Brennan & Co. hoping to help future generations of local soccer talent with CPL club
By Matthew Gourlie
Jim Brennan has been a Canadian soccer pioneer before.
In 2007 he returned home from English football to be the first singing for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer.
Now, Brennan is helping bring soccer home on a much bigger scale as a co-owner of York 9 Football Club in the Canadian Premier League.
The club was unveiled Thursday at a launch party at Vaughan City Hall.
“We want to open people’s eyes and say ‘wow this is here. York region really does have a team and the Canadian Premier League is really happening,’” Brennan said. “For so long there were so many questions and there was so much uncertainty and people didn’t know what was going on because everything was kept quiet. It’s going to be a great moment to really announce it: this league is here and York region is going to be part of it.”
The Canadian Soccer Association has approved CPL franchises for York, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Halifax and Port City, B.C. The league is expected to kick-off with at least eight teams and a 28-game schedule in April of 2019.
York 9 FC is owned by York Sports and Entertainment, a group that includes Brennan, president Preben Ganzhorn and Carlo Baldassarra, chairman and CEO of Vaughan’s Greenpark Group.
The York 9 name represents the nine municipalities that comprise the York region north of Toronto: Vaughan, Newmaket, Markham, Richmond Hill, King, Aurora, Whitchurch-Stouffville, East Gwillimbury and Georgina.
The club also unveiled its logo and its colours: charcoal grey, electric green and black.
Brennan began his professional career by joining England’s Bristol City as a 17-year-old in 1994. With a Scottish mother and an Irish father, securing a passport to play in England as a youth player wasn’t a barrier.
His experience as a player has helped form his passion for making the CPL a success.
“I’m not doing this for me and our group isn’t either. We’re doing this for the next generation of kids that are coming through the system,” Brennan said. “I was very fortunate that I got to go play the game that I love overseas, simply because I had a passport. There were a number of kids when I was growing up who were fantastic footballers, but just never had an opportunity to go overseas because they didn’t have passports. And their careers fizzled out.
“With this league coming and bringing a team to York, it gives these local, domestic kids a chance to fulfill their dreams and make a living out of playing professional soccer in their own backyard. It really is exciting times.”
Brennan would go on to make 275 appearances in the football league with Bristol City, Nottingham Forest, Norwich City and Southampton. In 2004, he and Norwich won the First Division title and promotion to the Premier League. Brennan made 10 appearances in the Premiership from 2004-06.
He returned home in 2007 to be the first captain of Toronto FC. He would go on to make 93 appearances for the club. Brennan earned 49 caps for Canada and played every minute in their five-match run to the 2000 Gold Cup title. He was inducted into the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015.
Brennan grew up in Newmarket, 50 km north of the CN Tower and downtown Toronto, and has returned there to live in the York region. Brennan acknowledges that the region will always be associated with Toronto — the subway and TTC come into the region and residents commute into the city daily — but they want to be a club of and for the York region first and foremost.
“With this what we wanted to do was bring the whole community together and create our own identity now with York,” Brennan said. “It’s big a hotbed for soccer players who come out of this region. Now our population is about 1.3 million. It’s about time we had our own professional club here.
“We want to have stability and we want transparency. We want to work well with the community. We want to build this club to make the community feel like they are a part of this. We want to have a fantastic relationship with our local community. That’s one of our biggest goals, to make that happen.”
Brennan saw the evolution of Toronto FC first hand. He knows that even when the club was struggling on the pitch, the atmosphere always helped sell the team.
York Lions Stadium on the York University campus will be York 9 FC’s first home. The stadium was opened in 2015 as an athletics venue for the Pan-American Games. It features 3,000 permanent seats, but was expanded to 12,500 during the PanAm Games.
“We’ll have to bring in seating and we’ll look to bring it up to about 10,000,” Brennan said. “It is what it is. You’re going to have to bear with us a little while we get up and running.”
The running track won’t offer the same proximity to the pitch that people attending TFC matches at BMO Field have become accustomed to. The club does have plans to start building its own 12-15,000-seat stadium within three years.
“We’re looking to build a 12-15,000-seat stadium in the region,” Ganzhorn said. “It will be a soccer-first stadium. We are very passionate about our game and believe it needs to be designed around that passion so that the atmosphere that people will see and feel when they come to the stadium is akin to what you find at the best stadiums in Europe.”
After retiring as a player in 2010, Brennan assumed a number of roles with Toronto FC. Initially, he was an assistant general manager under Mo Johnston. He would go on to coach the TFC Academy under-17s, the reserves and he also served as an assistant coach under Aron Winter, Paul Mariner and Ryan Nelsen.
Brennan returned to the York region in 2015 to become the executive director of the Aurora Youth Soccer Club. In his time there, they rebranded as Aurora FC and joined League1 Ontario in 2016.
His diversity of roles in the pro game and with professional academies — both in England and in Canada — plus his time with Aurora FC leave him with a broad knowledge that should serve him well as York 9 FC get off the ground.
“I was involved for 25 years in the pros and two years in the grassroots to see what that was all about,” Brennan said. “It was an eye-opener. That’s all part of your education as someone who is involved in the game and who loves it.
“There’s a lot of talent that’s out there. There’s some fantastic kids with a bright future.”
Brennan’s time as a coach with TFC overlapped with Ganzhorn becoming TFC’s director of marketing and community. That relationship and their relationship with CPL president, and former TFC vice-president of business operations, Paul Beirne got the ball rolling for owning a franchise 18 months ago.
“There were always these talks going around that a Canadian Premier League was coming,” Brennan said. “The vision behind it was to… start to finally develop our own players, coaches and administrators. I wanted to be a part of it. Paul Beirne and I met and we had a number of conversations.
“Myself and my partner, Preben Ganzhorn, went out and started to look to see if we could bring a team to together to make it work. We wanted to bring a pro team to York region and we did that. We’re really excited by what we accomplished.”
Brennan is the executive vice-president and Ganzhorn is the club’s president. Brennan will be the director of soccer for the club, while Ganzhorn overlooks the business side of the operation.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with (the Baldassarra family). Once this came around and we started talking — and they’re big soccer fans, they love the game and everything about this league and what it stands for — it was a great partnership,” Brennan said. “All of us, our whole ownership group, are all from York region. It was a good fit for everyone.”
Carlo Baldassarra co-founded Greenpark Homes in Vaughan in 1967 after emigrating to Canada from Italy in 1958 at the age of 19.
Ganzhorn grew up in Copenhagen, Denmark, but came to Canada in 1995 for two years while working for brewing giant InBev. In his first weekend in the country he met his wife Connie and never left. In a second stint working for Danish brewing giant Carlsberg, Ganzhorn became their director of marketing and secured a brewery sponsorship for TFC and BMO Field. Ganzhorn was also the director of marketing at Callaway Golf Canada before being hired by Toronto FC in 2011.
It has been a long process building up to Thursday’s launch and Brennan wanted to savour the moment. He also knows that there is lot of hard work on the horizon.
He said an academy is in their plans “in time” as they look to build the club.
“We had a good relationship with York Region Soccer Association. We’ll be sitting and talking with them about looking to put our academy together,” he said.
While adding staff and building the club is a priority, so too is building a fanbase and getting people in the region excited about having a professional team to finally call their own. He stressed that he wanted York 9 FC to be a community club for the people of the York region and owned by people from the region.
“A lot of the fans have been sniffing it out, putting two and two together and figuring things out about the club and who is involved. So even people on the street are talking about it and there really is a buzz that is starting to develop here,” Brennan said.
As is the case with most CPL markets, York region has an active supporters group that pre-dates the club.
“We’ve been talking to them quite a bit,” Brennan said. “It’s up to us now. We have to continue to build this fanbase. We’re not trying to compete with Toronto FC. Toronto FC is 11 or 12 years in front of us. We would like to be where they are today in 11 or 12 years. They’ve set the tone. They’ve set the model. They’ve done a great job and done well with the community. It will be up to us to follow in what they’ve done.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but a lot of fun.”