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The return of arena soccer

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There was a time when indoor soccer teams could be found across Canada. When grunge reigned supreme, various pro circuits and semipro circuits spread franchises across Canada. There were the Toronto Shooting Stars, the Edmonton Drillers and an indoor arm of the Montreal Impact.

There were three-point goals and penalties that were taken with a long run-in, like hockey penalty shots but without the sticks and skates. There were power-plays and five-man formations on the pitch that looked like a hybrid between soccer, lacrosse, basketball and hockey.

But leagues died, teams went bankrupt and, then, new franchises began. The late 2000s saw a new Canadian circuit emerge in the prairies, with Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary.

But the Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League couldn’t hold on to even four clubs. When the CMISL died, all that was left was a one-off showdown between Edmonton and Calgary for a league, ahem, championship.

Meanwhile, futsal slowly began displacing arena soccer across the country, save for the prairies. Kids were now playing with smaller balls in gyms, without boards.

But the arena game isn’t dead. And Peter Kovacs, the president and general manager of the new Toronto club that will play in the Major Arena Soccer League beginning in 2018, believes that his club’s efforts will create a new wave of interest in the traditional indoor game.

“With the exception of the Leafs, you really need to promote to get people to come out,” said Kovacs. “You have to work hard, and when they get there, you need to entertain them. We have major league teams in hockey, basketball, and baseball. We have the Rock, TFC and the Argos. It’s a market of five or six million, but we know we have to do things right.”

Kovacs and CEO Sergio Giancola had the Toronto franchise approved by MASL in December of 2016, but the deal wasn’t announced till the spring of 2017. The team won’t play till autumn of 2018. For Kovacs and the Toronto owners, it’s about taking time and making sure to do things right. There will be no re-dos if they get their opening night wrong.

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But it’s not just about fielding a team in Toronto; it’s about trying to launch a indoor-soccer renaissance. Gladiator Sports and Entertainment, which runs the new Toronto team, also bought the rights to the Canadian indoor soccer federation, and will launch a bid to host the 2020 World Cup of indoor soccer.

Unlike futsal, arena/indoor soccer isn’t governed by FIFA. It’s got its own body, which oversees world championships. In the past, CMISL champs were invited to represent Canada at arena soccer’s club world championships. And, in one instance, in 2012, when both Calgary and Edmonton refused to shell out for the travel, a group of amateur players connected to the University of Sherbrooke volunteered to represent Canada at the world club championship in Mexico. They were out of their depth: They lost one match 15-0 to the San Diego Sockers, a team that’s still part of the MASL.

“No moral victory for us tonight,” Sherbrooke’s Mathieu Prud’homme said after the match. “I understood before the game that my amateur soccer skills were far from being enough to compete with this rapido futball machine from San Diego. They are really good.”

Toronto’s team should be far and away better than that Sherbrooke team, or any of the CMISL teams, for that matter. Kovacs said that most MASL teams can operate with budgets of less than $1 million, but that the Toronto team will likely spend above that threshold. And, this past season, more than 20 Canadians played in the MASL, including many members of the national futsal team — think of names like Ian Bennett, Vahid Assadpour, CONCACAF Championship Golden Boot winner Freddy Moojen and goalkeeper Josh Lemos.

Kovacs said he will go to the MASL’s annual meetings in St. Louis looking “to understand what we can about player movement… We are really looking for Canadian players who want to play for a Canadian team. We may bring in a couple of special players, to bring up the talent level.”

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