Canadian Premier League takes formative steps with open tryouts

Canadian Premier League soccer coaches (left to right) Jeff Paulus (FC Edmonton), Jim Brennan (York 9), Tommy Wheeldon (Cavalry FC) Alex Bunbury, who is running the CPL trials, Stephen Hart (HFX Wanderers), Michael Silberbauer (Pacific FC) and Rob Gale (Valour FC) pose for a photo at the Ontario Soccer Centre in Vaughan, Ont. (Canadian Premier League/CP)

By Michael Leach

Former Canadian men’s national team star Alex Bunbury is excited about the future of soccer in this country as the Canadian Premier League takes its formative steps.

Bunbury, 51, is criss-crossing the country with coaches from each of the seven CPL teams and talent scouts to take a look at over a thousand aspiring players. It’s all part of a series of open tryouts this fall in the seven cities that will become home to the CPL’s founding franchises when the new league kicks off in 2019.

The CPL has already held its “Got Game Open Trials” in Halifax, Montreal and Hamilton. The tryouts continue in Toronto on Oct. 11 and 12, followed by stops in Winnipeg (Oct. 18 and 19), Calgary (Oct. 25 and 26), and wraps up on Vancouver Island (Nov. 5 and 6).

“I love the fact that this league was created and put forth by Canadians for Canadians,” Bunbury, who scored 16 goals in 65 appearances for Canada, told Sportsnet.

Jim Brennan, another former national team standout, told Sportsnet he was impressed by what he saw at the first stop on the tour in Halifax last month.

“We were actually pretty surprised just how fit and determined that a lot of these kids were. They were all ready to go; they all want to be pros. It caught us all off guard with just how good the quality was,” said Brennan, who will coach the Toronto-based York 9 club in the CPL.

The CPL open tryout concept addresses an issue that has faced young players growing up in Canada in the past. In the days of the old Canadian Soccer League, too many players slipped through the cracks without ever being identified because they were not a part of the national team youth program. According to Bunbury, “the CSL basically only looked at provincial and national team players at the youth and senior level. Those were the players that got a good look.”

Bunbury added: “With this format [the open tryout] you know that you’re going to find some players who normally don’t get the opportunity to showcase their talent.”

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For Brennan, the CPL is critical to developing players in their own backyard, negating the need to travel abroad to grow as players at the professional level. He explained that he was lucky to get the chance to join English club Bristol City at the start of his career to hone his craft because he possessed a European passport. The CPL opens the door to players who don’t have that luxury.

“There are a lot of talented kids in Canada, but they don’t have that opportunity, they don’t have a passport. If they go to the U.S. they’re classed as a foreigner. If you’re not getting into a TFC, Montreal or Vancouver where do you go? Your career is done,” Brennan offered.

Brennan stressed that the CPL could be the golden ticket for those who don’t catch on at an MLS academy.

“With this league coming, it’s creating opportunities for the Canadian kid who wants to be a professional footballer to play here in his own country in a domestic league,” Brennan said.

With the CPL set to kick off its inaugural season next spring, the hope for those involved is that there will be a cultural shift toward viewing Canada as a soccer nation. Bunbury admitted that cultural bias was an obstacle for him growing up as a soccer player in a country defined by its exploits on the ice.

“I went through that, ‘Canada does not have soccer players, it has hockey players.’ Now we will have an identity because now we have our own professional league that has been created for Canadian players to develop,” Bunbury stated.

The CPL isn’t just seeking to give Canadian players the opportunity to be professionals; it also has an eye towards 2026. As Canada prepares to co-host the World Cup, the league sees an opportunity to provide a pipeline of talent to the national team. Bunbury suggested that having more players engaged at the professional level, especially within Canada, bodes well for the national team program.

“Having players playing at that level in a professional environment daily, it’s only natural that they’re going to improve and that’s going to improve the national team system,” Bunbury said.

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Brennan agreed, and he has set an ambitious target for York 9.

“We’re hoping that when World Cup 2026 comes and we’re hosting it in Canada, the biggest sporting event in the world, that we have a number of York 9 players representing Canada on the world stage. That’s our goal,” Brennan said.

Whether or not the CPL will reach its target of supplying a steady stream of high-level talent to the national team remains to be seen. It’s a story that will take several years to write as the league gets on its feet and navigates its way into the Canadian professional sports landscape.

What is clear is that the Canadian Premier League is starting off on the right foot by bringing in former national team players such as Bunbury and Brennan. Their experience will help steer the next generation toward the ultimate goal of being a professional player, and potentially the realization of a World Cup dream.

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