2021 soccer season ready for kickoff in Winnipeg: Canadian Premier League commissioner

If nothing else, the Canadian Premier League certainly deserves a high mark for persistence and perseverance. Going into just its third year of existence in 2021, the fledgling professional soccer league has managed to “keep on kicking” despite a global pandemic that sidelined many other sports.

CPL commissioner David Clanachan met with reporters via a Zoom call on Thursday afternoon to confirm it is all systems go for Saturday’s season-opening doubleheader at IG Field in Winnipeg.

FC Edmonton will square off against Atletico Ottawa beginning at 1 p.m. local time, followed by Pacific of Victoria and HFX Wanderers of Halifax at 4 p.m. Host Valour FC will play their first game the following day on Sunday, June 27 at 1 p.m. against defending champion Forge FC of Hamilton.

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Each team will play a total of eight games in the Winnipeg bubble, with the final games set for Saturday, July 24. At that time, the other seven teams will head to their home markets and play their remaining 20 games in an unbalanced schedule that will see them meet regional opponents 16 times. The other four games will be against the four non-regional teams they played in Winnipeg. For Valour that will be Hamilton, Halifax, York and Ottawa.

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The top four teams in the single table standings will advance to single-elimination semifinals, with the two winners meeting in the CPL title game scheduled for the second week of November.

Clanachan says there were a number of discussions that took place between the league board of governors and every club to arrive at that format.

“We knew that because of the unbalanced schedule, it would be fair to add a fourth club and to change the format that way,” explained the CPL commissioner. “We also looked at the time of the year we’d be finishing because we’d always been focused on getting our full season in.

“We wanted to get as much soccer in front of our fans and supporters as possible.”

Clanachan says one of the most important lessons learned from last summer’s successful Island Games at the University of P.E.I. in Charlottetown was devising a format that kept as many teams in contention, for as much of the schedule as possible.

“I was in the stands with the few fans that we could get in, on the last weekend before we actually split the league into the four teams that were moving forward. It was seven clubs that could potentially be in those top four,” recalled Clanachan. “And even the eighth club, who had already been eliminated, could have played a spoiler role.”

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There is no guarantee of a similar down-to-the-wire finish in ’21, but Clanachan says that’s the ultimate goal the league will be looking to achieve this season. And he feels the kickoff portion of the schedule in Winnipeg will be an important first step.

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Whether there will be any fans allowed in the facility amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during those 30 days remains a mystery at this point.

“I am very hopeful for it. Having said that, it’s up to the provincial health ministry, Valour FC [and] the City of Winnipeg to make that decision,” Clanachan said, adding it has been made very clear to the host organization that it’s their call. “But I can tell you right now that Wade Miller and his group there are excited to do that if there is an opportunity of us.”

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By Clanachan’s estimation, well over 80 per cent of the league and the people in the bubble have been vaccinated. “Obviously we can’t mandate — nor would we mandate — that everyone be vaccinated,” he said.

While the province and the country are trending in a way that has everyone optimistic for a return to normalcy, Clanachan understands there is always a chance the situation could change course dramatically, and there are contingencies in place if that were to happen.

“We have other alternatives that we can work on, no issues whatsoever,” Clanachan confidently predicted. “It’s amazing when you do a couple of these things and you do it relatively seamlessly, we become very adept at it. We can be very creative and nimble, and we’ve set ourselves up for that.”

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Clanachan admits there is a financial price to be paid by starting the season in Winnipeg, with no fans in the stands. But there was really no other choice when it came to measuring the importance of playing this season. “Doing it all in a way that we make sure everyone stays safe, those are important things to us,” said Clanachan. “If we can get all that done that’s great.”

So what would a successful 2021 look like to the commissioner? “I want to see a great competition in the kickoff in Winnipeg. I want to see that full season in. I want to see that playoff structure and single-game final come off without a hitch and everybody be absolutely blown away with the fact that everybody’s in it to win it, right to the end.”

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