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History and Recent Success of Canadian Soccer: On the Rise

Alphonso Davies Playing a Big Role in the Recent Success of Canada Soccer

Canada. The second largest nation in the world. Notorious for Maple Syrup and being the birthplace of Ice Hockey. Yet, a new sport is on the rise in the Great White North. Football, or shall I say ‘soccer’ as fellow Canadians would. Regardless, from a nation that has produced very little in terms of the world’s most popular game on the global stage and a nation previously without its professional domestic league, Canadian soccer, helped by Herdman and their 2022 World Cup qualification, much like their American counterparts, is rapidly on the rise.

As co-hosts of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, Canada will be looking to leave a large impression. But, this hasn’t always been the case, with the sport rapidly increasing in popularity within the nation.

Popularity, History, and Success of Canadian Soccer: On the Rise

Canadian Soccer: The Early Years

Football landed in Canada around the 1850s, with the ‘beautiful game’ being brought to the nation by English immigrants. One of the earliest matches to take place occurred in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, home to the CN Tower and the first MLS expansion side outside the States (Toronto FC), when a team of Irish immigrants faced off against the St. George’s Society, a collective group of Englishmen that ‘encouraged interest in the English way of life, and English history, ideals, customs and traditions’ [1], with additional matches taking place across southern Ontario in the years to come. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the late 1870s in Toronto that soccer took place under modern rules. This was after  ‘the Dominion Football Association, the first football association outside the Britain was formed in Toronto in 1877 [2]’.

However, it wasn’t until merely after the Second World War that the Dominion applied for FIFA membership. After acquiring FIFA membership, the Dominion later changing its name to the Football Association of Canada. This name would change six years later, becoming the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), as what we know of today. It was during this period that ‘Canada Soccer’ started their first FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, hoping to qualify for the 1958 FIFA World Cup hosted by Sweden, who finished third in the 1950 edition. Yet despite defeating the US in their first-ever qualification campaign, they ultimately fell to Mexico, who ultimately qualified.

Yet, this roused the nation, with the Canadian Soccer Association desperately attempting to push soccer, creating regional leagues, in which was the home to former England internationals such as “The Wizard of the Dribble” Stanley Matthews. Moreover, after the live broadcasting of the 1966 England World Cup, popularity increased majorly, leading to the construction of the North American Soccer League two years later, which led to the creation of professional teams in major Canadian cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary, in which both Toronto and Vancouver won the league during its duration.

National Team Success

In 1977, Canada successfully qualified for their first Gold Cup, a prestigious tournament in North America. At the time, the Gold Cup featured six nations within a single round-robin group. Despite this, Canada could only conjure up a fourth place finish, which was replicated in the subsequent edition.

Nonetheless, in 1985, fortunes would alter. Under a refreshed format, which included the introduction of three groups, Canada was able to top their respective group which featured Haiti and Guatemala. Canada remained unbeaten within their campaign, from which they entered the Final Round. After two draws against Costa Rica and two wins against Honduras, Canada were crowned Champions of North America, winning the Gold Cup for the first time. This Gold Cup victory earned Canada qualification to their first World Cup. It wasn’t a tournament to be held in high regard, finishing bottom of their group which consisted of the Soviet Union, Hungary and semi-finalists France, failing to get any points or even score a goal, but this campaign was the catalyst of things to come.

Read MORE: The OneSoccer Legacy: What It Meant To Canadian Soccer

The Rock Bottom for Canadian Soccer?

Yet, success wouldn’t be imminent. Canada’s domestic league (Canada Soccer League) was abandoned in 1992, leaving Canada without a professional league for the next few decades, ultimately leading to Canada unfortunately failing to qualify for the next eight World Cups, which in many cases, their national team failed to qualify to the Concacaf final round (the Hexagonal) of qualifying; from this stage, it would have been incomprehensible to envision Canada qualify for any World Cup to come. They did win the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and finished third in the subsequent edition, but this would be an anomaly, as the national team were unable to qualify out of the group stage for four of the following seven editions, including their 2015 campaign, in which they failed to win a game, despite being co-hosts with the US.

This period signalised the worst period in Canadian football. Despite club success, with Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact (now called CF Montréal) joining MLS within the late 2000s/early 2010s, the Canadian Men’s National Team were dumped out of the 2014 World Cup CONCACAF qualifiers with an 8-1 drubbing in a do-or-die qualifying match and were embarrassed a year later in the Gold Cup, finishing bottom of their respective group, losing to Martinique, a French overseas island that does not hold FIFA status and that is 8,851 times smaller than Canada.

John Herdman Era

READ MORE: John Herdman: How He Took The CanMNT To The FIFA World Cup

Yet, things would inevitably change. After going through four dissimilar managers in six years, Canada appointed Englishman John Herdman in 2018. Then manager of Canada’s women’s national team, Herdman had a relatively successful 2015 Women’s World Cup campaign, in which as host nation they got to the Quarter Finals in a period known as Herdman’s “bronze age”. His appointment as women’s national team manager would in time be regarded as arguably the most consequential hiring in the history of Canadian soccer, and he has arguably left the same legacy in terms of the men’s national team [3].

As stated by Ben Church, Canada began the third round of World Cup qualifying unbeaten in its first eleven matches. Canada finished 2021 with their first win over Mexico in over 20 years. This resulted in Canada topping the CONCACAF qualifying group at the end of the year. This concluded 2021 with a high and a new all-time high in terms of Canada’s top 40 finish in the FIFA world rankings, in which they were officially the most improved team of the year. This momentum continued, and on the 27th of March of 2022, Herdman’s Canada became the first Concacaf nation to qualify for the World Cup, beating Jamaica in a full-capacity BMO Field in Toronto.

Canada’s 2022 World Cup campaign

This campaign concluded years of failure and disappointment and placed Canada on the football map. An ascent so quick and so dominant, shocking the footballing world. This included shirt manufacturer Nike who did not manufacture a kit for the Great White North, not anticipating their qualification. In the latter half of 2022, Canada played in their second only-ever edition of the World Cup. This campaign saw them score their first two goals in the tournament, in the ‘group of death’. A group consisting of 2018 semi-finalists Belgium and 2022 semi-finalists Croatia and Morocco.

This success can be attributed to John Herdman, who left the national side to manage Toronto FC in late 2023. It was also around this time that the Canadian Premier League was commissioned and approved by the nation’s football federation. Playing their first season in 2019, the league has rapidly grown in viewership every year. The CPL posted record cumulative attendance of 429,915 this season, besting a cumulative attendance of 360,832 in 2022 [4].

Overall, it’s clear that football in Canada is steadily on the rise, despite its fallbacks. Co-hosting the 2026 World Cup with the U.S. and Mexico will only depict their aspirational progress further. Canada has gone from a nation where ‘soccer’ was unheard of to a nation producing some of the most exciting young talents in the world, evident through Alphonso Davies. Soccer, undoubtedly is one of the most popular sports in the country. This is evident as soccer’s the most welcome sport among youth aged five to 17 with over a million players. All this means, it’s safe to say, Canada is on the map of football, a place they deserve to be.

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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports, of an Alphonso Davies Headshot, on November 21, 2023.


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