The Canadian Soccer League (CSL; French: Ligue canadienne de soccer — LCS) is a semi-professional league for Canadian soccer clubs primarily located in the province of Ontario, and is the successor league to the Canadian National Soccer League (CNSL). It is a Non-FIFA league previously sanctioned by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), but now affiliated with the Soccer Federation of Canada (SFC). As of 2022, it consists of six teams all located in Ontario. The season runs from May to October, with most games played on the weekend followed by a playoff format to determine the overall champion.

The league was formed in 1998 as the Canadian Professional Soccer League (CPSL) by an alliance forged by the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) with the Canadian National Soccer League in order to implement the Image of the Game Report by creating the link between the provincial senior leagues to the top North American clubs, and provide opportunities for the development of players, coaches, and referees. The intention of the alliance was to form regional divisions across the nation under the CPSL banner with each divisional champion competing in a playoff format for the championship.

Fourteen clubs have won the CSL Championship: Toronto Croatia (10 times including NSL titles), St. Catharines Roma Wolves (5 including CNSL titles), York Region Shooters (3), FC Continentals (2), Scarborough SC (2), Serbian White Eagles (2), Brampton Hitmen, Brantford Galaxy, Hamilton Croatia (NSL title), Oakville Blue Devils, Ottawa Wizards, SC Waterloo Region, Toronto Olympians, and Trois-Rivieres Attak.

History

Origins and establishment (1993–1998)

After the demise of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) in 1992 Canada was without a Division I national professional league. The Canadian soccer landscape was fractured into several different foreign and regional senior leagues. When the CSL ceased operations, three of their clubs (the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto Blizzard, and Montreal Supra) joined the American Professional Soccer League, which then was the highest-tier league in the Canadian soccer structure. The remaining clubs, except for the London Lasers, joined the National Soccer League (NSL), the country's oldest and only exclusively Canadian professional league. After the addition of the Winnipeg Fury, the league changed its name to the Canadian National Soccer League (CNSL).

Though the CNSL was primarily based in Ontario, it operated as a private league for several years after a heated dispute with the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA). While other provinces operated with a top senior amateur league, Ontario had its own senior league, but was without a sanctioned professional league for its amateur players, as the CNSL was considered an outlaw league by the OSA. As a result, the OSA completed a study named the Image of the Game in 1995/1996, which led to plans of launching the Ontario Professional Soccer League as a Division III league in the Canadian soccer league system. As the OSA failed to bring their project to fruition, they settled their differences with the CNSL and formed an alliance to launch the Canadian Professional Soccer League (CPSL), beginning with an Ontario division.

The CPSL would serve as the link between the provincial senior leagues to the USL A-League/USISL clubs, and provide opportunities for the development of youth players and referees. The intention of the league was to form regional divisions under the CPSL banner, with each divisional champion competing in a playoff format for the championship. Michael Di Biase, the CNSL president, would serve as the commissioner and OSA administrator Bill Spiers was named league chairman. The founding members included four CNSL clubs London City, North York Astros, St. Catharines Wolves, Toronto Croatia, and four of the OPSL teams: Glen Shields, Mississauga Eagles, Toronto Olympians, and York Region Shooters. The remaining CNSL teams, like Toronto Italia, Toronto Supra, and Kosovo Albanians, failed in successfully applying for membership.

Early years (1998–2004)

In the initial years of the CPSL the on field performance was dominated by Toronto Olympians and Ottawa Wizards, who had the financial support from corporations such as Coffee Time, and Oz Optics Ltd. While St. Catharines, and Toronto Croatia two well established former CNSL clubs were the prominent challengers in the early years. A change occurred in 2000 within the administration field of the league with Vince Ursini being appointed the president. The league was able to acquire a television deal with Rogers TV, which enabled the launch of its own television program, the CPSL Soccer Show, which garnered the highest ratings of Sunday programs shown on the channel. As a result, the league earned major sponsorship deals from Primus Canada, and the Government of Canada, which served as the sole sponsor for the CPSL Rookie of the Year Award.

In 2001, the CSA originally initiated a task force named the Canadian United Soccer League (CUSL), which formed a working partnership with the CPSL and the Canadian franchises in the USL A-League to forge a unified professional structure in the hopes of forming a Canadian first and second division domestic league. Meanwhile, the CPSL continued in its original mission of providing opportunities to players to a higher platform by striking an agreement with the Toronto Lynx of the USL A-League. The player agreement deal provided the Lynx access to use any CPSL talent upon request, which provided the players the opportunity to play at a higher level. Another effort conducted by the league was in 2003 with the opening of their domestic cup, the Open Canada Cup, to all Canadian professional and amateur clubs to provide a potential candidate for the CONCACAF Champions' Cup. The previous time a Canadian club competed in the Champions' Cup was in the 1976 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, represented by Toronto Italia in the predecessor league to the CPSL.

The league continued its selective, cautionary approach to team expansion, but witnessed a major expansion run in 2001 beyond the GTA and Ontario border to include Quebec and Ottawa franchises. The following season, it expanded to 14 clubs to include a Hamilton and another Toronto territory. Due to the increase of teams, CPSL management split the league into two conferences: Eastern and Western.

Kaplan years (2005–2009)

After firmly establishing the league within the Ontario soccer structure, Ursini resigned from his position in order to fully delegate his time to his OSA obligations, and to seek election to the CSA board of directors. Former CPSL management consultant Cary Kaplan with previous experience as president of the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League was named his successor in the capacity of a commissioner. One of his first acts was the creation of a Women's Canada Cup, as a preliminary tournament launched in the hopes of creating a future professional domestic league for women. In 2006, Kaplan began a series of reforms beginning with the creation of the National and International Division to replace the conference system. The intention of the reforms was to re-kindle the spirit of the CNSL days by promoting ethnic rivalries to increase match attendance.

A rebranding of the name was made to the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), with a new set of rules, regulations, and constitution established. The schedule format was changed including the relationship between the OSA and the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) was revised with the CSL by the signing of a "Memorandum of Understanding", which provided the CSL with an increased level of autonomy and eventual operational independence from the governing body in 2008. The outcome of the reforms witnessed a 50% increase in match attendance particularly in the GTA with the ethnic based teams attracting the most attention. Fan support would continue to increase for several seasons, with the Serbian White Eagles FC and Trois-Rivières Attak averaging the most. Media coverage was further increased after an arrangement made with Toronto Community News, which provided coverage to the league and its member clubs. Rogers TV made additional broadcasting commitments to expand their media coverage to a full season.

Several milestones were made in the Open Canada Cup tournament with the participation of the Toronto Lynx in 2006, and the expansion of the tournament to include teams from British Columbia in 2007. The CSL began an affiliation in 2007 with the Montreal Impact of the USL First Division by fielding their farm team the Trois-Rivières Attak in the National Division. Toronto FC of the Major League Soccer (MLS), owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, established a relationship with the CSL in 2008 by entering TFC Academy to the National Division and TFC Academy II to the Reserve Division. As a result, the league became associated with two of Canada's top three professional soccer franchises by providing a feeder system to the top tier. In 2008, a Reserve Division was formed to build a developmental structure within the CSL and provide clubs with a larger player pool, sufficient playing time for injured players to recover, and a developmental platform for novice players to transition to the professional ranks.

On May 12, 2009, the CSL received conditional approval for membership with the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA). This paved the way for the CSL to create the effective player developmental system needed to provide the missing link between the top provincial amateur level to the MLS/USL on a national level.[]

CSA governance (2010–2013)

After four and a half years as commissioner, Kaplan resigned following the 2009 season in order to devote more time to his sports marketing company with Domenic Di Gironimo hired as his replacement. In 2010, the CSL was granted full membership in the CSA as a Division III sanctioned professional league in the Canadian soccer structure. Meanwhile, the CSL commissioner was awarded a seat on the CSA Professional Soccer Committee to further the planned expansion of the league to a fully national league with regional divisions under the CSL banner. The league was restructured by combining both the International & National divisions to form the CSL First Division with a single table structure. While the Reserve Division expanded beyond the GTA boundary, and was reorganized in 2011 into the Second Division. Where it continued its traditional support role as a reserve, and entry level division for clubs with limited financial resources to meet the standards for a First Division club. A working relationship was struck with newly formed Canadian Academy of Futbol (CAF), which cemented a compete youth structure within the CSL infrastructure with member clubs operating their academy teams in CAF. Shortly following the completion of the 2010 season, De Gironimo announced his resignation from the league citing irreconcilable differences. Additional achievements under De Gironimo term was the sponsorship agreement made with Givova which granted the company the naming rights to the league, and to the CSL Championship. Other major sponsorships included Days Inns – Canada, and a record broadcasting agreement with Rogers TV, which provided additional match coverage to the provinces of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Finally, the addition of the Montreal Impact Academy as the second MLS academy club to join the league.

Former CPSL president and CSA financial director Vince Ursini returned to the organization as the successor to De Gironimo in 2011. The league's membership under Ursini's administration expanded to record amount of 28 teams in 2012 with 16 in the First Division and 12 in the Second Division. Their media coverage was broaden with a television agreement with CogecoTV, and the reintroduction of their weekly television program was picked up by Rogers TV. On September 12, 2012, accounts of alleged match-fixing was reported by the CBC that a CSL game between the Trois-Rivières Attak and Toronto Croatia held in September 2009 was fixed. The report, which aired on the news program The National, revealed court documents showing that €15,000 ($18,000 CDN) in bribes were paid to several players on Toronto Croatia. The game was part of a larger match-fixing scandal in Europe in which six people were convicted. In response to the allegations of match fixing the CSL issued a statement stating that the league would continue to conduct the necessary steps in order to prevent any future tampering of matches.

The 2013 season produced a series of controversial events which initially began with media outlets reporting claims about the CSA decision to no longer sanction the CSL primarily based on the alleged reports of match fixing in the league. Immediately the CSL refuted the claim, and shortly after the CSA unexpectedly de-sanctioned the CSL without due process. The decision was made in order to implement the James Easton Report (Rethink Management Group Report) for the adoption of a new professional soccer structure. As the league was a member in good standing they appealed to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC). The sport arbitrator ruled that the CSA had the right to de-sanction the CSL, but ruled that the immediate decisions conducted by the CSA were unreasonable and coercive. The sport arbitrator forced them to reinstate sanctioning to the CSL until the next season in order for the CSA to fairly implement the Easton Report. A notable admission was made by CSA president Victor Montagliani during the SDRCC hearing, where he stated that the decision to de-sanction the CSL was not made on any alleged grounds of match fixing in the CSL but strictly on the decision made by the CSA board of directors to adopt a new soccer structure in Canada.

Recent years (2014–present)

The league's strained relationship with the CSA continued before the launch of the 2014 season with the CSA expelling the CSL from its membership over alleged violations of rules and regulations in order to make way for alternative structure in Ontario. After failing to specify which rule violations were made and without providing a formal hearing the CSL in response filed litigation against the CSA. As a result, the CSL began its operation as a private league for the first time since the 1997 season in its predecessor league. They joined the newly formed Soccer Federation of Canada (SFC), which provided the private soccer entity the services of administration of players, non-playing personnel, match officials and insurance.

Significant changes were made at the 2015 annual general meeting of team owners where restrictions on import players were lifted, and a working relationship was formed with the American Soccer League (ASL) in order to assist in areas of competition and business. A television agreement was made with Ethnic Channels Group, and beIN Sports in order to broadcast their television program, and revived their sponsorship deal with Givova in 2016. Affiliations were formed with the Ontario Youth Soccer Association in order to establish a YSA Division to house the CSL Academy teams, and with the Canadian Corporate Soccer League in developing a structure of competition for the city's corporate clubs in Toronto. While reports of alleged match fixing continued with a report released on October 14, 2015, by the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) claiming that 42% of matches in the 2015 season potentially had illegal and suspicious betting activity. All 12 teams were alleged to have played in a "suspicious" game on at least three occasions. On February 2, 2016, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) announced investigations in the alleged match fixing in the CSL. As a result, the CSL welcomed the RCMP investigations and took measures to monitor all matches during the 2016 season.