August 17, 2019

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Valour FC kickoff was several years in the making

Bombers president and CEO first heard of plan in 2014

Wade Miller's introduction to the idea came at a meeting of interested movers and shakers during Grey Cup week in Vancouver during the fall of 2014.

Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani and Hamilton Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell were making a revolutionary pitch — the establishment of a Canadian professional soccer league, a concept that had previously withered and died with the demise of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992.

Miller, a former Canadian Football League player and now president and CEO of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was intrigued by the idea of a national league that could provide a tenant at Investors Group Field, which had opened a year earlier.

But he needed to know more.

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Wade Miller's introduction to the idea came at a meeting of interested movers and shakers during Grey Cup week in Vancouver during the fall of 2014.

Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani and Hamilton Tiger-Cats CEO Scott Mitchell were making a revolutionary pitch — the establishment of a Canadian professional soccer league, a concept that had previously withered and died with the demise of the Canadian Soccer League in 1992.

Miller, a former Canadian Football League player and now president and CEO of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, was intrigued by the idea of a national league that could provide a tenant at Investors Group Field, which had opened a year earlier.

But he needed to know more.

"It was interesting and it built with time," recalls Miller, admittedly a soccer neophyte in 2014. "When you look at the story of Canada’s soccer — not being able to qualify for the World Cup, there’s not enough Canadian players being able to play at a high level of professional soccer in the world. So, that’s the reason we needed a Tier I domestic league in Canada. And that’s what the Canadian Premier League will be kicking off.

"Over the course of time, there was a lot of work to create this league, build it and find the right partners across the country to make sure of its success."

Developing Canadian talent at home is a noble aim, but Miller also demanded a framework for financial viability. Otherwise, getting the Winnipeg Football Club into the soccer business would be a waste of time and money.

By 2017, Miller and the WFC were convinced, securing an expansion franchise and 13 months later announced the hiring of general manager and coach Rob Gale.

Former Canada Under-20 Men's National Team Coach, Rob Gale (left) was announced as head coach of Valour FC by Wade Miller, President and CEO of the Winnipeg Football Club, last June.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Former Canada Under-20 Men's National Team Coach, Rob Gale (left) was announced as head coach of Valour FC by Wade Miller, President and CEO of the Winnipeg Football Club, last June.

On Wednesday night, Valour FC will make its long-awaited debut against Pacific FC in Victoria. Three days later, Gale and the members of his meticulously constructed roster will play on their home turf against FC Edmonton.

For Mitchell, who remains Ticats CEO while also serving as the CEO of Canadian Soccer Business (commercial arm of the CPL), the inception of a new league has been sometimes agonizing process.

CPL PRIMER

Commissioner: David Clanachan

Teams: Valour FC (Winnipeg); Cavalry FC (Calgary); FC Edmonton; Forge FC (Hamilton); HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax); Pacific FC (Victoria); York 9 FC (Toronto).

Commissioner: David Clanachan

Teams: Valour FC (Winnipeg); Cavalry FC (Calgary); FC Edmonton; Forge FC (Hamilton); HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax); Pacific FC (Victoria); York 9 FC (Toronto).

Future expansion: The USL's Ottawa Fury FC could join the CPL in the near future. St. John's, N.L., Moncton, N.B., Quebec City, Mississauga, Ont., Saskatoon and Regina have also been mentioned as possible franchise locations.

Canadian content: Each team must start a minimum of six Canadians per game. Rosters must be 50 per cent plus one Canadian; there is a limit of seven international players per team. Also, three Canadian players must be under the age of 21 and play a minimum of a combined 1,000 minutes per season.

Broadcast partners: OneSoccer, a streaming service, will carry all matches; CBC Sports will have 20 matches, including 10 on TV.

Split season: The teams will each play 28 regular-season games in a season split in two, with spring and fall champions meeting to decide the year’s overall winner. If the same club wins both seasons, it will meet the club with the next most cumulative points across both seasons in the final. The spring season will run from April 27-July 1 with all seven clubs playing 10 matches. The table will then be reset for the fall season, which will run from July 6-Oct. 19. Clubs will play 18 matches in the second season.

At the urging of Ticats owner Bob Young, Mitchell was beating the drum for a pro soccer in 2011 and found a like-minded accomplice in Montagliani, now president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, the continental governing body for association football in North America.

"I do think one of the things that Wade and I and some of the others talked about was this was coming in one way, shape or form, in terms of professional soccer, it was coming to Canada," says Mitchell. "The unfortunate thing would have been if it wasn’t a Canadian league. Clearly, if you look at international soccer, it’s almost impossible to be successful without a domestic Tier I league in your own country.

"Really, what I think caught the eye of multiple people and owners, was a unique business model that was an opportunity to invest in soccer and have a legitimate investment beyond the team operations. Two, it was the opportunity to make a difference in Canadian sport in the only truly global game, and that’s soccer."

Mitchell believes a high-level domestic league is crucial, asserting the top 60 soccer-playing countries in the world all have one. What's more, the success of countries such as South Korea, Japan and Australia on the international level was directly related to the start of a domestic league. Canada, once on the competitive level of those countries in the 1980s, has fallen well behind.

For 41-year-old Gale, an African-born Englishman who has played and coached at various levels in England, Canada and the U.S., believes the CPL is part of a better, co-operative movement for the game in Canada.

"I've said this before — we eat our own," says Gale, who moved to Winnipeg in 2001. "We don’t seem to thrive on each other’s successes in the past. If he’s doing it, I’m not going to get behind it. There were too many splinters…. Everyone’s protecting their own patch. What I see now is a willingness to move the game forward. Maybe it’s new ownership, fresh blood? Definitely new leadership at the Canada Soccer Association.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell.

CATHIE COWARD / HAMILTON SPECTATOR FILES

Hamilton Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell.

"I think we’re injecting new blood into provincial bodies and people are saying, ‘Hey, look, we love this game, we need this now. If we don’t do it, then when’s it gonna be?' That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. It’s not the old CSL. We’ve got a media deal. The games are on CBC."

But who will watch?

"They’re going to be millennials, first- and second-generation Canadians that have grown up with the world’s game — the beautiful game, as they call it," says Miller. "That’s who you’re going to see. And people that just love a great day out at Investors Group Field. It’ll be a great match-day experience, which is driven by the fans and different than other sporting event."

The early numbers are encouraging.

Forge FC drew 17,611 to its debut at Tim Hortons Field last week and Mitchell believes attendance between 6,000 and 8,000 per game would be encouraging. Miller is anticipating between 3,500 and 7,500 fans for 14 home dates at 33,324-seat IGF in the first season.

The starting seven

• Pacific FC (Victoria)

Owners: Dean Shillington and former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend.

Coach: Michael Silberbauer.

Stadium: Westhills Stadium, artificial turf. Capacity 6,000.

Player to watch: Vancouver striker Marcus Haber, a six-foot-three target man, spent the last nine years with Scotland’s Falkirk, Dundee FC and St Johnstone and England’s West Bromwich Albion, Exeter, Stevenage, Notts County and Crewe Alexandra.

Pacific FC (Victoria)

Owners: Dean Shillington and former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend.

Coach: Michael Silberbauer.

Stadium: Westhills Stadium, artificial turf. Capacity 6,000.

Player to watch: Vancouver striker Marcus Haber, a six-foot-three target man, spent the last nine years with Scotland’s Falkirk, Dundee FC and St Johnstone and England’s West Bromwich Albion, Exeter, Stevenage, Notts County and Crewe Alexandra.

FC Edmonton

Owners: Tom and Dave Fath.

Coach: Jeff Paulus.

Stadium: Clarke Field, artificial turf. Capacity 5,148.

Player to watch: Midfielder-forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu returns home after eight years in Europe, mostly in Germany. He has 10 caps for Canada.

• Cavalry FC (Calgary)

Owner: Linda Southern-Heathcott, a former Olympian and current president and CEO of Spruce Meadows.

Coach: Tommy Wheeldon Jr.

Stadium: Meadows on the Green Stadium, grass. Capacity 6,000.

Player to watch: Defender-midfielder Nik Ledgerwood. The 34-year-old from Lethbridge, Alta., is the éminence grise of the team. And he has 50 Canada caps and a dozen years playing primarily in Germany to back it up.

Valour FC (Winnipeg)

Owner: Winnipeg Football Club, which runs the CFL Blue Bombers.

Coach: Rob Gale.

Stadium: Investors Group Field, artificial turf. Capacity just under 7,000 for soccer.

Player to watch: Centre back Skylar Thomas. A former Toronto FC first-round draft choice, the six-foot-three native of Pickering, Ont., is reunited with former Syracuse University teammate Jordan Murrell in Winnipeg. Thomas and Murrell are Valour FC co-captains.

Forge FC (Hamilton)

Owner: Bob Young, technology entrepreneur and Hamilton Tiger-Cats owner.

Coach: Bobby Smyrniotis.

Stadium: Tim Hortons Field, artificial grass. Capacity 10,016 for soccer, although full stadium capacity is 23,218 plus tickets in the end zones.

Player to watch: Midfielder Kyle Bekker, a former Toronto FC first-round draft choice, captains Forge FC. After stints with Toronto, FC Dallas and Montreal, the native of Oakville, Ont., won an NASL championship under current Vancouver Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos in San Francisco before joining the USL’s North Carolina FC.

York 9 FC (Toronto)

Owners: Carlo Baldassarra, Mike Baldassarra, Preben Ganzhorn and former Canadian international Jim Brennan.

Coach: Jim Brennan.

Stadium: York Lions Stadium, grass. Capacity 8,000 (including 2,000 GA/standing).

Player to watch: Ryan Telfer. The versatile 25-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., has been loaned out by Toronto FC, which used him 18 times last season. Telfer has speed, power and can play anywhere from wingback to forward.

HFX Wanderers (Halifax)

Owner: Derek Martin, president of Sports & Entertainment Atlantic.

Coach: Stephen Hart, former Canada and Trinidad & Tobago national team coach.

Stadium: Wanderers Ground, grass, Capacity 6,200.

Player to watch: Elton John. The Trinidad & Tobago veteran has already brought the club worldwide attention for his name alone.

— Canadian Press

"In general, any team in the CPL averaging those numbers, it will be successful in Year 1," says Mitchell. "I think people forget, even though soccer has 200-plus countries as part of FIFA, if you average 10,000 to 12,000 per game you’ll be one of the top 15 leagues in the world. That is certainly what we aspire to."

Sales for Saturday's Valour home opener are believed to have exceeded the 6,000-ticket mark.

"We have built this in a way that will make this sustaining and ideally, over time, and we’re going to walk before we run as a league," says Miller. "And more importantly, give Canadians a chance to play professional soccer. It’s a league for Canadians, built by Canadians. It gives these kids a chance to play at a high level and hopefully, over time, develop a pool of young, talented players that have the ability to get the men’s national team back to qualifying for the World Cup."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 30, 2019 at 7:07 PM CDT: Fixes headline

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