The Canadian Soccer Association has removed its seal of approval from the Canadian Soccer League, a largely Ontario semi-pro league with long-standing soccer roots.
The CSA, the national governing body of soccer, says it is going ahead with the regional soccer league blueprint recommended in a recent report. And it has opted not to continue sanctioning the CSL because it wants to move ahead with the next stage of its plan with a clean slate.
"If somebody else came to us and said 'Hey we want to run a semi-pro league,' we're not going to sanction them either," CSA president Victor Montagliani said in an interview Tuesday.
The CSL calls the decision unfair and says it will fight the move to lose sanctioning. And it says it is baffled by the decision since it is essentially a regional league already in place.
"The CSL and its owners and clubs will not sit idly by as 'soccer road kill' in the CSA's efforts to force-fit a new structure into the existing professional soccer landscape in Canada without providing even basic fairness to the CSL," league administrator Pino Jazbec said in a statement.
Montagliani says the CSL decision is "the administrative result" of the board accepting the so-called "Rethink Management" report.
Having approved the report, the CSA is looking to create third-tier regional leagues while building a separate framework around teams like FC Edmonton and the fledgling Ottawa Fury in the second-tier North American Soccer League.
The idea is to give developing players a place to hone their skills outside of MLS academies.
The Canadian Soccer Association has long pondered how to put soccer on the map and keep it there. Pro leagues have come and gone, as have many studies on the matter.
Today, it has essentially ceded the high ground to Major League Soccer while looking to build a national framework below it.
The CSL has been plowing its own furrow, drawing in teams with soccer heritages of their own. Toronto Croatia, for example, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006 and, as the Toronto Metros-Croatia of the North American Soccer League, once was home to Portuguese star Eusebio.
Essentially, the CSA move leaves the CSL out in the cold. The CSL says the decertification means it "cannot function as a competitive league in Canada."
In a letter to the CSA, the league complains that as a result of the national body's actions, the sale of at least one CSL team has been aborted and league sponsorships and player contract negotiations have been affected, among other issues.
Montagliani says the CSL's next step is to talk to the Ontario Soccer Association to see how the clubs might fit into its proposed regional league.
The CSA vision is to have such regional leagues governed by a national body, a la junior hockey.
The 87-year-old CSL — which bills itself as Canada's professional league on its website and which has been home to both the Toronto FC and Montreal Impact academy teams — is slated to kick off its new season in April.
"It's a decision we had to make. Whether we did it now or did it a couple of months earlier, I don't think it really would have made a difference in terms of their acceptance of it or non-acceptance of it," said Montagliani.
The CSL says it will do whatever it takes to reverse the decision.
"We haven't been in business as a fixture of Canadian pro soccer for the past 87 years just to meekly fold the tents when our governing body acts in a manner we consider to be fundamentally unreasonable, unlawful and unfair," Jazbec said. "We hope that common sense will prevail, but we are ready to take whatever actions are necessary to defend our rights, our league and the commercial viability of our member clubs."
The first division of the CSL features 16 teams: 15 from Ontario and the Montreal Academy squad. The second division has 12 Ontario teams.
Montagliani said the move to stop sanctioning the CSL had nothing to do with reports last year that CSL games had been linked to a European match-fixing syndicate via wiretaps in a German investigation. German court heard the syndicate tried to fix matches around the world.