Q & A: CPL commish Noonan talks growth, expansion, Cavalry success

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The sixth season of the Canadian Premier League is upon us, with Cavalry FC (0-1-1) set to make its home debut Sunday against visiting rival Pacific FC (2-0-0) at ATCO Field (3 p.m., OneSoccer, OneSoccer.ca).

We sat down with CPL commissioner Mark Noonan to talk about the year in the rear-view, the months ahead, and the state of the league.

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SAELHOF: New year, Mr. Commissioner. I think we should start with the question of what is the state — your take — of the CPL today?

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NOONAN: Stable and growing. We’re as healthy as we’ve ever been, and we’re poised for continued growth on and off the field. We’re coming off our fifth season, which was our most successful in our history — attendance was up almost 20 per cent, all of our other metrics — business metrics — are up, and the quality of play on the field was fantastic. We had a fantastic final — sorry for those in Calgary that didn’t get the victory, although you did was lift the Canadian Premier League Shield for the regular season, which is a great accomplishment. And so I feel really good about where we and — more importantly — where we’re going. We’re still a baby in the grand scheme of things. Six years in, with two of them in COVID, the fact that we’re even alive today is miraculous. But now we’re in a position to start growing and thriving, and that’s just remarkable.

SAELHOF: How do you perceive that growth? What’s going to happen?

NOONAN: So we’re in the process of looking to expand our league. Expansion is important. I’m a little bit of a broken record here in saying that we’re only going to expand when we have the right conditions for being successful — that is a great owner, a proper facility, municipal support, sponsor support, local fan and soccer support. We could expand tomorrow if we wanted to play in not-right-sized stadiums with stitched-in gridiron football lines. It just wouldn’t present our sport in a way that we want it presented. So we’re going to be very thoughtful and take our time. But I think you’re going to see a doubling in the size of the league over the next decade or so the way these things are lining up. But we’re going to do that thoughtfully. And we’re going to do that when the time is right, not against some artificial timeline.

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SAELHOF: Have you got any expansion candidates out there that you can divulge?

NOONAN: We’ve got 15 different markets that we are looking at, and we have a number of investor groups that are doing diligence against those markets and those leagues, and they’re the usual suspects because they’re the population centres. I mean … it’s no secret that we like to get into French Canada, and that’s certainly a priority for us. Those of you in Calgary would be happy to hear that we think we need to be back in Edmonton. We want to spark that rivalry. We think Edmonton is a great soccer market. We just didn’t have the right conditions previously for success, and if we do get the right conditions for success, we think Edmonton is a very viable and exciting market for CPL. We can put more teams in the Greater Toronto Area. We can look at maybe adding another team in the Maritimes. And certainly, in the prairies and out west, we can continue to fill in the gaps.

SAELHOF: Where does Cavalry sit in this whole grand scheme of success that has happened for the CPL in this upswing?

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NOONAN: Cavalry is one of our great, great franchises. Unbelievable ownership, with the Southern family. And great leadership with Ian Allison. And it’s wonderful to see guys like Mason Trafford graduate from on the field to a really important role in the front office because that’s one of the parts of the ecosystem that we’re developing is how do you extend the careers of great servants to the league? And so they’ve got a phenomenal facility at Spruce Meadows. One of our model franchises, for sure.

SAELHOF: Cavalry’s success helps the success of the league, doesn’t it?

NOONAN: First-class organization, great supporters, a great supporter section with the Foot Soldiers there. And it’s still developing. We just need to continue doing the right things in that market, and then I think they’re just going to continue to get better and better. And a great manager in Tommy Wheeldon Jr. He’s got consistency as one of the great managers and great people in our league. So it’s just first class all around.

SAELHOF: Meanwhile, we know Wheeldon has been short-listed for the Canadian senior men’s coaching job, and I assume Bobby Smyrniotis has been, as well, although that hasn’t been confirmed. How big of a deal is that for the CPL to see those coaches for Cavalry and Forge be considered for that gig?

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NOONAN: First of all, I’m not privy to the process there. But I have heard the same thing about those two gentlemen being in the mix and consideration set, and they’ve earned it. If you look at how their clubs play and how they represent themselves on the field, how they represent themselves off the field, how they’ve developed players through the system and Canada and understand the Canadian player, it’s not surprising to me that they’re in the mix. I think it’s very smart that they should be part of the consideration set because they know the environment, they know the players, they’ve proven with their own teams that they can play really good football, and they’re high-quality individuals. And that’s what you’d want to see in a national team coach, and I think they both represent that.

SAELHOF: Speaking of Cavalry and Forge, it was great to see both teams find their way into the Concacaf Champions Cup this year, wasn’t it?

NOONAN: Yeah … it’s amazing that six years into our birth that we are competing at the highest levels within Concacaf and I think showing really well for such a young league. I think both of our clubs … not only were they competitive, but they were scoring goals, and they weren’t just sitting back in bunkers, trying to withstand an onslaught and then maybe we’ll nick a goal on a breakaway. They came to play — both of those clubs — and I think that shows how far we’ve come as a league, but it also shows the bar as to how far we need to go, too. To be playing some of the storied clubs like Guadalajara and Mexico and having 17-year-olds scoring goals, it’s a great measuring stick for our league on and off the field, because we took really good care of the visiting clubs in really professional manners. Most people don’t see that, but the clubs see that, and they say, ‘OK, this is a legitimate league in terms of how they take care of their opponent when they come and visit,’ and that was reciprocated to us when our clubs went on the road.

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SAELHOF: It would be nice to put one over on the MLS, as well, wouldn’t it?

NOONAN: The winner of Canadian Championship gets an automatic berth into the Concacaf Champions Cup, as well, and we intend to get that third birth. That’s our ambition, for sure. That’s where the bar has been set, and it’s for us to be continuing our development so that we can be winning those competitions.

SAELHOF: Do you like what you see in the Canadian Championship so far?

NOONAN: It’s still early — first match obviously saw home-team Cavalry prevail after a red card, which certainly made for an interesting finish (Tuesday evening in a 1-0 win over visiting Vancouver FC at ATCO Field). The fact we brought Telus on as a title sponsor to add more gravitas to it and more exposure. It’s always a wonderful event. We look forward to it every year, and it’s a priority for our clubs to win that event and get that third berth in the Concacaf Champions Cup.

SAELHOF: And finally, Mark, the most important question of all, who’s going to win the CPL this year?

NOONAN: We love all our children equally. May the best team win. Remember, we have two very important trophies, as you all know in Calgary. The Canadian Premier League Shield many argue is the harder trophy to win because it’s consistency over an entire season as opposed to getting hot in a playoff run. And maybe at some point, somebody will do the double, and that’s the beauty of having two meaningful trophies. Or even somebody will do the triple with the Canadian Championship, which would be phenomenal. But we root for the referees — we want the officials to be great so that the players can just settle things on the field, and that’s it.

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SAELHOF: Anything else, Mr. Commish?

NOONAN: I look really look forward to coming out to Calgary. I always love the visits out to ATCO Field and Spruce Meadows and being with the supporters and one of the great clubs in our league. I encourage everybody to come out for the CPL home opener this weekend. I’ll see you out there.

FREE KICKS

Cavalry midfielder Jesse Daley (leg) is 50/50, says Wheeldon, to get back into the lineup for Sunday’s affair … Cavs defender Callum Montgomery (foot) remains out, the gaffer added … And Wheeldon says young midfielder Maël Henry isn’t likely to debut in the season until at least June.

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