'It's time': Canadian women's soccer stars steadfast in pursuit of domestic league
NWSL expansion viewed as logical 1st step, but influential voices say more is required
For Christine Sinclair, it was a day that was more than 21 years in the making.
Ever since debuting as a 16-year-old for the Canadian women's team in 2000, Sinclair aspired to lead her country to glory at the Olympics or the World Cup.
That dream was realized when teammate Julia Grosso's penalty kick sailed into the back of the net to seal Canada's victory over Sweden in the gold-medal match in Tokyo this summer. After winning back-to-back bronze medals, Sinclair had finally become an Olympic champion.
It was an amazing accomplishment for Canada's iconic captain, especially considering the path she took to ascend to the top of the medal podium.
Once a Canadian player makes her way through the youth ranks, she has no options to play professionally in her country, and must move abroad if she wants to pursue a professional career. Since 2013, Sinclair has played for the Portland Thorns of the U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League, which doesn't have any Canadian teams. Nearly half the members of the Olympic team played for European clubs. None of them earned a living at home.
Canada was ranked eighth in the world by FIFA ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, and rose to sixth after its gold medal win. But it is the only FIFA top 10-ranked country without a professional league.
Never one to make it all about herself or bask in self-adulation, Sinclair seized the moment in the immediate aftermath of Canada's victory over Sweden, using the platform granted her the opportunity to deliver her message as the entire country was watching.
"I hope we'll see some investment in the women's game. I think it's time Canada gets a professional league or some professional teams, and if a gold medal doesn't do that, nothing will. It's time for Canada to step up," Sinclair said in the post-match press conference.
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More than 4.4 million viewers tuned into the Canada-Sweden match on CBC, making it the country's most-watched event of the Olympics.
Never before had the women's team garnered this level of attention. Several of Sinclair's teammates made the most of the opportunity and echoed her post-game sentiments, knowing full well that they had a captive audience who was eager to hear what they had to say after winning gold.
"We need to continue to push to have a professional league in Canada," goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé told The National's Ian Hanomansing. "The fact that we're Olympic champions and we don't have any professional teams in our home country is pretty unacceptable."
WATCH | Sinclair, Labbé join The National to discuss Olympic gold, pushing needle:
The complete lack of playing opportunities in Canada hits close to home for every member of the Canadian women's team, but especially Sinclair.
Except for a short stint with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the 38-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., has played the overwhelming majority of her professional career in the United States with FC Gold Pride, Western New York Flash and Portland Thorns of the NWSL after cutting her teeth at the NCAA level at the University of Portland.
Ever since Canada won the first of its back-to-back bronze Olympic medals in 2012, Sinclair has sought to inspire young girls across the country to become part of the next generation of players who will make up the Canadian national team.
"We're hoping that this platform will give us the opportunity to start that change and lead to Canadians who have the ability to make the difference to invest in women," Sinclair said upon her return home from Tokyo.
"The youngsters, the young little kids deserve to be able to go watch their heroes on a week-to-week basis, not just once every four years."
Retired midfielder Amy Walsh, who earned 102 caps for Canada from 1997 to 2009, feels a domestic league is long overdue in this country.
"We have to find a way to keep our players home, and keep the momentum going in terms of what's available to the grassroots players, both boys and girls," Walsh told CBC Sports. "That's how you grow interest in the game, and how you expand the player pool for the national team in the future."
While Sinclair and members of the current women's team have long advocated for a Canadian professional league, their tone has noticeably changed since bringing home the gold. Cognizant of their newfound leverage, the Canadian women have been more assertive in their messaging, and are no longer willing to passively hold out hope that things will soon change.
Katrina Galas, a women's sport strategy consultant at In Common Consulting, believes that's a good first step toward bringing a women's pro league to Canada.
"We need to change the narrative, whether it's through the media, through leadership, or through conversations, where it's evolving from what's deserved to what's possible," Galas said. "There's a lot of talk about the Canadian women's players deserving a league of their own, or that Canada deserves to have an NWSL club based on the success of our women's team. We're still in that space, and that's not the best value proposition to put out there.
"The narrative can't be about what's deserved, but rather what's possible based on the accomplishments of the women's team and the success they've had. Those things are very real and factual, so if the discussion is reframed and it becomes more about 'let's go get it' and less about 'we deserve it,' I think they can find more success in that."
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Like Sinclair, Diana Matheson had to leave Canada to carve out a career as a pro soccer player. After playing at Princeton University, the diminutive midfielder went to Norway for a few years, and then turned out for the Washington Spirit and Utah Royals of the NWSL.
She retired earlier this year, calling time on a marvellous international career that saw her earn 206 career appearances for Canada (only Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt have more) and was highlighted by her winning goal in the bronze-medal game at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Although she is recognized as one of Canada's greatest players of all time, Matheson never had the chance to play professionally in her country.
"That part of my life story is not unique at all, and it is echoed by every single women's player in this country," Matheson said. "We've all had to go through it — after coming up through the youth ranks, we found out there's nothing there for us, and we had [to] go to school and play in the NCAA and then move on to play pro in Europe or the NWSL, and we only come back to Canada when we retire.
"But it shouldn't have to be that way. Let's build a Canadian league so that doesn't have to be the case anymore."
Laying groundwork for a domestic league
Since retiring, Matheson, a 37-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., has been pursuing an EMBA at Queen's University, and enrolled herself in the Executive Master for International Players program offered by UEFA, European soccer's governing body.
She's also been working closely with six other confidants, including former national team teammate Carmelina Moscato, to help bring a pro women's league to Canada.
On Dec. 9, Matheson and her working group met with Canada Soccer and tabled a proposal to work in partnership with the sport's governing body to help the advancement of the women's game in Canada.
"What we are working towards is creating a long-term plan for women's soccer in this country, and a long-term plan that builds towards a professional league," Matheson said. "Canada Soccer has done a good job supporting the women's team over the years, and now it's time to shift that focus on to the domestic game.
"It's not a question of whether a women's league could work. It can absolutely work. It's an exciting opportunity that we can build a league from scratch."
Matheson is hopeful that Canada Soccer will review her group's proposal and come back to them early next year and engage in more meaningful conversations to discuss working together, and then move things forward through 2022.
Matheson's ultimate goal is to create a top-tier league that would attract members of the Canadian women's team, and serve as an alternative to the NWSL, although she admits it will take time for such a league to be a viable option for some of her former teammates to consider.
"We have to be realistic with where we are starting from and that it might take three to five years to be considered a top-tier league. Other leagues have been around a lot longer and built themselves up," she said. "But I'm confident we can get Canadian women's team players in from the beginning.
"There might be a point where players go to another league for more money or a bigger club in the world. So, are we going to get everybody? No. But I think we can certainly have national team talent in the league."
Launching a new professional sports league in Canada wouldn't be easy in the best of times, never mind when the country is still dealing with economic effects of the global pandemic. But such obstacles can be hurdled with the proper investment, something that Matheson firmly believes can happen if there is a plan and a commitment in place.
"There's so much data and research that's been done on women's professional soccer around the world, so we can use that data to inform what is going to be the governance and ownership model, and how to monetize the on-field product," Matheson said.
"The initial capital raise and the seed money to get this going for two or three years, I'm not concerned about it. I think we'll get investments and a few avenues there. The question around women's sport is year-over-year profitability. I think with a new league, we're talking about a five-to-seven or a seven-to-10-year horizon where you're making sure your clubs are independently financially stable."
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Timing is the key, and the time has never appeared to be better, what with Canada winning gold in Tokyo.
"Let's capitalize on this momentum and start to build something at home. … Let's build something for Canadians by Canadians, and let's build something for women by women," Matheson said.
Canadian NWSL team the 1st step?
Nick Bontis, elected president of Canada Soccer a year ago, has said women's pro soccer in Canada is one of his top priorities. But he has also said a Canadian NWSL team is the first step.
"I'm willing to say I'll work my butt off to get an NWSL team in Canada," he said after his election win.
Sinclair, for one, agrees that should be the short-term goal.
"It seems like the easy logical step," she said in August. "It just takes some wealthy individuals within Canada willing to invest in women's soccer … Companies do that on the men's side all the time and are willing to lose millions of dollars."
Given the organizational structures already in place with the league, it seems more likely that Canada would get an NWSL expansion franchise before its own domestic, top-tier division.
Walsh, Matheson and others advocating for Canada to have its own pro league concede that point. But they also argue that having an NWSL team in Canada is only the first step.
"That might make sense because the infrastructure is there with the NWSL. … An NWSL team would be great for Canada. It's not a terrible idea. But I also think we can do better," Walsh said.
Matheson argues that "it's not an either-or situation" with regards to the NWSL putting a team in Canada vs. the country having its own pro league.
"Having an NWSL team in Canada would be a great addition to the sporting landscape, but it can't be the beginning and the end of the conversation," she said. "An NWSL club is only going to affect 12 Canadian players and few coaches. For us to build a system across the country, that's the job of a domestic league. So, I see room for both.
Matheson acknowledges that patience will be required. A new professional league in Canada simply isn't going to appear overnight.
"It's going to take a few years because we don't quite have all the systems and structures in place to start a new league next year. And even if we did, we'd probably be in trouble in five years because we'd be rushing into it," she said. "Let's plan this correctly, and driven by data and research, let's build it so it lasts.
"Measure three times and cut once."