Canadian Premier League: How do you start a brand new professional league?

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Map showing location of Canadian Premier League clubs
One of the Canadian Premier League's fixtures between Pacific FC and HFX Wanderers will be the third longest away trip in football

Canada will co-host the World Cup in seven years' time. But it did not have a professional football league. Until now.

Seven teams from across this vast country - the world's second biggest in terms of area - are preparing to compete in the inaugural Canadian Premier League (CPL).

This ice hockey-mad nation has seven professional teams in the NHL, one baseball team in the MLB, and one basketball franchise in the NBA. There they compete with their American neighbours, as do Canada's three Major League Soccer teams - Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact.

But the CPL - with the tagline 'For Canadians, by Canadians' - is different.

The idea is for teams to tap deep into their local communities and help develop home-grown talent for when the World Cup comes to town.

"People here have been starved of the game," says former Canada international Jim Brennan.

"Now they have an opportunity to cheer on their own home teams and fall in love with the sport in Canada."

Brennan is manager and part-owner of York 9 - a new team in the north of Toronto, an area with a population of 1.3 million and where he grew up.

His side will feature in the league's first match - against Forge FC of Hamilton on 27 April. It is billed as the 905 Derby - a reference to the area code shared by the two teams.

"We are part of history," says Brennan, 41. "I get to build a squad from scratch, a blank canvas. That never really happens. It is pretty cool building a new club in your own backyard.

"We want fans from the York region to create a culture, to get local fans to come out and support local football.

"We are not worried about the MLS. People are already starting to gravitate towards York 9 FC and the CPL."

You may not think of Canada as a particularly proud football nation - their men's team are ranked 78th in the world and have qualified for the World Cup just once, in 1986.

But their women's team are fifth in the rankings, and reached the quarter-finals at the World Cup they hosted four years ago.

And you may have heard of 18-year-old winger Alphonso Davies, who in July joined Bayern Munich from the Vancouver Whitecaps for $13m (£9.84m) - an MLS record at the time.

Ballou Tabla is another of the nation's bright young things - the 19-year-old winger plays for Barcelona's reserves.

They have followed Canada internationals such as Junior Hoilett - playing in the Premier League for Cardiff City - and Rangers' Scott Arfield to Europe.

David Clanachan, the CPL's first commissioner, believes "the game is on fire" in the country.

"The appetite for the game has grown exponentially," he says.

"One reason is the growth in broadcast - more people are watching on TV or streaming. But also the advent of EA Sports and their Fifa games has helped the game reach new levels, across all different ages.

"Growth is very equal from a gender perspective and football is the fastest-growing sport among new immigrants too. People who come to the country may not know basketball, hockey or NFL, but they know football.

"The three MLS franchises have done a phenomenal job in bringing the game to the next level and teaching Canadians what the game could be like, but they are still seen as teams that operate in the American league.

"With no plans to expand, the MLS teams are not about Canadian players. They are not seen as being representative of Canadian football."

The CPL will have a traditional league structure - with teams playing each other home and away over a season that runs from late April to October. Unusually for North American sport, there will be no play-offs.

Six teams have been created from scratch to join FC Edmonton, who were 're-founded' in 2018 - a year after pulling their professional team.

The project is not without its challenges. And then there is the geography.

Pacific FC - based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia - are 4,476km (2,781 miles) from the home of HFX Wanderers FC in Nova Scotia.

That makes for the third longest domestic away trip in football. It would be quicker to fly from London to Toronto.

"If you really want a national league it has to be coast to coast," says Clanachan. "We cannot shy away from it.

"People want a local team to get behind, and that is part of a higher purpose: how do we develop the game, the soccer economy?

"We are building an industry that has not existed here. We are building a movement. It's a different way of building a sport through the community from the ground up."

By April, more than 140 players will have been recruited across the seven teams, and the league has implemented strict rules designed to benefit the national side.

Squads must have between 20 and 23 players, with only seven foreign nationals allowed in each. Six Canadians must be in each team's starting XI.

A minimum of three domestic players in each squad must be under 21, and those players must play a minimum of 1,000 combined minutes a season.

"The team owners were clear - this had to be about developing Canadians," says Clanachan. "We put very serious handcuffs on what rosters could look like.

"This is all about giving the young people a great chance, where they can see a light at the end of the tunnel and something to aspire to."

Marcus Haber is one of the older generation returning home.

The 30-year-old has signed for Pacific FC, in his home province, after a long stint in the UK that included spells at Dundee and Crewe Alexandra. He started his career in Canada in what seems a totally different age.

"This was a good opportunity for me to be part of a new club and a new league," he says. "There is a lot of hype around it.

"It was an exciting opportunity - to come back home and be part of something I think will grow to be big, not just in Canada but worldwide."

Haber spent part of his youth career in the Netherlands with Groningen, before returning home to sign his first professional contact with Vancouver Whitecaps. After joining West Bromwich Albion in 2010, he spent the best part of a decade in the UK.

"When I was looking to transition into the professional game, there weren't that many opportunities," he says. "I was forced to look abroad. Now there is a proper professional environment here.

"There has always been the interest, but there has never before been the platform for fans, communities and players to have something to look forward to. Now we have that we will see how serious this country is."

Brennan has a similar story.

He was 17 when he left Toronto to joining Bristol City. A defender, he was signed by Nottingham Forest for £1.5m in 1999 - the first Canadian to be sold for more than £1m. He also had spells at Norwich and Southampton, before becoming the first player and captain of Toronto FC in their inaugural MLS season in 2007.

He won 49 caps and helped Canada win the Concacaf Gold Cup for the first time in 2000.

"There was nothing when I was younger," he says. "A lot of good players that could have been professional didn't have the opportunity. I was fortunate to come to the UK and play. But a lot of young Canadians saw their dreams end early as there was nowhere to go.

"This league can give them opportunities and fulfil their dreams. Hopefully we create a bigger pool for the national team where we get to a World Cup and put on a good show."

A ball is yet to be kicked, of course. But Clanachan is already thinking about expansion - he says the league is in talks with 18 other clubs, regions and towns about signing up new teams.

Such progress was never guaranteed.

Clanachan says some "mad science" has helped get the ambitious project off the ground. Chemistry between two people, in particular - Victor Montagliani and Scott Mitchell.

Montagliani is president of Concacaf - the governing body for football in Central and North American - while Mitchell is a businessman involved in the Canadian Football League - Canada's version of the NFL.

"Montagliani was head of the Canadian Soccer Association, and part of their strategic plan was to create a Premier League for the country," Clanachan says. "The other was to bring the World Cup to North America, which they have done.

"He approached Mitchell and asked him to do something with soccer. Mitchell replied: 'It seems like an awful big hill to climb.' He gave Victor 20 reasons why it shouldn't be done. Victor's response was: 'Now tell me how you could do it.'

"Here we are, a little over four years later, ready to start the inaugural season. It is eagerly anticipated."

Football finally seems to be coming of age in the land of the maple leaf.

And in seven years' time comes a landmark moment by which to judge its success - Canada's performance at the 2026 World Cup.

"By the time the tournament gets here, we could be in a position to have a second division," says Clanachan. "We are working through a promotion and relegation model.

"One of the biggest milestones we hope to see before then is: do we have kids playing in the CPL going on to join clubs in the Premier League, La Liga or Bundesliga?

"And there is also a hope to have Canadian Premier League players representing the country, maybe even at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar."

Forge FC will host York 9 FC, managed by Jim Brennan (far right) in the first ever Canadian Premier League game
Forge FC will host York 9 FC, managed by Jim Brennan (far right) in the first Canadian Premier League game
Away trip in CPL
Pacific FC is located in British Columbia, while HFX Wanderers is in Nova Scotia, almost 5,000km apart
The CPL's founding clubs are HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax), York9 FC (York Region), Forge FC (Hamilton), Valour FC (Winnipeg), Cavalry FC (Calgary), FC Edmonton and Pacific FC (Vancouver Island)
The CPL's founding clubs are HFX Wanderers FC (Halifax), York9 FC (York Region), Forge FC (Hamilton), Valour FC (Winnipeg), Cavalry FC (Calgary), FC Edmonton and Pacific FC (Vancouver Island)
The league's first game on 27 April will be at Forge FC's 10,000-seater Tim Hortons Field stadium in Hamilton, Ontario
The league's first game on 27 April will be at Forge FC's 10,000-seater Tim Hortons Field stadium in Hamilton, Ontario
York 9's stadium is just a 25-minute car journey from MLS side Toronto FC
York 9's stadium is just a 25-minute car journey from MLS side Toronto FC
HFX Wanderers' stadium is in Halifax, Nova Scotia
HFX Wanderers' picturesque stadium is in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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