By the end of the year, Diana Matheson expects to announce the fourth of eight teams that will compete in 2025 in Canada’s new professional women’s soccer league.
She has had conversations in a half-dozen cities with potential ownership groups that have expressed interest in joining clubs in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver in the as-of-yet unnamed circuit.
The Canadians’ disappointing result in Australia at the Women’s World Cup makes the three-time Olympian feel even more certain that a domestic pro league is a must if Canada is not going to become yesterday’s news.
Among the 32 countries that qualified for the World Cup, Canada and Haiti were the only ones without a domestic women’s league. Everyone in the round of 16 has one – and in many cases several.
“From a purely soccer perspective, a women’s league is necessary if Canada is going to have a national team that competes at the highest level,” Matheson said this week. “The women’s professional game has started to grow over the last 10 to 15 years and we are falling behind.”
With the exception of a goal Ireland put into its own net, Canada scored only once in three games in group play. Its 4-0 loss to Australia on Monday was dispiriting and especially ugly. It didn’t reek from a lack of effort – rather, the Matildas waltzed all over them. The final margin was nearly flattering.
Players are on their way back home now from halfway around the world after suffering the ignominy of being members of the first team to win the preceding Olympic gold medal and then not advance to the knockout stage at the Women’s World Cup.
That medal richly earned in Tokyo in 2021 now seems like a lifetime ago.
There are warning signs from Canada’s women’s under-20 and under-17 teams. In 2022, Canada’s under-20 team lost all three of its games at the Women’s World Cup in Costa Rica. The under-17s had one loss and two ties in India.
A lot went wrong Down Under. It wasn’t the crocs or the great whites that did Canada in. It was injuries and a lack of depth and preparation that hurt the most.
The depth issue is tied to injuries – but it goes with the territory of playing soccer at the international level. Australia has been without Sam Kerr – its best player – and has succeeded.
The preparation part is entirely different. When it comes to that, the national team had not played an official game since April leading up to the World Cup (the team did play a closed-door tune-up game against England in Australia right before the tournament started).
The reason for Canada’s lack of preparation has much to do with the precarious state of Soccer Canada. It is so financially stricken – admittedly near bankruptcy – that it was hard for it to arrange important exhibitions that serve as tune-ups against rival national teams.
On top of that, an ongoing battle between the women’s national team and its own federation over pay equity could not have been anything but a major distraction.
Matheson, 39, retired in 2021 from Canada’s national team. By then the midfielder had played more than 200 international matches for her native country and had won two Olympic bronze medals and had participated in four World Cups.
With the exception of parts of two seasons when she played in Norway, Matheson lined up mostly for teams in the United States during her lengthy professional career.
She says 130 Canadian women played abroad in the past year and while many would have still chosen to participate in elite leagues in Europe others would have undoubtedly opted to stay here.
“I might have played in Europe anyway just to see what it was like but I absolutely would have played most of my career in Canada if I had the opportunity,” Matheson said. “If you asked all the national team’s players they would tell you. They know how important it is.”
She says every member of the Australian side that steamrolled Canada this week had spent time with a team in Australia.
“Players play 95 per cent of their minutes with club teams,” Matheson said.
Her new league will provide jobs for Canadian players and she also believes it will improve the visibility of the sport. It will give young players something more to aspire to.
When she joined the national team in 2003, she said she had no female role models.
“I didn’t even know the players on the national until I made it,” Matheson said.
As she watched Canada’s lopsided loss to Australia she felt let down, like a lot of other Canadians.
“On the one hand there are no excuses,” she said. “They were outplayed. On the other hand, there were circumstances that surrounded the team in the last year that contributed to it.
“To me it is telling the conversation has already shifted from yes, they unperformed, to the fact that they haven’t gotten much support back home.”
She laments the fact that Canada held the 2015 Women’s World Cup but it left no lasting legacy. It would be crushing in 2026, when Canada is a co-host of the men’s World Cup, if that should happen again.
“When it comes to then, there will be an influx in capital in our country,” Matheson said. “It amounts to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“We are world-class at women’s sports. We’re farther ahead than a lot of the world in soccer but it is time to build on that.”
Her league may have got a boost if Canada went on a bit of a run at the Women’s World Cup.
“It hurts in the face that it is such a huge event and there would be more eyeballs if Canada was still in it,” she said.
She turned to none other than Christine Sinclair when she sought support for the new endeavour. Canada’s greatest soccer player was her teammate and they have been close friends for many years.
“The first thing she said was, ‘You’re crazy,’” Matheson said. “Then she said, ‘What can I do to help?’”