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Calgary’s committed to USL

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The United Soccer Leagues Leagues’ Professional Development League has faced an exodus of Canadians teams.

The Vancouver Whitecaps mothballed their PDL team after the 2014 season, focusing instead on their USL-PRO team for the development of their young players. And, this past autumn, came the news that the Ontario Soccer Association would no longer sanction PDL play in that province, encouraging the affected teams to move towards the Division-3 League 1 Ontario.

So, it feels like Calgary Foothills, which began PDL play last season, is swimming against the tide, at least when it comes to developmental soccer in Canada.

But team technical director Tommy Wheeldon Jr., who played for the Calgary Storm a decade ago when that team was part of the USL’s A League, doesn’t see it that way.

“None of that really has anything to do with us,” he says, while out walking his dog. “If we get Ontario right, we realize the goal of having a fully professional league in our country… What I will say is can League1 Ontario replicate the conditions and the standards that the PDL has?”

Kitchener-Waterloo United took the PDL crown in 2014; and Wheeldon hopes the standard of competition in L1O will be comparable for what he sees as an elite developmental club.

“To win the title, K-W United had to face Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls, affiliated with the MLS teams and fully professional. And they beat them both. Will the Ontario league offer that standard?”

Wheeldon believes that, for Canadian soccer to get better, we need to be integrated with the Americans. In his eyes, their system drives us to be better; being at that level of competition is better for our players. He says what’s true for the National Hockey League is true for Major League Soccer; Can-Am leagues create more competitive environments.

And that being said, he still holds to the vision that, in a decade’s time, that Calgary could be home to an MLS team.

“I believe you have to have a vision, and being where we are puts us on the pathway, in the pyramid, towards MLS. We have the relationships, the affiliations, between USL and MLS. Surely, there are many steps in between PDL and MLS, and we need to make those steps.”

Calgary Foothills in action against Puget Sound. PHOTO: STEVE ROGERS

Wheeldon says the $890 million NHL arena and fieldhouse project that’s been championed by the Calgary Flames is the key. If approved by City Council, the fieldhouse would indeed be a venue that could host MLS. But, the project is far from being a political slam-dunk. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has called the project “half-baked” and says a lot of hurdles will need to be jumped for the project to get the go ahead. A big question is what to do with the land that’s been targeted for the project; it’s chemically contaminated. It needs to be cleaned up before any development occurs, and no one has put a price tag on what that would cost — and no level of government has come forward to take charge on that issue.

The yet-to-be-built fieldhouse could be a home in the future, but what about next season? Wheeldon says the team may not return to Hellard Field in 2016. The 2,040-seat venue is set to be upgraded. And Wheeldon says the team could be playing games closer to the southeast part of the city where the Foothills club is located.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #8.

Wheeldon feels that Foothills and FC Edmonton — which plays in the NASL — are doing the best they can to develop Alberta players, but there is far more that can be done to get players from the province to the higher levels of the game.

“You know, as a developmental club, it’s great for us to see players like Charlie Trafford and Sam Adekugbe get into the national framework, because that’s been our focus. But I feel Calgary is a city that’s massively under-represented, for the talent we’ve produced here. From Owen Hargreaves to Kevin McKenna, to Sam Adekugbe to Marco Carducci, Charlie Trafford, and guys like Michael Cox and Paul Hamilton who both played with FC Edmonton. Now we’ve had Joey Cowlishaw sign with Chelsea, Malyk Hamilton at West Ham… even Ethan Gage left Calgary and eventually went to Europe. And FC Edmonton have so many young talents as well. And we’ve seen Sadi Jalali and Hanson Boakai jump right up from youth soccer to NASL, which is the second division of pro soccer in North America. That’a a big step.”

Wheeldon says more developmental teams in Alberta would give more of these players a chance to develop, and that many of the players in transition years between youth soccer and pro soccer need to find teams where they can get the minutes they need.

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