TORONTO — The Canadian Premier League kicks off its fourth season Thursday with soccer in the spotlight in the wake of the men's World Cup qualification.
After two seasons disrupted by the pandemic, the eight-team domestic league has been buoyed by a more normal pre-season — and the hope that it too can ride the soccer wave set by the Canadian men and Olympic champion women.
"It's fantastic for the game and the country," said York United FC head coach Martin Nash, who won 38 caps for Canada between 1997 and 2008. "Where the (national) men's and women's program is right now, I think young kids coming up, they're in a great generation."
York United opens the CPL season Thursday at home to Halifax's HFX Wanderers FC. On Saturday it's Calgary's Cavalry FC at Atletico Ottawa.
In a rematch of last year's championship game, defending champion Pacific FC hosts Hamilton's Forge FC in Langford, B.C. on Sunday while Winnipeg's Valour FC visits FC Edmonton.
Teams will play a 28-game season with the top four advancing to the playoffs. The championship game is set for Oct. 29.
There has been change in the off-season.
Nash quit his post as first-team coach and technical director under head coach and GM Tommy Wheeldon Jr. at Cavalry FC to take over York after the club opted not to renew the contract of Jim Brennan, who doubled as head coach and technical director.
Pa-Modou Kah, named CPL coach of the year after leading Pacific to the title, left to take over North Texas SC, FC Dallas's MLS Next Pro team. Longtime assistant James Merriman is now in charge of Pacific.
Carlos Gonzalez is set to start his first season at the Atletico Ottawa helm, following in the footsteps of fellow Spaniard Mista.
The league is looking for a commissioner with David Clanachan stepping down to spearhead the launch of an expansion club in the Windsor-Essex County region. The CPL already has expansion plans with Vancouver expected to come on board in 2023 and a conditional franchise awarded to Saskatoon.
And the league is still looking for new ownership for FC Edmonton, having taken over the franchise at the end of December. The other seven teams are helping keep Edmonton going in the meantime, loaning players on their dime and writing cheques to cover costs.
Nash was part of the Canadian team that was a surprise winner of the 2000 Gold Cup under coach Holger Osieck. He is now looking to help groom a new generation of homegrown talent.
The CPL was formed to do just that. Clubs will have to meet an increased target of 2,000 minutes for under-21 domestic talent this season.
York, with a wealth of young players, went well over last year's requirement.
"We have a really exciting and talented young core of players," said York CEO, president and GM Angus McNab. "And that's what this league is about. We should be here for people's first foray into the professional game.
"Across the country there are now 23 by eight (teams) jobs in professional soccer that didn't exist before. And with the strict limits on foreigners, with the fact that you have to have a majority of Canadian players in your starting 11, that's a positive because it gets minutes and it gets opportunity for these guys. And we will always be about that.
"That's where we are as a league. That's where we are as a competition right now. And we see our place in the football pyramid as being — and happy being — a stepping stone for these guys to go on and achieve more — and hopefully right up to national team level as well."
CPL rosters can range in size from 20 to 23 with a maximum of seven international players. Teams have to field at least six domestic players in their starting 11.
Joel Waterman (CF Montreal) and Lukas MacNaughton and Kadin Chung (Toronto FC) are examples of CPL players now in Major League Soccer. And the transfer of Tristan Borges in January 2021 from Forge FC to Belgium's OH Leuven showed leagues abroad were taking notice.
Borges is back with Forge on loan. And there are some more familiar names in the CPL.
Former Toronto and Real Salt Lake fullback Ashtone Morgan boosts an already strong Forge squad, which started its season back in February when it lost 4-1 on aggregate to Mexican powerhouse Cruz Azul in round-of-16 play in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.
And on Tuesday, York signed 20-year-old forward Osaze De Rosario, son of Canadian icon Dwayne De Rosario.
Most recently, Osaze De Rosario was based in Ukraine with Rukh Lviv, mutually agreeing to terminate his agreement with the club nine days before Russia invaded. The young DeRo also spent time with the New York City FC and Toronto FC academies.
Six CPL players were included in Canada Soccer's 25-man roster for an under-20 camp in Costa Rica this month, ahead of this summer’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which serves as a qualifier for both the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
The six CPLers are Kwasi Poku and Dino Bontis (both Forge, Matt Catavolo (Valour), Max Piepgrass (Cavalry), Lowell Wright (York) and Kamron Habibullah (Pacific, on loan from Vancouver Whitecaps).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press