Pro soccer arrives on Island: It’s game on for Pacific FC

Startup sports leagues in North America have generally challenged what is perceived as an arrogant established order and tried to access underserved markets.

Such was the case with the American Football League and World Hockey Association, which made their points before eventually being absorbed respectively by the old guard in the National Football League and National Hockey League.

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Other startup leagues, such as the XFL, did not make anywhere near the same impact and were seen as foolhardy and self-indulgent ventures that were soon gone from the sporting landscape.

Soccer’s Canadian Premier League, which opens this week, is different on the basic point. That makes it unique among startup sports leagues. The CPL is not challenging an old order because none exists. It is filling a void: Canada is the only advanced nation in the world without a domestic professional soccer league.

(Major League Soccer is the U.S. domestic pro league with the Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact and Toronto FC playing as foreign guest clubs.)

For the principals behind Vancouver Island-based Pacific FC, one of seven founding clubs of the CPL, the issue is personal. The Pacific FC co-owners are Josh Simpson of Victoria, the team president; Rob Friend of Kelowna, team CEO and general manager; and Vancouver financier Dean Shillington, Pacific FC chairman and founder and president of Knightsbridge Capital Group.

Simpson and Friend are former players who are fuelled by memories of having to leave home at early ages to pursue their dreams of pro soccer because no such avenues existed in Canada. Both went on to play at high levels in European Premierships — Simpson in Turkey and the BSC Young Boys in Switzerland, and Friend in Germany in the Bundesliga. Both represented Canada in World Cup qualifying and CONCACAF Gold Cup, Simpson 43 times and Friend with 32 caps.

Through it all was the nagging thought of why young Canadian players did not have the same avenues as other players throughout the world.

Simpson and Friend, with the backing of Shillington, became part of the CPL vanguard, a league with one simple stated aim: To develop and nurture professional Canadian soccer talent.

“At 14 or 15, I had no options,” said Simpson, who as a prodigy, quickly outgrew what the Juan de Fuca Soccer Association could provide in the way of development.

“The Whitecaps system and MLS was much less developed than it is today. So I dreamed of playing in Europe. I wanted to leave at 12 but my mom didn’t want that. But I wanted to play pro and there were no other options than Europe.”

When Simpson’s pro playing career ended with a terrible broken leg in a Swiss Premiership game, he set his sights on making an impact in other ways in the game, particularly the Canadian game.

“When the idea of the CPL was first mentioned, I was immediately intrigued by the opportunity to set things right for Canadian soccer,” he said.

It’s why the first season ticket issued in Pacific FC history was done so symbolically to a “14-year-old Island player” who will be a different player of that age selected by Island youth soccer associations to attend each home game. Simpson says the idea was to represent his own 14-year-old self, who had no Canadian options, so headed overseas to pursue his soccer dreams.

The Island, however, has a noted soccer history, although mostly at the amateur level. The Island’s contribution to Canada’s lone World Cup appearance in 1986 was outsized and is the stuff of national soccer lore. Four players from the Island were involved — Ian Bridge, Jamie Lowery, Ken Garraway and George Pakos, the latter the amateur player who on his holiday time from his job with the City of Victoria water department, scored the two crucial goals in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying that propelled Canada into the World Cup.

To build on the momentum in the wake of that historic World Cup breakthrough, Canada’s first truly national pro soccer league was established. The Canadian Soccer League, which included the Victoria Vistas in the 1989 and 1990 seasons, ran from 1987 to 1992 before the economics of paying players and travelling across such a vast nation finally collapsed the league and the dream of Canadian pro soccer with it.

Until the CPL. Until this week, when York 9 from the Greater Toronto Area heads around the horseshoe to play Forge FC in the first game in CPL history Saturday at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton. That will be followed by Pacific FC’s inaugural game next Sunday at an expanded Westhills Stadium against the HFX Wanderers of Halifax.

The York 9 and Forge FC matchup involves only a bus ride, but that will be a rarity in the CPL. The Pacific FC versus Halifax matchup constitutes the third-longest trip in the world between domestic Premiership clubs as again the old Canadian bugaboo of travel rears its head, as it did in the old CSL.

But you can no more compare the 1980s travel in the CSL than you can clothes and music, countered Simpson: “We knew going in that travel was going to be an issue that any truly pan-Canadian pro soccer league has to deal with. Distance is the biggest challenge for all clubs in Canada. We’re running with it. It’s a different time now for travel than it was 30 years ago. That’s why it’s going to be feasible.”

So, key among the league sponsors the CPL has signed is WestJet, along with the likes of Tim Hortons, Volkswagen, Nike for footwear and leading European jersey company Macron for the kit. What the fledgling CPL seems to have done well is lure sponsorships.

Taking the lead in that regard is the eye-popping — at least by Canadian soccer standards — 10 year, $200-million deal with Spanish sports-TV company Mediapro. It includes the rights to produce all CPL and Canadian national team games. Ten of the Mediapro-produced CPL games will be shown live on the full CBC network.

“We will be gate-driven as well as partnership-driven,” said Simpson.

“We need everybody getting behind the league. We are 50 per cent funded by a Spanish TV giant. They see the potential in a sport they know best. There may be some Canadians who can’t understand why a company from Barcelona is doing this. That hasn’t really clicked in yet with Canadians. The content will be high end and unique. What the rest of the world sees is such a great nation as Canada — one of the most desirable places to live in the world — and they can’t fathom that we don’t have a pro league in the most popular sport in the world.

“So when we offer a foundational sponsorship opportunity, to say a Spanish company such as with the TV deal, or German people [regarding the Volkswagen deal], it’s glowing with potential and possibility to them. The rest of the world sees the potential and sees what this can be and are getting in at the grassroots level.”

Sometimes it does take outsiders to see what Canadians can’t.

“In terms of raw numbers, there are three times the number of Canadian football [soccer] players as Danish players,” noted Dane Michael Silberbauer, when he was hired by Pacific FC to be the first head coach in team history.

“And Denmark goes to the World Cup. Why can’t Canada, with 36 million people, to Denmark’s six million?” asked Silberbauer, a former pro, who represented Denmark 25 times, including at Euro 2012.

“We believe we can develop that [Canadian] talent to where Canada not only qualifies for the World Cup but can compete in the World Cup.”

The CPL is the model for Canadian player development, Simpson believes.

Toward that goal, the league has set up import quotas. There will be a maximum of seven international players allowed per CPL team, which will typically consist of a roster totalling 20 to 23 players. There must be a minimum of six Canadian players on the field at all times. To further hammer home the point, each CPL team must assure a minimum of 1,000 minutes played during the season to at least three Canadian players who are 21 or younger.

“The MLS is too big a jump right away for an aspiring young Canadian pro,” said Simpson.

“So the CPL dream is have pro soccer teams in larger, medium and even small Canadian markets — every little community in Europe has a local pro club.”

It’s the world soccer culture and pipeline. The CPL is looking to import it wholesale ahead of Canada co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with the U.S. and Mexico.

“We want to develop players and then move them on in their careers,” said Simpson.

“It’s what I wanted when I was younger. We will not hold on to players forever. We’re about discovering and developing Canadian players and moving them on to bigger leagues such as Premierships in Europe or the MLS.”

That’s another part of the soccer culture on the business side.

“That’s how we’re going to survive. Transfer fees are very lucrative if you get it right,” said Simpson.

But even with the possibility of developing talent for transfer fees — and the impressive sponsorships the league has lined up — this is a daunting startup, especially by Canadian soccer standards. Sources indicate the operating budget for a CPL team will be in the range of $5 million per season, with more than 50 per cent of that going to player salaries. Nobody has seen anything like that before regarding Canadian soccer clubs outside the three in the MLS.

“This is a business. It is not a charity and is not a non-profit,” said Simpson, bluntly.

“There are heavy startup costs. But we are investing mostly in the players and believing in Canadian players to perform. You are not getting this level of players for free. You have to dig deep into your pockets to get this level of player. Fans will see that in the quality we put on the pitch. There are a lot of questions. But we are in this for the long term and have planned and budgeted for that. I feel very responsible for this club. I’m from the Island. I put my neck out for the Island. I believe this is the place we are going to be successful.”

Pacific FC sees a two-pronged approach to making this work as a business case.

“It requires both attendance at the gate and sponsorships to make it viable,” said Simpson.

“We came to the conclusion this is a sleeping giant and that we have the tools and possibilities of an Iceland. Locally, it is challenging with all the different municipalities we have [in Greater Victoria] to pull off something like this. But we have a municipality like Langford and an Island-wide soccer community that has really rallied to support us.”

Simpson said that nearly 4,000 tickets have been sold for the opening Pacific FC game against the HFX Wanderers and that we are “trending toward a sellout.” He added that more than 1,000 season tickets have been sold: “We are looking for organic growth. We’re definitely on the right track.”

Simpson vowed the expanded-to-6,000-seats Westhills Stadium will be ready for the opening game next Sunday after the rare winter snows on the Island set back the construction timeline by several weeks. The fine finishing details won’t be completed by August but the facility will be ready for soccer.

“The small things might not be polished until August. But it won’t affect the football one bit and we will be game-day ready,” said Simpson.

Once inside, expect to see a scale version of the kind of true soccer atmosphere — largely borrowed from Europe — and also leaned on heavily in the MLS by the Whitecaps, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers.

“The game-day experience will be very special,” said Simpson.

“We’re spending a lot of time choreographing the run of show and have worked closely with Langford on that. It will be a closed-in park like you see in Europe, with the fans as close to the players as they can possibly be. It will be as intimate an experience as you can get in North American sports. We modelled a lot our ideas from the [MLS] Timbers in Portland. The fan experience will be high end with the intimacy of football [soccer] stressed. We want to please the existing soccer fans and convert new fans to becoming soccer fans with a true pro-football experience. There will be beer gardens and the gates will open three hours prior to kickoff. Every game will be a special occasion.”

Pacific FC co-owner and GM Friend also echoed those sentiments when previously describing what he wants to create at Westhills Stadium.

“We are trying to build a soccer culture, and taking the best of European soccer atmosphere, so our venue has to be tight and intimate,” said Friend.

“Soccer is an experience. With the right, tight venue, you can feel the energy created even with 5,000 fans. That creates a synergy between the fans and players.”

He noted that many of the players in the 2018 World Cup came out of those types of stadia: “Belgium and Croatia went far in the World Cup, both with players who all came out of their domestic leagues. They later signed with big-name foreign clubs. But they all began in their own domestic Belgian and Croatian pro leagues, playing in front of 5,000 to 15,000 fans. The same with Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Why can’t we create a professional environment like that? We are the only developed nation without one in soccer.”

The CPL aims to be the vehicle to finally fill that void.

It’s an ambitious gamble. And it’s been nearly overwhelming getting to this point, both on and off the pitch, admit the Pacific FC principals. You could also say that for the league as a whole.

“It’s been a huge learning curve with growing pains,” said Simpson.

“The games are going to be something special. I think we are going to hit this right on the head. I am going to be so excited [next Sunday] when it all starts for us for real.”

It will be the realization of a long-held dream in Canadian soccer.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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