On the road to professional women’s soccer in Canada

The league will feature eight Canadian teams, four in the East and four in the West. The kick-off is scheduled for the 2025 season.

The Vancouver Whitecaps and Calgary Foothills are the first two teams to join. The other six must be announced before July 2023. Two major sponsors have also been confirmed, namely CIBC and Air Canada.

The involvement of the Whitecaps is no accident. Former Team Canada goaltender Stephanie Labbé, a gold medalist at the Tokyo Games, was named general manager of the team’s women’s program last October with the goal of advancing women’s soccer.

It’s really important to have partnerships with the professional soccer clubs that already exist in Canada, she explains. They have a good understanding of what it takes to be a professional club in this kind of league.

She waves to the crowd during a pregame presentation.

Stephanie Labbé played 85 times for the Canadian team.

Photo: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

For Diana Matheson, it was essential that this league be created by women.

We want to involve Canadian women, she says. Women were never asked to own teams. I want to ask them. I want a diversity of owners […] We can also provide a safe environment in our league. This has been a huge problem in the sports world. We have the chance to build something for ourselves. It is a privilege that we have never had.

 » We see the importance of having women in charge. It brings that connection for young girls who are not only inspired to go out and play, but also inspired to be a coach, to be a referee, to be a general manager one day. »

A quote from Stephanie Labbé, former Canadian soccer player

In addition to the help of Stephanie Labbé, Diana Matheson can count on that of Christine Sinclair, member of the national team since 2000, and Amy Walsh, retired player and collaborator of the CF Montreal Academy for the development of female soccer.

How come we talk about the same things we talked about when I was with the team? It can’t be, says Walsh, who won Olympic bronze in 2012. Why do we end up in 2022 with the winning team at the Olympics, then we have done nothing for the development of women’s soccer?

She goes to meet supporters on the edge of the field

Diana Matheson won Olympic bronze twice with Canada

Photo: Getty Images/Rich Lam

A backlog

Canada is one of the only countries in the top 30 in women’s soccer that does not have a professional league for its players.

I think when you live in Canada and you see that there are no women’s professional leagues, it seems normal. But as soon as you leave the country and see what is happening elsewhere, it’s not normal, says Matheson. The reality is that the rest of the world has national professional women’s soccer leagues. If we don’t start building one in Canada, we’re going to be behind.

 » We are said to be avant-garde when it comes to equality, but that is not the case. Men have MLS (Major League Soccer), they have CPL (Canadian Premier League). They have two places to play, whereas here in Canada, for women, there is nothing. »

A quote from Christine Sinclair, National Soccer Team Player

The players admit it themselves: this victory at the Tokyo Games was exceptional, even surprising, considering the shortcomings of the Canadian system.

It’s embarrassing that we never managed to put that forward, says Evelyne Viens, member of the Canadian team in Tokyo. Let’s say it to each other: congratulations to the national team which managed to perform despite having a base… There is no base in fact.

An athlete holds a gold medal while wearing the Canadian uniform.

Evelyne Viens won Olympic gold in Tokyo

Photo: Getty Images / Naomi Baker

For years, the problem has been decried by Canadian players, but nothing has ever been put in place by the federation. It took Diana Matheson to retire from soccer in July 2021, after 15 years on the national team, for this project to be on track.

A professional league would give players the opportunity to play at home in front of their families and fans.

I watch European or American players and I’m a little jealous, says Christine Sinclair. If they want, they can play at home, they can play in their own country and be surrounded by their supporters. I never had that chance in Canada.

A league of international caliber

Diana Matheson claims to be able to compete from the start with the average salary and intends to seek out quality players. In addition to Canadian players, each team will have a quota of seven international players.

We have already shown that our national team is one of the best in the world, and with consistency, says Stephanie Labbé. It will attract a lot of international players who want to play with and against Canadian players because we are among the best on the planet.

We already know that Canadian players are interested, after talking to members of the national team, says Diana Matheson. It matters to them.

It would be a chance for me to represent CF Montreal because I would live close to home, but it is also a club with which I grew up and which I will always encourage, mentions Evelyne Viens, originally from L’Ancienne -Lorette. I wish I could see my friends and family in the stands every week.

This league will meet the needs of Canadian women of all ages. First the players at the end of their career, who have always dreamed of playing at home. Others who don’t have enough playing time in Europe or the United States or who don’t make enough money may consider being the face of a team in Canada.

It will also give young players the opportunity to develop in Canada rather than going into exile elsewhere in the world, as Viens had to do. After playing for Cégep Garneau, she was recruited by the University of South Florida in 2016, before making her way to the professionals in the NWSL in the United States and in clubs in Europe.

I spoke zero English. It’s a bit sad to say, but I was not able to speak English, says the 25-year-old athlete. I saw a lot of my friends go to the NCAA, but for me, it didn’t appeal to me more than that. There are some who don’t want to leave their homes, and that’s okay. But they don’t even have the opportunity to play within about two hours of their home.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Canada and the pool of female players is huge. But many are those who stop playing in adolescence for lack of options. Having a professional league in the country would show them the way to the national team and allow them to be recruited more easily.

That’s why we need a professional league here in Canada, adds Amy Walsh. To develop this talent, but also to give players who are finishing their studies a place to play. Because your development doesn’t stop at the age of 22.

Now or never

After the successes of the national team in Tokyo, Diana Matheson and her team want to take advantage of this momentum.

Women’s sport has never aroused such enthusiasm, notes Stephanie Labbé. You can see it all over the world. If we don’t get on board now, it will be almost impossible for us to do so in 5 or 10 years.

It’s time for a change, says Amy Walsh. For the 13th time I corrected someone who said Ronaldo was the world’s greatest goalscorer. No it is wrong. It’s Christine Sinclair. It’s time to give women the same respect we give men.

This announcement is only the beginning of a long process. But everyone agrees that it is a necessity for the future of women’s soccer in the country.

Give the league a chance. The NWSL has been around for 10 years and it’s a far cry from what it was at the start, explains Christine Sinclair, three-time champion with the Portland Thorns. The first year was the bare minimum. There will be tougher times and people have to accept that. We are building for the next 10, 15, 20 years.

It’s always been very important to leave women’s soccer better than we found it. And that’s the only thing left to do: build professional women’s soccer in Canadaconcludes Diana Matheson.

They proudly show off their gold medals

The Canadians with their gold medals in Tokyo

Photo: Getty Images / Naomi Baker

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