Canadian Football: Success Abroad, but at What Local Cost?

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, Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montréal, Toronto FC, Major League Soccer, CONCACAF
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montréal, and Toronto FC have taken advantage of their inclusion in the MLS, reaping the sporting and financial rewards of competing in the continent’s most prestigious league. As a consequence, each now enjoys a privileged position in the context of North American soccer.

But exactly how successful have Canada’s three MLS representatives been? And what is the best barometer for measuring the productivity of their efforts? Of course, as is the case in any sporting scenario, the standard of performances on the pitch and the amount of silverware in the trophy cabinet will always offer the sharpest indication of a club’s prosperity.

The Whitecaps have featured in the CONCACAF Champions League—the elite club tournament for the North and Central American regions (the geographical expanse governed by the CONCACAF confederation)—on two occasions over the last decade. Although this may seem a fairly paltry return, tournament participation is a respectable achievement in itself when only a select handful of MLS sides qualify each season.

Vancouver navigated the CONCACAF Champions League in consecutive seasons, appearing in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 editions of the competition. Drawn into a fiercely competitive group, the Blue-and-Whites fell at the first hurdle in their inaugural continental campaign. Seattle Sounders, also of the MLS’ Western Conference, would progress to the next stage as group winners, with C.D. Olimpia—the most successful football club in Honduran history—ensuring the Whitecaps finished bottom of the pile in third.

Nevertheless, the following season produced a stronger display, as the Whitecaps, led by Welsh manager Carl Robinson, reached the semi-finals. After dispatching U.S Open Cup champions Sporting Kansas City and Central FC of Trinidad and Tobago early on, the Whitecaps eliminated another MLS representative—Eastern Conference outfit New York Red Bulls— at the quarter final stage. Although they eventually succumbed to 2015 Copa Libertadores winners Tigres UANL, Robinson’s side had demonstrated they could mix it with the continent’s elite. On the subject of tournament football, it’s also worth noting the Whitecaps’ have won the Canadian Championship (a knockout competition established in 2008 contested between Canada’s professional club sides—more on this to follow) in each of the last two campaigns, and on three occasions overall.  

However, one must also consider other important indicators. Take spectator volumes for example. Since the Vancouver Whitecaps’ integration into the MLS in 2011, attendances at the BC Place have been extremely impressive. Discounting the COVID-ravaged 2020 and 2021 seasons, the Whitecaps’ home stadium has witnessed an average of more than 20,000 spectators per game in all but three MLS campaigns.

The quality of recent squads also provides us with an insight; the acquisition of better players is usually a sign of a club moving in the right direction. A plethora of gifted footballers have donned the famous white jersey over the last twelve years, continuing a tradition that had commenced in Whitecaps’ NASL days, when the likes of legendary goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, World Cup-winner Alan Ball, and the diminutive Peter Beardsley all headed to the Pacific coast. Ghanian-born Canadian international Alphonso Davies, arguably the Maple Leafs’ first-ever global superstar, joined the Whitecaps academy aged fourteen, and has gone on to make over a century of appearances for German giants Bayern Munich. Kenny Miller, who played in the English, Turkish, and Scottish top-flights during a respectable 24-year playing career, spent two years in Vancouver just after his retirement from international football, whilst former skipper Freddy Montero enjoyed two spells in the Portuguese capital with Sporting Lisbon.

CF Montréal, who were known as Montreal Impact until early 2021, have also given residence to a significant batch of high-profile stars, with a cohort of talented individuals serving in either a playing or coaching capacity. Jesse Marsch, who has since taken up posts in both the German Bundesliga and English Premier League with RB Leipzig and Leeds United respectively, led the Quebecers in their inaugural MLS campaign, and former Olympique Lyonnais and Aston Villa coach Rémi Garde assumed the managerial hot seat between November 2017 and August 2019. French hero Thierry Henry also took the reins for a short period, but the less said about the former Arsenal striker’s spell in charge the better. Speaking of iconic Premier League attackers, Didier Drogba made 41 appearances for the Impact across two campaigns, netting 23 times in the process. Fellow Africans Victor Wanyama (now into his fourth MLS season with the club) and Orji Okwonkwo are two more notable names, as is Marco Di Vaio, who featured for Juventus, Lazio, Valencia, and Monaco before arriving in Montreal in June 2012.

The club has managed to leverage the quality of its playing and managerial ranks to good effect, having registered a series of strong performances in several competitions. Indeed, the five-time Canadian Championship holders were runners-up in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League, succumbing to Mexican outfit Club América in the final, who would go on to claim a second successive continental title the following season. Although yet to attain any silverware on American soil, CF Montréal secured second place in the Eastern Conference last term, and in 2016 reached the semi-final stage of the MLS Cup, the league’s post-season playoff-style tournament.

Yet, Toronto FC have eclipsed both of their compatriots’ achievements—and have the trophies to prove it. Throughout 2017, the Reds acquired a remarkable four major honours: the Canadian Championship, the Eastern Conference title, the MLS Cup, and the Supporters Shield (awarded to the side with the highest points total across the MLS’ two regional conferences). And they would have fancied their chances of securing five had the CONCACAF Champions League not been placed on a twelve-month hiatus in preparation for its change in format. 

Unsurprisingly, the 2017 MLS season encouraged a horde of Torontonians to watch their local side, which resulted in frequent crowds of over 25,000 at BMO Field. Toronto have also performed well in the continental theatre, coming second in the inaugural Campeones Cup, which pits the previous campaign’s MLS Cup champions against the current Liga MX’s Campeón de Campeones holders (the side who emerges victorious in a play-off contest between the Apertura (‘opening’ stage) and Clausura (‘closing’ stage) winners in Mexico’s split-season model) in a one-off contest. A mere five months before losing out to Tigres UANL in the Campeones Cup final, Toronto were beaten by another Mexican outfit in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League showpiece, as C.D. Guadalajara overcame Greg Vanney’s side on penalties to earn their first continental title in over 55 years. Toronto have reached the knockout rounds in four of their last five CONCACAF Champions League campaigns.

The Reds have also recorded the most Canadian Championship titles, triumphing on four consecutive occasions between 2009 and 2012, and three consecutive occasions between 2016 and 2018, before earning their eighth crown in the delayed 2020 edition. Due to the ongoing disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it was decided that the 2020 Canadian Championship would be a single match contested between the winners of a mini-series involving the three Canadian MLS teams, and the 2020 Canadian Premier League champions. In the final, Toronto narrowly edged out fellow Ontarians Forge FC on penalties.

In the summer of 2022, Toronto pulled off a major recruitment coup by securing the services of Serie A trio Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus), and Domenico Criscito (Genoa). Although former FC Zenit full-back Criscito (who incidentally returned to Genoa last January for a fourth and final spell before retiring at the end of last season) was entering the latter stages of his career when he joined Bob Bradley’s side, two-time Coppa Italia winner Lorenzo Insigne, and three-time Scudetto champion Federico Bernardeschi are still very much in their prime. In fact, both played an integral role in their final seasons in Naples and Turin respectively. Bradley’s son, Michael, one of only three U.S players alongside Landon Donovan and Cobi Jones to earn over 150 international caps, is Toronto’s long-term skipper.

The recent exploits of these three clubs has injected some energy across Canada’s native footballing landscape, as public interest, grassroots participation, and attendances at international fixtures continue to rise. Furthermore, the MLS contingent have undoubtedly raised the country’s profile throughout the global arena, as broadcasters continue to beam coverage of the U.S top-flight to audiences located across the world. These developments, coupled with the national team’s qualification and subsequent performances at last year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, have augmented the perception that Canada is a building force in the game.

But, What About Local Football?

Critically however, the combined efforts of these franchises, impressive as they are, do little to support Canada’s internal league system. Clearly, local clubs will feel the halo effect of the game’s increasing popularity amongst natives, but ultimately there is no direct sporting or financial benefit that can be leveraged as a result of the trio’s endeavours. Indeed, the cumulative sum of their parts, at least in relation to their impact on domestic league outputs and infrastructure, is channelled towards the continued advancement of Major League Soccer, not the Canadian Premier League (or other historical permutations of Canada’s top-flight).

If the newly constructed CPL does gain traction over the coming years, could we see the Whitecaps, CF Montréal, and Toronto FC eventually ply their trade on home soil? Unfortunately, this currently seems an unlikely scenario. Migrating away from the MLS to join, by all intents and purposes, a significantly inferior league, would be considered an act of financial suicide. 

However, given CONCACAF’s desire to expand national representation in its premier pan-continental tournament, Canada’s latest top-tier project can now dangle a significant carrot over the MLS trio. From 2024, two CPL clubs (currently one) will participate in a newly-calibrated CONCACAF Champions League (the competition will revert to its previous title, the ‘CONCACAF Champions Cup’), which will also see the tournament expand to include 27 teams. Conversely, the U.S-based Canadian sides are unable to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions Cup by virtue of their league position, with the MLS’ five qualifying berths (currently four, but the U.S top-tier will receive an additional place as a consequence of the tournament’s aforementioned re-configuration) protected for ‘native’ sides. As it stands, the three franchises, alongside all of Canada’s other professional outfits (and a sprinkling of semi-professional sides), vie for a single Champions League spot allocated to the winners of the Canadian Championship.

A Championship for all, except some…

Initially, having the Canadian Championship as the vehicle for CONCACAF Champions League qualification would have suited each club, as it basically offered a one in three chance of success. Early editions of the Canadian Championship were exclusively contested between the three MLS outfits, before FC Edmonton were introduced in 2011, a little over twelve months on from the club’s establishment. At this stage, FC Edmonton played in the North American Soccer League, a short-lived, standalone competition which had no connection to the original NASL of the previous generation. Later, the club became a founding member of the Canadian Premier League, but folded towards the back end of last year following a series of on and off-field issues. Although periodically expanded over the following seven years (albeit in very gradual stages), no Canadian Championship involved more than six participants until 2019, when seven new sides, who had each been created as a consequence of the Canadian Premier League’s imminent arrival, were awarded a place in the knockout tournament.  

In 2015, Ottawa Fury, at the time competing alongside FC Edmonton in the North American Soccer League , were granted access (Fury later moved to the now defunct USL Championship, before dissolving and selling its franchise rights in the division to Miami FC). Three years later, a new rule permitted the champions of each of the CSA’s two ‘third-tier’ leagues—League 1 Ontario and Ligue1 Québec—to enter the competition. In another strange administrative anomaly, there is no second-tier in Canada; the Canadian Premier League is accompanied by League 1 Canada, an umbrella system which incorporates three regional leagues; these are the aforementioned League 1 Ontario and Ligue1 Québec, alongside League 1 British Columbia, with a League 1 Alberta due to be sanctioned by 2024. 

Therefore, what initially started out as a straightforward pitched battle between three familiar foes, has now turned into a dogged scrap, whereby a handful of continually improving teams, desperate to put one over on the American defectors, attempt to achieve the once insurmountable task of qualifying for the region’s pre-eminent club competition. For Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montréal, and Toronto FC, this is far from a welcomed development. 

Although the Voyageurs Cup, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Canadian Championship, has never been inscribed with the name of any side other than the ‘big’ three, this current reality could soon change. Canadian Premier League outfits arguably represent the most potent threat to their hegemony, with several advancing to the latter stages of tournaments at the expense of at least one MLS-based side, although Vancouver Whitecaps are the only ones to have directly been beaten by domestic opposition. In the inaugural season of CPL involvement, Cavalry FC dispatched the Whitecaps in the third qualifying round, before Pacific FC repeated this feat in the preliminaries two years later. As previously referenced, the competition format of the 2020 Canadian Championship automatically meant that two MLS franchises would be eliminated and a CPL representative would assume a place in the final, with Forge FC meeting mini-series victors Toronto FC in June 2022. Nevertheless, in a sharp reminder of the conflicting status of domestically-oriented sides versus those plying their trade in the MLS, Toronto FC were awarded the competition’s CONCACAF Champions League ticket for the 2021 campaign more than a year before the final was played. Canadian authorities did not include Forge FC in their provisional high-performance exemption list, which meant the club was unable to circumnavigate local curbs on social gatherings and re-initiate team training sessions ahead of the CSA’s decision on Champions League qualification. Conversely, as a locally-recognized elite outfit, Toronto FC were granted permission to train from mid-February, almost a month before it was announced they would be Canada’s sole representative in the pan-continental competition. The decision felt entirely logical, but also incredibly unfair.

Although no further coups have been recorded since Pacific FC’s exploits in 2021, in a period which has seen the Whitecaps redeem themselves by winning the last two Championships, it seems only a matter of time until the Voyageurs Cup will be wrestled out of the hands of the MLS trio. 

Clearly, an expanded competition, whereby local sides are consistently challenging the MLS contingent, is a positive step. Yet, as is so often the case in Canadian football, progress exposes profligacy. If recently constructed CPL sides can put up a reasonable fight, and, to a lesser extent, representatives from Canada League One—TSS FC Rovers became the first third-tier outfit to defeat higher-ranked opposition in this season’s competition, progressing to the quarter-final stage as a result—why not permit longer-established clubs, such as those in the semi-professional Canadian Soccer League, to also participate? Of course, given the CSL’s affiliation with the Soccer Federation of Canada, league members would be unable to compete in a CSA-sanctioned tournament. However, in the interests of improving the domestic game, surely a compromise between the two associations could be met. 

Ironically, the Canadian Soccer League extended an invite to their own knockout competition—the Open Canada Cup—to all native sides in 2003, five years into its short-lived tenure. The competition, which was incidentally won on back-to-back occasions by current League 1 Ontario outfit Windsor City FC, was later disbanded in 2007, just twelve months before the inception of the Canadian Championship. Although the CSL was at that stage still registered to the Canadian Soccer Association (their exit was confirmed in 2014 following allegations of match-fixing and other rule violations), the country’s preeminent governing body excluded all of the league’s participating clubs from entering the newly introduced ‘national’ tournament. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the counter-intuitiveness that permeates Canada’s footballing landscape— self-inflicted wounds have served to undermine the prosperity of its domestic game. However, is this deep-seated narrative beginning to soften? 

Are we entering a new dawn, whereby a properly functioning nationwide top division is helping to spearhead a more progressive approach amongst the stakeholders of Canada’s domestic game? In the penultimate chapter of this five-part series, we review the role, implementation, and initial impact of the recently established Canadian Premier League.

Is the vehicle for change now in gear?

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.