League1 Canada announced on Tuesday the Women's Inter-Provincial Championship, a new cup competition that will bring together teams from League1 Ontario, League1 BC and Première ligue de soccer du Québec (PLSQ).
The inaugural four-team event will take place from Aug. 12 to 14 at the Complexe Sportif Bois-de-Boulogne in Laval, Quebec. It will include the champions from Ontario and Quebec, as well as a representative from British Columbia. PLSQ, as host of the competition, will also receive a second spot for the league’s runner-up to round out the field.
Plans are in place to host a similar tournament for the equivalent men’s leagues beginning in 2023. British Columbia will host League1 Canada’s Inter-Provincial Championship in 2023, before Ontario takes charge in 2024.
“After that we'll see, the possibilities are endless,” said Dino Rossi, President of League1 Canada. “I don't want to commit either way, but … as we add more leagues, you'd love to see this event move across the country and expose more people who love football to this level of competition, and to see the best of the best on the field against each other.”
Rossi said this tournament is filling a major gap in the soccer landscape in Canada. While the men’s champions in League1 Ontario and PLSQ qualify for the first round of the Canadian Championship, there was no cup competition on the women’s side of the game until now.
League1 Ontario and PLSQ started talking about launching such a competition in 2020. A no-brainer, said Rossi. The excitement only built as League1 BC was announced in October 2021 and League1 Canada was introduced in March.
“It just made sense,” Rossi said. “Part of our strategy with League1 Canada is to grow this footprint across the country and to add more leagues, and that will only make this competition for women and men more exciting, more relevant. We can't wait for that to happen.”
The purpose of the three provincial leagues, and League1 Canada as a whole, is for athletes with ambition and ability to play at a higher level to continue their development, said Rossi.
"The introduction of the Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship is an exciting milestone in the evolution of Canadian soccer" said Breagha Carr-Harris, Head of Women’s Professional Soccer for Canada Soccer.
“The Championship offers the opportunity for top tier athletes within the Pro-Am leagues to compete against each other for the first time, while also building an important alliance between Canada’s existing provincial Division III Pro-Am soccer leagues.
“This competition and partnership are both pivotal elements in building a Canadian identity within our sport. I look forward to cheering on the teams as they participate in the inaugural tournament, and for years to come.”
Players on the current men’s and women’s national teams have already come through these leagues, as have a number of names in the Canadian Premier League, Canada’s top men’s competition. Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, Nichelle Prince and Vanessa Gilles all came through League1 Ontario, while Évelyne Viens and Gabrielle Carle are PLSQ alumni. All of them represented Canada’s women’s national team when it won an historic Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics last summer.
Those players are proof that a strong developmental system is crucial to success at the international and professional levels.
Viens, one of Canada’s rising stars, said a competition like the League1 Canada Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship is important to get players in the country going head-to-head.
“These are some of the best leagues in the country right now, so to get them all together, with some of the best players in the country, is a great first step,” Viens said. “I think it’ll be good for the best players in Quebec to play the best players of BC and Ontario. It’s a great opportunity for them. Plus, I think this will eventually pave the way for a future professional women’s league in Canada.”
Viens scored 21 goals in 15 games for Dynamo de Quebec between 2018 and 2019. She has since scored 73 goals in 77 games for the South Florida Bulls in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), played in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and in Europe, and won Olympic gold. She’s still only 25 years old.
Carle was alongside Viens in 2018, when Dynamo de Quebec won the PLSQ title. Carle, 23, is an Olympic champion, a two-time NCAA winner with the Florida State Seminoles and another prime example of how important the League1 Canada pathway can be for players looking for a breakthrough.
“It was great that we had a league where we could return to after our NCAA seasons. It really allowed us to push to an even higher level,” Carle said. “It’s super important to get an opportunity like this ... there were a lot of great players who played there. Because of that, a lot of top coaches came to watch this league, which was why it was good if you wanted to move up.”
Playing week in, week out in PLSQ helped Carle and Viens maintain their form and continue developing, even in the college off-season.
“Plus, we had a lot of Quebecois players in our team, which was fun as we caught up with players we played with when we were younger, while seeing everyone develop as we tried to reach new heights,” said Viens.
Both Viens and Carle now play for Kristianstads DFF in Sweden’s highest division of women’s soccer. Carle is on a permanent contract and Viens on loan from NJ/NY Gotham FC in the NWSL. Their experience in PLSQ helped prepare them for the professional and international games.
“For me, it’s all been new,” Carle said. "Évelyne has already been doing this for a few years now, but I couldn’t have asked for a better spot to start [playing professionally]. We’re in a competitive team, we have a lot of playing time, and we’re in a healthy developmental environment, so it’s all been great.”
Sarah Stratigakis is another Canadian currently playing professionally in Sweden, with Vittsjö GIK. Like Carle, the 23-year-old from Toronto went professional in 2022, after a standout college career at the University of Michigan. Stratigakis played in League1 Ontario for Aurora FC and Oakville Blue Devils FC and has earned five caps for Canada. She scored her first international goal last year at the SheBelieves Cup, a dramatic 92nd-minute winner to beat Argentina.
"I think it holds more weight to have a national championship rather than just provincial (championships),” Stratigakis said. “I also think it's great to have it in Canada, to grow Canadian talent on Canadian soil. If we don't create opportunities for developing the women's game, you’re going to see the player pool decrease, and so having this tournament setting is good for the future of Canada, and just to have players wanting to play more in the professional environment.
“Having a national tournament is great to gain maximum exposure for the players. When you put them into a higher-level environment like this they'll have to learn and develop at a faster rate and have to adapt. I think this jump from provincial to national is great and will be a good experience for these players.”
Viens, Carle and Stratigakis are all adamant that a fully professional women’s league is a priority for them, something that Canada Soccer and its stakeholders have committed to building. Until that happens, tournaments like the Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship are one of the best ways to showcase the talented young players coming through the Canadian soccer pipeline, some of whom may be future stars of the women’s national team.
“In sport, like anything else, if you stand still you get passed,” said Rossi. “You always have to be moving forward, you always have to be doing different things, identifying where you can do better.
“The Women’s Inter-Provincial Championship is not going to change the complete face of of women's football in Canada overnight, but it becomes yet another piece in the puzzle of creating more competitions, creating more best-on-best environments, and just testing our best athletes against each other more regularly, so that we can try to find some more gems. That's exciting, you're excited to be part of that kind of project.”