The original Canadian Soccer League was a Division 1 professional soccer league that operated in Canada from 1987 to 1992. It was a nationwide league that had franchises in six provinces over the course of its history.
The CSL was formed in the aftermath of Canada's participation in the 1986 World Cup finals tournament held in Mexico. Canada was an oddity as a country whose association was able to qualify a team despite not having a domestic professional league, or even a domestically based professional team with the demise in 1984 of the U.S.-based North American Soccer League. Founding league commissioner Dale Barnes voiced sentiment aptly when he said the league is to "bring our players home."
The league gained a leap in credibility when an agreement was reached with TSN to broadcast a CSL Game of the Week, allowing a nationwide audience to view a game on domestic cable TV each Sunday evening. Broadcasts featured play-by-play commentator Vic Rauter and analyst Graham Leggat. The league received sponsorship from Air Canada, Foster's Lager, Hyundai, and Gatorade. Also the league adopted the standard FIFA points system (2–1–0, then 3–1–0) as well as allowing for draws instead of 'Americanizing' the points system with bonus points and two different categories for both wins and losses unlike the NASL or the APSL which was to follow.
The Canadian Soccer League showcased 13 teams throughout its six-year history, debuting in 1987 with 8 clubs. The league reached its peak of club participation and national exposure in the 1990 season with 11 clubs, while closing out its final season in 1992 with a low of 6 clubs. Some clubs involved in the league, such as the Vancouver 86ers and Toronto Blizzard, existed prior to the formation of the CSL and would go on to play in other leagues after the CSL's demise in following the 1992 season. Clubs participating in the CSL throughout its six years of existence included:
The schedule was not a balanced schedule based on the league principle of playing each club home and away due to travel concerns. The teams played the other teams within their division twice each home and away and the other division once each home and away for a total of twenty games. To mitigate the fairness playoffs, a knockout tournament, were instituted to designate a national champion club.
The league's opening game was played May 26, 1987 in Aylmer, Quebec and saw the hometown Ottawa Pioneers and Hamilton Steelers play to a 0–0 draw in steady drizzle in front 2,500 spectators. The league was divided into an Eastern and Western division for its first four seasons and without divisions in its final two. The Eastern Division in 1987 consisted of Ottawa, Hamilton, the Toronto Blizzard, and North York Rockets. The Western Division comprised the Calgary Kickers, Edmonton Brickmen, Vancouver 86ers, and Winnipeg Fury. Hamilton won their division both in the regular season and in the playoffs, as did Calgary. The final saw the top point-getting team in the regular season, Calgary, defeat the second-best side, Hamilton, 2–1 at home in a winner take all one game final.
For 1988, the Montreal Supra was added to the Eastern Division. The Ottawa franchise changed their name from the Pioneers to the Intrepid. In a repeat of the previous season, regular season leaders met in the playoff final with the top team, Vancouver defeating second-best Hamilton, again runners-up, by a score of 4–1. Calgary went from being champions to second worst team in the league, with a mere 6 wins in 28 games.
1989 saw a tenth team added to the league, the Victoria Vistas. Naturally, the Vista joined the Western Division which re-established a balance of teams in each division, with five each. After the previous Calgary team folded, a new team that was community owned named themselves the 'Strikers'; the change though could not avert disaster as this second franchise folded upon the season's conclusion. The 1989 schedule was not a balanced schedule between the West and East Divisions; the teams played each team in their division a total of four times, twice each home and away, while only playing the opposite division a total of two times, once each home and away. Vancouver was dominant again, losing but two regular-season matches en route to a second straight victory over Hamilton in the championship game. The 86ers went 46 consecutive games from the previous season into this one without losing, which is a record for a professional sports team in Canada. The Steelers reached the final despite relinquishing their Eastern Division title to Toronto.
Before the season, Kitchener and London were added. The league did not have a balanced home and away schedule (follow the league principle) between conferences. West Division teams played each other four times each, twice each home and away, while playing the East Division teams twice, once each home and away. Eastern Division teams played other East Division teams three times, while playing the West Division teams twice, once each home and away.
Due to the unequal number of teams in each division, only three teams qualified from the West Division while the fifth placed team in the East Division would have to incur extra travel costs to cross over to (play the highest seed) the West Division.
The 1990 playoffs were a two-game, home and away series based on total points. As in the league's regular season, the point system was two points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. If the teams were tied on points (e.g. each team won a game, or both games were ties), then the first tiebreaker was the teams playing a thirty-minute mini-game. If the mini-game resolved nothing, then penalty kicks were used as the second tiebreaker. In the mini-game, each team named a new lineup, could include three more substitutes and
re-activate any players who sat out of Game Two for cautions. Game Two home teams, the higher seeds, had an advantage as they had their entire 22-man active list available while away teams often traveled with as few as 14 players for economic reasons. Soccer fans used to the aggregate score and away goal rule as well as at least some media appeared to find the tiebreaker rules complicated to explain. The last column of the bracket below shows the points, not the aggregate score, with teams winning the tiebreaker given one extra point.
The playoff final was a one-off match hosted by the top seed, or team with the best league record, in 1990.
Vancouver 2–1 North York (Vancouver advances 4 pts to 0)
Winnipeg 4–1 Victoria
Victoria 2–0 Winnipeg (Victoria wins mini-game 1–0) '#
Winnipeg 1–2 Victoria (mini-game 1–1, Victoria advances 4–5 on PSO)
Hamilton 2–1 Montreal
Montreal 0–1 Hamilton
Kitchener 2–1 Toronto
Toronto 1–0 Kitchener (mini-game 0–0, Kitchener advances 3–4 on PSO)
Victoria 2–2 Vancouver
Vancouver 6–1 Victoria (Vancouver advances 3 pts to 1 pt)
Kitchener 0–1 Hamilton
Hamilton 3–3 Kitchener (Hamilton advances 3 pts to 1 pt)
Vancouver 6–1 Hamilton
Note home team is listed first.
'# Winnipeg protested this result due to a controversial fielding of an ineligible player (due to yellow card accumulation) that the league office failed to communicate to the teams involved or match officials. The CSL league office mandated a last minute replay on Thursday September 20, 1990 in Winnipeg.
After the season, Victoria, Edmonton, Ottawa and London folded.
Before the 1991 season CSL commissioner Dale Barnes resigned in January after directing the league since its inception. The Hamilton Steelers owner took over the responsibilities on a temporary basis. The CSL had suffered the loss of Edmonton and Ottawa while London asked for a leave of absence before finally folded in March. Victoria also folded and a second dispersal draft was required; however, the league expanded into the Maritime provinces for the first time with the Nova Scotia Clippers, who made a reasonable performance their first season, coming in mid-table right behind Montreal. The league had a balanced schedule with each team playing the others a total of four times, twice each home and away. The point system was updated along with FIFA's change to 3–1–0 (win–draw–loss). The regular season once again belonged to the Vancouver 86ers, who were only the second team to win 20 regular season games. In the playoffs, North York easily disposed of Nova Scotia and Hamilton won a split series with Montreal, 3–0, 3–4 and 1–0. In the semi-finals, Toronto defeated North York 2–0, 1–2 and 1–0, while Vancouver won on after a 1–1 draw and a 2–1 victory against Hamilton. The Championship game was a high scoring affair, with Vancouver beating Toronto 5–3.
The CSL had always had financial constraints requiring annual ownership capital investments, and sometimes it seemed a miracle when the league could pull through to see another season with some financially unstable teams. This year the financial pinch became particularly acute with league commissioner severance, increased travel equalization fund requirements, competition for players from the US-based MISL, NPSL and APSL (fighting over Canadian player's availability and salaries playing indoor during the winter), competition for spectators, sponsorship, and media coverage from an expanding World Basketball League, similar competition from a struggling Canadian Football League, as well as a Canadian economic recession from 1990 to 1992. The Nova Scotia Clippers folded at the end of the season after disappointing attendance. Hamilton, an original league member with an owner who had been a Canadian league visionary since at least 1983, also folded, along with Kitchener. Sadly, this was to be the next to the last season for the league.
Before the season, Nova Scotia was added. Kitchener changed their nickname to Kickers.
The CSL barely limped into the 1992 season, staggering under the weight of their ever-present financial problems. The London Lasers did return from a one-year leave of absence, while both the Kitchener Kickers and Hamilton Steelers folded three weeks before the 1992 season in May. Hamilton despite offers of cost sharing with the Vancouver and Montreal team owners.
The point system was FIFA's 3–1–0 (win–draw–loss). The league had a balanced schedule with each team playing the others a total of four times, twice each home and away. Two teams (Montreal and Vancouver) participated in the Professional Cup alongside the five APSL clubs and one from the NPSL. Neither CSL side was able to advance out of the first round.
The financial picture did not improve during the season, and with dysfunction about the most sustainable path for professional soccer, concerns about club stability – declining attendance and red ink continuing to mount in most markets, the resignation of Canadian soccer advocates such as Mario DiBartolomeo, Frank Aliaga, and Karsten von Wersebe, the CSL folded after the 1992 season. Vancouver media reported that the Vancouver 86ers' owner was the only team to fully pay league dues, had injected $65,000 for the London Lasers to finish the season, and paid playoff travel and accommodation expenses for the Toronto Blizzard. The team owners, the league investors, reached financial exhaustion partly through attrition. This brought an end to the first truly national Canadian league to finish a season (CPSL in 1983).
This was a major blow for the Canadian Soccer Association and Canadian soccer, as the CSL had been enormously successful in providing Canadian players with a higher level of competition than had been available at any other time than the North American Soccer League years. As of 2014, after the 1986 World Cup, players from the CSL cohort have still progressed the furthest in World Cup Qualifying and formed the veteran core of the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup winning squad.
After the season, the league folded, along with the London franchise and defections began to what appeared to be a more stable U.S. league – with covetous eyes on 1994 World Cup monies. It was announced that Vancouver joined the APSL, a league trying to show the USSF it had the wherewithal, new higher standards for 1993 (financial capitalization, salary budget, $1 million operating budget, front office, coaching, market size etc.), to be chosen as the Division 1 league by the USSF on October 6, 1992, the day of the CSL final. Vancouver cited financial stability and higher growth prospects with the league expected by some to become the USSF's Division 1 league as required by FIFA when awarded the United States the 1994 World Cup. There was a lot of politics over league stature including a lot of World Cup money (estimated at $60 million) during 1992/1993 including USSF leadership seeming to prefer the creation of a new league from scratch versus sanctioning an improved APSL as Division 1. The APSL hardly seemed more stable than the CSL (and was not, it folded in 1996) with the San Francisco owner's October 1992 announcement he was leaving the APSL to obtain a California-based Mexican League team as the USSF appeared nonplussed about a Division 1 APSL – he eventually withdrew his financial support of professional soccer in the Bay Area (in a parallel to CSL ownership groups during 1992). Five APSL clubs folded (Miami, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Salt Lake, and Albany) in November 1992 instead of meeting tougher new standards and San Francisco as outlined, the most financially stable team, folded prior to the 1993 season. There ended up being only four remaining 1993 U.S. APSL teams; Canadian teams made up half their league. Canadian soccer became caught up in the U.S. soccer politics, suffered as casualties, and has yet to recover in terms of paid soccer opportunities.
Even with the Vancouver defection to the United States, the CSL planned to have seven clubs for the 1993 season as of mid-December 1992 including a Burnaby, B.C.-based team; however, opposition from the Vancouver 86ers stymied this ownership's efforts. Worse the U.S. exodus continued; the Montreal ownership and front office split with their main financial sponsor (not owner) announcing the start of a new APSL club on December 13, 1992 with the Supra coach. Toronto joined the APSL in early January 1993. Winnipeg, with fewer financial resources and too small of a population (per the APSL standards), joined the southern Ontario-based, semi-pro National Soccer League (which changed its name to the Canadian National Soccer League) along with North York in 1993. When the dust cleared, there were not six Canadian professional teams, the minimum for a league, that survived in any form for the 1993 season.
Twenty-six players from the Canadian Soccer League have since been inducted in the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame. From that group, 11 honoured members made their professional debuts in the Canadian Soccer League.