By Dan Plouffe
It’s a marriage between two long-time friends, blessed by the highest power in the land – and when members of the now-merged Cumberland United and FC Capital United soccer clubs heard about the partnership their leaders had arranged with Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, they showed up in droves to celebrate the new union.
Boardroom business rarely garners much interest – a good draw for an annual general meeting would be 50 attendees, estimates Pavel Cancura, Cumberland’s leader of a decade – but a crowd of 600 packed into Gisèle-Lalonde high school for an Oct. 16 special general meeting to outline the creation of Ottawa TFC.
“That was the shining moment,” smiles Cancura, hired as Cumberland’s first head coach back in 2008. “It was an unbelievable event – huge, huge support. Nerves became excitement, then back to nerves again – because we were worried people couldn’t even fit into the venue. The lineup was out the doors. I’ve never seen that in my time here.”
Shared values the cornerstone to new club
Discussions about a partnership with TFC began with a phone call from the Major League Soccer club’s academy in June, while the relationship between Cumberland and Cap U dates back farther, with merger plans solidified in August.
Long-time Cap U leader Raz El-Asmar says he “just felt right at home” when he began working with the Cumberland Cobras girls’ academy last year on top of his duties as Cap U head coach.
“My gut feeling was just telling me that I’m dealing with the right people,” recalls El-Asmar, and coaching with the academy “was a confirmation of what we thought before, and told us that it is the right time.”
One attraction for Cap U to join forces with Cumberland was access to the Ontario Player Development League (which grants licences only to clubs that meet stringent standards for facilities, coaching, administration and organizational financial stability). In 2014, OPDL began to phase out the previous youth high-performance league (in which Cap U had a solid record of competing at the top provincial level). With Cap U as an official affiliate, Cumberland joined the OPDL this season with under-13 boys’ and girls’ teams.
A larger player base and more resources were other advantages for Cap U.
“There are a lot of things we feel excited about by bringing two big families together,” explains El-Asmar. “I feel like it’s a chapter that we’re closing, but we’re opening a huge one now.”
20 years on the local soccer scene for Cap U
El-Asmar is proud of what FC Capital United accomplished over its 20-year history, particularly the club’s open-arms welcome to all members of the community – its mesh of global cultures, and a commitment to provide quality soccer opportunities no matter a family’s income level.
“We wanted to include everyone, and diversity is great. Look on the field on any team and you see kids from all over – representation from all over the world,” recounts El-Asmar, identifying honesty, love and care as key club pillars. “Our priority was always giving the kids what they need on the field, and also off the field – make sure we are role models for the kids so that when they step in with us, they really feel a part of that family, and when they’re away from home, this is their second home.”
While Ottawa TFC will maintain programs in traditional Cap U territory, saying goodbye to the name wasn’t easy.
“You get emotionally attached to some things in life. Since Day 1, I’ve been attached to the logo and the colour,” highlights El-Asmar, who thanked all involved with Cap U over many years. “At the same time, when changes happen, you’ve got to recognize that it’s not about you and what you built, it’s about what’s best for the kids and the community.”
Cumberland United grows from township roots
It was a somewhat similar sentiment for Cumberland with its own history of 25+ years (a decade older than the amalgamated City of Ottawa even), but with the growth the club has seen in recent years, “we weren’t sure that the village of Cumberland was truly representative of what we’re trying to become,” indicates Cancura, who was 6 years old and trying to decide whether he was better at hockey or soccer back in his native Czech Republic when Cumberland United was formed.
“One of the first questions we used to always get was, ‘Well, where is Cumberland?’” smiles the Lester B. Pearson Catholic High School grad. “Now it’s very clear where we’re from, and with the Cap U merger, it doesn’t totally bind us to the far east of Ottawa – that’s no longer the footprint we have.
“And then tying in with that TFC brand – anybody in the soccer world, certainly in this province, knows what they’re about.”
There are clear synergies behind the merger such as avoiding duplication in administration and running teams at every age group, but “ultimately, it’s not happening if we don’t have the same values at Cumberland and Cap U,” underlines Cancura.
The combined club will have roughly 3,500 members. Cumberland dwarfed Cap U in terms of total player numbers, but on top of Cap U’s more central home in the city, Cumberland gains top-flight coaching and player talent.
“There are a few players at every level, from both clubs, where it’s going to be very exciting to put them together,” enthuses Cancura, a former NCAA player at Liberty University in Virginia. “And it’s also great to gain the coaching expertise.”
Rise results in partnership with MLS giant
Though the formal deals are recent, the new club is the culmination of many years’ work from many people to reach its current level, adds Cancura, who didn’t feel Cumberland was ready for OPDL when the league first launched, but meticulously put the pieces in place in recent years, including its innovative after-school academy.
Add to that rise another big boost from TFC, who will provide access to their large library of tactical and technical resources on how they teach the game.
“It’s very valuable, because for a community club to build that on their own is essentially impossible,” Cancura notes. “We don’t have the time or resources to put into that, but they already have it, so they can help us.”
The agreement with TFC also includes numerous visits – TFC staff coming to work with players in Ottawa, and Ottawa TFC teams being hosted in Toronto – video analysis and support from TFC for high-level players and coaches, and a process to bring Ottawa players out for trials with TFC’s academy.
“There are so many gimmicky agreements out there: ‘Hey, we have an affiliation with, you know, Real Madrid’, and essentially it’s just a stamp on a shirt and on a website,” Cancura continues. “We made it clear that we’ve been working long and hard to build a club that’s high on quality, and we don’t want to have some winky-dink agreement.
“What’s been executed in the end is an ideal partnership. It’s tangible and concrete, and it’s hand-in-hand, boots-on-the-grass work.”
Players’ dreams of reaching the top ‘right there’
The link to TFC – whose first team was just a penalty kicks shootout away from reaching the FIFA Club World Cup this year – also completes the club’s pathway to the highest stages in soccer.
“From the grassroots level where the players get to learn from their first touch on the ball when they’re just starting in the sport, right up to our after-school elite academy where they’re training 5 times a week plus games – which is line with what the academy would do at TFC – it gives you that full spectrum,” outlines Cancura. “It really raises the bar. The kids now have the ability to taste that dream – not just have that dream, but to say if we come out every day and pour our hearts into it to become better, the sky’s the limit really. It’s right there for you.”
The bubbling energy at the special general meeting showed the excitement the local soccer community has for the Ottawa TFC’s future, adds the past pro player of 2 seasons.
“This unifies two clubs under one brand that everyone can rally around,” reflects Cancura, who’s planning a formal launch for the new club in the near future. “This club (Cumberland) has steadily taken massive steps forward. When you combine that with another club (Cap U) that’s already grown and been doing great things pretty quickly, and then add to that TFC, who are without a doubt at a world-class level, it’s not hard to get excited about what we can do together – fast. I feel like the momentum is unbelievable.”