After months of waiting and speculating on what a 2021 season might look like, Canadian Premier League clubs finally got their answer on Saturday.
All eight teams will start the campaign in a Winnipeg bubble later this month which will see them play eight games in four weeks at IG Field. Depending on where the country’s at with the pandemic, the plan could change, but the current idea is to have the clubs return to their home markets after the month to play the final 20 matches on their schedules.
There were 11 locations, including five provinces and several different countries around the world, that offered to host what’s being called "The Kickoff." But ultimately, the league opted for the Manitoba capital.
"For starters, IG Field is a world-class facility. We have Valour FC that operates out of there daily which means we’ve got a built-in off-the-field team there. Not only do they also do it for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL, they’ve also hosted Canada Soccer events. They know how to do this," said CPL commissioner David Clanachan in an interview with CanPL.ca on the weekend."Plus you’ve got the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg that want us there in a big way — they see this as an opportunity to get people thinking differently coming out of this pandemic. People have come together and put their hands up in the air and said ‘We want it, we want to be part of this.’ That’s why Winnipeg — and I’m very pleased with it."
Valour head coach Rob Gale is also very pleased. Unlike The Island Games last summer in Charlottetown, P.E.I. — a single-site tournament that replaced the 2020 season owing to COVID-19 concerns — it’ll be a short trip to arrive at the bubble for Gale’s group.
"I think it’s great. The Euro Cup will be on, the soccer world is buzzing, the excitement around the CPL start is going to be huge coast to coast and we get to showcase our stadium, our city, our province and I think that’s such a beneficial thing," Gale said.
"The people of P.E.I. said last year had a great economic impact and that was without fans as well. I think it just shows we have a great facility, a great infrastructure, and a terrific province. I’m proud that it’s here and we can showcase it."
It’ll be a homecoming for Winnipegger Marco Bustos, an attacking midfielder for Pacific FC who starred for Valour in 2019, but not exactly the one he imagined as the stands will be empty. But no complaints from him as players like Bustos are just happy to know what they’re training for.
The Island Games were held at the University of P.E.I. and teams were only guaranteed seven matches.
"I think we’re going to turn a corner soon here in Canada. But to play at home in Winnipeg and in a stadium I’m familiar with is going to be nice," said Bustos, a finalist for the CPL’s MVP award in 2020.
"I scored some goals there for Valour and hopefully, I can do the same for Pacific. It’s a nice place to play, a big stadium. That’s one of the positive things about this bubble compared to the last one is we’re going to play in a proper stadium. In P.E.I., obviously, it was nice to play and I know it was only 10 games, but the field wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t a stadium so at least this will give it that stadium vibe. I think the rest of the players and teams will enjoy IG Field, for sure."
Valour midfielder Raphael Ohin has been with the club since the inaugural season. He knows the ins and outs of IG Field, but without ‘The Trench’ cheering them on, he doesn’t think playing in Winnipeg will give them an edge. The league has also made sure Valour is on the same playing field as everybody else as they’ll be staying in the bubble hotel and won’t have access to their dressing room or weight facility at IG Field.
Want to get a head start on your day?
Get the day’s breaking stories, weather forecast, and more sent straight to your inbox every morning.
"It’s going to be the same. Just like in P.E.I., it was a whole new experience for everyone," said Ohin, a Ghana native who moved to Winnipeg six years ago.
"Now at least we have some kind of experience and playing in our stadium makes it way better. We play on it, we train on it, we’re used to it, but some of the CPL teams have been here before in 2019. They know how it is. I don’t see it as a big advantage, but this is our home. This is our field. It feels like we’re home and that’s the only advantage I can say we have."
The Kickoff will begin on June 26 with FC Edmonton squaring off against Atlético Ottawa followed by Pacific FC vs. HFX Wanderers. Valour will open their season the next day in a meeting with the league’s reigning two-time champions, Forge FC. The final game of the weekend is Cavalry FC vs. York United.
"Yeah, piece of cake! Put three points for us on the board right now," joked Gale on the tough opener. "Thank you schedulers... Let’s see where we stack up."
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Winnipeg bubble is currently scheduled for June 26-July 24.
There will be 32 matches in total, with all eight teams playing eight games. The current plan is for clubs to return to home markets to finish the season with 10 home and 10 away matches.
All eight teams will stay in a hotel with no access to the community. The bubble is restricted to the hotel, practice field, and IG Field.
As of now, the plan is to play without fans. The league is open to the idea but needs approval from Manitoba health officials.
Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin: “The health and safety of all Manitobans is our first priority and public health has been working alongside the Canadian Premier League and the Valour Football Club to bring this event to Winnipeg in a safe manner and within the current public health orders.”
“Guidelines are in place for team testing before travel, during the first seven days, and weekly thereafter, and players will be cohorted with their teams and only interact with other teams during matches. Additionally, essential personnel will be limited and proactive screening, monitoring, and tracking of participants will be documented to ensure the event is successful and safe.”
Dayna Spiring, President & CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg: “This major sporting event is going to be done safely and will be a boost for our tourism sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. The Kickoff will translate into more than 5,500 booked hotel room nights and $4.9M in economic spinoff. In addition, international media coverage will elevate Winnipeg on the global stage and position us as a premier city to host similar events in the future.”
Wade Miller, President & CEO of Valour FC: “We are thrilled to be hosting our clubs at IG Field to begin the season. We thank the CPL, Province of Manitoba, and the City of Winnipeg for their support and co-operation in securing The Kickoff at IG Field and we can’t wait to get the season started.”