Summer Series a stepping stone for Sask. CPL expansion side

Matthew Gourlie

Everyone in Saskatchewan knows that a lot of planning, time and labour goes into the soil before yielding a bountiful harvest.

Joe Belan hopes to sew some seeds of interest in soccer this summer before launching a Canadian Premier League in Saskatoon in the coming years.

This week Belan announced the SK Summer Soccer Series — three matches slated for Saskatoon over the summer that will feature a Saskatchewan selects team. The first match will see the SK Selects face reigning USL League 2 champions Calgary Foothills under-23 side on May 4 at 7 p.m. at SMF Field (the former Gordie Howe Bowl).

Belan hopes that the series will be the next step in the process of bringing a Canadian Premier League club to Saskatchewan.

“I think it’s a really important stepping stone. We have to establish a foundation before we ultimately have a pro club and we feel we need a period of incubation to do that. That’s why, I think the series is a good step for us to understand the market, test the market, and start to get engagement with the soccer community and the broader community,” said Belan who is the co-promoter of the SK Summer Soccer Series.

“It’s a process that just takes time. You don’t just flick on a switch and expect people to want to congregate and support something that they don’t really have a clear understanding of. It’s a lot of communication and direct contact. I think the message is getting across and I think it’s being well-received. These are things that take time and hard work.”

While some of the existing CPL clubs have pre-existing facilities or a pipeline to players (as is the case with Cavalry FC, Forge FC and FC Edmonton) or both, the process of bringing a club to Saskatchewan had to start from scratch.

Belan has been the face and the driving force behind the effort to bring a CPL team to Saskatchewan. In addition to promoting the series in Saskatoon and Regina, he was busy meeting with the respective business communities. BMO has signed on as a game-day sponsor for the series and Belan was encouraged by the response from the corporate community.

Joe Belan

Joe Belan

“We’re learning more about the market and we’re learning more about people here. Saskatchewan in that sense is a little bit different. I think It’s very much a show-me-don’t-tell-me approach. We’ve heard that from many people and we’re seeing that in action,” said Belan who added that isn’t a criticism of the Saskatchewan market and that each market is different across the country.

Seeing the CPL kick-off next month will also aid their cause as they try to capture the imagination of the public and the business community.

“It’s actually quite helpful that people can see that the Canadian Premier League is a live thing,” Belan said. “It’s a very different conversation when you’re trying to convince them about a league that has never kicked a ball. I think it’s even more pronounced in Saskatchewan where people take maybe a bit of a more conservative approach.”

Belan said that stadium availability is the key reason why Saskatoon is the proposed home for the proposed team.

SMF Field has undergone extensive renovations over the course of the decade. A new Field Turf surface was installed for the home field of junior football’s Saskatoon Hilltops and capacity has expanded to 5,000 with seats that were part of the 2013 Grey Cup Legacy Project as some of the temporary seating for that event found a new home in Saskatoon.

Prairieland Park on the exhibition grounds in Saskatoon has a sizeable covered grandstand that could also be the starting point for a home for a new team.

“We think there are better options and stadiums in Saskatoon right now than in Regina,” Belan said.

During his stop in Regina, Belan preached a buy-in from all of the stakeholders in the community. The slogan for the series “we’re in this together” underscores the kind of culture they want to create for the prospective club.

“We have a number of (key performance indicators) that we’re going to measure against,” Belan said when asked what would constitute success for the series. “It’s really about people embracing it and supporting it. That comes in different forms, whether it’s people in the seats at the stadium or the engagement from the business community. We’ve been very pleased with the level of interest from sponsors that have stepped up. I think they really understand what we want to build long term and really want to be part of it.”

Percy Hoff

Percy Hoff, left, received the CSA’s President’s Award from Victor Montagliani. photo courtesy of Canada Soccer

The SK Selects will feature the top players in the province and will be guided by University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s coach Bryce Chapman who will serve as the director of soccer operations. Veteran Saskatoon coaches Percy Hoff and Huw Morris will co-coach the team.

“One of the objectives of the series is to showcase some of the Saskatchewan talent that we have and to synthetically create a bit of a competitive season for them against some good competition,” Belan said.

The final two games in the series are expected to be played against professional opposition in June and July.

Kevin Holness is the other co-chair of the series. The Regina product played professionally both indoor and outdoor in five different Canadian cities. He earned nine Canadian caps and scored twice in Canada’s 3-1 win over Honduras at the 1996 Gold Cup.

“It’s phenomenal. We always talk about opportunity and destiny for young kids and even the players in their early 20s, this takes it to another step. I’m so grateful to Joe for even presenting this initiative,” said Holness who will also serve on the coaching staff.

“It was always a dream to be able to play at home in front of your family and friends. Guys like me growing up, the only opportunity you had was moving away from home and travel across North America or travel overseas and knock on doors and hope somebody gives you an opportunity to play at the next level.”

SK Summer Soccer Series

While the series is a chance for supporters, area clubs and the business community to show their interest, it is also a trial run for players in the province to show that they deserve consideration if and when a club takes the pitch in the next two or three years.

Belan preached caution, both in a timeline for a possible Saskatchewan expansion team and in CPL expansion in general.

“It’s always been a very ambitious target. It’s a complex project,” he said. “It’s a parallel path because we have to demonstrate our viability and our confidence in going to the next level and then trying to integrate that with the overall plans that the Canadian Premier League have regarding expansion.

“I’m also a big believer that you don’t want to expand too quickly. I think doing it in a very measured way is the right approach.

“I think the league should try to achieve some stability first and from stability, you can ultimately grow. How we fit into that remains to be seen.”

Belan was speaking at Evraz Place in Regina during the WCP Cup. The annual indoor tournament sees teams divided along ancestral lines and has become a popular event in the local soccer calendar.

Holness began the WCP Cup with nine teams playing over four days. It has now grown to 60 teams with both genders competing over two weeks of competition.

“Every year, to our surprise it grows stronger and stronger. Different cultures join the tournament and the momentum is non-stop. We have teams that prepare from the summer time for this event in March,” said Holness as he watched a well-supported Chile face England in the under-15 boys’ division. One of the Chilean supporters was wearing a red, white and blue skintight jumpsuit, with a hot chile pepper costume overtop and strumming a ukulele.

“That passion is there. It’s a love of the game that brings everybody together,” Holness said. “You see the many different cultures come here steadily for the two weeks that we have the tournament and there’s never a concern about having fan support or atmosphere or anything like that. It definitely proves that the passion is here and the interest is here from the community.”

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