The Downward Spiral of the CSL: A Brief History

The Canadian Soccer League (CSL), once Canada’s official professional league, has faced many difficulties and challenges in the past few years. With that said, it survived the introduction of League1 Ontario into the Canadian soccer ecosystem, but can it do the same with the introduction of the Canadian Premier League (CPL)?

The CSL was first formed in 1926, under the National Soccer League (NSL) name. Since then it went through several name changes, which each iteration brought alterations to the league structure and organization.

From 1987 to 1992 the CSL operated nationwide, with two divisions in an Ontario based “Eastern Division”, and a “Western Division” for West Canada provinces. The league held much of the same ideals that the newly proposed CPL has planned, and while it did find success in the beginning; the league ultimately folded to later restructure as an Ontario-only league due to financial constraint.

Cary Kaplan became the first commissioner of the Ontario-only CSL and brought the league many positives. During his tenure he was able to accomplish the affiliation with Toronto FC and Montreal Impact, establishment of a Reserve Division, establishment of a television deal with Rogers TV, and the official recognition and approval from the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).

From 2006 to 2012 the league was the best and closest thing Canada had to a national professional soccer scene. Almost every soccer fan in the country took at least some interest in the league, despite a few of its obvious faults. These included the ever popular argument against having an “International Division” for ethnic teams, which proved to be a hard sell for anyone who wasn’t part of that ethnic community.

Kaplan stepped down from his position after the 2009 CSL Championship Game. He was replaced by Domenic Di Geronimo for a brief season. Di Geronimo brought in several new franchises in Miltown FC, Hamilton Croatia, and Brantford Galaxy. In addition, he also eyed to correct some glaring issues found within the league. These included an advancement on the matchday grounds, better media relations along with improvements in general professionalism standards for the league and clubs.

Like Kaplan, Di Geronimo resigned from his position after the 2010 CSL Championship Game, citing irreconcilable differences. The league simply refused to move forward. Vincent Ursini was brought in as the latest and current commissioner. The expectation for his job was not to evolve the league, rather only keep the CSL’s current operations healthy and remain on the same business path. It was then that the teams Di Geronimo brought in had left along with Capital City FC.

In 2013, the league was hit hard by losing its official sanctioning from the CSA. This came as a direct result of the controversy surrounding the league on match-fixing. Several reports from the CBC about a match-fixing scandal brewing in the CSL by underground European organizations was enough to have the CSA rethink their stance on the CSL.

With sanctioning now lost, the CSL had no choice but to operate as a private league, drawing similarities to the likes of the NHL- a professional sports league that answers to no governing body (the IIHF absolutely still loath the idea of an NHL-run World Cup of Hockey). While this was fine and the only choice the league had in order to continue its operations, this was nonetheless a major PR nightmare.

New expansion teams were hesitant on joining the CSA labeled “rogue” league, and some of those already part of the league begun to look for greener pastures elsewhere. Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Windsor Stars moved the newly launched League1 Ontario project, while St. Catharines Wolves and Mississauga Eagles FC completely ceased operations. A season afterwards the North York Astros, Niagara United, SC Waterloo Region, Toronto Croatia, SC Toronto, Brampton United, and Kingston FC pulled out as well.

Losing major teams in the league was a difficult bullet to bite but the CSL continued to look toward a positive future. Replacement clubs in Milton FC, Burlington FC, FC Ukraine United, Hamilton City, Toronto Atomic FC, and Scarborough SC were brought in.

While no longer having their games shown live on Rogers TV, the CSL instead relied on Alex Bastyovanszky for media coverage to host a half hour weekly special, “CSL Primetime” shown on subscription channel beIN Sport.

In addition to teams, both referees and players were warned off by the CSA and local governing body Ontario Soccer Association (OSA). If they were caught taking part in the league they would face penalties that would stop them from participating in official sanctioned events.

While a stern warning, they have been nothing but empty threats up to this point, with the league still yet to face a referee or player shortage. Nowadays, you can actually see players playing on CSL rosters while also in the same season taking part in OSA sanctioned teams/tournaments on the side.

Regardless to say, the future of the league doesn’t look very promising. With the looming eventual announcement of the CPL in the new year, the CSL will no longer have an edge over League1 in Ontario and could face further team departures. So far for the 2017 season only one new expansion team is known, FC Vorkuta, and even that is yet to be officially confirmed.

Looking back, the CSL has brought a lot to Canadian soccer. It helped strengthen the excitement of the local soccer scene during a time when the hype was all around Toronto FC albeit the MLS announced the franchise club back in 2006. In addition, it helped provide a soccer platform for players like TFC’s Jonathan Osorio and Clint Irwin to make a name for themselves.

Most importantly, the CSL showed the potential that a fully modern professional league could prosper in Ontario. Capital City FC and Kingston FC were two completely shining examples, being the most professional organized clubs in the current CSL’s history.

The upcoming arrival of the CPL will see to the CSL losing out on its current viewership and that may just be the league’s ultimate demise.

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Pat Nowak


Pat Nowak

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