By River City

“We see (the arrival of an MLS team in Toronto) as a great boost for the development of the sport,” Kevan Pipe, the Canadian Soccer Association’s chief operating officer, said in an earlier interview. “The under-21 World Cup (to be held in Canada in 2007) will do the same. “We are not in as bad shape as some of the doom-and-gloomers would like to predict.”

When other Countries/Football Associations have wanted to address their shortcomings, they have invariably commissioned studies. Australia’s Crawford Report released in 2003 is one of the most famous of these. After years of futility – having qualified for the World Cup only once in 1974, media publicity of mismanagement and conflicts of interest at the Board level and a downright hostile relationship between Soccer Australia and the Australian government – Australia setup an enquiry to commission a report.

The 5 member Independent Soccer Review Committee was announced by the Australian Government and was comprised of business and sport leaders. Their recommendations met with resistance by the National and State Football Associations leading to their dissolution and the creation of a new governing entity as the previous one was deemed ‘not repairable’.

With the new changes in place, Soccer in Australia has grown to unprecedented levels with their established domestic league, move to a tougher Confederation and subsequent appearances at the World Cup in 2006, 2010 and 2014. While they’re not exactly odds on favourites for winning the World Cup any time soon, they have reformed their national structure and established a solid grounding for future growth.

Current World Cup holders Germany are another example of how systematic reform can be implemented to great effect. Going into Euro 2000, Germany was drawn into a group with England, Portugal and Romania with Germany and England being clear favourites to advance from the group based on their histories and league/club strength. Unheralded advancements by other countries though would shock the system as both Portugal and Romania advanced out of the Group, with Portugal’s B-squad comfortably beating Germany 3-0 in their final group stage game. A Germany that ended up scoring only 1 goal in three matches.

The response from Germany was to overhaul its grassroots youth development, copying from successful programs in other countries. It is a testament to Germany’s soccer sophistication that this was done by the German Soccer community rather than mandated by the Government. By February 2001, it became mandatory for all 18 Bundesliga teams to operate a youth academy, a directive that eventually spread to the 18 teams in Bundesliga 2. Youth academies became a condition for each Club’s professional licensing with subsidies handed out to each Club depending on its development level.

10 years later, more than 50% of Bundesliga players had progressed through the academy system with 20% of all players playing for the same Club whose academy they had joined. This focus on youth development and promoting home-grown players, resulted in 14 of the 23 players that won the 2014 World Cup being 25 years old or younger.

In its own right, the Canadian Soccer Association has also commissioned reports. Many reports. Reports after reports. And then more reports. And while commissioning reports is a great way to kickstart reform or implement much needed changes, it’s also an easy way for some organizations to buy some breathing room, placate critics and maintain the status quo. With the CSA though, the feeling is that it is genuinely interested in furthering the development of soccer in Canada and having a national pro league. But it is unable/unwilling to develop the pro league aspect on its own, choosing instead to rely on the efforts of others to lay the groundwork. This comment is not a reflection of the hard working members of the CSA, but rather the inherent structural issues that the CSA is subject to given the strength of its provincial bodies.

For some reason, the turn of the century saw a flurry of reports that had Canadian soccer fans optimistic for the future. In 1999, CSA VP Andy Sharpe and Holger Osieck, then head coach and technical director of the men’s national team released a scathing report on the status of Soccer in Canada. “Freezing temperatures, rain-soaked shale, gravel fields, gymnasium-type playing areas are not suitable to prepare our national teams to compete against our CONCACAF neighbours such as Mexico, U.S.A., Costa Rica, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Guatemala.” “In addition, the lack of a professional infrastructure further handicaps our young Canadian players. We found the CSA staff feeling helpless due to the lack of facilities available and proper funding.”

This was followed up by the famous February 2000 KPMG report investigating the viability of a professional soccer league in Canada which concluded that a Canadian pro league would be risky and highly speculative. The dire prognosis was based on 1) lack of potential financially capable, qualified owners 2) insufficient capital to sustain league operations beyond 5 years 3) insufficient number of adequate venues 4) having a league management free of conflicts of interest.

In April, Holger Osieck was back again, this time with A Blueprint for Success, advocating nation-wide regional training centres in order to increase the depth pool for both the Men’s and Women’s National teams. In total, there would be 13 National teams in 2001, more than doubling the national teams existing in 1998, encompassing ages 15 to 18 years of age inclusive, in annual age groupings. These teams would then compete internationally, minimum twice a year. National scouts in all major cities were also advocated as was a 4 year cycle Olympic program.

Osieck’s plan garnered widespread credibility and support, especially after he guided the National team to victory at the Gold Cup, winning Canada’s first major silverware since the 1904 Olympics. As if this wasn’t enough to have Canadian soccer fans atwitter, in November of that year, the Canadian United Soccer League (CUSL) study group, commissioned by the CSA officially unveiled their business plan and tried to get it off the ground.

The CSA seemed to put all its chips on the CUSL, despite eventual acknowledgement that the CUSL members themselves had reservations about the plan. As you may have guessed, the CUSL didn’t go anywhere. And with a lack of major players coming to the table, it was status quo for the CSA. Even when FIFA President Sepp Blatter was quoted in Toronto in 2001 saying “you must do something with your professional soccer” in reference to Canada being able to host future tournaments, nothing happened.

The closest the CSA got, was when Michael Vandale, chair of the CSA’s pro-soccer committee released a paper noting the CSA pledge to support the Canadian Professional Soccer League (PCSL), now rebranded as the CSL, in their drive to establish regional divisions across Canada. Again, this was the CSA abdicating their responsibility to a third party, one that was unable to grow beyond Ontario on its own.

A further report was released in 2005 by Deloitte and Touche on the CSA’s organization structure and planning. This report though paled in comparison to the big news of the year. Major League Soccer’s (MLS) awarding of a franchise to Toronto. This was of course widely hailed as a pivotal moment in Canadian soccer..

10 years later, what do we have? Interestingly, some baby steps have been taken from yet another report. The 2011 Rethink Management Group’s study on the viability of Division II soccer better known as the Easton report looked at 4 different models for player development, ultimately recommending that the CSA look at a regional, semi-pro league system. This system would compete at a Div 3 level, below the NASL and USL and the regional champions would meet at the end of the season, similar to the Memorial Cup. Essentially, the model of the CSL.

A few years on and after legal wrangling between the CSA and the CSL, the Ontario Soccer Association launched the League 1 Ontario (L1O), administered by DG Sports, through a Club Licensing model rather than a Franchise model. So now Canada has 3 Division 1 MLS Clubs operating in a blatantly US League; 2 Division 2 NASL teams; 4 Division 3 Leagues with the USL, L1O, PLSQ and the non-FIFA/CSA affiliated CSL; 2 Division 4 Leagues with PCSL and PDL; and then Division 5 with the different Provincial and Territory Soccer Leagues.

So where does that leave Canada? And how exactly is the CSA leading Canada’s disjointed soccer community toward the future? While the similarities with Australia in 2003 are very telling, our media isn’t interested in Canadian soccer and the government of the day hasn’t been spurred to action by any semblance of public outcry. With another doomed World Cup qualification looming, these are timely questions.

REFERENCES:

Australia – Crawford Report
Germany – Bundesliga Report (not available) (available as slide)

Canada – CUSL

Canada – Easton Report

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