The Premier Development League (PDL) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) may be well-known in American soccer circles at this point as the go-to summer developmental leagues but smaller regional leagues are picking up steam. Independent saplings like Washington’s Evergreen Premier League, the Texas Premier Soccer League, or the Premier League of America based in the Midwest are more and more providing a similar level of play on a much small budget. North of the border, League1 Ontario is carving out a niche for developing Canadian pros in that province with surprising effectiveness.
In the aftermath of the embarrassing 2012 match-fixing scandal involving the Canadian Soccer League, the soccer powers in the province of Ontario faced the need for a developmental league head on. That need was filled with the creation of League1 Ontario in 2014. In just a few short years League1 Ontario has developed from a brain child to a crucial cog in Canada’s soccer structure, while growing from 10 initial teams to 16 for the upcoming season.
Sigma FC, located in Mississauga, is perhaps the league’s crown jewel after making waves in North American soccer for sending players to the professional ranks. 2015 MLS Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin came up through the soccer club and played for Sigma in the league’s inaugural 2014 season. Larin’s recently drafted Orlando City teammate Richie Laryea also played for Sigma FC before joining the MLS side. Sigma provided an opportunity for former TFC forward Emery Welshman to rebuild his career in 2014. Welshman joined USL side Real Monarchs SLC in 2015 before signing an MLS contract with Real Salt Lake ahead of the 2016 season.
Toronto FC’s academy was a founding member of L1O in 2014 and easily won the title with an undefeated campaign. That team, which featured a number of players over the age of 18, and used the successful season as a primer of sorts for the introduction of the club’s USL reserve team the following year. I spoke to Toronto FC II head coach Jason Bent about the role that League1 Ontario plays in the Greater Toronto Area and Canadian soccer in general.
Bent heaped praise on winger Raheem Edwards, who was spotted by Toronto FC while playing against the team in L1O in 2014, and Molham Babouli, who turned heads with his strong play for the TFC Academy team in the developmental league. Both players performed well for TFC II in USL last season.
“Raheem Edwards has come through there and not to mention Mo Babouli who was the top player and top goalscorer. There’s a number of our academy prospects that are joining the USL team this season that have come through playing in League1,” Bent said. “I think the league has shown its level and given players of that sort of age bracket a chance to test themselves in a fairly competitive league. It’s definitely played its role.”
Much like USL is showing itself as a proving ground for ambitious future MLS players, L1O may be playing that role under Toronto FC II. On Wednesday, TFC II announced the signing of young midfielder Liam Fraser to a professional deal. Fraser, just 17 years old, gained experience not only playing regularly in League1 Ontario in 2015, but he also earned 668 minutes across 10 appearances in USL on an amateur contract.
Fraser joins Martin Davis, who signed a professional contract with the USL side a week before, and is the ninth academy player to go pro with Toronto FC II.
For more on how Jason Bent and Toronto FC II construct the roster and decide playing time, read part one from my interview with the coach.