League1 Ontario: Expectations Vs Reality

After scandal arose in the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) in 2013, local soccer advocates called for the creation of an alternative provincial league – enter League1 Ontario.

To get a good feel for the creation process and logic behind L1O, we need to go back to 2010.

Milltown FC, a brand new debutant in the CSL made a strong name for themselves in the regular season, finishing in 4th place with 43 points with a 9 game undefeated streak to boot. They would afterwards see their CSL playoff campaign cut short in the 2nd leg of the quarter-finals in the CSL playoffs to Portugal FC.

For a brand new club, Milltown exceeded expectations and became a team to keep an eye out for the next year for many. Milltown’s president, Dino Rossi’s mission to bring professional soccer to the town of Milton, Ontario was a resounding success. The club had built a strong foundation, both on and off the pitch with impressive attendance numbers. Now all that was left was to build on all of that for future successes.

Unfortunately, that never became a realization. During a pre-season league wide meeting Rossi and several other club owners became dissatisfied with the CSL’s vision for the 2011 season and onward. This resulted with Rossi’s Milltown FC, among others, opting out of the league due to disagreement over membership terms and conditions.

Unhappy with the direction the CSL was going, Rossi started talk amongst local Ontario soccer groups advocating a potential successor league. The idea was that it would one day take the CSL’s place in the Ontario soccer pyramid and fix exactly what was wrong with the current system.

While an interesting idea, that was all it was in 2011. A crazy idea that only a select few truly believed in could overtake such a prominent force that was the CSL.

After seeing no one step up to the plate, Rossi took it upon himself to spearhead the league from an idea on paper and properly execute it into fruition. In 2012 he drafted the plans and looked for further support from the Ontario soccer community, as the idea needed to gain momentum in order for the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) to take it seriously.

The L1O was originally pitched as a provincial league that would provide high level professional soccer, but with a far greater emphasis on Canadian talent. The league would also feature a professional standard of media outreach for fans and constant video coverage. Requirements for clubs who wished to request membership was to pay a registration fee, show proof of the club being financially stable for at least 5 years, and to feature a modern website. Seeing these requirements encouraged Ontario soccer fans, who knew that teams joining the league would have to be financially stable and have a modern professional website – something that left a lot to be desired by many clubs within the CSL.

Practically the notion was that whatever the CSL did wrong, fans could expect to see it done right in L1O. This alone started getting more people on-board with the idea and the OSA started to take notice.

By happy chance, a match-fixing scandal arose within the CSL to which alerted the Canadian Soccer Association’s (CSA) attention. It started to look like the CSL would lose their sanctioning and as a result several clubs would need to look elsewhere to play. The need for a new provincial league suddenly became an urgent fulfillment. This was the perfect opportune time to bring L1O from concept to reality.

Rossi’s proposed L1O draft soon became well liked by the OSA and it made complete sense to follow through on it. However, a prerequisite made by the OSA was that the L1O would have to work alongside the OSA’s newly formed Ontario Player Development League (OPDL) elite youth system.

After several court hearings, the CSL officially lost out on its sanctioning in 2013, which saw top teams like Toronto FC and Windsor Stars on the lookout for a new home. As it would have it, the L1O was right there waiting with open arms. To make up the numbers, L1O accepted mainly existing local academy teams with plans for full fledged franchises to arise afterwards – a plan that never quite eventually panned out. At least not for the first year.

In 2014 the OSA revealed the plans that the inaugural L1O season would feature 10 founding clubs: ANB Futbol, Durham Power FC, Internacional de Toronto, Kingston Cataraqui Clippers, Masters FA, Sigma FC, Toronto FC Academy, Academy Vaughan Azzurri, Windsor Stars and Woodbridge Strikers. Out of the 10, only 2 were not academies: Internacional de Toronto and Windsor Stars.

L1O’s first inaugural season kicked off on May 31st, 2014 with a 1:1 draw between Toronto FC Academy and Vaughan Azzurri. The opening game was fairly entertaining and the general reception was positive. Things seemed to be running smoothly.

While most L1O supporters were happy with the final product, a number of those who initially backed the project found themselves slightly disappointed. Most of Dino Rossi’s promises on L1O went undelivered, some of these which later were attributed to a rushed deadline.

The league at first prided itself on becoming the CSL’s successor, a proper provincial professional soccer league. Instead, fans only received a semi-professional development league, the soccer equivalent to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Clubs had a limit on how many players over the age of 23 they were allowed on the team rosters and this also in turn limited the league’s level of play. As a result, some started to see L1O as a “kids league” and not everyone took it seriously.

Furthermore, not every club had a professional website accessible on opening day, along with video coverage not yet being available for each game. The original idea of fans being able to watch their favourite teams in the comfort of their homes was already out the window.

To add insult to injury, not every club were following the standards set out by L1O. One team in particular, Internacional de Toronto, were participating in the league like it were the CSL. Internacional’s soccer operations were questionable at best; it left many asking themselves how exactly was the league supposed to be a step above the CSL by allowing teams like this in. Eventually the OSA took notice and terminated Internacional’s licensing agreement mid-way through the season.

Fortunately, after a rocky 2014 season, things started to pick up for the upcoming 2015 season. Less academy clubs were joining as expansion teams, both the L1O website and existing club websites received a facelift, more media coverage started to be pushed in and a separate Women’s division was formed. These features would only improve with the 2016 season along with an end of season faceoff with the champion of Quebec’s provincial semi-professional soccer league, the Premiere Ligue Soccer Quebec (PLSQ).

In the end the L1O proved it was willing to admit to their mistakes and continued to learn from them. With that said, It was still ultimately not exactly what most Ontario soccer fans were looking for: a real professional alternative to the CSL. While the L1O never became that, it did become a solid U-23 provincial development league and improved over several key areas where the CSL was at fault.

With the Canadian Premier League (CPL) project now picking up the pieces to where Dino Rossi’s original proposed plan first started, the L1O can continue to grow without the added pressures of trying to become something its not – Canada’s answer to its own professional soccer league.

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Pat Nowak

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Pat Nowak

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