Canadian Football: A North American League Wrapped in Stars and Stripes

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
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

Read Part 1 here.

For decades, Canadian ‘soccer’ fans were left frustrated by the absence of a suitable top-tier native league, their exasperation compounded by the relative successes of their cousins across the 49th parallel. Although geographical proximity opened the door of opportunity for Canadian teams, most USA-based league projects—often operating under the guise of an all-encompassing ‘North American’ initiative—were not exactly receptive to cross-border participation.   

For example, in spite of its title, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was chiefly a U.S-orientated endeavour. The league, inaugurated in 1967, contained an overwhelming majority of clubs from the United States (Canadian teams were ‘invited’ to compete, as opposed to being considered as founder members), and was launched with an unmistakably American-style branding campaign, laden with commercial intent.  

Not to be confused with the fleeting North American Soccer Football League (NASFL), a competition which materialised in the immediate postwar era and lasted just two seasons (incidentally, the NASFL had a Canadian participant, the Toronto Greenbacks, in its ranks), the North American Soccer League (NASL) was the United States’ first fruitful foray into the world of ‘soccer’. League creators targeted the masses, keen to facilitate a new following and fondness for the game, historically trumped by American Football, Baseball and Basketball. And, whilst it was way off ever compromising the hegemony of these immensely popular sports, the NASL was successful in engaging a vast audience.

An entourage of newly established clubs emerged across North America throughout the mid to late 1960s, eager to embrace a fresh and dynamic sporting movement. Although the vehicle towards footballing enlightenment proved to be the NASL, most of these sides had formed as a consequence of the creation of the NPSL (National Professional Soccer League) and USA (United Soccer Association). Remarkably, these two leagues merged to form the NASL in the immediate aftermath of their respective inaugural campaigns (both taking place in 1967), with 17 of the 22 clubs involved in the NPSL and USA instantly transferring their membership to the new competition

Of these 17 founder members, only two were of Canadian descent: the Toronto Falcons (NPSL) and Vancouver Royals (USA). Furthermore, the composition of Vancouver Royals’ playing roster further undermined the extent of a Canadian presence in a US-dominated league. As a bizarre consequence of the rushed execution of the USA in response to the NPSL’s sudden mobilisation, Scottish outfit Dundee United were invited to provide players to compete on behalf of the Vancouver Royals. This phenomenon manifested itself right throughout the league, as the United Soccer Association attempted to keep pace with the National Professional Soccer League. Marooned in their respective local leagues, no pre-existent Canadian-based club were in a position to even contemplate joining the NASL. These teams could ill-afford to participate in a competition that demanded sustained financial commitment on an industrial scale. Moreover, the infrastructure of these clubs, defined by the amateur status of their players and the voluntary input of supporters and staff, was a far cry from the glossy, commercially-focused franchise model adopted by NASL sides.

All roads lead south

The creation and subsequent enterprises of the Falcons and Royals spoke volumes about the condition of North American football in two different, but equally important ways. Firstly, it demonstrated the extent of the financial disparity between U.S and Canadian clubs; with only two representatives in the continent’s elite league, it was obvious that investment heading north of the 49th parallel was in short supply. Secondly, it highlighted that any substantial incoming funding would likely be utilised to facilitate participation in a U.S rather than Canada-based competition, with new franchises constructed solely with this purpose in mind.

Unfortunately, these early dynamics have since evolved into a hardened narrative—following the NASL’s inception, any ambitious Canadian team bankrolled by the deep pockets of a wealthy owner has opted to venture south, stripping native sides of a serious fiscal opportunity in the process. The mere presence of a properly-financed outfit in a Canadian domestic league would have undoubtedly seen fellow participants prosper, feeding off the halo effect of increased advertisement revenues, gate receipts, and media interest. One can only envisage the influence this might have had on the country’s wider footballing ecosystem…

However, it was not to be, as an influx of Canadian clubs, seeking exposure, fortune, and competitive glory, set their sights on the American promised land. Indeed, it was easy to understand the motivations behind this footballing pilgrimage, and, as the NASL gathered pace and popularity throughout the mid-late 1970s, these incentives became more difficult to ignore.

In 1975, New York Cosmos sensationally captured the services of Pele, with compatriot Carlos Alberto and two-time Ballon d’Or winner Franz Beckenbauer following the legendary Brazilian to the Big Apple soon after. George Best and Johan Cruyff headed west to the Los Angeles Aztecs, and German striker Gerd Müller joined Miami-based Fort Lauderdale Strikers; and plenty more superstars were set to arrive. A league that could attract this calibre of player—regardless of the fact most were approaching the twilight of their respective glittering careers—was a serious proposition. Big-name signings attracted large-scale crowds; for three seasons between 1977 and 1980, New York Cosmos would see average attendances tip the 40,000 threshold, whilst clubs who harnessed a more modest playing roster were still regularly drawing crowds in excess of 10,000 per game throughout this period.

Encapsulated and inspired by its unprecedented success, no less than nine Canadian franchises were affiliated to the NASL at some stage during its eighteen-year existence, before a nationwide economic recession brought the league to its abrupt dissolution in 1985. Only two of these nine clubs—the Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto Croatia—are still active, although both technically now operate as separate entities to their original franchises. The current Vancouver Whitecaps, who were formed in reaction to Vancouver’s invitation to assemble an MLS franchise, are a re-packaged continuation of the city’s old NASL outfit. In contrast to the Whitecaps’ relatively simple transition, Toronto Croatia has a rather more complicated backstory. Founded by members of the city’s Croat diaspora in 1956, Toronto Croatia originally competed in the aforementioned National Soccer League, but subsequently switched to the NASL in 1975 after purchasing the Toronto Metros franchise. As a consequence, the new entity—operating under the name ‘Toronto Metros-Croatia’—assumed the previous franchise’s place in North America’s strongest division. Thus, they became the third pre-existing Canadian side to acquire a position in the North American Soccer League, almost a decade after the Vancouver Royals and Toronto Falcons initially achieved this feat. When the NASL disbanded, they reverted to their previous guise, and once again took occupancy in Canada’s National Soccer League. Still following?

The major impact of Major League Soccer 

The plan to re-establish a competitive, commercially viable domestic league was part of the same project that delivered the United States’ successful 1994 World Cup bid. Indeed, FIFA had earlier mandated that hosting rights could only be secured if the U.S. presented a workable concept for a professional first division. Thus, the rejuvenation of American soccer was to be realised via a two-pronged approach; staging the global tournament would be the ‘shot in the arm’ to wake a sleeping giant from its slumber, whilst the newly-constructed MLS would serve to propagate the country’s World Cup legacy.

Although the guiding principles of Major League Soccer—franchised infrastructures, headline signings, and rather questionable team names—were reflective of those championed by the NASL, organisers were determined that the MLS would present itself as a far more serious proposition than its predecessor, and gain the respect of the global footballing community. Indeed, the NASL did much to raise the profile of soccer in the U.S, but was often viewed, particularly by foreign onlookers, as a synthetic, uber-commercialised league which ultimately exuded more style than substance. The MLS was created through a different lens, focusing far more on professionalism than pageantry as organisers sought to compete with the powerhouse leagues of Europe and South America. 

USA’s newly calibrated top-tier may have been similarly steadfast in its desire to attract some of the game’s legendary figures, but these players would descend on American turf at a much earlier stage in their careers. No longer was the U.S to be a haven for fading forces who were all too happy to flog a few shirts and lap up a final payday in the sun; new recruits were to first and foremost add value from a playing perspective, with their ability to generate merchandising revenue deemed a less pressing concern.  

Of course, there are isolated examples whereby the sheer marketability of a player makes it nigh on impossible to deliver a proportionate on-field contribution, regardless of what stage they’re at in their career. Whether David Beckham can still consistently deliver a freakishly accurate 70-yard cross-field pass or not, the unprecedented scale of his commercial worth would arguably always exceed his equivalent playing value. Yet,  it’s certainly worth noting that Beckham was just 27 years old when he made the switch from Real Madrid to Los Angeles Galaxy, and therefore still very much in his prime. Furthermore, in a bid to retain the English midfielder, the Spanish giants desperately attempted to sabotage his pre-contract agreement with the Galaxy before he headed stateside—it was clear Beckham’s services were still valued in Madrid.

Indeed, the commitment towards prioritising capability over commercial viability was (and still is) obvious, with the collective playing pool younger, hungrier, and ultimately more talented than the NASL roster. The MLS meant business.

There are just three Canadian clubs currently plying their trade in the U.S. elite division, with only one—the Vancouver Whitecaps—previously competing in the North American Soccer League (however, as alluded to earlier, the MLS-registered Whitecaps are not strictly the same franchise as the NASL iteration). In relative similarity, CF Montréal (formerly Montreal Impact), who acquired their place in Major League Soccer ahead of the 2012 campaign, do have tenuous links with a former Montreal-based NASL franchise. Toronto FC complete the line-up.   

The reduced presence of clubs in North America’s top-tier, from nine in the NASL to three in the MLS, does not necessarily suggest the Canadian game is falling further behind its continental adversary. Throughout its sixteen-year history, 43 ‘unique’ clubs (this number does not account for ‘new’ franchises that materialised as a result of a merger, re-location, or phoenix movement), competed in the NASL. By comparison, the MLS has enrolled a total of 30 clubs since its arrival in 1993, despite having already outlasted its premier division counterpart by over a decade. Therefore, the percentage of Canadian outfits who were part of the NASL’s cumulative membership body (21%), is perhaps a little closer to the equivalent MLS figure (10%), than one would initially perceive.

Moreover, the triumvirate of Vancouver Whitecaps, CF Montréal, and Toronto FC have arguably done more for Canada’s continental (and international) reputation than the NASL ennead that forged the original pathway south. The dynamics of modern football have of course helped these three sides further the Canadian cause; unprecedented television coverage, accessibility through social media, and the glamour of a pan-continental club tournament have conspired to add considerable impetus to their efforts. However, Canada’s MLS contingent still had to capitalise on these favourable developments—success is never guaranteed regardless of the circumstances, particularly in a sporting context. 

So, have these three outfits made a positive impact within the context of the North American game? And what about teams who ply their trade within Canadian borders? Have their exploits—whether those be undertaken on domestic or foreign soil—served to enhance the footballing reputation of the country they represent? 

Answers to these questions and more in the next chapter of this continuing five-part series. 

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.