Are the losses of Canadian W-League teams the unintended consequences of CSA’s NWSL subsidy?

Sometimes, ideas that begin with the best intentions have unintended negative consequences.

As the United States Soccer Federation announced the formation of the NWSL, the new tier-one pro league for that country, the Canadian Soccer Association chimed in with the news that it would fund the salaries of 16 players. Coach John Herdman would select the players from the women’s national program who would get their golden tickets to get paying jobs playing pro soccer in America.

No doubt, the intentions were just: Help develop Canadian women and boost the women’s pro game, which has been plagued by false starts and financial failures.

But, since that announcement, both the Vancouver Whitecaps and Victoria Highlanders have confirmed that they are withdrawing their women’s programs from the W-League, which had been the top tier of soccer available to women in Canada. And there is the very real connection that the establishment of the NWSL has made it less feasible to run a W-League program.

Canada had eight W-League teams. That number has been reduced to six, and those remaining clubs all exist in the Ontario-Quebec corridor.

W-League level soccer is vital. Just a couple of weeks ago, Herdman warned of a serious talent gap in Canadian soccer. He said that after his veterans retire, he doesn’t have a deep pool of players in their mid-20s. What he’s doing is trying to integrate U-20s and U-17s into the senior program as soon as he can.

As many of those U-20s and U-17s are looking at collegiate careers — or are in U.S. colleges — they need the W-League, which allows them top-level competitive soccer in the summer while they can retain their NCAA eligibility.

The Canadian team at the Women’s U-20 World Cup featured three Whitecaps. All but two of the players on that U-20 squad had W-League experience. That speaks to just how vital the W-League is Canada’s developmental ladder.

So, if NWSL — and Canada’s decision to fund 16 jobs in that league — has curbed the appetite to field W-League teams, has the CSA unintentionally created a situation where creating 16 pro jobs will lead to the elimination of two to three times as many developmental slots for Canadian women?

Again, it has to be stressed, for the CSA and Herdman and the women’s program, the loss of W-League teams is an unintended consequence. When the decision was made to fund the 16 players, it was heralded across the country as a progressive move from a body that doesn’t have a history of awesome foresight.

With Portland and Seattle being the homes to new NWSL franchises, the new league was going to impact Vancouver and Victoria more than it would the W-League teams in places like Ottawa, Laval, Hamilton and Toronto. The remaining six W-League teams all play in the same conference, and easy travel might be a reason to stay together. Ottawa is the reigning champs, while Laval has shown great progress in developing players — as seven players from Canada’s U-20 roster came from the Cometes.

History Lesson
The last time Canadian soccer tried to facilitate the professional careers of its women, it was an unmitigated disaster. In 2006, Charmaine Hooper (at that time the women’s all-time scoring leader), Sharolta Nonen and Christine Latham took the Canadian Soccer Association to court, alleging the program was forcing players to move to the Whitecaps in order to centralize the national-team program in Vancouver. While the three women did not win, the fractures set the women’s program back — and the court dates forced teammates to testify against teammates.

This time, the 16-player plan was welcomed with universal acclaim.

But Herdman has a job to do. As he’s desperate to graduate Canada’s youth players to fill the void at the national level ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, he doesn’t need just 16 jobs in NWSL. He needs developmental roster spots across the country. Assuming that most of the current national team takes these NWSL jobs, it leaves precious few spots for those outside the current national set-up. And NWSL doesn’t address the thorny issue of collegiate eligibility.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.