finding the right balance between those two principles.

What was your philosophy in terms of building your team?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): It’s more principled-based, rather than focused on tactics or formations. I grew up as a player at Swindon Town, and we played out from the back, and I love watching good football. So, I want to make sure that the team that represents me plays good football, and the fans go away happy. At the same time, I’m from working-class roots, and it hasn’t been an easy path for me to get here. So, it’s about hard work and I want my team to be hard working at both ends of the pitch. Hard work will be the cornerstone of who we are.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): For me, the relationship-side of the game is so important, whether it’s between the players, or between players and coaches. That’s always been something I’ve focused on. Developing that chemistry and having a solid team culture has driven how I’ve put together this team.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): There are certain things we look at from an identity aspect. We want players who are humble, but also ambitious and bold in their decision-making, and guys who want to gain success through sacrifice.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): I have a way that I like my team to play, and I tried very carefully to select the type of players who would fit into that playing style. Sometimes you can’t always get what you want. The thing about being a brand-new team is that I really don’t know many of these players in terms of how they approach training and how they operate off the field, so that’s been a learning experience.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): It’s about shaping the team identity around the players, and not asking them do to something they’re not able to do or are unable to do. It’s not just about what I want to do, but what the players are capable of doing.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): We’ve been looking for the right character in players. We want to build a team that’s representative of the city and province. I don’t take that responsibility lightly, and I want to make sure that Winnipeg and Manitoba are well represented on and off the field.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): My philosophy is all about education. We’re constantly on the guys about, ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to play; this is our identity.’ The guys have bought in to what we want to do.

What will be your team’s identity on the pitch? What style of soccer will your side play?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): We’ll be a possession-based team. You look at our goalkeeper Marco Carducci, and he’s someone who is good with his feet and can quickly start the attack. The centre backs we have are all ball-playing defenders. We want to control the game, and I think we’ll be able to do that with our defence and midfield.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): Our identity will be that we’re a team that’s quick, we’ll press high and try to push our opposition. In possession, you’ll see a patient team; a team that likes to keep it and build out from the back. In the attacking third, you’ll see a change in tempo because we have fast forwards. Players will have the freedom to be creative.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): I like possession football. I like to dominate via possession and dominate via pressure. Those are two things that are key to what we’ll try to do. It’s part of my identity as coach, having studied Dutch and Spanish football and the intricacies of their footballing traditions. Canada has a lot of good technical players, and we need to start bringing that out.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): I call it a “progressive possession” game. I’ve always liked a possession game, and the object is to move forward as quickly as possible with the right types of passing decisions. Sometimes that doesn’t work out and the other team forces you into something you’re uncomfortable with. But, in general, that’s what we’ll try to do.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): We’ve spoken about it amongst ourselves, but I don’t want to give anything way.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): We want to play an attractive, entertaining brand of attacking soccer. It evolves with the players, and as coach I’ll try to bring out their strengths. At the end of the day we’re in the entertainment business, so we want to get people up off their seats and excited. We have duty to get results, but we want to do it in the right way.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): We’re going to be very attack-minded. We have good strikers up top, some great midfielders, and big, solid defenders. We want to be team that’s going to play attractive football, and will be on the front foot. At the same time, we’re going to have some bite to us. We’re going to be an aggressive side and we want to dictate the game

The league’s roster 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. Do you find these Canadian quotas restrictive in any way?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): I think it’s brave and brilliant. We all know the concept of the CPL was to create more chances to play for Canadian players, who didn’t make it in MLS or have the opportunity to go overseas. We have to be brave enough to play young Canadian talent, so these rules encourage that.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): I’m a fan of the rules. I’ve been a proponent of the Canadian game ever since I started coaching. I think we have a lot of good players in Canada, but they just need a chance to play. They haven’t always had the chance before, and these rules will ensure they do.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): I think it’s fantastic and essential to what the CPL is trying to do, which is to build up Canadian soccer. They’re very good rules and will pay dividends, both in the short and long run.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): To be honest, I haven’t given the [roster rules] much thought one way or another. I understand the reasoning behind the rules and support them, but it’s not something that will even cross my mind during games.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): This is a Canadian league and it’s supposed to promote Canadian soccer.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): I absolutely love the rules. I campaigned for rules like these for eight years as a Canadian national team youth coach. We’ve been colonized by MLS, and young Canadian players haven’t always had the chance to showcase their skills in MLS, so I’m a huge believer in these rules. If we’re going to develop the sport in this country, we have to develop Canadian talent. That’s our prime objective. This is long overdue, as far as I’m concerned.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): I like the rules. At the end of the day we’re trying to do what’s best for young Canadian players and give them opportunities, and as coaches we’re trying to develop talent and help expand the player pool for the national team. We’re limited on foreigners we can use, which is great because it means we have to develop Canadian talent.

What do you make of the season split into two sections, where the spring and fall champions will meet each other in the final in October?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): Once I started to understand the reasoning, I embraced it. In an ideal world, we’d use a single table format. In a seven-team league, how do you create excitement from top to bottom? There’s no promotion and relegation. That’s coming down the line, but until that point, you don’t want to have the top four going to the playoffs because that undervalues the league – you could finish in the bottom half and still qualify for the post-season. This promotes quality and keeps fans engaged for the long haul over the season.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): When the NASL introduced it and I was coaching in the league, at first I hated it. I was against it. By the end of the year, I was a fan of it, because what it does is keep every team involved through a longer period of time. With the CPL, we have to still sell the game in Canada, so the longer we can keep our teams involved, the more we’ll keep the fans invested in the product.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): It gives all the teams that carrot to come out of the gate strong and go for it, and it also gives the supporters two periods to get really excited about. It’s different, but it challenges the coaches and the players because every game matters.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): I don’t mind it. The number of teams are small, so I understand the reasoning. It would have been difficult to have four teams out of seven make the playoffs at the end. It’s a unique format and we’ll see how it works.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): I don’t know, I’ve never tried it. [Laughs] This is new to me, so we’ll see. I’m fairly sure that if it’s great that it will continue, but if not that the league will trying something different going forward.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): It would have been difficult to have a single table format with seven teams. They had to adapt for this first season, but I don’t believe this format will continue for too long, with the league talking about expanding in the future. We want to stay true to a more traditional football model where there’s a league champion and no playoffs.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): I like it. I think it’s different. It adds some excitement throughout the entire season. When I came back to Canada from England [to play in MLS], the idea of two conferences and playoffs threw me off. It was different for me. With this, it’s a format that’s the standard in South America and Mexico, so I think it’s great.

There are some concerns about the long-term viability and financial stability of the CPL. How confident are you that your team owner is committed for the long haul?

Tommy Wheeldon Jr. (Cavalry FC): They’ve been unbelievable. They’re only committed to things for the long gain. If we sell out for the first few seasons, there’s been talk of expanding the stadium. So, I’m confident of their commitment.

Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton): I feel very fortunate to have the owners we have. They’re firmly invested and want to give back to the city. To see them go through the ups and downs of NASL, and still want to be involved in soccer and stick around and join to the CPL, it’s a sign of their commitment.

Bobby Smyrniotis (Forge FC): Having spent so much time with [owner] Bob Young, the commitment is massive. They’re firmly in this. When you see that from a leadership perspective, you know we’re in a very good position. I think it will be much different from Canadian leagues and teams that have failed in the past.

Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers): They’ve been extremely convincing in their approach with me, and all indications are that they’re in this for the long haul. We want to make this the premier sporting team in the province. We’ll always be competing with the traditional [Canadian] sports, but they have done everything for the players and made sure the environment looks as professional as possible.

Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC): We’re fortunate in that the ownership group is made up of former players, and they’ve experienced all the troubles of Canadian soccer during the years. They’re really trying to change that, so I’m confident in their leadership.

Rob Gale (Valour FC): I’m extremely confident in all the owners, not just ours. Nobody has rushed into anything, as the idea of the CPL has been on the table for four years. Everybody is taking a long-term approach to the CPL and understand what it’s about. Our situation, we’re owned by the [CFL’s] Blue Bombers, so there’s an infrastructure already in place. So, I think we’re set up for long-term success.

Jim Brennan (York 9 FC): They wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t believe in the project and what it’s doing for Canadian soccer. I’m not interested in the doubters and people who are saying this isn’t going to work. I want people to support this league, and support the players, and support everybody involved because they can see the long-term vision and what everybody is collectively trying to do, which is to build this game in this country and create opportunities for Canadian players and coaches. That’s who I’m interested in, not the doubting critics.

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