The action never really stops in the global sport of soccer, and no one knows this better than the president of a national governing body.
So at the end of a busy and exciting year for Canadian soccer, we caught up with Canadian Soccer Association president Victor Montagliani for a one-on-one chat about the successes and disappointments of 2015, as well as what footie fans up north can expect in the year ahead.
MLSsoccer.com: In a general sense, how would you characterize the year that was for Canadian soccer?
Montagliani: From a results standpoint, we would have liked some better results at the club and country level. At the end of the day, you’re talking about the game as the sharp edge of the knife, and ultimately, I think you always want to win championships or get as far as you can in tournaments. From that perspective, there was some success.
Quarterfinals [at the Women’s World Cup] is not bad, although it wasn’t our goal. We missed an opportunity. Gold Cup, although I thought we looked tight, we looked prepared, but things didn’t bounce our way. And our clubs, although they had good regular seasons, didn’t perform the way they wanted to—or we wanted to—in the playoffs.
It’s more of a glass half full than half empty, because I think the entities I just spoke about have come a long way, in terms of how we manage and govern our own businesses. I think soccer is not only on the map in this country, but in the consciousness of Canadians, and I think the professional clubs and the CSA should take some credit for that, for managing the soccer properties the right way. So I think all in all, it’s been a very successful year.
MLSsoccer.com: One of the events you just mentioned was the Women’s World Cup, with the home team making it to the quarterfinals. But from an organizational perspective, how successful was Canada 2015?
A home run. The numbers speak for themselves. Attendance-wise, economic impact-wise, and then the last stat that came out was TV audience, when three quarters of a billion people tuned in, worldwide. Those are ridiculous numbers. So I think saying that it was anything short of a home run is probably understating it.
MLSsoccer.com: In terms of the Canadian women’s team itself, this was maybe a bit of a “last hurrah” for some of the veteran players…
Montagliani: Absolutely. Not to get into specifics with names, but I think it’d be a bit of a stretch to think that a handful of the players that our fans saw here in Canada this year, and probably will see in Rio next year, I would struggle to think that they’re going to be wearing a Canadian jersey in 2019 when we go to France for the World Cup.
You’ve seen a change. The player of the year for the women [20-year-old Kadeisha Buchanan], I think that was an obvious choice, but it’s also a symbolic choice, because that’s the beginning of what we’re going to see in the future. You’re going to see Kadeisha and Ashley Lawrence, Jessie Fleming and that whole new generation of players, as the candidates moving forward for player of the year. They’re going to be the core of the program, just like [Christine] Sinclair and [Melissa] Tancredi and all of them have been the core of the program for the last 15 years.
MLSsoccer.com: It’s kind of remarkable to see Kadeisha win the women’s award and then see Cyle Larin come second in voting for the men’s award in just his rookie season, a pair of 20-year-olds there. Do you see that as a sign that the pipeline is really turning into overdrive in terms of Canadian talent?
Montagliani: I think the pipeline is as full as it’s ever been. There’s still some things we need to do to make it better, especially at the early stages of development, that’s where we need to get better. I think we’re starting to fill in at the top end of things, with high-performance leagues and getting our players exposed. But you’re starting to see players come through, whether it’s Cyle Larin, Michael Petrasso, you’re starting to see players come through—and dynamic players, as well.
One of the issues that maybe we’ve had in the past is we haven’t developed dynamic players, but I think that’s starting to change. You’ve got young kids like Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese, they’re not cookie-cutter type players, they all have a unique talent. I like what I’m seeing in terms of what’s coming through.
MLSsoccer.com: This year, the talk has moved a little more public about the possibility of a new Canadian professional men’s league. What can you tell us about where that stands?
Montagliani: We want to give us the best opportunity for that to come to fruition, which is why we haven’t rushed to making any assumptions. We want to make sure we’ve dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in terms of the best model moving forward for this country, from a feasibility standpoint, from a business model standpoint.
We’re continuing our due diligence in that. We’ve talked to the various ownership groups that would be interested—actually, more than just interested—so what we want to do is, I think, 2016 we’ll be in a position to go public with more details and even have more of a date going forward, in terms of when we would start.
But it’s something that I think is very important because it’s something that is needed in this country. I think relying on five teams to carry the load of player development in a country like ours is asking a lot of those guys. I think they do more than their fair share, quite frankly; we need to help out that equation in terms of finding more expressions of professional football in this country.
MLSsoccer.com: You spoke about those pro teams a bit earlier, and in 2015 we saw all three MLS teams make the playoffs, and the Ottawa Fury went to the NASL final. Do you feel that Canadian clubs having such success is, in and of itself, a good step forward for Canadian soccer?
Montagliani: Absolutely. I think the more successful they are, the more it raises the profile of the game. But I think ultimately this success, you could even double down on that success, in terms of the power it would have if that success is coupled with a significant contribution from Canadian players.
So, having success without Canadian players contributing significantly, it’s good. But if you add Canadian players contributing significantly to that success, you’re doubling down on that success.
MLSsoccer.com: So is it safe to say you’re a fan of Toronto FC signing Will Johnson?
Montagliani: I’m a fan of Will, to start with. He’s got to make the best decision for his family, first and foremost. But yeah, I’m a fan of that move because I think he’ll do very well there.
MLSsoccer.com: Looking at World Cup qualifying, the game in Vancouver last month against Honduras drew a crowd of over 20,000 people. For you, not just in the role you’re in with the CSA but also as a west coaster, it must have been gratifying to see a crowd like that, especially since it had been so long since Vancouver had hosted a men’s game. How was it for you to see that crowd, as well as the result?
Montagliani: I remember when we announced the game, I fielded a few questions about “well, do you think it’s a hard sell?” because we were ranked whatever we were ranked back then. I did bristle at that question a little bit. But I was really happy because the city that I grew up in and love responded exactly the way I thought it would respond.
And they actually upped the ante because we’re already past that number for [the March 25 qualifier against] Mexico, and I think we’ll probably be very close to a lower-bowl sellout [by the end of the year].
MLSsoccer.com: Some would say that a lot of those tickets sold are probably to Mexican fans. What are your expectations for that game?
Montagliani: Actually, to be honest, from what we can gather from the data of the sales, a significant portion—I’m talking 80 percent, from what we can track; obviously we don’t have control on resale—are Canadian fans, not Mexican fans. So, taking that number, if the lower-bowl sellout is 27,000, I would think 24,000 of that would be Canadian, from the data that’s coming through Ticketmaster.
Now, the question is, are we going to look into opening the upper bowl or not? We’re not sure yet. We’ll have to consider it, but the consideration is not just about giving access to an upper bowl to sell out, we’re also going to be considering the dynamics of what’s going to be in the upper bowl. There’s a lot of factors before we make the decision about the upper bowl.
MLSsoccer.com: It sounds to me that if thousands of Mexican fans wanted upper-bowl tickets, you’d rather keep the upper bowl closed. Is that what you’re getting at?
MLSsoccer.com: We had a chat in 2013 and you told me that expanding the Canadian Championship tournament in the years ahead was “a must”. Now you’ve got USL teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, you’ve got League 1 Ontario and PLSQ doing well—where do you see the Voyageurs Cup heading in the next few years? Do you see further expansion in 2016 or 2017?
Montagliani: I’m not sure about the USL teams, because they are reserve teams of the MLS teams. That’s a challenge in itself, because it’s the same club. So I’m not sure, from a governance standpoint, how that would work; I would actually be against it, because they’re moving players up and down all the time. I’m not saying we can’t do it, unequivocally, but I think there’s some challenges there.
In terms of the semi-pro option, absolutely. I would hope by 2017 we would have that option. I would even think by 2018 we’d chuck in an amateur option at the senior level, where they’d have an opportunity to play into it. And ultimately, if we expand our own professional league or have more teams playing in Canada, you have an opportunity of having a five- or six-team tournament turn into a 12-, 13-, 14-team tournament. It just makes it a lot more exciting and a lot more palatable in terms of quantity and, hopefully, quality for the fans.
MLSsoccer.com: What would you say Canada Soccer’s top priorities are for 2016?
Montagliani: If you’re looking outwards, there’s obviously qualifying for the Rio Olympics on the women’s side, doing well at the U-20 Women’s World Cup, and qualifying for the U-17 [Women’s World Cup] and doing well. Doing well is for our women to get to semifinal, and medal at the Olympics.
On the men’s side, well, you and me both know what that is: to get to the Hex. That would be the ultimate success.
Looking inwards, it’s an increase in terms of priority investment on the technical side of the game, domestically. We’re looking at more boots on the ground and streamlining in technical areas; we’re looking at the high-performance leagues. We’re not just letting our membership wallow; they’re trying to do their best, obviously, but I think there’s some guidance that’s necessary from the national body. To me, that’s the No. 1 priority domestically.
MLSsoccer.com: There has been some resistance to some of the changes that the CSA has been trying to make at the grassroots level. How successful has that push towards higher and more centralized technical standards been in 2015?
Montagliani: The truth is, we barely started. We started in some areas more than others, but I think we need to completely relook at our coaching education and investment in it, a relook in terms of making sure we’re involved in high-performance leagues, making sure we’re pushing down into that Under-12 area to ensure that the right environment is created for players—and de-mything a lot of the ignorance that’s out there sometimes in those areas.
I think where we’ve done a good job, and what I committed to—and you can’t do everything in three years—was to really clean up and refresh the national team program in terms of consistency of off-field quality. I think we’ve done a really good job, where youth teams and senior teams are playing all the time.
When you go behind the curtains, it’s a five-star program in terms of how we treat the players, what the players get. If you speak to the players, on or off the record, I’m pretty confident of the answer you’re going to get. We played on pretty much every FIFA date, which is something that wasn’t happening before. If you don’t play on every FIFA date, it’s hard to bring in young players and have a look at them.
Now the focus domestically is what I’ve talked about, and that needs to be pushed over the next two years, which is the end of the cycle of our strategic plan. We need to increase the speed of that, so that we can meet the marks we set for 2018.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you think that off-field treatment is connected to what we’ve seen with the men’s team in terms of players choosing Canada in 2015? I’m thinking of guys like Tesho Akindele and Junior Hoilett, and Lucas Cavallini, who was away for a few years but came back. Is that coincidental or is it the byproduct of work that’s been put in?
Montagliani: I don’t think it’s coincidental at all. The best form of advertising for a business is word of mouth. If you tell you, ‘Hey, they make an unbelievable pasta over there’, you’re going to go, right? Especially if I say it.
MLSsoccer.com: Well, if a guy named Montagliani tells me where to get good pasta…
Montagliani: But you know what? That’s what’s happened. You can’t worry about what people think; all you can worry about is what you do. So we worried about what we do, in terms of making sure we look after every detail, in terms of the program, right down to the way we transport our equipment. Now it’s done five-star, even little details like that.
The players feel it when they come in, and players talk. They chat. When they know, and when you sit down with a player—like the many times I’ve sat down with Junior over the last three years—it’s obvious to these guys that we run a good ship. Although sometimes you’re not getting the results on the field that you want, you have to be patient and confident during the process. I think we’ve done that, and hopefully the soccer gods smile on us and give us a few results, too.
MLSsoccer.com: That would help, of course. We’ve heard a few more names of guys kicking around who are thinking of suiting up for Canada on the men’s side. Do you think this trend will continue into 2016?
Montagliani: I’m confident we’re going to have at least two, maybe three more announcements in 2016.
MLSsoccer.com: In time for the Mexico games?
Montagliani: Hopefully, yes.
MLSsoccer.com: Are you willing to give any hints?
MLSsoccer.com: How about first letter of a first name?
Montagliani: Well, you can speculate. I’ll put it that way.