BEDAKIAN: The 2023 CPL season will forever crown its first indisputable champion
I've become accutely aware lately of OneSoccer's role in helping shape the Canadian soccer narrative. We owe that to our most loyal readers and viewers, who enjoy and share our content regularly. You guys are literally helping grow the game of soccer in Canada. Well done.
So let me be clear right from the top. The intention of this article is to pour gasoline over the fire of competition that burns across the CPL.
There. I said it. The veil has been lifted. Our mandate, laid bare.
But I give you my word – if you read this article from top to bottom, I'm not going to bullshit you along the way.
Consider this an exercise in trust. If you feel I'm wrong, let me hear it. It's @ArmenBedakian. But I'm confident in my premise.
And it starts with a question:
Why isn't anyone talking about the new goddamn trophy?
For real. Why isn't anyone talking about the fact that this season, the Canadian Premier League's eight clubs will be competing for a whole new trophy, as winners of the regular season – and the prize money, Champions League berth AND silverware it will bring?
That's right. Silverware.
"When you have a 28-game season grind you need to recognize the team that has been the best day in and day out," CPL commissioner Mark Noonan told Charlie O'Connor-Clarke of CanPL.ca, when asked about a new trophy for the regular season champions of 2023.
"We haven’t done that as a league ... so I want to make sure that the regular season champion is properly recognized and rewarded, as well as our playoff champion."
So there's definitely plans for a new trophy. That article outright says there will be one ... but we haven't seen it yet, either.
Okay, okay – maybe I'm being impatient. It's still early-ish. April just started, the CanMNT window just ended, the Concacaf Champions League and the 2023 Canadian Championship kick off soon, the CanWNT are playing France, and the CPL is kicking off on April 15–– wait... April is a super busy month across the entire Canadian soccer landscape.
(Not a bad time to renew your subscription at $99.99/yr - or $9.99/month - before the new price kicks in on May 1.)
But maybe I'm just being curious, too. And as I pour over the #CanPL feeds on Twitter and Instagram, or through the comments on our ever-growing YouTube channel, the thought of this new trophy grows with it. It's the secret, apparently-too-subliminal message behind our April Fools joke... there should be a new trophy this year, right?
So if no one is gonna talk about it, I guess I've got to bring it up.
Guys. There's a new trophy in the CPL. Does it count... more?
What is a champion, anyway?
To answer that question, we first have to take a trip down memory lane.
If you remember back in year one of the CPL, there was some dispute over who the actual champion should be. You could call it sour grapes by Cavalry FC, who ended the inaugural 2019 campaign as the top team of the Spring and Fall season tables, but lost to Forge FC in the two-legged final – but maybe Cavalry head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. had a point. Why shouldn't the regular season winner count, besides some abstract link to North American sport's preference for playoff formats?
The dialogue on the ground, at that time, was that the regular season – that is, the end of each half-season, Spring and Fall – should count for something – and certainly for more than the league actually made it out to be, at least in significance. A small trophy for each half, for instance, would have added much-needed legitimacy to that side of the campaign. Instead, it was a footnote in history.
Ultimately, the league opted for a single shining prize – a North Star Shield, as it were – upon which Canadian professional men's soccer would point its ambitions unilaterally, even if a series of Canadian Championship debuts mid-year offered its own fantastic dramas, and the distance toward the days of Concacaf action grew closer and closer with each passing week.
Back down here in the real world, a league in its literal infancy was probably not going to stake a claim to a Voyageurs Cup (even if Cavalry did do CF Montreal a solid by knocking the Vancouver Whitecaps out over two legs in Round 3, the round before the semi-finals). So, that single trophy, the North Star Shield, would be the only realistic and tangible prize on offer, and could only be won in a post-season, single-series home-and-away between the winners of both the Spring and the Fall season...
... which was Cavalry FC, for both.
In the end (spoiler alert!) Forge FC wins that first North Star Shield over two legs, rubbing salt in the wounds by doing so in front of a packed crowd at ATCO Field at the beautiful Spruce Meadows in Calgary, scoring a late goal to win both legs 1-0 and earning the monikor of being "Forever First."
But Forge FC only made it into that two-legged final as runners-up – and runners-up don't often end the year hoisting trophies elsewhere.
The MLS-inspired playoffs have its own benefits. Some (like myself, genuinely) believe that playoffs are a more entertaining way to conclude a season in a league of eight teams – not because the battle at the top isn't intriguing otherwise, but because it rules out the middle of the pack and below, often with many weeks to spare, and turns the back half of the campaign into a race of foregone conclusions and diminished hope. The new CPL format, for all its controversy, addresses that root issue to make the league's regular season significantly more, well... significant.
And, because history loves to operate in a loop, the point becomes today what was argued for back in 2019; winning the regular season should matter. Some might argue it should matter more.
This year, the CPL will crown two variations of champion - playoff champs, and regular season champs. It won't be good enough for a team to just make playoffs in any position, and enjoy a solid tournament-like campaign to take home the prize. You've got to do it over 28 weeks of action now, too.
Which brings us, fittingly, right back to where it all started – Forge FC vs. Cavalry FC.
The CPL's best rivalry can finally be settled ... kind of
As my colleague Andi Petrillo put it on OneNation this week, Forge FC supporters (of whom we've been accused of being a little too generous with over the years, despite your very legitimate counter-claim that hey... maybe the team that wins championships and blazes trails in Concacaf has earned a little more attention?) now face the prospect of having to earn it again.
Welcome... to @AndiPetrillo's HOT SEAT 🔥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 4, 2023
Hey, @ForgeFCHamilton - you think you're #CanPL champions? PROVE IT. There's a regular season title to contend for in 2023 🏆
More Andi hot takes 🗣️ 👇
OneNation - Ep. 8 🎧https://t.co/3jpTJQ8JoQ pic.twitter.com/zIKqIbe9y5
Forge FC fans, you support winners. That means something ... and for the first time in the CPL's five-year history, it means something different. You were checking those championship boxes before, but you can't unilaterally claim it moving forward – a champion must be born not just of playoffs, but over the course of a regular season now.
Cavalry FC fans, you've got a point to prove. And yes, so do Pacific FC and Atlético Ottawa fans, too. To the group of you, the 2023 season offers a chance at your own 'Forever First' moment. In many ways, this season of Canadian Premier League action will crown our first traditional champion. A trophy will be awarded to the team that puts up the best overall season. While I appreciate a great playoff run as much as the next soccer fan, there's something to be said of the glory of winning over 28 weeks of action ... there's almost no comparison, really.
If we look at 2019 as a contradiction of itself (what is a champion?), then 2020 was a reprieve. The league's second season exists as a bubble, in spirit and in practice. Even 2021 brought with it more change, more adaptation. By 2022, a format was agreed upon, yes... but does not Atlético have a claim of its own, then, having topped a single table?
Ottawa's miraculous last-to-first storyline fell flat last year simply because their regular season heroics weren't properly recognized. That's no longer the case.
In such an evenly-contested league, title charges will likely go down to the wire. Those efforts should be rewarded in equal measure, no?
Yes, every season has its own parameters, and winning within those outlined areas makes you a worthy champion in your own respect – I can already hear Bobby respond. Yes, Forge FC and Pacific FC can embrace their crowns with pride. They were well-earned.
But the end result of 2023 will crown, once and for all, a definitive, indisputable champion – maybe for the first time, depending on how you interpret the results of the first four years, and how much weight you put into retroactive titles (if you're like me, then as nothing more than a consolation prize).
And if we're being real with ourselves? This is the first year that the race to the trophy has some real substance backing it.
It's time to prove your worth, once and for all– and lift this trophy, whatever it looks like, as the true north star of the CPL.
It's time we crown a real champion.