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) but does not operate any of its component leagues. For practical purposes, Canadian teams are often members of leagues that are based primarily in the United States.


As of 2020, the Canadian league system consists of several unconnected leagues and does not include promotion and relegation. The Canadian Premier League is the top division of soccer in Canada and is the only fully professional league in the system.[1] Due to proximity and other factors, some Canadian teams compete or have competed in United States-based leagues such as Major League Soccer.

There are currently no Division 2 clubs in Canada. Division 3 soccer competitions in Canada are 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), based in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec respectively.

Canadian Division 1 clubs – as well as selected Division 3 clubs – compete in the Canadian Championship for the Voyageurs Cup, which is the country's national championship trophy for professional teams. The winner of the Canadian Championship earns the right to play in the CONCACAF Champions League.

There are 12 provincial or territorial 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.

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 and 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.[2] 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. Later in 1993, Major League Soccer (MLS) beat the APSL and won the USSF's competition for U.S. Division 1 status. 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 U.S. Division 1 sanctioned league to include foreign teams which was why the APSL was never officially recognized as Division 1 before MLS.[citation needed]

MLS would eventually expand into Canadian cities with existing U.S. Division 2 teams. Newly created Toronto FC joined MLS for the 2007 season, whereas the existing Toronto Lynx self relegated from the USL-1 and began playing in the amateur-only USL Premier Development League.[3] The owners of Vancouver Whitecaps FC of the USSF Division 2 Professional League formed a team that joined MLS in 2011, and the owners Montreal Impact of the North American Soccer League created a team that joined in 2012.[4]

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 as Division 3 in 2009.[5][6] Following a match fixing scandal the league was then de-sanctioned in 2014 and continues to operate as a member of the Soccer Federation of Canada (SFC) that is not associated with any international body.[7]



Until 2019, the top two levels of its pyramid structure played in USSF sanctioned leagues (despite being Canadian-based). Currently, three Canadian-based teams that play in USSF sanctioned leagues play in Division 1 Major League Soccer - Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and CF Montréal. One team, Toronto FC II, plays in the US third tier USL League One. Since 2019, the Canadian Premier League has been the top level on its pyramid that is sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA).

In February 2010, the Canadian Soccer League was granted full membership by the 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.[8] 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,[9] the CSL was de-sanctioned by the CSA in 2013[10] 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 began streaming all games over the internet.[11]

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, which lasted until September 30, 2011.[12] Despite the moratorium, the NASL announced that Ottawa had been awarded a franchise on June 20, 2011.[13]

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.[14] In November 2013, the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) announced the sanction of League1 Ontario as part of this new structure.[15]


The United Soccer League (USL) manages several leagues, including the amateur USL League Two (USL2). USL2 is sanctioned and administered under the USASA and is below Division 3 in the United States soccer league system. The league is effectively a short 12-week season for post-secondary players following their collegiate commitments. 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.[16]

Below level 3, 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,[17] 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.

National cups[edit]

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 professional clubs at the Division 1 level and the winners of the two Division 3 leagues.

The Challenge Trophy is Canada's national men's amateur championship. It has been contested since 1913.

Pyramid breakdown[edit]

Sanctioned by the CSA Tier Sanctioned by the USSF

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


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

No league sanctioned at this level 2

No Canadian clubs at this level

League1 Ontario (L1O)
21 teams, all in Canada

Première Ligue de
soccer du Québec
10 teams, all in Canada


USL League One (USL1)
12 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)
83 teams, including 4 in Canada


United Premier Soccer League (UPSL)
250+ teams, including 1 in Canada


The women's game in Canada also has promotion and relegation only in amateur leagues that culminate in the Jubilee Trophy. 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.

Some Canadian Women's National Team (CWNT) players have their salaries partially paid by the CSA and other federal government athlete funding programs to play in the National Women's Soccer League in the United States.[18] The exact proportion of salaries paid by the CSA is negotiated with NWSL teams.[19] 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.[20]

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 five Canadian teams between the two leagues.

Other than CWNT pool players and U Sports players (in their two-month U Sports 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 Trophy. 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 Trophy. 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)
10 teams, 0 in Canada
Positions below this point are approximate and are not formally designated by the Canadian Soccer Association
N/A UWS League 1 (UWS1)
44 teams, including 2 in Canada
Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL)
135 teams, including 2 in Canada
League1 Ontario (L1O)
15 teams, all in Canada
Première Ligue de Soccer Féminine du Québec (PLSFQ)
10 teams, all in Canada

Jubilee Trophy
8 provincial associations

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2019 League Schedule". Canadian Premier League. Retrieved April 16, 2019.
  2. ^ MacDonald, Archie (February 26, 1987). "Soccer rebirth". Vancouver Sun Newspaper. Retrieved January 18, 2015.
  3. ^ "Toronto Lynx a costly labour of love". Archived from the original on December 6, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  4. ^ "Canada Looks to MLS Expansion as Aid to International Success". November 19, 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2010.
  5. ^ "CSL kicks off Friday while making plans for the future". CSL media release. Retrieved September 23, 2017.
  6. ^ "CSL looks to field a true national league". August 13, 2010. Archived from the original on September 22, 2010. Retrieved November 2, 2010.
  7. ^ "Canadian Soccer League joins Newly-Formed Soccer Federation". February 13, 2010. Archived from the original on December 12, 2013. Retrieved February 13, 2010.
  8. ^ "CSL Granted Full National Membership in CSA". February 24, 2010. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  9. ^ "Canadian soccer an easy target for match fixing". CBC News. September 12, 2012. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  10. ^ "Canadian Soccer League to fight CSA decertification". March 5, 2013. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Duane Rollins (November 15, 2010). "CSA puts brakes on future D2 sanctioning in US leagues". Canadian Soccer News. Archived from the original on November 23, 2010. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  13. ^ "Ottawa to Join NASL". North American Soccer League. June 20, 2011. Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  14. ^ Charles (February 5, 2013). "The Easton Report: What it means for Div. 3 in Canada". The 11. Retrieved July 7, 2018.
  15. ^ "OSA will sanction semi-pro League One". November 16, 2013. Archived from the original on December 13, 2013. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  16. ^ "Ontario gives notice on PDL in province". Canadian Soccer News. Retrieved November 20, 2015.
  17. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on July 27, 2010. Retrieved February 21, 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ "Canada Soccer announces 2017 NWSL allocations". Canadian Soccer Association. Retrieved January 26, 2017.
  19. ^ "Canadian allocated players announced for National Women's Soccer League". National Post. Canadian Press. April 5, 2019. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  20. ^ Kassouf, Jeff (April 11, 2013). "A quick look at NWSL salaries". equalizer Soccer. Retrieved March 31, 2014.