The first-ever CPL Awards ceremonies happened in Toronto on Tuesday. Here are how things broke down, with some comments from a couple of the winners, as the CPL gathered to celebrate a big first year.
After a season of firsts, it was a good chance to celebrate.
On a sunny afternoon in downtown Toronto, the Canadian Premier League conducted its first-ever Awards ceremony. With 6 awards to be handed out, it was a chance to formally conclude the inaugural CPL season, one that was marked by the regular-season dominance of Cavalry and the first-ever lifting of the ‘North Star Shield’ by Forge.
So in a sense, it was fitting to see those two teams well-represented in the Awards ceremony, as they swept all 6 trophies. Naturally, with the divide between both sides being so tight all year long, that continued right into the formalities, with each side leaving the building with 3 trophies each.
As he did all season long, Tristan Borges stole the show, bringing home 3 awards, winner of the Golden Boot, the U21 Player of the Year and the MVP Award. The rest of the winners’ list was rounded out by Cavalry’s Marco Carducci, winner of the Golden Glove and Volkswagon Premier Performer Award, and head coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr, who was named coach of the year.
For Borges, it was a great end to a great season, as he still relished in the joy of lifting the Shield a few weeks prior. He credited his success to his teammates, thanking them for helping him succeed all season long, making his first-ever full professional season a memorable one.
“Amazing, to win these awards after us winning the championship, it’s obviously amazing for myself,” an excited Borges said shortly after the ceremony. “But I give all the credit to my teammates. It was a great year from all of us, they put me in great positions to score goals, to play good, but I think this was just a good year. It was my first year playing officially as a professional the whole year, and I think this is a good spot for me to be in right now.”
Cavalary fares well at Awards
Carducci was not present to pick up his two awards, but he was able to record a message for those in attendance, thanking his coach, teammates and fans for a great season. With the VW Premier Performer in his back pocket, he also now wins a Volkswagon car, which will soon be delivered to him in Calgary.
His coach, Wheeldon Jr was very much in attendance, however, and he spoke humbly of what winning the coach of the year meant to him in the media availability after the ceremony.
“It’s a humbling award, because it’s interesting to pick up an individual award in a very team-orientated sport, I think it’s credit to everybody really, from our ownership group to trusting me to be front and center, to the players we attracted and played every single game with a will to win, and a will to impress and refuse to lose. I think to our support staff, I’ve got a great coaching staff around me that always give me feedback I don’t necessarily always take, but that’s my role as Mr 51%, and our ownership group, so I think it’s incredible.”
While his team fell just short of the ultimate chalice, they still had a season to remember, finishing on top of the table in both the Spring and Fall campaigns. His Cavalry team was always hard to break down, they were resilient and they pressed high up the pitch, never making for fun games when other teams played them.
With most of his team returning for next season, it’s expected that they remain among the standard-bearers in the league, even despite the finals loss. If anything, that just means more added incentives for his players to fight for, giving them a challenge that they are surely more than up to meeting.
After falling just short in the finals, after also bowing out in the semi-finals in the Canadian Championship earlier this summer, Wheeldon Jr says improving on those two results will be the goal heading into 2020.
“I looked after we lost the finals, which we were disappointed but that’s football, is over a two-game series we didn’t do enough to win it, but had we won, that’s the treble,” Wheeldon Jr said. “We divided up the spring season, the fall season, and then the finals is the treble, we were almost there so that’s a win.”
“The only way we can improve on last season as well is to actually get to the finals of the Canadian championship, we went through four rounds and faced two MLS sides, and gave them as good as we got, so I think if we can do that again and advance to the finals and win the North Star Shield, I think then we’ll have improved on last year.”
Canadian Championship improvements due
Wheeldon Jr also touched on the Canadian Championship format heading into 2020, with changes expected due to the folding of the Ottawa Fury. Long a 5 team tournament, it expanded this year to 13 teams, giving fans a taste of what knockout cup competition can be like all around the world.
Yet despite the fun he and his team had, including their historic win over the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps, he believes that it’s still not enough. There are plenty of amateur, semi-professional and professional outlets who could still yet to be added, and Wheeldon Jr suggested that adding them could be the next big step for Canada Soccer to consider.
“I’d like more teams in it actually,” Wheeldon Jr said. “I’m a believer that I think we should invite the provincial amateur champions into it, I think we look at other leagues that are playing whether it’s the USL League 2 teams, or all of the Canadian professional and semi-professional teams. I think we should have a coast-to-coast national competition, that has an earlier rounds with amateur teams that qualify up to meet the professional teams.”
“England does it in the FA Cup, the US do it in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, I think we could adopt in Canada. I think that will grow the game, and then get (soccer) all over the media, and I think that’s where you’re getting everyone’s buy-in.”
Forge continues to relish victory while preparing for 2020
On the other side of the ledger, Forge now has a target on their back, given that they enter next season as defending champions. While they fell short in the regular season, they were at their best in the biggest games, and it led to a well-merited championship win.
When asked if he believed that Forge would always find a way to rise highest in the biggest moments, Borges said that it was something that he had bought into from day 1. Along with the improving quality of the league, he expects things to only get better across the board, with the talent pool continuing to deepen. His first season was just a start of what the future may bring, so he was happy to be a standard-bearer in that sense.
“My expectations for the team in terms of Forge was very high,” Borges said. “Just seeing the facilities that we have, the players that we brought in, I knew individually what we were capable of doing. But just (speaking of) the league itself, I think it’s excelled more than what everybody was even thinking of doing, so I think there’s a bright future for the CPL. There’s a bright future for players like me, for young players that haven’t even entered the league, to look up to.”
What’s next for Borges?
Having bounced around before finding this spot of stability in Hamilton, Borges also knows that what he did accomplish was special, and he credits the CPL to giving him a launching pad. The Canadian Premier League was created to give Canadian footballing talent a platform, and Borges was no better example of that this year, capped by his big haul at the Awards ceremony.
By coming to a brand-new league, it required betting on himself, a bet that has appeared to pay off in spades.
“Yeah, I think this is why I kind of said that this is a very important year for myself,” Borges said. “As every player in every professional player in any sport knows, you go through ups and downs, and you have to find your own path in terms of making success. Obviously, this was a step that I wanted to take, and I knew that I had to prove what I was capable of doing and obviously I know individually that I was capable of doing something like this.”
It’s also a bet that will continue to increase in value, fueled by rumours that Borges could be on the move to MLS or over to Europe. When pressed by reporters on his future, Borges was unable to give a straight answer, as he remains mum on what’s next for him.
“We’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see,” Borges said with a laugh.
After a season like this one, no one will blame him if he moves on. But if he does stay, the rest of the league is going to have to watch out, as he surely looks to improve on this debut campaign.
Inuit artists get a deserved spotlight at awards
While the Shield didn’t exactly get the most glowing reviews on social media, even sparking a challenge where people took their microwave trays and posed with them due to their similarities to the actual thing, these Awards have been well-received. Designed up in Nunavut, they had a uniquely Canadian feel, giving the players a chance to win some beautiful pieces of art.
One problem that was identified from the announcement, however, was that the artists doing the work didn’t receive the proper spotlight they had deserved. The league has since fixed that, identifying the artist on each individual award here, while also inviting the main artist, Palaya Qiatsuq, down to make a speech at the awards.
Carved from all sorts of unique kinds of marble and other resources, it’s expected that these awards live in Canadian Soccer lore. Borges, who will have as good as a view of them as anyone else this next year, touched on it in his scrum, saying that it was a good way to honour the heritage of the First Nations on a National Platform.
“I think it’s very special,” Borges said. “It’s very different from other leagues and it’s really big to show off the Canadian Heritage and to have something like this, especially in the awards, to be able to show the (beauty that) Canadian Heritage has been.”
Up next? Growth
With this 2019 season now wrapped up, the big thing now remains to keep up the growth. After getting things off the ground, they need to ensure that they continue to build off of the traction that they have built, as they push towards bigger and better things.
That now means continuing to encourage the development of young Canadians, giving an opportunity for those who might not have otherwise played professionally, or even providing second chances to veterans playing abroad. Along with growing the overall quality of every team in the league, ensuring that the circuit remains competitive, there’ll be lots of work that will need to be done to ensure the long-term stability of the league.
Along with continuing to do work off the field, which will include growing the national media and fan interest, while attracting more local fans, it won’t be easy for the CPL. After this 1st year, they’ve been able to handle that task, now they just need to deliver on the promise of growing the sport in the country.
“It’s for sure going up, and I think the best thing, especially for the future, it’s going to be drawing a lot of players back home,” Borges said on the future. “A lot of players that want to come and join the league that are from other countries, they see the quality that we have now, so it’s definitely a bright future for new players to be coming in.”
Added Tommy Wheeldon Jr: “Well, I think what we’ve done is that we’ve defied a lot of skeptics. People have said ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ and there’s a lot of can’t in there, and what we’ve shown is that we can. And I think essentially by doing that, we burn the ships.”
“There’s no going back,” he continued. “We’re only going forward and people always talk about 2026 World Cup as an anchor to attach ourselves to, you look at what the US 94 did for the MLS, I think we’ve got that coming upon us, and I think we’re in a golden era of Canadian Football so I think all we got to do is ride this wave.”
After decades of rocky waters for the sport in this country, it’s hoped that that wave can crest forward to bigger and better things. This was just the start, and as promised by people involved with the league, there’s lots more to come.