Checking in with the Commissioner From Open Trials

It’s the natural consequence that comes with any new enterprise, and so from that respect the Canadian Premier League is no different.

Everything the CPL is doing right now – including the two-day open trials here in Winnipeg at Investors Group Field on Thursday and Friday – feels fresh, new and historic.

After all, this league is still in the process of pouring the concrete for what it hopes will be a lasting and critically important domestic league for this country with seven franchises, including Valour FC, dotting the great white north from coast to coast.

That’s why when CPL Commissioner David Clanachan spoke on Friday about the league and the impact it is having already, some six-seven months from real games being played, it’s virtually impossible for him not to think big picture while still contemplating all the little details.

The open trials have drawn capacity numbers in four of the five stops so far. That’s undoubtedly a solid start. But here’s a cool little tale Clanachan told Friday that speaks of the CPL’s possibilities, both nationally and globally.

It turns out that when Canada’s Men’s National Team beat Dominica 5-0 in Toronto in a Concacaf Nations League Qualifier earlier this week, there was a player in a Dominican uniform who might have looked familiar to CPL coaches. Yes, in the days before the game, Dominican forward Julian Wade had attended the York 9 open trials.

“You see with the national team that things are already changing under John Herdman,” said Clanachan. “The team is climbing the ranks again. We’re going to claim the place we used to when we last qualified for the World Cup (1986). We’ll be back there. There’s no doubt in my mind. But one of the starting strikers for Dominica (Wade) was at our trials in York wanting to play in the CPL. That is a big, huge checkmark for a lot of reasons. One, who wouldn’t want to live in this country? And then to actually be able to play a professional sport in this country? It’s a great place to be.

“As a soccer-playing nation we need, to be respected globally in this game, to have a professional domestic league. And that’s what we’re building here.”

Here’s more of Clanachan’s chat from Friday in an abridged Q&A…


Q: What’s most impressed you to date about the open trials across the country:

David Clanachan: I can speak generally about the trials, but I’m most impressed and the coaches are pleasantly surprised — in a good way — about the level of talent and the opportunity to invite players to their training camps.

The other thing that I’m more impressed with is the level of recognition of the young talent that’s out there. I’m going to call them the future stars of this country. We’re seeing a lot of that. That tells me there are a lot of young people out there who are not on anyone’s radar, and even people in their 20s who are not on anyone’s radar.

These young men now see a light at the end of the tunnel. I think the torch burns brighter now because of the CPL. I really believe that. We’re going to accomplish what we set out to do and that is create that bridge to a professional career. And who knows where it takes them after that?

Q: The coaches in this league have a lot of contacts in the game and very likely could fill their rosters right now. Why was it important for the league to take on this open trials concept and open the doors to everyone?

DC: Everyone thinks we know who the best talent is. We’ve got video and stats on a thousand Canadians that are playing and plying their trade across the globe, not just in North America, but overseas, too.

But there’s always talent that never quite surfaces… I always say there’s a 10 or 12-year old out there who is the Sidney Crosby of soccer. We don’t know who they are right now and shame on us if we don’t find them. This is a great way to introduce the game across the country. Our coaches have been phenomenal, they are 100 percent all in and I can’t thank them enough for the level of detail they’ve put into this. That’s also been good for the cities we’re going to.

Day 1 of the #GotGame Open Trials in Winnipeg. Picture: David Lipnowski
Day 1 of the #GotGame Open Trials in Winnipeg.
Picture: David Lipnowski

Q: Let’s talk about that… how have the different trials helped build the brand in each market?

DC: Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve had an outpouring of support. It starts with the public, goes to the supporters and fans and the media has been fantastic about it. The players attending have been great and there’s been a real building of the Canadian Premier League brand.

We want to build this brand and build this game at the community level. I’ve been very clear about that. If you want to build something in Canada, you want to build it at the community level.

Q: Obviously you are concentrating on establishing the foundations for the seven current franchises. But how have the open trials and other announcements helped build interest in other markets?

DC: The momentum continues to build. We have 18 different communities and regions that are reaching out to us now about building a Canadian Premier League team in their area. The future is pretty bright that way.

Obviously, you’ve got to go through the vetting and everything else, but it’s great to see the outpouring. In Montreal, we have five different groups that are after us to get a team in that marketplace, whether it be Quebec City or Montreal or Sherbrooke. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done, but as we do this across the country it becomes more real. It’s one thing to be out talking about identities for clubs and be in the markets and announce the league, but when you’re actually out doing something and creating rosters then it becomes tangible.

Day 1 of the #GotGame Open Trials in Winnipeg. Picture: David Lipnowski
Day 1 of the #GotGame Open Trials in Winnipeg.
Picture: David Lipnowski

Q: The news about a U-Sports college draft was announced this week, but how will the league stockpile rosters with an eye on Canadian talent?

DC: We’ve been very quiet about it and I’d like to thank all of Canada for being patient with the process. I’ve talked to some of our cohorts from overseas and they are very interested in understanding how we’re doing this. We’re doing some very interesting things in terms of Canadian content and age… in our manifesto we’ve declared it and we’re going to back up what we say because that’s who we are.

This week we actually started talking about how this all comes together. You build a club on many different levels. I talk about foundational players, these Canadians who have gone away and plied their trade somewhere else. They’ve gone away and played professionally, they’ve earned a living at it and more than likely have been capped for Canada. They’re getting to a point in their career where they are wondering, ‘What do I do next? Do I become a coach? Do I get in the front office of a team? But I also want to pass on my talent and my knowledge in the world of soccer to younger people coming up.’ That’s one of the (player) pools.

We’ve also talked about this idea of Under-23s and how we build a roster with some Under-23s, the future talent, and a tranche of them. And then we’re going to go with an open draft of the thousand Canadians we know are playing professional soccer abroad that we have video on. Then there are the homegrowns.

Invariably, the top questions I get in any market I go to is ‘Will we see some Winnipeg boys (or whatever market he is in) playing on this team?’ That’s important.

And from that has come the draft for U-Sports (players) and that is part of it. Eventually, we will get to drafting internationals as well, but not nearly as many as we have in terms of Canadian content. That’s by design. That’s not by accident. We want that to happen. It’s important for Canada and for the local towns and regions that we’re in.

Q: One more on roster building – will there be a protected list by region? How do you ensure that Winnipeg players play for Valour and Halifax players for the Wanderers and so on?

DC: Not fully protected, but a number of ‘tabbed’ players if you want to call it that. It’s very important for a Winnipeg team to be able to say, ‘We’ve got a number of players and I want to see them on our pitch.’ It’s the same for Halifax, for Pacific out in Vancouver Island. Everyone wants to have that.

It’s kind of out there, but what we’re not going to do is go out and sign a bunch of internationals. It’s great to bring in talent. I’m not knocking that, but we don’t want to be bringing in people who have zero connection to the community.