WPSL Canada: Interview with President of Operations, Santiago Almada

CanWNT player Chloé Lacasse at the CanWNT training session in London, ENG
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INTERVIEW – Last December, WPSL Canada revealed news of a semi-pro league coming to Canada. It is news that got the attention of many Canadian women’s soccer fans nationally. One of the people at the centre of this new league is Santiago Almada, the President of Operations. Santiago Almada was kind enough to give us some of his time for the interview with Last Word on Soccer that happened on February 15, 2022.

Interview with WPSL Canada’s Santiago Almada

1. How did you get involved with WPSL Canada?

So, I’ve actually been working with the WPSL for over a year now. I initially invested in a franchise in New York called FC Berlin. That’s kind of like a sister club to our team that we own here in Kitchener, Ontario. And we were able to grow that program to a very sustainable level and I connected with the president of the league, Sean Jones. We had a pretty friendly relationship and I started to pitch the ideas of potential expansion into Canada as we’re missing that kind of soccer infrastructure here.

And from there, he gave me the opportunity to at least explore it and brought on sandboxes with the VP of operations and we’ve been basically full-time since then, working on making this happen. So it’s been a pretty cool experience to be able to work and network and connect with a lot of people and now I feel like we have the team in place to make this a reality here.

2. How is the process of sanctioning going on with Canada Soccer, and when do you plan on playing?

So, the sanctioning process is actually moving along quite positively. You know, we’ve been in talks with Canada Soccer for almost about a year now about the project and the one thing that we do know is that Canada soccer will be in charge of referee assignments, registration, and on-field discipline for the league.

When it comes into operation, we are currently shifting our focus to a 2023 full-time league start date so as not to rush things and to be able to set everything up in the meantime but you can expect to see a WPSL Canada type tournament of some sort in Canada this summer. We’re in the current process of setting up with some of the membership teams that we’ve been speaking to, so there will be some soccer this summer. The format is currently being finalized and it should be ready for an announcement in the next few weeks. And once we have that ready to go, I think you’ll see a lot of women’s soccer happening this year for sure.

3. How many teams will there be in the inaugural season of WPSL Canada?

In 2023, we anticipate we could have anywhere from 10 to 16 teams across the map. It really depends more on the conference alignments. So, because we’ve shifted towards the summer 2023 full-time start, this allows us to have these deeper conversations with some of the clubs that were curious about the league at the beginning. Now, we can actually set forth a plan to make that happen. So, we can look at having anywhere from 10 to 16 teams pretty firmly for next summer for sure. Then you know this in the summer tournament series that we’re looking to set up, we’ll also have some of these teams participating in it as well.

4. What purpose will WPSL Canada play in the Canadian Women’s National Team Landscape?

So, our league is basically focused around extending player development and improving the player pool across Canada. The way we look at it is having more opportunity and more investment equals more opportunity for development. So what we think from the WPSL as you’ll see a larger older player pool developing in Canada, players that may have stopped up at the collegiate level now being able to participate in a National League against some of the best clubs in Canada and developing into potential national team candidates a little later in the process.

We’re trying to captivate and keep those players that maybe didn’t get that professional opportunity and show them that hey, you know what, after 21-22 there’s still a lot out there for you. It’s just about playing in a league that can provide those opportunities for you.

I think the WPSL has been very successful in the United States in providing those professional opportunities as for every single year over 50 percent of the draft picks into the NWSL are coming from WPSL clubs.

So, we do have the connections, we do have the infrastructure to do that. And the purpose of this league is to hopefully create more opportunities to develop that player pool, extend the longevity of players careers, and create a system, where all across Canada you have these national level teams that are really willing to compete across interprovincial borders and compete for that year-end national tournament here.

5. Could you see potentially Canadian NWSL and/or a potential First Division Canadian league having a secondary team in WPSL Canada?

So, there are teams in the NWSL right now that actually do have reserve teams that play in the WPSL, some examples of that would be Chicago Red Stars, Gotham FC and Kansas City currently have reserve teams that play in the WPSL.

There are several ways that we could potentially as Canadians build the first division right now, but what we’re looking to do is we’re trying to work with clubs that have investors behind them and that are aspiring to play at a professional level. And in the scenario where Canada does get an NWSL franchise, we can very easily see their team participating in this league due to the existing relationships that you know the WPSL does have with the NWSL and the ability to compete at that national stage.

So, we are willing to work with anybody. We believe that the first division is important and whether it comes out of WPSL Canada in the next few years or through a separate ownership group that creates it, we’re going to support any sort of investment in women’s soccer. I feel like that’s the one thing that we can do to assist in at least setting the ground level so then people can build off that and create something more special in the future.

6. Will the Calgary Foothills Football Club be involved with WPSL Canada?

So, as of right now, we won’t be able to announce any teams as we’re in the finalists processes of the application packages. However, we’re very focused on the production and when the time is right, we will actually be releasing full videos on all of our clubs as well as a full website outlining each team, the roster, their history, and everything (as seen above four cities have been revealed including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary).

So, we want to just do a very diligent job at the application and the membership process just to make sure we have the right candidates in place. We’re not closing any doors. We’ve been speaking to some of the leading clubs across all of Canada and, I think once people see the clubs that are involved in the project, they’re going to be very, very positively impressed for sure.

7. Will there be any games played between WPSL Canada and WPSL USA?

So, not typically and just to clarify, the league is actually owned and operated as a Canadian League, and our whole team of owners are Canadians. We are going to be hiring Canadian employees and continue to grow here in Canada, but the league itself only contains Canadian teams. We are interested however in having a tournament-style event every year where we could have the top two Canadian teams play against the top two American teams.

And it would be really cool to have that kind of, an international title that we can play between the two organizations (WPSL USA promoting WPSL Canada above). I think that would add to the international incentive because having the top two WPSL teams from both countries would create a massive recruiting opportunity for professional teams. So, I think the collaboration between WPSL Canada and WPSL USA is very, very important in the future. We are very open to adding that as part of our system in the next few years or in the next year rather.

Interview with WPSL Canada’s Santiago Almada

Santiago Almada revealed a lot of information in that interview. He definitely has a lot of knowledge of WPSL as he initially invested in FC Berlin. He has also shown a willingness to work with potential first Canadian-division teams. It was surprising to learn how much impact WPSL USA had on the NWSL, especially with draft picks. This shows a potential pathway if a first-division Canadian league and/or an NWSL team comes to Canada.

Also, I like how Santiago Almada explained that the league is taking its time. The video idea is really cool as the Canadian Premier League did that to generate interest. It is also best not to rush things when trying to set up a league. This is why they are doing a full launch of the league next year.

Calgary Foothills Football Club and more info on WPSL Canada

Also, for people wondering why the Calgary Foothills Football Club question was asked, there was an article by Cami Kepke of Global News, which revealed that the Foothills was talking about being a part of a semi-pro league.

However, whether that league is the WPSL Canada or not is not known. Lastly, Santiago Almada stressed the importance of collaboration between WPSL Canada and WPSL USA. He said it can be used as a “massive recruiting opportunity for professional teams.” With the CanWNT winning Gold in the Olympics, there has been a lot of interest in women’s soccer. This was shown when the Arnold Clark Cup was televised nationally in Canada on TSN in February.

There has been speculation of a new pro league in Canada and possibly a Canadian NWSL team. Hopefully, either one and/or both of these things happen. The WPSL Canada though is quite a big deal. It increases the likelihood of Canadian players playing professionally in the NWSL and shows that Canada is heading in the right direction. Also, a big thank you to WPSL Canada and Santiago Almada for making this interview happen.

Photo Credit: Canada Soccer by Daniela Porcelli on February 16, 2022.