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Canadian Premier League commissioner touts promotion-relegation, groundbreaking draft system

Speaking about the league’s future, Dave Clanachan said he wants pro/rel by 2026.

CPL commissioner David Clanachan would like for his league to have 14 to 16 teams by 2026 (Canadian Premier League)

MONTREAL — Promotion and relegation is in the plans for the future of the Canadian Premier League, according to commissioner David Clanachan.

The CPL currently has seven teams spread across the country. Clanachan’s goal is to grow that number to between 14 and 16 teams by the 2026 FIFA World Cup, after which the CPL will actively look to implement the promotion-relegation system.

“I’d like to be there by 2026 so that we’re actually thinking about a second division,” Clanachan said. “This idea of promotion and relegation adds a whole dynamic to the whole thing. It’s really entertaining for the folks, and I think that it’s a real opportunity for us.”

The system of promoting teams who perform well in a lower division to a higher division and relegating teams who perform poorly in the higher division is used by most soccer countries around the world, though notably not by Major League Soccer. 

During a panel in Montreal ahead of the CPL college draft, Tommy Wheeldon Jr., head coach of Calgary’s Cavalry FC, also shared his thoughts about promotion and relegation.

“We have this culture here where we need a playoff to celebrate performance,” Wheeldon Jr. said. “In actuality, if you have promotion and relegation, if you’re at the bottom of the league that game is just as important as trying to win the league. It keeps everyone honest. It keeps players, coaches, owners and fans honest.”

Clanachan, a former Tim Horton’s executive, added that his league should be aiming for big things. For him, promotion and relegation fits with that ambition.

“[A second division] is a different level of football, but it’s also a feeder system as well,” he said. “We need to be thinking and dreaming big. We have to have big goals, and I think we do.”

“We do have a relationship with MLS”

During MLS commissioner Don Garber’s state of the league address during MLS Cup weekend in Seattle, TVA Sports’ Nicolas A. Martineau whether MLS  had a relationship with the CPL. Garber answered: “We really have no relation at all.” 

Clanachan disagreed with his MLS counterpart saying: “We do have a relationship with MLS.” 

“We have a relationship with the three clubs that are in Canada,” he added, referring to MLS teams Toronto FC, Montreal Impact And Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “That’s who we’ve talked to, and they’ve reached out to us and we’ve reached out to them.

“I was surprised when I heard that. I don’t have a relationship with Don Garber, I don’t, but the reality is that I’ve been a little bit busy.”

Clanachan said his lack of a relationship with Garber has been a timing issue and that more should be done to connect with the commissioner, though his focus will remain north of the border.

2020 expansion unlikely  

Clanachan is eager to get to 14 teams by 2026, but was very cautious when talking about 2020 expansion. 

The commissioner is adamant the issue isn’t about finding potential ownership groups. He said the process “is not a hunt on our part, it’s being hunted.” Venues are the sticking point for Clananchan and the CPL. One of the biggest conditions the league will not accept is a venue with permanent American football lines. 

“The one thing that we struggle with in this country the most, and I say it all the time, is the lack of facilities to play in,” Clanachan said. “Whenever I start to talk to a potential owner and they’ve got a good business plan, they’ve got good partners attached to it, they’re ready to go and I ask them where they’re gonna play, there’s horror on their faces.” 

Quebec, Montreal in the works

One prime example is Quebec City. The CPL doesn’t yet have a team in Quebec, Canada’s second most populous province. Clananchan is looking at the Quebec City market, but its largest stadium, Stade Telus, is used for Laval University college football and has permanent lines. 

“I love the North Amercian football stadium up at Laval in Quebec City, but the lines are stitched in,” he said. “You can’t play professional football on a pitch that has stitched in lines, it doesn’t work for us.”  

Clanachan added that three different groups are in conversations with the league to bring clubs to the province. Quebec City and the Greater Montreal Area are the markets those groups are looking toward. The commissioner doubled down on venues being the most crucial aspect for CPL expansion, adding the league might move for a “cookie-cutter approach.”

 “I worked at Tim Hortons for 36 years,” Clanachan said. “When someone came in to buy a franchise, not only did I give them a franchise but I also showed them how to build the store and sometimes I’d build the store for them. You kind of need to do that, and I think that there’s some of that that needs to go on.

“Somebody who owns a football club isn’t always a construction person who understands how to do this, and to do it in a way that makes sense.”

CPL draft and college eligibility

In 2018, the CPL inked a deal with U Sports — the Canadian college sports association — to create a draft. The unique aspect of the CPL’s draft is that only underclassmen — freshmen, sophomores and juniors — are eligible for the draft and they do not lose college eligibility by participating. 

Players can even sign professional contracts and play for CPL teams, then decide to return to their college teams. If a player chooses to return to college, his contract with the original drafting team is finished and he remains eligible for the following year’s draft if he is still an underclassman.

For example, Gabriel Bitar, who went first overall to Cavalry FC in the 2018 CPL draft, signed a professional contract with the club in April, 2019 and debuted for Cavalry in a Canadian Championship match May 16, his only appearance. Bitar then decided in August to return to Carleton University in Ottawa for his junior year. Bitar was redrafted by Cavalry FC with the sixth overall pick in Monday night’s 2019 CPL draft.

“First of all, it’s never been done. Tell us it can never be done and then we’ll figure out how to do it,” Clanachan said. “No one has been able to point to any other sport or league that’s done that, where you could earn a pay check and play professionally and not lose eligibility.”

The concept caught on with Canada’s newest basketball league, the CEBL. The league now has a similar draft with U Sports that does not affect college eligibility. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more sports try to do it because it’s very Canadian,” Clanachan said. “Of course we would support somebody getting an education and follow their dream of playing professionally at the same time and not be hampered or punished for it.”

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