The Canadian Premier League: Building Momentum

The history of Canadian football is permeated with geographical complexities, infrastructural failings, and a collective exasperation amongst native fans—but has a newly-established league put an end to decades of disillusionment? In this five-part series, Ryan Murray attempts to understand whether the Canadian Premier League is the vehicle that will help to awake a sleeping giant from its slumber, and re-address the balance of power across the North American footballing landscape. Legitimate hope or another false dawn? Let’s find out.
Canadian football, Canada, Canadian Premier League, North America, domestic football, league football, international football, North American football, Forge FC, FC Edmonton, CONCACAF, Maple Leaf, Pacific FC, Valour FC, Atlético Ottawa, the CPL, Les Rouges
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

Forge FC and Pacific FC have enhanced the Canadian Premier League’s international reputation through their admirable performances in continental competition, but there have also been strategic actions undertaken to further the league’s global reach. 

In partnership with Canadian Soccer Business (CSB), an organisation set up to leverage the commercial power of the country’s footballing assets, the Canadian Premier League has struck media deals with several broadcasters and streaming platforms. Two months prior to the league’s first-ever fixture, it was announced that Mediapro, a Spanish-based multimedia group, had purchased the main broadcasting rights to the CPL in a ten-year deal. CBC Sports, a subdivision of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, also pledged to screen twenty matches from the opening season across their television and online channels. U.S audiences were introduced to live CPL action a year later, as Disney subsidiary Fox Sports became an official broadcasting partner, whilst StarTimes, 1Sports, and Premier Football began to provide coverage in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Philippines respectively. Since then, further deals have enabled viewers in Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of Europe to sample Canada’s new-look top tier.

Although the league’s current ‘closed’ system, whereby participant clubs are protected from the threat of relegation, is yet to cause any significant drama, it’s certainly something which could be a source of both risk and opportunity. From the get-go, CPL Commissioner David Clanachan has been steadfast in his conviction that the league should form the tip of a traditional footballing pyramid, which facilitates promotion and demotion between divisions. The arrival of a fully functioning third tier (although, poignantly, no current sign of a second tier), with a network of aligned regional leagues, may expedite the process towards this structure. Ironically, if a pyramid does materialise, it would be an area in which the Canadians could outshine their American cousins; the MLS is still very much a ‘sealed’ competition, with no attachment to a wider divisional framework, more than 27 years on from its introduction.

Regardless of the Canadian Premier League’s upward trajectory, and its potential to grow considerably in the future, it’s reassuring to know that those behind this exciting project will be trying to keep everyone’s feet firmly on their ground. The opening lines of the league’s mission statement reads as follows, 

‘To the world, it’s the beautiful game. To us, it’s proving we belong.’

Hopefully this short but succinct intro, brimming with humility, rationalism, and determination, demonstrates that those empowered to shape Canadian football’s future landscape—after a hundred odd years of trying—are finally stepping up to the plate.    

The international state of play

Of course, as alluded to earlier, the Canadian Premier League is also expected to provide the national team with a steady stream of international-standard players. Ironically, the attempted establishment of this talent supply line comes at a time when Les Rouges are experiencing the most successful period of their history.   

Canada’s squad is now dripping with talent. The vast majority of its roster are affiliated to outfits in the MLS or Europe, with several contracted to clubs participating in the world’s most-revered leagues. The Premier League duo of Nottingham Forest’s Richie Laryea (who was incidentally on loan at Toronto FC last season) and Brighton & Hove Albion’s Tom McGill were recently joined by eighteen-year-old Luca Koleosho, who left Spanish outfit to Espanyol to sign for newly-promoted Burnley in the summer Striker Jonathan David continues to regularly find the net at French Ligue 1 outfit Lille, whilst teammate Tajon Buchannan plays his home fixtures just over the Franco-Belgian border at Club Brugge. Full-back Alastair Johnson earned a move to Scottish giants Celtic after impressing for CF Montréal in early 2023, and central midfielder Stephen Eustáquio finds himself with Portuguese heavyweights Porto following a successful spell at Paços Ferreira. Alphonso Davies—arguably Canada’s most successful footballing export—has won five Bundesliga titles and a UEFA Champions League with Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. .    

With plenty more plying their trade in extremely competitive leagues, the Maple Leafs have never previously been able to select from such a capable pool of players. Unsurprisingly, performance levels have risen considerably. After failing to reach any of the last eight World Cups since featuring at Mexico 86’, Canada sealed their place for the 2022 edition of international football’s most prestigious competition in sensational style, finishing top of the CONCACAF qualification group with 28 points. Les Rouges’ ascent to the summit of the pile was all the more remarkable when you consider they were forced to navigate two additional rounds (by virtue of not being one of the confederation’s top-six ranked sides) prior to competing in the eight-team final stage. 

Although last year’s World Cup campaign ultimately ended in disappointment, a string of spirited displays was enough to grab the attention of most tracking events in Qatar. Drawn into an extremely challenging group, the Canadians were up against it from the off, but nevertheless held their own amongst esteemed company. Had Alphonso Davies converted an early penalty against Belgium, at a time when Canada had the Red Devils on the ropes, John Herdman’s side may have emerged from their opening tie with an unlikely three points. However, their opponents, ranked second in the world at the time, would go on to register a narrow victory in Al-Rayyan, with Michy Batshuayi’s effort on the stroke of half-time sparing the Belgians’ blushes. Although Davies would avenge his spot-kick miss by scoring his country’s first-ever goal at a World Cup within two minutes of their second contest against Croatia, the ‘Vatreni’, who had finished runners-up in Russia four years previously, came back strongly, scoring four goals without reply to eliminate the Canadians from the tournament. On paper, the Morocco fixture represented Canada’s best chance of securing a win, but the Atlas Lions would surprise everyone (and perhaps even themselves) by the calibre of their displays throughout the World Cup. Les Rouges would lose their final group game 2-1, as Morocco upset all the odds to secure top spot in Group F. 

Therefore, in similarity to their previous appearance 36 years earlier, Canada finished bottom of their group with zero points, exiting prematurely with a game still to spare. However, unlike in 1986, a polished and professional league back home is on hand to harness an increased interest, as World Cup audiences seek to learn more about the country’s domestic game, and, by extension, the Canadian Premier League. The halo effect of events in Qatar are almost impossible to measure, but one can safely assume that the Maple Leafs’ respectable efforts in the Middle East can only proffer positive results for the CPL. 

An underwhelming performance at the Gold Cup, which delivered sobering group-stage draws with Guadeloupe and Guatemala before concluding in a dramatic quarter final exit to the U.S, has somewhat derailed Canada’s current momentum. However, the refreshed hope that has surrounded Les Rouges in recent years is symptomatic of the feel-good factor which currently permeates Canadian football; for once, it appears local fans have both a league and a national side they can be proud of.

Looking ahead…

The Canadian Premier League is not a silver bullet solution to more than a century of internal infrastructural strife, but it offers a genuine platform for developing a credible and financially prosperous top flight. It is a vehicle for change, the new lifeblood of the Canadian game, and a project that will not only hope to advance the cause of domestic clubs, but also surely contribute to Les Rouges’ ongoing success. 

Come April 2026, the CPL will be readying the launch of its eighth campaign, as Canada applies the finishing touches to its preparations for co-hosting the 2026 World Cup. By that point, the country’s soccer-mad inhabitants will likely be demanding a fruitful campaign, as Canada, the United States, and Mexico conspire to stage the 23rd instalment of the greatest sporting spectacle on earth. Based on the current evidence, you would be brave to bet against Les Rouges outperforming their CONCACAF allies on North American soil.

Ryan Murray

With a lifelong association to football, Ryan Murray has embraced the beautiful game in all guises; as a player, spectator, and now writer. Specializing in the daily soap dramas & cultural nuances that perfectly characterize the chaos of the Scottish game, you can often find him scrolling through endless reams of information about his beloved football club (which will remain unnamed), or alternatively researching a particular bizarre or intriguing (well, at least he finds it so) episode from some distant corner of the footballing world. He resides in Leeds, but appears more often at seventh tier grounds around the urban sprawls of West Yorkshire than at Elland Road - it just feels more like football. He lives with his fiancée and sausage dog, both of whom now support the right club.