Soccer a tough sell for Canadian stakeholders?

·Eoin O’Callaghan

Back in the summer, I saw soccer up close in a bunch of Canadian cities. In some, even a World Cup tournament proved a difficult sell. But in others, there was lots of potential.

I remember strolling through Ottawa's downtown core, through the trendy boutiques, record stores and coffee shops of The Glebe and being mightily impressed with the city's brand, spanking new stadium. Every time I covered a game there, the sunshine blazed and the crowds were vibrant and energized. The city thoroughly embraced its unusual but refreshing summer lodger.

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco holds the Landon Donovan trophy after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco holds the Landon Donovan trophy after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

It's been a terrific year for soccer in Canada. Sure, the senior women's team came up short on home soil but dig deeper and there's been some major progress made. There was Montreal's incredible run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, the magnificent individual contributions of marquee names like Didier Drogba and Sebastian Giovinco at the Impact and Toronto FC respectively, the three Canadian MLS franchises all claiming berths in the post-season for the very first time and in the NASL – the second tier for soccer in North America – there was Ottawa leading the charge. Local side the Fury were superb throughout the Fall season, losing just once in twenty games. But in the Championship game, their ten men suffered defeat to Raul and his New York Cosmos.

Still, the franchise is in its infancy with plenty of room to grow and improve. And, surely their success is just another encouraging reason for more Canadian teams to want to get involved in the higher echelons of North American soccer. Expansion across MLS and NASL has been rapid in recent years. Everyone else is doing it. Why shouldn't Canada?

But not many are stepping forward to stake a claim.

And that might explain why the Canadian Soccer Association's plans for an eight-team domestic league have been discussed for the last two years with very little progress made.

Interest in the game is the crucial ingredient and north of the border, it continues to be a struggle to elicit a passion to engage and invest in a franchise project.

Speaking to NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson in Dublin last month, he seems hopeful that a third Canadian team can be launched but acknowledged that finding the right people in the right place with the right plan is difficult.

“We'd love to increase that number – it's a priority for us. But at the same time, you've got to find an ownership group who steps up and approaches you and says 'Hey, we'd like to do this' and a city that they can be successful in. And that just hasn't happened yet. But the door is wide open and we continue to have various conversations. We're very hopeful that out of the twenty clubs that we end up having, there's more than two in Canada for sure. We're just starting to infiltrate that market from a brand standpoint, from a fan's standpoint. Both of the clubs there right now are fabulous. Ottawa has had a heck of a run this year – in only their second year – and if we end up with more teams there, that would be fantastic.”

The reality is that the two Canadian NASL sides show up the topsy-turvy nature of domestic soccer in the country.

Montreal Impact's Hassoun Camara, left, controls the ball as Edmonton FC's Neil Hlavaty chases during first half action of the Amway Canadian Championship semi-final in Edmonton, Alberta, on Wednesday May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)
Montreal Impact's Hassoun Camara, left, controls the ball as Edmonton FC's Neil Hlavaty chases during first half action of the Amway Canadian Championship semi-final in Edmonton, Alberta, on Wednesday May 7, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)

While Ottawa are a new club in a new stadium and are busily reaching finals and breaking attendance records (9,346 supporters were present to watch them beat Minnesota United in the championship semi-final), Edmonton FC are tipping along nicely in no-man's-land, finishing the season with the lowest recorded attendance and the lowest average attendance. For one fixture, barely 1000 people came through the turnstiles.

In mid-November, NASL announced that another new club would be launching next season: Rayo OKC, an Oklahoma City-based side backed by Spanish La Liga outfit Rayo Vallecano.

In 2016, the league will also feature Puerto Rican and Miami franchises. With the former owned by Carmelo Anthony and the latter co-owned by Italian soccer legend Paolo Maldini and coached by another in Alessandro Nesta, there's a sizzle and a swagger to the league. It's going places.

“We've never had more interest than we have now,” says Peterson.

“That interest comes not only from within the United States but from around the world and not only individuals but clubs and others who realize the NASL structure is very similar to other leagues around the world. They're very comfortable with that model. They understand it. They believe in it. We've been approached by plenty of people but we still go through our process. We're very patient. We're not in a rush to get to a certain number of teams. We want to make sure we have good owners and great cities. There's no doubt that we're going to reach the twenty teams that we intend to reach and we'll arrive with a very strong group of owners who are willing to invest and grow their clubs, invest in the community and the players...It's all headed in the right direction.”

So why is investment in a soccer franchise so difficult to push in Canada? With so many potential worldwide stakeholders intrigued by the prospect of owning a North American sports enterprise, are Canadian business-people just completely under-inspired by the entire proposal? It's a tough sell to these guys, right?

“I don't think so. Maybe...” but he stops himself mid-sentence and reconsiders.

“Nah, I don't think so. I think each market has its advantages but what it always boils down to is 'Is there a person capable of doing this who's interested in doing this' and having them step up and be willing to take on the work. It's a lot of work to launch a club and to manage it and keep it going. Sometimes it's just a little too much but I don't think there's any disadvantages from being in Canada. The clubs up there are doing just fine and will continue to do fine.”

But Canada shouldn't be happy with fine.    

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