Canadian Soccer Association’s strategic plan solid, but 2026 World Cup bid has problems

The Eh Game

The Canadian Soccer Association released its 2014-2018 strategic plan Thursday, and there's some important information in there. The highlights are discussed on the CSA website, which also features a full PDF version available for download. That in and of itself is notable, as the organization is making a plan available to the general public for the first time, but there's some valuable content in there as well, and it generally seems like the CSA is moving in the right direction. However, one element of the plan is highly questionable: bidding for the 2026 World Cup.

There's a lot that's impressive about this plan. For one thing, the process by which it was developed involved reaching out to everyone in the soccer community through a public survey last year. That's a dramatic departure for the often-internally-focused CSA, and making a plan like this public is also a good step from a transparency and oversight standpoint. (It's unfortunate that they chose to do so in Ottawa on a day that the Canadian Olympic flag-bearer was announced in the same city, as this is likely to get overshadowed by that announcement, but this announcement still matters.) The four basic strategic priorities outlined aren't bad either. Here they are:

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1. Invest in TECHNICAL LEADERSHIP by supporting our players, coaches and officials at all levels of the sport.
3. ENCOURAGE the GROWTH OF THE GAME in our country.
4. GOVERN the game in Canada PROFESSIONALLY in collaboration with our partners.

(The CSA's Ottawa-based, so perhaps they picked up their ALLCAPS guidelines from the Ottawa REDBLACKS?)

However, all of those priorities in and of themselves are rather generic and easy to agree upon: for example, every Canadian soccer fan would probably rather see the national teams do well than poorly, and not many would argue against growing the game. It's how the association implements these priorities that will lead to the success or failure of this plan, and fortunately, they do go into a little more depth on exactly what they want to do.

The technical leadership blueprint (page 4) talks about fully implementing a national player development pathway that works with the long-term player development model already established, and that's a good step; the organization is already making some solid moves here, shifting grassroots soccer towards a model that can better teach technical skills through small-sided games and a focus on development over winning, and bringing in a clear national player development pathway from a young age follows the model of many great soccer countries and should help improve the national team. This blueprint also talks about developing a national training curriculum for coaches and mandating minimum standards of certification at all levels, which would both be solid steps. None of that will be easy to do, but a focus on improving and standardizing coaching of grassroots players should pay off for soccer across Canada.

The national team blueprint (page 5) is also promising, as it talks about booking more and better-quality games for the national teams, which would be a key step, and it also reflects the importance of pushing for government support and investment in top-level facilities. (There may be an interesting challenge on this front soon, as talk of moving the CFL's Toronto Argonauts to BMO Field has continued; BMO Field has been the main home for Canada's national teams, but that move would likely require putting turf in there instead of grass, which would be a significant problem for elite soccer. We'll see if the CSA takes a strong stance against that possibility.) The focus on supporting "elite-level, semi-professional regional leagues" is a little more questionable, as it's debatable whether any player considered for the national team would be better off in a semi-pro league rather than with a pro team somewhere, but the idea of supporting those leagues isn't a bad one; perhaps they'll lead to some diamonds being found in the rough.

Page six's discussion of bolstering growth has some good thoughts, including a discussion of how to ensure that hosting the 2014 U-20 Women's World Cup and the 2015 Women's World Cup boosts soccer's profile and participation rates. There's more talk of a national infrastructure strategy here, and that's also important. This page is notable for its focus on encouraging broad participation; while only a few players will eventually represent Canada on an international level, the widest possible participation in soccer is beneficial, as that deepens the pool of potential players and makes it more likely that elite athletes will consider the sport. However, this page also carries the notion of bidding for the 2026 World Cup, and that's a curious and probably-flawed idea.

Canada is highly, highly unlikely to ever host a men's World Cup. Everyone wants the World Cup, and you usually need incredibly deep pockets to get one (see Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022). Canada doesn't have those. Moreover, while Canada already has a few stadiums that could work for World Cup purposes (mostly CFL buildings), none of them are really extraordinary on a world stage, and they're a lot smaller than most stadiums that have been used for the World Cup in the past. Consider that the U.S. is likely to bid for 2026 too, and they have a massive amount of top-quality stadiums that can hold 70,000 people or more thanks to the popularity NFL and college football; they also have a lot more money than Canada does. Canada's bid is sure to be evaluated against the American one thanks to the countries' proximity, and it's hard not to see it being found wanting. The Canadian national team also isn't even close to qualifying for a World Cup, and that's usually considered, as the hosts get a free berth. (This was overlooked with Qatar, which also struggles on the pitch, but Qatar has a lot of money.) There's the possibility of a joint Canada-America bid, of course, as Japan and South Korea did in 2002, but while it would make sense from a Canadian perspective, it's hard to see the U.S. wanting to give up control and some games in exchange for marginal benefits on their end. In short, it's almost unimaginable that this bid could be successful, so spending the massive amounts of time and money that would be needed to prepare an official bid feels like a waste from this perspective.

Beyond that, though, this strategic plan seems reasonably solid. Page seven's discussion of governance reform and aligning the national and provincial bodies more closely is vital, as that's been much of what's held Canadian soccer back in the past, and the focus on sponsorship and business development is also important, as running a successful soccer program takes a lot of money. The ideas for technical leadership, the national team and growing the game also all have promise. The World Cup bid seems like a boondoggle, though, and unfortunately, that's likely to overshadow a lot of the good work here.

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