Opinion: League1 Canada Must Uphold the ‘Standards’ of ‘Standards-Based’ Soccer
There stood 21 people in a non-descript yellow room, presumably at the club house of Moncton’s local soccer club. At the centre of this huddle is Dino Rossi, President of League1 Canada – the umbrella organization representing Canada’s four third-division soccer leagues – as he presented the organization’s vision for a fifth league located in the Atlantic provinces.
This third tier of Canadian soccer has seen an unprecedented level of growth over the past three years with teams and leagues joining alike.
In 2020, Hamilton United and Pickering FC both joined League1 Ontario while Ottawa South United (now OSU Atletico) and Celtix du Haut-Richelieu joined PLSQ (now Ligue1 Quebec).
The 2021 post-COVID revival of the league saw five new franchises take to the pitch, with Guelph United FC taking home the provincial title in their inaugural season. Simultaneous to L1O’s success saw the launch of a new sister league in beautiful British Columbia with seven teams making up L1BC’s first-ever season.
Then came 2022: March arrives and League1 Canada is announced as the umbrella organization for all the D3 leagues whilst overseeing L1BC’s first-ever kick-off. Then, venerable heavy weights such as Julian De Guzman enter the ring with Simcoe County Rovers, bringing with him even more opportunities for young Canadian talent to flourish and be recognized.
Now, I am sure that if you asked the minds behind L1Q and L1O back in 2014, they would not and could not be able to predict the growth their league’s have seen in recent years, let alone the popularity they have garnered or the careers their former players have gone on to have.
What makes League1 so special – setting it apart from other mens’ amateurs and youth competitions like OPDL or the Challenge Cup – is that each of the four League1 Canada leagues maintain a set of standards to which its teams must meet to be granted and maintain their franchise.
These standards include everything from proper changing facilities for the teams, to specific coaching licenses for their bench staff, to digital scoreboards at their home venues. What’s important to note is that these standards are not uniform across the four L1Canada leagues, though there are similarities.
But this is where the biggest issue with third-tier soccer in Canada lies: its lack of uniformity. Not just in the fact that all the different leagues have different benchmarks, but that the quality in presentation across the 53 unique clubs varies drastically from one to the next.
Any group is only as strong as their weakest link, and in League1Canada, there is a great expanse between the most professional-looking teams and some of their competitors whose matches remind me of the U-17 rep games I used to referee back in the GTA.
The people behind these leagues and these teams have worked tirelessly to up the stature of soccer in Canada. All their efforts have been to seemingly create L1 soccer’s equivalent to the Canadian Hockey League: a major-junior (read: semi-pro) stepping-stone for players seeking to make it to ‘The Show’, generally with teams in smaller markets.
But you know what all CHL teams have? A functioning website and ticketing system. They also all have stadiums with PA systems, scoreboards, and merchandise.
I can name to you right now five teams in League1 Canada who don’t even have a regularly-update social media page, something even a first-year marketing student would tell you is necessary for a brand’s success.
And yes, the CHL has had a 47-year head start on L1C, but would it not be beneficial for both the growth of the game, and the general image of semi-pro soccer in Canada, to make sure teams are at least attempting to portray themselves as serious ventures worth committing to?
There is a present-day uproar about the Arizona Coyotes of the National Hockey League playing their professional hockey games in a college arena with a capacity smaller than the TSS Rovers’ Swangard Stadium. This is because, over the NHL’s storied history, fans and investors have come to expect a certain level of rectitude and competence from teams at that level.
If we care about making soccer the best it can be in our country, should there not be the same uproar when League1 Canada teams fail to maintain an adherence to even the most basic tenants of operating a (semi-) pro sports franchise?
I would argue that we should be disappointed in these clubs, but that we need to also help them live up to what they can be. Yes, each of the clubs have different goals when they enter League1, but that does not mean they cannot make it an enjoyable experience for their fans while also giving their players even just a taste of the spotlight and what it means to play pro.
A renewal of League1 Canada’s standards – namely towards professionalism and presentation – would need to begin with its executive determining what they are expecting from their clubs.
Do they wish to see a league full of Electric City FCs, in touch with their community, a strong online presence, supporters groups, and a vision for growth? Or, do they hope to be more attractive to youth clubs by giving them an outlet for their adult players like Unionville Milliken SC?
Next would be to decide whether these renewed standards apply only to new teams entering the L1Can system, thus grandfathering the 53 existing squads, or whether all clubs old and new will need to up their game.
Yes, this will require more investment from club owners – and there may be an argument in getting the CSA or the League1 Canada owners Canada Soccer Business to invest more to help cover the costs – but I would argue that these owners knew what they were getting into when they applied for their L1 club operating license.
They knew that there would expectations for them to uphold a minimum level of play and professionalism. And that bar has moved since 2014, so should we not expect the clubs to move with it.
I would argue that, to provide the players an equal experience across all teams, we need to hold all clubs to account. We need to realize that for these teams to succeed, the product off of the field is just as important as the product on it.
League1 Canada is not even close to done expanding, and the proposed League1 Atlantic is a prime example of this. If we are to convince clubs to put in tens-of-thousands of dollars to field a team, we need to show them that its a worthwhile investment by presenting case studies of the other 53 existing teams. If we want to show corporate sponsors that people will pay attention to this league, and thus their brand, we must prove to them that this isn’t just any other amateur league, this is Canada’s premier D3 soccer league.
L1Atlantic, L1Alberta, the rumoured L1Prairies, and L1Ontario’s 2024 plan will all see new clubs and new people wanting a piece of the semi-pro soccer pie, and we should be welcoming to any and all! But, we must make sure they know what they are getting into and what is expected of them.
And if any club is not carrying their weight, perhaps we should reconsider their license.
As you can probably tell, I am extremely passionate about the third-tier of Canada’s soccer pyramid. Ever since working in the league back in 2021, I became enamoured with the stories, the brands, the teams, the players, the games, the signings, everything. It was a fun side project I was working on that made me look into and eventually become a League1 Canada Correspondent for this very news site.
It is such a fun level for both fans and players alike. If you have the honour of playing for a team like Electric City, TSS Rovers, or AS Blainville, you know you’ll be getting a taste of what the life of a pro footballer is like with the pro atmospheres, adoring fans, and quality facilities.
If you get signed to a club like Vaughan Azurri or FC Laval or Nautsa’mawt FC, you know you are joining a club with a history of winning big games or connecting you to a higher profile.
If you buy season tickets to Altitude FC, the Simcoe County Rovers, or Victoria Highlanders, you know that you will be literally feet away from the next Canadian superstars as they rise up through the pyramid. You get to shake their hands, chant their names, get their autographs, all for a fraction of the cost of an MLS ticket.
There are so many fantastic reasons to get involved with League1 Canada as a fan, a player, a ref, a coach, or an investor alike, and we have the tools in our hands to make this group of organizations just as good as any other semi-pro sports league in North America.
We just need to make sure we practice what we preach. If these teams are going to call themselves semi-pro, we need to update what it means to achieve that title and make sure that all current and future clubs start living up to it.