Canadian soccer league system

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The Canadian soccer league system, also called the Canadian soccer pyramid, is a term used in soccer to describe the structure of the league system in Canada. The governing body of soccer in the country is the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), which oversees the system and domestic cups (including the Canadian Championship or Voyageurs Cup) but does not operate any of its component leagues. For practical purposes top tier professional Canadian teams are often members of leagues that are based primarily in the United States.


The professional league structure in Canada largely coincides with the league competitions of the neighbouring United States. Promotion and relegation does not occur between any league levels. Canada does not presently have a fully professional national league, though the Canadian Soccer Association has given approval for the Canadian Premier League to begin play,[1] likely in 2019.[2] Canadian Division I clubs – as well as selected Division II and Division III clubs – compete in the Canadian Championship for the Voyageurs Cup, which is the country's national championship trophy for professional teams and which earns the winner the right to play in the CONCACAF Champions League.

The CSA previously sanctioned the second version of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) as Division 3; it is set up as a semi-professional league in Canada. The CSL has wanted to become the largest national domestic league.[3] It has, however, always been a league based in southern Ontario, often with one team in Quebec and occasional teams in Ottawa. It was the highest level domestic league below the Canadian teams competing in American leagues from 2010–2013. The CSL removed itself from CSA sanctioning for the 2014 season.[4]

Professional leagues background[edit]

By the mid 1960s, there were four major leagues across Canada including the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League (1961–1967). From west to east, the other major leagues were the Pacific Coast Soccer League (British Columbia), the Western Canada Soccer League (Alberta, Saskatchewan and eventually Manitoba and British Columbia), and the National Soccer League (Ontario/Quebec). In 1968, Canadian soccer turned its attention to the cross-nation North American Soccer League that initially featured professional teams in Vancouver and Toronto. Over the next 15 years, the professional league also featured teams in Calgary, Edmonton, and Montreal.

After the collapse of the original North American Soccer League, and Canada's participation in the 1986 FIFA World Cup the original Canadian Soccer League started operations as a nationally based CSA sanctioned Division 1 league.[5] When the original CSL folded in 1993, three Canadian teams moved to the American Professional Soccer League (APSL) where several had played preseason games and competed in post season tournaments. When Major League Soccer (MLS) won the USSF's competition for USA Division 1 status in 1993, the APSL lost stature and teams in several markets as well as in MLS markets in Denver, Los Angeles, and New York when MLS started three years later. Canadian teams continued to participate in the APSL and subsequently with the United Soccer Leagues merger in the A League / USL-1. FIFA did not allow the USA Division 1 sanctioned league to include foreign teams which was why the APSL was never officially recognized as Division 1 before MLS.

US Soccer made sustainable gains after their 2002 FIFA World Cup quarterfinal appearance. By the mid 2000s, the US (and by extension Canadian) soccer landscape was changing with competitors to the United Soccer Leagues arising such as the U.S. Soccer Development Academy starting in 2007 or strengthening such as the resurgence of Major League Soccer. Stronger USL-1 sides became frustrated by what they perceived as lack of ambition and a restrictive structure of the United Soccer Leagues. With the introduction of designated players, Soccer United Marketing, expansion of MLS in 2005, and larger attendances in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games versus MLS sides, the stronger USL-1 sides became less competitive with MLS sides on and off the field.

MLS looked to move into USL-1 markets with the higher marketing power. Toronto FC joined MLS for the 2007 season, whereas the Toronto Lynx self relegated from the USL-1 and began playing in the amateur-only USL Premier Development League (PDL).[6] Frustration eventually resulted in the USSF Division 2 Professional League in 2010 and a new league, the North American Soccer League. As part of the changing soccer landscape, two long time USL-1 Canadian clubs purchased franchises in MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC joined in 2011 and the Montreal Impact joined in 2012.[7]

One of the other original CSL teams did not join the APSL, they joined the National Soccer League based in southern Ontario. The National Soccer League renamed itself the Canadian National Soccer League (CNSL) with the addition of an out of province team. The CNSL had four teams found the second league named the Canadian Professional Soccer League (1998-2006) or CPSL with four other new teams. In 2006, the CPSL teams restarted in a new league, the second Canadian Soccer League (CSL). This second version of the CSL was initially sanctioned the Ontario Soccer Association and later by the Canadian Soccer Association in 2009.[8] Following a match fixing scandal the league was then de-sanctioned and continues to operate as a member of the Soccer Federation of Canada (SFC) that is not associated with any international body.[4]


Below division two, the soccer competitions in Canada are mostly regionally-based due to its large geography and dispersed pockets of population. There are two Division 3 Canadian-based semi-professional leagues, League1 Ontario (L1O) and the Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ), centred in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec respectively.

The Thunder Bay Chill competes alongside WSA Winnipeg in the Heartland Division of the U23 Premier Development League (PDL), a U.S.-based league. Calgary Foothills FC, Victoria Highlanders and TSS FC Rovers compete in the PDL's Northwest Division. On November 18, 2015, four Ontario teams (including FC London, who then moved to L1O) were given notice by the Ontario Soccer Association that they would no longer be permitted to participate in the PDL starting in 2017.[9]

There are 12 provincial soccer associations in Canada with a number of leagues organized as amateur competitions at adult and/or youth levels. Typically there is promotion and relegation plus league and cup competitions in each provincial region culminating in the National Challenge Trophy.

Cup eligibility[edit]





For the top two levels on its pyramid structure, Canadian-based teams play in USSF sanctioned leagues. Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Montreal Impact play in Division 1 Major League Soccer (MLS), while Ottawa Fury FC plays in Division 2 USL Championship. There is no promotion or relegation between the leagues.

In February 2010, the Canadian Soccer League was granted full membership by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and sanctioned as a semi-professional league. Sitting behind MLS and the NASL, the CSL operated as one of the Division 3 leagues within the Canadian pyramid.[11] However, following the release of a development study and subsequent change in CSA policy for the future growth and development of regional leagues, also coinciding with match fixing allegations in 2012,[12] the CSL was de-sanctioned by the CSA in 2013[13] and would not be considered a CSA sanctioned semi-pro league for the 2014 season.

The Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ) was founded as a semi-pro league in 2012, as a Division 3 league, with five teams and plays May to September. In 2013 the league expanded by two teams and will stream all games over the internet.[14]

The Canadian Championship competition, established in 2008 to determines the Canadian representative at the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL), awards the national trophy, the fan-created Voyageurs Cup. The CCL is the region's largest club tournament qualifying a club to the FIFA Club World Cup. Currently, the Canadian Soccer Association has limited the Canadian Championship to the country's four professional clubs at the Division 1 and 2 levels and the winners of the two Division 3 leagues.


The United Soccer Leagues (USL) manages several leagues, including the amateur USL Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL is sanctioned and administered under the USASA, along with the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Both leagues are considered Division 4 in the American league system, although only the PDL featured Canadian clubs in competition. Both leagues are effectively a short 12-week season for post-secondary players following their collegiate commitments.

At level 4 there are various amateur provincial leagues that are sanctioned under their individual provincial or territorial associations. This includes such leagues as the Pacific Coast Soccer League, Vancouver Island Soccer League, Vancouver Metro Soccer League, Fraser Valley Soccer League, Alberta Major Soccer League, Saskatchewan Premier Soccer League, Manitoba Major Soccer League, Ontario Soccer League,[15] Ligue de Soccer Elite Quebec, Nova Scotia Soccer League, and New Brunswick Premier Senior Soccer League. This collection of leagues across the country collectively compete for the Challenge Trophy.

Future expansion[edit]

In order to limit the Americanization of all of Canada's professional soccer clubs, the CSA issued a moratorium on the sanctioning of any new Division 2, 3, or 4 teams on November 15, 2010, with the ban set to last until September 30, 2011.[16] Despite the moratorium, the NASL announced that Ottawa had been awarded a franchise on June 20, 2011.[17]

In 2013, following the release of "The Easton Report", the CSA set out to create a Division 3 semi-pro structure divided by region, similar to the major junior hockey leagues in Canada, with regional champions competing in a national tournament.[18] In November 2013, the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) announced plans to sanction League1 Ontario as part of this new structure.[19]

Pyramid breakdown[edit]

Sanctioned by the CSA Tier Sanctioned by the USSF

Canadian Premier League (CPL)
7 teams, all in Canada


Major League Soccer (MLS)
24 teams, including 3 in Canada

(No league sanctioned at this level) 2

USL Championship (USLC)
36 teams, including 1 in Canada

League1 Ontario (L1O)
17 teams, all in Canada

Première Ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ)
8 teams, all in Canada


USL League One (USL1)
10 teams, including 1 in Canada

Positions below this point are amateur and are not formally designated by the CSA or the USSF

Challenge Trophy
12 provincial/territorial associations


USL League Two (USL2)
74 teams, including 5 in Canada


The women's game in Canada also has promotion and relegation only in amateur leagues that culminate in the Jubilee Shield. It functions like a pyramid at the amateur levels. Other U.S.-based leagues with Canadian players and Canadian teams could be considered part of the women's league system.

Ten Canadian Women's National Team (CWNT) players are paid by the CSA and other federal government athlete funding programs to play in the U.S. league, the National Women's Soccer League, when they are not in national team camps.[20] (Similarly, 24 USWNT members are paid by U.S. Soccer to play in the league, and 12 Mexico national team members had been similarly paid by their national federation before it established its own national league, Liga MX Femenil, in 2017.) Unsubsidized Canadian players can also play in the league as part of the international quota while others play in Europe. Canadian players play in the NWSL although all franchises are located in the U.S.; no Canadian franchises play in this U.S.-based league. Financial remuneration varies in the NWSL; the four-month-long league is new as of 2013 and salaries for unsubsidized players are not high enough to support them without other outside income.[21]

Various women's leagues operate throughout North America below the NWSL in a pro-am setup. As with the men's system, there is often no formal relationship (or results-based promotion/relegation) between leagues. Three of these leagues contain Canadian teams; League1 Ontario has twelve Canadian teams and is the only one of these leagues based in Canada, while United Women's Soccer and the Women's Premier Soccer League have two Canadian team each (Calgary Foothills WFC and the North Shore Girls Soccer Club - TSS FC Rovers, respectively).

Other than CWNT pool players and CIS players (in their two-month CIS season or in their 2.5 month off season), there are provincial competitions run by each of the provincial soccer associations to qualify an amateur team for the national championship, the Jubilee Shield. Some of these are leagues and others cup competitions. Many other primarily adult amateur leagues, some with eight month seasons, also culminate in the Jubilee Shield. There are indoor (March) and outdoor (September) national championships given Canada's climate.

Pyramid breakdown[edit]

Tier Leagues/Divisions
1 National Women's Soccer League (NWSL)
9 teams, 0 in Canada
Positions below this point are approximate and are not formally designated by the Canadian Soccer Association
2 United Women's Soccer (UWS)
31 teams, including 1 in Canada
Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL)
110 teams, including 1 in Canada
3 League1 Ontario (L1O)
13 teams, all in Canada
Première Ligue de Soccer Féminine du Québec (PLSFQ)
5 teams, all in Canada

The Jubilee Trophy
8 provincial associations

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Canada Soccer enters new era with approval of Canadian Premier League". Canadian Soccer Association. Retrieved May 6, 2017.
  2. ^ "About". Canadian Premier League. Retrieved May 6, 2017.
  3. ^ "CSL looks to field a true national league". August 13, 2010. Archived from the original on September 22, 2010. Retrieved November 2, 2010.
  4. ^ a b "Canadian Soccer League joins Newly-Formed Soccer Federation". February 13, 2010. Archived from the original on December 12, 2013. Retrieved February 13, 2010.
  5. ^ MacDonald, Archie (Feb 26, 1987). "Soccer rebirth". Vancouver Sun Newspaper. Retrieved January 18, 2015.
  6. ^ "Toronto Lynx a costly labour of love". Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  7. ^ "Canada Looks to MLS Expansion as Aid to International Success". November 19, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  8. ^ "CSL kicks off Friday while making plans for the future". CSL media release. Retrieved September 23, 2017.
  9. ^ "Ontario gives notice on PDL in province". Canadian Soccer News. Retrieved November 20, 2015.
  10. ^ "2010 Nutrilite Canadian Championship" (PDF). Canadian Soccer Association. Retrieved November 10, 2010.
  11. ^ "CSL Granted Full National Membership in CSA". February 24, 2010. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  12. ^ "Canadian soccer an easy target for match fixing". CBC News. September 12, 2012. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  13. ^ "Canadian Soccer League to fight CSA decertification". March 5, 2013. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  14. ^ Dugas, Michel (February 28, 2013). "TOUS LES MATCHS DE LA PREMIÈRE LIGUE DE SOCCER DU QUÉBEC SERONT WEBDIFFUSÉS EN DIRECT". Archived from the original on June 28, 2013. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 27, 2010. Retrieved February 21, 2013.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ Duane Rollins (November 15, 2010). "CSA puts brakes on future D2 sanctioning in US leagues". Canadian Soccer News. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  17. ^ "Ottawa to Join NASL". North American Soccer League. June 20, 2011. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  18. ^ Charles (February 5, 2013). "The Easton Report: What it means for Div. 3 in Canada". The 11. Retrieved July 7, 2018.
  19. ^ "OSA will sanction semi-pro League One". November 16, 2013. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  20. ^ "Canada Soccer announces 2017 NWSL allocations". Canadian Soccer Association. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  21. ^ Kassouf, Jeff (April 11, 2013). "A quick look at NWSL salaries". equalizer Soccer. Retrieved March 31, 2014.