Are more bubble tournaments the short term solution for the Canadian Premier League and Canadian Championship?
Saturday marks four weeks since Forge FC defeated HFX Wanderers 2-0 at The Island Games tournament on Prince Edward Island to claim back to back Canadian Premier League championships.
The tournament was deemed to be a resounding success from players, coaches, supporters, and media alike. Far from being the sophomore season the CPL would have dreamt of, it was perhaps the best scenario the league could have pulled off this year all things considered.
It wasn’t perfect. Teams having between seven and 11 games as their entire season was not ideal for anyone, but as a spectacle it was enjoyable, entertaining, and painted the league in a very good light.
But as soon as the tournament finished the immediate question was what’s next?
What’s next for the players? Do they go back to train in their home markets, do they go out on loan, do they sit and twiddle their thumbs for a few months, hitting many hard in key developmental years? That’s something we’ll look at in another article.
What’s next for the Canadian Championship final between champs Forge and Toronto FC? Where and when will that now get played? What will that competition format look like next year?
And perhaps the biggest question of all, just what is next for the league itself?
The 2022 CPL season is not set to begin until April. That will be six to seven months after the 2021 season ended. What the individual provinces, the country as a whole, and indeed the entire world will look like by then, never mind just in terms of the footballing landscape, is anybody’s guess.
Another bubble tournament, maybe two, could be what the CPL season looks like once again. But the success of The Island Games does throw up some other tantalizing possibilities for the league. Could the CPL get all their teams together in one location for a preseason or even a midseason tournament or cup competition, the former of which could even involve the three Canadian MLS sides if travel restrictions are still in play.
CPL Commissioner David Clanachan is certainly open to that, and any other suggestions right now, especially if they help the bridge the gap till the next competitive action is currently scheduled.
“It’s a great idea because one of the things I worry about is how do you deal with these six months inbetween us starting to play again?” CPL Commissioner David Clanachan mused on a recent media conference call. “That’s if we’re able to start playing in April. We saw a little bit of this when we were down in the Dominican Republic the first year for preseason training. That was interesting and this [The Island Games tournament] was an even better build on that.
“We might be able to pull something like that off. We’d have to start thinking about it and pull together a project plan, but it’s a good idea because it’s one thing to train and it’s another thing to actually have game time for the players. So you never know. I never say no to anything. I think it would be very interesting, and certainly there’s a break in some seasons right around the beginning of the year as well, so they may be opportunities there.”
Much like the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, The Island Games benefitted hugely from the games coming thick and fast. 35 matches were played over a 38 day period, with 24 gamedays. It was intense. Great for the viewer, in this modern world where everyone enjoys binge-watching, not so much for the players who became walking boxsets.
There’s no doubting the buzz the tournament provided. Forge FC were eventually crowned champions and their head coach Bobby Smyrniotis certainly wouldn’t be against similar tournaments in the future, but cautioned about the toll they have on the players and coaching staff.
“For the outside, for the viewers, for all of you [media], I think it’s fantastic,” Smyrniotis told us. “We saw some quality football, we’ve been able to see games constantly, and I think that’s brought the awareness of the league up. On the flip side, it’s a very hard and tough event on everyone involved – from the players, the coaches, and just the turnaround in the games.
“Is there a place for a tournament like this in a smaller format, maybe to kick off a season or to do it preseason? I think that would be something interesting, with a few more days between games, something like MLS did. For the fans and what it did to grow our league, I think it’s been fantastic. All the players in this event have to be commended for what they’ve put in mentally, emotionally, physically into playing these games and competing.”
The demand on the players is also a concern for Cavalry FC head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr, but so is the potential overfamiliarity and the dulling of the spectacle that comes from playing teams too often and too frequently.
What would be more appealing to Wheeldon would be to use such a tournament as a creative way to play next year’s Canadian Championship, potentially involving more sides in actual Voyageurs Cup matches as opposed to the best CPL v best MLS scenario that played out to decide this year’s Voyageurs Cup.
“It depends,” was the guarded opinion of Wheeldon Jr on whether another tournament like The Island Games would be a good thing. “After last year, with playing teams five times and we played Forge nine times, you don’t want to see each other until the next fixture. So while we’ve only played each other once, maybe twice, we’re excited to do that. When you play each other four times, well. But we’ve got to look at travel restrictions. What that consists of.
“Potentially there’s room for a creative Canadian Championship that can bring in the PL1Q, the League 1 Ontario, the USL 1 and 2 teams, the Canadian teams. Along with the CPL and MLS. That’s a Canadian Soccer Association plan. Maybe there’s something you could do with that. We could make this really exciting. I think that’s what Canada is. We’re very creative and entrepreneurial, so let’s use this as a platform to solve the future problems.”
Such a creative way to play next year’s Canadian Championship would also be supported by Pacific FC head coach Pa Modou Kah. The competition holds a special place in the heart of Kah after lifting the Voyageurs Cup with Vancouver Whitecaps in 2015.
When it comes to the regular CPL season though, Kah is not as big a fan and would love nothing more than for some fans to be able to watch his team in their home market, a pleasure the Pacific coach was not able to see happen in his first year in charge of the club.
“Absolutely, I think it’s a great idea regarding the Can Cup,” Kah told us. “When it comes to the regular season, we want to see where we are at that stage with life. We don’t know where the Covid is going. For the CPL, the brand is growing, which is the thing that you want. The brand is growing because the quality on the pitch is growing and that’s the only way that you can drive a league forward.
“The players have been fantastic, the people behind the league office have been fantastic to push the product. For us to gain that traction is very important, but also we have to see where we are with the Covid, but to have something like this for next year regarding the Can Cup, I think it’s great because you’d have three MLS teams, which we can also take a lesson from in how they do things, how they are, professionalism and all of that stuff. Their mannerisms off and on the field. That would be a great learning for the clubs and for the CPL players.
“But if you ask me, there’s nothing nicer than if you can travel and you can play at home, in front of the home fans, the away fans and they can come and watch the games because that is also what we need to drive this league forward. In your home market where you can go and you can watch games and you can bring people to the stadiums and give them the fan experience where they can interact with the players as well, because when you stay in a bubble, trust me. It’s nice, it’s good, but also you want that space where you can be away from each other because it’s healthy.”