USLsoccer.com News Feature
Thursday, October 29, 2009
TAMPA, FL -- In a country where the national pastime is unquestionably hockey, the summer clearly belongs to soccer as witnessed by the growing success of the sport within United Soccer Leagues over the past six years. Three of the past four USL First Division championships have been won by Canadian clubs for example.
“Canada is whole-heartedly embracing soccer culturally at an incredible level right now and contrary to recent reports that prematurely suggested that we had severed ties with our leading Canadian clubs, we continue to be bullish on our future there,” said USL Chief Executive Officer Alec Papadakis. “I had a very positive meeting last week with Peter Montopoli [General Secretary] and Joe Guest [Deputy General Secretary] of the Canadian Soccer Association about how we can work with the federation as well as the teams in growing the game. They are looking forward to our continued expansion in Canada and continued role in the development of the sport for both the men’s and women’s game.”
“We are very excited about professional soccer in Canada,” said CSA General Secretary Peter Montopoli. “We are looking to grow the professional level in Canada as part of our long-term plans, building a pathway for soccer development. This requires more professional teams under the right conditions in order to progress.”
With 16 professional and amateur teams in the USL First Division, PDL and W-League as well as the 11 clubs participating in the Super Y-League and Super-20 League in 2009, the growth of the sport on a national basis is developing well across Canada.
“With the recent rapid Canadian expansion and the new direction of our new USL ownership group is taking that includes a commitment to working with the teams at all levels, we are planning on opening a full-service Canada USL office in 2010 to work with our teams and the Canadian Soccer Association more closely in continued development of the sport,” said Papadakis. “Based on the groups we have met with throughout Canada and the applications that we have received and are reviewing, we will certainly be expanding further over the course of the next few years, whether it be in Ottawa where there have already been public reports regarding specific groups, or in other markets such as Edmonton, Winnipeg or Hamilton to name a few. Furthermore, the expansion efforts will be at all levels and will include an emphasis on the women’s game, which we know is of importance to the CSA.”
“We are excited to hear of the USL plans,” said Montopoli in regards to USL opening a Canadian office.
It is expected that Canadian expansion will be a topic of serious discussion at next week’s USL-1 League Owners meeting in Beaverton, Oregon.
Montreal’s amazing run to the championship two weeks ago highlights a six-year span in which four USL-1 titles have gone north of the border, along with a PDL championship and two W-League titles. The youth level is also burgeoning with a Super-20 League runners-up finish and two Super Y-League titles, which could grow this November when 22 Canadian teams comprise 16 percent of the field competing for the 10 titles on the line at the SYL North American Finals in Tampa, FL.
And the success on the field is matched off of it, ranging from incredible attendance figures to marked advances in player development programs that are competing in USL development leagues.
“The dedication to the game in every aspect is driving the sport to new heights across the country as we have seen with the success of longstanding flagships like Montreal and Vancouver, who have inspired the lower tier clubs like the Ottawa Fury, Thunder Bay Chill and newcomers Forest City London and Victoria Highlanders.”
“When Montreal and Vancouver came into the USL family in 1997 as part of the USL First Division, they were essentially alone in their quest to build the game in the sport,” said Papadakis. “Now we have clubs at all levels of the sport that are building support for the game and developing players who have or will one day wear the colors of the top professional clubs as well as their nation.”
British Columbia has become a hotbed for growth of the sport where the Whitecaps, under the longtime guidance of Bob Lenarduzzi and the recent ownership of Greg Kerfoot, have built an entire support system within their own their own club for both men and women. That system includes numerous youth club affiliates from the region as well as their Residency Program that features a team that competes in the PDL along with nearby veteran side Abbotsford Rangers and Victoria Highlanders, who launched this past year to astounding success with the league’s fourth best attendance average at 1,734.
The Whitecaps program has seen tremendous success in player development as numerous players over the past two seasons from the residency program have contributed in significant ways to the club’s back-to-back trips to the championship match and the league title in 2008.
On the women’s side, the Whitecaps have long been the league leaders in attendance, as well as being a home for many of the nation’s national team players at the senior and youth levels. That combination helped lead the club to a pair of W-League championships in 2004 and 2006.
In recent years, the Whitecaps’ expedited promotion of youth players into the W-League team has forged talented young players who are now breaking into the senior national team’s lineup in international competition.
A similar story has unfolded in eastern Canada where the Ottawa Fury have been a powerhouse in the women’s game for many years. The club has reached the league semifinals five times in the past six campaigns and finished runners-up in 2005 and 2006. And now, the club has developed a successful PDL team and youth programs.
“When I purchased the [W-League] franchise seven years ago, the only thing that existed was the W-League team, which was already very successful," said John Pugh, President and Owner of the Fury. "There were no youth programs at all, much less the multi-tiered system we have today. There was no PDL team. It’s pretty remarkable that in only five years we have built the club into the elite soccer organization it is today.”
But the Fury are not alone. The Toronto Lynx have long been rivals, and the first-year W-League Quebec City Amiral served notice this year with a playoff appearance and a top 10 finish in attendance.
Victoria, meanwhile, is not alone in successful PDL debut stories either. Forest City London also launched their new club in 2009 in outstanding fashion, finishing the year with an average of 1,657 fans a game and a trip to the PDL playoffs.
“We’ve gone and set the benchmark to the point where people in the community now recognize that a player has to get to Forest City London, and excel there before he can move towards a professional career," said Ian Campbell, President and Owner of FC London. "I think up until we moved here, the line of thinking in London was very different, and the road to a pro career was very long and bumpy. We now give kids the stepping stone and the exposure they need to pursue their dreams.”
London’s conference rival Thunder Bay Chill recently turned the page, building a team that nearly captured the regular season title in 2008, but went on to great success in the playoffs, becoming the first Canadian club to win the PDL championship.
“We congratulate the PDL and W-League teams for both their development and promotion of the game, as well as their success,” said Montopoli about the role of the lower tiers in the sport and their contributions. “This level of soccer is key to our long-term athlete development program, the Wellness to the World Cup, and the success of these teams is good for the game, and creates a great environment for Canadians to further embrace the sport in this country.”
While London and Thunder Bay have seen tremendous fortune of late, Montreal is clearly the leader in the east.
The return of Joey Saputo to the ownership of the club several years ago led to a renaissance of sorts as he took over a club in ownership crisis and has returned it to the glory of the mid-90’s. After winning the league championship in 2004, the club went on to capture the next two regular season titles in addition to this year’s league championship.
The greatest success story also came in the past year when they won the inaugural Nutrilite Canadian Championship, a title Vancouver narrowly missed in 2009, and advanced to the CONCACAF Champions League, where they vastly exceeded expectations and advanced not only to the group stage, but on into the quarterfinals. There they played to a record crowd of over 50,000 in a stunning victory over Mexican power Santos Laguna, only to see their semifinal hopes dashed in the waning moments of the second leg in Mexico.
“The NCC has been a great property for us and the clubs in Canada with the winner representing the country in the CONCACAF Champions League,” said Montopoli. “It was very well received with sellout crowds in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. It has brought professional soccer together in Canada, and we wish to build on that for the future.”
While the Champions League run is the most prominent acclaim in recent memory, it is but a moment in time while the Impact’s crowning jewel in its legacy is Stade Saputo. The 13,000-seat, $15 million dollar soccer specific stadium opened in 2007 and has helped maintained Montreal’s status as the league leaders in attendance.
With seven professional and amateur USL championships won over the past six years in the three leagues featuring Canadian clubs, its easy to overlook the grassroots. But the development of the game at the youth level is growing at a rapid pace in USL.
The Toronto Lynx reached the Super-20 League championship match a year ago, falling narrowly to the Chicago Fire 2-1. Later that fall, the Whitecaps affiliate Mountain WFC became the second Canadian champions in league history when they won the U16 Boys title. The Whitecaps had previously won the U13 Boys championship in 2004.
In all, 22 Canadian teams will be in Tampa in November for the North American Finals. Ten teams will be wearing the Whitecaps colors with Coastal sending five, Mountain four and Surrey one. The Ottawa Fury will have five teams competing in Florida with rival Toronto Lynx sending three. Coquitlam and West Coast Caps (Victoria) will be sending two each.