MA in Sports Journalism at St Mary's University

Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Canada’s new Premier League

In June 2018, FIFA announced that the World Cup would be jointly hosted for only the second time in its history in 2026. The bid from the United States of America, Mexico and Canada convincingly beating out the challenge of Morocco by 134 votes to 65.

While the first two countries listed may not be a surprise, given they last played host in 1994 and 1986 respectively, the inclusion of Canada was. The Ice hockey mad nation’s only previous World Cup campaign is their appearance at Mexico 86 which saw defeats to France, Hungary and the Soviet Union, mean they shared with Iraq the ignominy of being the only sides to exit the tournament without a single point.

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When the announcement was made, they did not even have their own professional football league. The country’s most notable clubs instead play in US sanctioned leagues. Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC compete in the MLS while Ottawa Fury take part in The USL Championship, America’s second tier.

Following the collapse of the North American Soccer League in 1984 and the Canadian Soccer League in 1993, Canada has had to wait until this April to finally have a professional top-tier of its own again. The new Canadian Premier League (CPL) has lofty ambitions to improve standards within the Canadian game. With each team having to field a minimum of six Canadian starters per game with a limit of seven foreign nationals per team. Also, three domestic players must be under the age of 21 and play at least 1,000 combined minutes per season.

One such foreign player that has taken the plunge is Nathan Mavila. The 23-year-old full-back was born in Brixton and started his career in the West Ham academy before moving into the non-league system. He spent much of last season in the National League South with Hampton and Richmond Borough before moving onto Dulwich Hamlet in January before an agent called and offered him a unique opportunity to join Cavalry FC.   

“An agent contacted me and spoke about the move and we thought about it, then after a while we went ahead with it. It was something different, it was professional, and it was something I was waiting for. Even though it didn’t come in England I said I might as well take another path abroad and it’s paying off.

“It was quite tough, I’ve got a family and I was working at the time so it was difficult to leave them behind but as it was getting closer to the season it was becoming easier to say yes as I saw it as a different experience that I needed to try out.

 “It’s good (going pro) because you get to do what you love every day and at the same time it’s something I’ve been waiting a while for. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy doing anything else but to be back playing pro was a very, very good thing for me.”

The Sports science student is exploring ways to continue his degree but for now his main focus is on Cavalry, who are one of the seven clubs based across the country competing in the inaugural CPL season.  

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Canada operates with a club system rather the franchises that are commonplace in neighbouring America, that are not subject to promotion or relegation. Although there are currently no relegation places in the league, the aim is for the competition to expand and move into a more conventional European/South American system in the future. League commissioner David Clanachan is targeting 10 clubs by 2020, followed by 14 clubs in 2024 and 16 clubs in 2026.

However, with the league and most of the teams having to start from scratch and all of Canada’s best players and teams being based outside of the country for so long, there has been concern about the level of the football that would be on offer. This is something that Nathan has been pleasantly surprised by.

“I wasn’t too sure about the level, I heard that there’s a lad from the MLS that’s on loan at Forge FC and there’s a few ex-pros from different places from around the world and also Canada. I didn’t quite expect the level but it’s pretty good, every team has got a couple of standout players. I’m really enjoying it; I think the level’s pretty decent.

“I think the MLS is a step ahead, so I think it will be more the people on the decline or young players on the up coming here but I think in itself the Canadian league is a good league. It’s on the come-up, the potential it has and the ideas that are being put forward are amazing.”

Playing for Cavalry, based in the Calgary Foothills, affords Nathan a chance to play in what is perhaps the league’s biggest derby. FC Edmonton, also based in the province of Alberta, were formed in 2010 and played in the North American Soccer League until the league’s temporary demise in 2017, but have now transitioned into the CPL.

The sides met on May 18th at Cavalry’s ATCO Field in front of a 4,000 strong crowd with Junior Brown netting the Cav’s winner in first half stoppage time. The experience of such a derby was something Nathan had not had before.  

“It was really hostile, it was a tough match because it’s a rivalry and they’ve brought over some fans, but I really enjoyed it. I thought I had a good game, the team played well for 60-70 minutes and after that we reclined but I though we gave a good account of ourselves and it was a good victory.

“It was the biggest in terms of magnitude I’ve been involved in but for me personally, my biggest match was my first against Valour.”

The Cavs sit two points clear at the top of the table, with two games in hand, after winning all of opening five fixtures and have progressed to the third round of the Canadian Championship (a knockout competition featuring all Canadian teams) and will meet Vancouver Whitecaps in July.

It turns out that this remarkable early success is built upon an English core. The manager Tommy Wheeldon Jr., now a naturalised Canadian, was born in Liverpool, before moving out to Canada to finish his career with Calgary Storm.

He then moved into coaching; becoming Canada U-17 Assistant Manager alongside managing USL 2 side Calgary Foothills. His assistant Martin Nash turned out 38 times for Canada between 1997 -2010 but also had spells at Stockport County, Chester City and Macclesfield Town.

While Nathan is joined on the pitch by Jonathon Wheeldon, bother of Tommy, Elijah Adekugbe and Jordan Brown.

When it came to Wheeldon’s impact on the side’s early success, Mavila added:

“He’s a good manger, I put him up there with the best I’ve had, simply because in England there’s an instilled fear to go and speak to the manager. You can’t voice your opinion without it having repercussions or without him looking at you in a different way but from what I’ve seen with our manager here, I can actually talk to him.

“I can tell him how I genuinely feel, and he’ll tell me what he genuinely feels and the next day he won’t look at me differently and we’ll still have the same banter. His people and man-management skills are second to none and his football knowledge is up there with the best.

“I feel comfortable and he’s made me feel at home. He’s made a team of good people and he’s genuinely a good person. From the way he’s laid himself out to us, we can literally go and speak to him about anything. Where I feel comfortable is where I perform best and here, I feel like the only way I can reward him for being the person he is is by putting in performances.”

This team environment has left Nathan in no doubts as to how the team will fare this season, when asked the question, he responded flatly “I think we’ll win the whole thing.”

With the start they have made, it is hard to bet against Cavalry but they face a long road before they can lift the trophy. The campaign is split in two; first, a 10-game fall season between April and July, followed by an 18-game spring season between July and October.

The team that tops the table in each season will qualify for the CPL Championship match with the winner being crowed Canadian champions and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League. In the event of a single side topping both tables, they will meet the second ranked side from across all 28 matches.

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Overall, Canada is aiming to give itself a platform to build on and develop its young players before they host’s football’s biggest event in seven years’ time but also to give Canadian fans a chance to connect with the game on a local more accessible level. Nathan has not only been impressed with what he’s experienced so far but feels there is a positive future for the game in Canada.  

“I’m enjoying it, it’s peaceful where we live, which is really nice. I’m sharing with a couple of teammates and getting used to living away from everyone back home. I’m not the best chef but I’m learning and there’s of life skills it has taught me too.

“I’ve also been impressed with the facilities. Our training ground is an indoors astro, it’s our own place and the stadium is inside one of the world’s biggest show jumping arenas so that’s pretty amazing in itself. The changing rooms and physios are top draw and a lot of people volunteer their time which makes it pretty cool and a good establishment.

“There is room for soccer, a lot of people are buying into it and are liking it once they have the experience of coming to the club and watching the games.

“There’s the supporter group who have been following the team since it was in its amateur days and there’s also people who have seen football, they’ve followed clubs that have been about then dissolved and been about then dissolved.

They’ve always been about and watching but they haven’t actually had a club to properly support. So, when it came about that there was going to be a league and the team was turning pro, a lot of people were excited and there’s always 3-4 thousand turning up to games.”

Featured Photograph/ Cavalry FC