For Joe Belan, this year was supposed to be a turning point for legitimizing professional soccer in Saskatchewan.
The lead team organizer of the Saskatoon team, the SK Selects, was eager to be one step closer to making the Canadian Premier League for professional soccer. But now, the momentum from their impressive premiere season last year has been halted by the increasing public threat of COVID-19.
For the sporting world, COVID-19 came as a shock and forced all major sports leagues to close shop. The unfortunate timing has resulted in the cancellation of the SK Selects’ anticipated pre-season series against CPL team FC Edmonton scheduled for the end of March.
The rest of the much anticipated sophomore season remains uncertain.
“We keep moving ahead with the things that we can control. Obviously COVID-19 is a setback but we’ll continue to move forward as fast as we can,” Belan said.
Even the goal of founding a CPL franchise in Saskatoon could be postponed. The initial target of the 2021-22 season may be unlikely now with the severe state of COVID-19.
“Ultimately, with the objective of building a strong foundation, I don’t think it is a setback even though we want to get there, to the destination, as soon as possible,” Belan said. “I think it’s about doing it the right way rather than trying to meet some sort of timetable.”
Currently, local soccer teams are still struggling to become part of the Canadian mainstream. With Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver all part of an American league, the CPL focuses exclusively on Canadian audiences and player development. The Canadian league has eight teams, and Belan believes Saskatoon should be the next.
“We not only want to build a Saskatoon team but a Saskatchewan team where we can connect and represent cities like Regina, Prince Albert, Swift Current as well,” Belan said.
“There certainly is a gap, … when we look at Saskatchewan, to being part of the Canadian Premier League.”
The ownership group of the SK Selects has taken a methodical, grassroots approach to building a strong fanbase for the Saskatoon-based club. They also organize the SK Summer Soccer Series as a way to test whether the potential CPL team is a viable option here.
“We look at this very much as a long-term project that we want to invest, both with capital but also emotionally, and we’re asking other people that are supportive and interested in being part of this project to do the same,” Belan said.
For Belan and the other organizers, providing the opportunity for local talent to go professional has been a key initiative for the organization.
“Currently, Saskatchewan is just not able to produce the same numbers of players that many other provinces and cities are able to do across Canada,” Belan said. “So we think that this project is important in giving players an opportunity to develop in a system so that they can ultimately graduate on to playing for the national team.”
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the SK Selects remain determined to showcase their talent. Belan says that could mean reducing their initial six-game summer series down to one or two games, as long as it is safe to do so.
While COVID-19 raises uncertainty about the Select’s 2020 season, what remains certain is that Saskatchewan has an exciting future in soccer with the SK Selects looking to join the CPL and cultivate a sense of community amongst Saskatchewanians.
“We want people to congregate around this project, support it and build that broad-based sense of community and that just takes time,” Belan said. “That’s the approach we’ve taken, we’re not going to rush it.”
Photo: Supplied by Joe Belan | Summer Soccer Series