Time and time again there have been rumours that somebody, somewhere, would force Ottawa Fury FC out of the USL Chamionship (USL-C) and into the Canadian Premier League (CPL). It was, for a time, expected that the CSA or USSF would swing the axe, but sanctioning for the 2019 season was granted by both organizing bodies and everything seemed safe for the upcoming year. 2020 was still in question, and many expected Ottawa Fury FC would revisit joining the CPL in time for the first round of expansion.

Last night’s move by CONCACAF, the organizing body for soccer across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, was a shock for everyone. Much like a referee from Honduras in a match between Canada and Costa Rica, the organizing body CONCACAFed Ottawa Fury FC, rejecting their sanctioning to play in a foreign league.

The move was shocking for everyone. Not as unprecedented as many like to claim, but certainly shocking. Fury manager, Julian de Guzman, looks absolutely blindsided in the response video the Fury released following the announcement. All three Canadian-based MLS-sides and the USL have spoken out in support of the Fury, and even the CSA and USSF are questioning the decision.

Although we’re all asking why, another important question we’d like answered, is what are the other ramifications of this. What does this move mean for existing soccer clubs that span borders?

“Equivalent League”

The only significant argument that has been leaked is that the CPL will be an equivalent league to USL-C. Given the currently rumoured salary cap ($750k), by money that would seem a fair assessment. However, not everything is about salary caps.

The claim that CPL = USL-C causes a number of major issues.

First it pegs the league as a minor league. This is strongly counter to everything the CPL strives to project, and calls-to-lie the Division 1 sanctioning set forth by the CSA. If CONCACAF has determined the leagues to be equivalent, that’s enshrining MLS as the actual D1, and pushing CPL to unofficial D2 status.

Secondly, forcing minor league status onto our country’s top domestic league will harm viewership, as Canadians have a pretty hard time supporting anything less than the top-flight. This was going to be a challenge for CPL to overcome to begin with, and CONCACAF just gave the naysayers more firepower for their arsenal.

Thirdly, it puts a number of cross-border teams in jeopardy. The “equivalent league” argument has been put into play before, forcing FC London to League1 Ontario (L1O), and effectively sinking K-W United to the soccer graveyard.

 (Edit: From my understanding, FC London was not “forced” per se, but a deadline for a required move of all Southern Ontario PDL teams was presented and they fell in line early, whereas K-W fought the tide and ultimately succumbed.)

Thunder Bay Chill are the only USL League Two (USL-2) side remaining in Ontario, as the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) and the CSA realize the absurdity of travel between Northwestern Ontario and Southern Ontario. But for CONCACAF’s “equivalent league” argument to hold, they will need to make it appear as though they were not specifically targeting Ottawa Fury FC, and the Chill’s future in USL-2 may come into question.

Cross-border Leagues

Including Ottawa Fury FC of USL-C, there are a number of teams and leagues that currently cross the border in order to compete.

Although the three MLS-clubs (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC) appear “safe” within MLS at this time, if CONCACAF actually recognizes the CPL as Canada’s 1st division (with a CONCACAF Champions League or CONCACAF League spot), their sanctioning could begin to be called into question. This is despite the fact that even the most die-hard CPL supporter will (begrudgingly) admit that CPL is not expected to match up to MLS in quality of play (for the reasonably foreseeable future).

USL League One currently houses Toronto FC II. There’s currently a gap between CPL and L1O/PLSQ, so there’s no “equivalent league” for them to drop into, yet. If a CPL-2 were to form, would they be forced to move as well? Or are they an exception as an MLS reserve team?

USL League Two houses a number of Canadian clubs: Victoria Highlanders FC, TSS FC Rovers, Calgary Foothills FC, WSA Winnipeg, and Thunder Bay Chill. There currently is no “equivalent league” on the West Coast, in Western Canada, Newfoundland, or the Maritimes.

However, as mentioned above, L1O and PLSQ, sanctioned as Division 3 Canadian Leagues, are considered equivalent at this time. BC has also tried floating the idea of a BC Regional Tier 3, which would become their equivalent. But that idea soundly fizzled due to very poor design by an organizing body that failed to properly consult existing clubs and investors.

By forcing Ottawa out of USL-C, this may embolden BC Soccer to launch their tier 3 with less teams than they had intended, as the “equivalent league” rule may be used to force the Highlanders and Rovers to convert or fold their top-team. Thunder Bay Chill’s safety given its remote location compared to other L1O sides, is no longer a given.

Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and Toronto FC also have academy sides that play in US Soccer Development Academy (DA) with most (all?) of the other MLS academy teams. Their closest “equivalents” would be provincial leagues, which vary widely in playing quality. Should these academies be forced to transition as well? Or do MLS academy sides also have a special exception?

Ottawa Fury’s Next Steps

The Fury have said their lawyers are seeking additional information about the ruling. Until that information is revealed, we have no idea how this will affect the Canadian Soccer Pyramid, and whether high-caliber USL-2 clubs like Thunder Bay Chill will have their future called into question as well.

If the ruling is based on “equivalent leagues”, the Fury will have an uphill battle to prove that USL-C doesn’t equal CPL. The CPL may even help them (and may even want to help them) in that battle by continuing to push their position as a Division 1 league, with a higher expectant salary level than almost all USL-C teams. We would also then have to expect the ruling to be laid out evenly across the country and pyramid, which would give Thunder Bay cause for concern.

If, however, this is a targeted attack on the Ottawa Fury FC and the USL-C, we can expect legal proceedings. They would have to be expedited, or have a temporary injunction put in place, in order for Ottawa to compete in the USL-C’s 2019 season. If the case isn’t seen swiftly, or the injunction isn’t passed swiftly, Ottawa does have several option for the 2019 season while they sue for perceived lost revenues and ability to play in USL-C.

Option A:

Ottawa Fury FC could take 2019 off while everything goes through the courts. This would orphan the players, whittle away at the fan base, and cost OSEG money while they hope the court will rule against the multinational body that determined the rules for the sport.

Additionally, when suing for lost revenues, it’ll be Ottawa’s duty to minimize losses. This means reducing staffing to bare bones, at the minimum. If there’s another league option available to them, they will not have moved to minimize losses (unless it would be more expensive to pay the players than play in the leagues available), and therefore will not be awarded as much in funds as they may expect. As a result, I think Option A would not be a good one to take.

Option B:

Go hat-in-hand to the CPL, beg forgiveness and admittance (tearing up the schedule they were/are nearly finished building), and scramble to ensure they’re ready to go for the 2019 season.

Again, I don’t see this as being a good option, mostly because the CPL’s gain of Ottawa (something that everyone should welcome), will not happen because it’s what Ottawa wants, which would make for a fractious partner in the new league.

Option C:

Compete in L1O or PLSQ in 2019. Yes, it’s a large drop in the expected playing level, and it would definitely hurt the team’s attendance & appearance.

However, it does provide continued operation and reduces losses (depending on player salaries). This then allows them to have ample time to prepare to enter CPL in 2020, and be the first team “promoted” within our new pyramid.

Option D:

Negotiate with CONCACAF to allow play in USL-C in 2019, with a firm timeline for transition to CPL. This would likely see transition in 2020 or 2021 the absolute latest.

In my opinion, this is the most obvious and likely solution. It will allow the whole situation to blow over relatively smoothly and have the same effect most people are really hoping to see.

It would still present some issues for Thunder Bay Chill, but that all depends on how the sanction ruling was worded.

Option E:

Fold the team completely. This would reduce OSEG’s losses the most, but would damage the view of pro-soccer in Ottawa & the rest of Canada for a very long time.

From a business perspective, it may be the best option for OSEG, but from the perspective of soccer in this country, it’s the worst possibility.

And now we wait.

At this point, there’s nothing most of us can do but wait for all this to play out. I’d recommend grabbing popcorn, but I suspect much of this will play out in private while Option D plays through.

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