Canada ponders women’s pro league partnership with U.S. Soccer

By David Rowaan, special contributor to Soccer Wire

Women’s soccer has reached a crossroads in Canada, as the Canadian Soccer Association looks to take advantage of the momentum created by the nation’s bronze metal win at the London Olympics and build towards hosting the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

For Canada to take that next step, they need to find a stable playing environment for their players. When Women’s Professional Soccer folded earlier this year it left many key members of the Canadian national team without a club heading towards the Olympics. Coach John Herdman was able to deal with that via a residency camp in Vancouver and a series of friendlies, but that is not a long-term solution. So the CSA now looks set to take a more active role in the potential creation of a new women’s league.

This league remains in the discussion stages, as interested parties met at Major League Soccer’s New York City headquarters on Monday to explore options, with a spring 2013 kickoff still a possibility. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati subsequently confirmed in a media call that the CSA was one of the parties involved, and that part of the talks for a new league included exploring the option of having one or more teams based in Canada.  With the federations having worked together successfully on Major League Soccer’s north-of-the-border expansion, it seems that this new women’s league may depend on doing the same.

The question is, why would the CSA want to get on board, having seen the last two attempts to set up a professional league in the U.S. fail? No women’s pro league in North America has managed to find a viable financial model yet.

The CSA will certainly be hoping they can find a way to do things differently this time around, which could mean exploring more of a semi-professional format to balance costs. The key for the CSA is a league where their leading talents can get consistent playing time, and hopefully make a living.

If the league is indeed looking at one or two locations in Canada as Gulati hinted, it will be interesting to see where they have in mind. On the surface of things, the leading candidates would be the three cities that already have MLS teams and ownership groups that could take on a women’s side.

The problem with that plan is that both Toronto and Vancouver’s ownership groups have expressed that they are not interested in operating a professional women’s side, because of the difficulty of sustaining a team. Vancouver does have a successful W-League team, though, and has done as much as any other city in Canada to support women’s soccer, including good attendance numbers during the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament last spring.

Other venue options for teams in this new league lie among the cities that will be hosting World Cup games in 2015. That list includes Vancouver and Montreal, but also Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Moncton, a small city located in New Brunswick. Edmonton and Montreal both support professional men’s teams – FC Edmonton of the second-tier North American Soccer League and the Montreal Impact, who joined MLS this year – but have faced some issues with generating large attendance numbers on a regular basis. Moncton, for its part, does well with hosting one-off sporting events but has no history of supporting a professional sports team.

Ottawa, though, is another city that boasts a very successful W-League program and has a history of getting behind the women’s game at the developmental level. The city is rebuilding its Lansdowne Park stadium in order to host 2015 WWC matches as well as a new NASL team set to debut in 2014.

If there are two cities in Canada with the deepest ties to women’s soccer, they would seem to be Vancouver and Ottawa. Vancouver looks like the best choice, with a venue and existing team already in place, though the Whitecaps’ aversion to the costs and commitments of a fully professional women’s program may prove problematic. Ottawa will not have their new stadium available until 2014, meaning that questions about that city’s suitability may not be answered for some time.

David Rowaan is a freelance sportswriter whose work has appeared on www.sportsnet.ca and leading Toronto FC blog Waking the Red. He lives in Southern Ontario.