A professional women’s soccer league is finally coming to Canada

Of the 32 teams that participated in the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia, Canada was one of just two teams that lacked a professional league domestically. Yes, Canada, the Olympic Gold Medallists in 2020 and home to some of the best talent the game has seen, has no professional league and never has. 

With the growing popularity of the women’s game worldwide, it is seen as imperative that Canada keep up. 

Alongside business partner Thomas Gilbert, former Canadian international Diana Matheson is spearheading a new project that will see a professional women’s soccer league finally arrive on Canadian soil. 

Twice an Olympic bronze medallist with her country, Matheson appeared 206 times for Canada over a 17-year period but was never able to flourish domestically for reasons beyond her control. Her limited time playing in Canada came early, with the now-defunct teams Toronto Inferno and Ottawa Fury, both of whom were part of the semi-pro, American-based USL W-League.

When it came time to advance in her career, she had little choice but to go abroad. Although a successful career ensued, the dream of returning to Canada to play professionally was never an option. Through these experiences as a player, Matheson is now orchestrating change. 

In June 2022, while pursuing an MBA at Queen’s University in Ontario, Matheson and classmate Gilbert founded Project 8 Sports Inc., an entity aimed at bringing a professional women’s league to Canada. Just under a year later, Project 8 was given ‘league in membership’ status by Canada Soccer, and in May 2024, it was revealed that six teams within Canada had applied for Canada Soccer membership to be part of the league.

Initially, Matheson had planned for eight teams to participate in the inaugural season that kicks off in 2025, hence the name Project 8, but at a recent ESPNW summit, it was revealed that just six teams would feature, with the league eventually adding more members.

With Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Halifax already confirmed as member locations, Montreal and Ottawa were announced at the ESPNW summit as the final two. Matheson had previously emphasised the importance of having a team based in Quebec, so there were no surprises when Montreal was revealed. These six Canadian cities would host teams in the newly-named Northern Super League (NSL).

Big names and sponsors have already been pulled in to help fund the league and its teams, a necessity in a fragile soccer market. CIBC, one of the ‘big five’ banks in Canada, and Air Canada, the country’s flagship carrier, have both pledged financial allegiance to the NSL. At club level, AFC Toronto City, one of the confirmed member teams, already has a well-known backer in Andre De Grasse. The Olympic gold medallist sprinter from Ontario has invested in the team and admits he is a “big fan of women’s soccer.”

Canada has a wealth of female talent that has long been pushed outside its borders. More than 110 Canadian women play professional soccer abroad. With the birth of the NSL, many of those players will be able to return home and play professionally for pay that is equal to or greater than what they were making while playing overseas.

A $1.5 million salary cap will be implemented for each team, which is $300,000 more than the professional men’s league in Canada, the Canadian Premier League. Matheson and her advisor, Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair, want the league to be competing with the best leagues in the world within a year or two. 

While this is a real possibility given their high salary cap, it is unlikely to be a case of cherry-picking the best homegrown talent right away. Relying on younger, more promising players, as well as those who are reaching the latter stage of their careers, may be necessary during the first season or two.

The NSL may not want to create an early precedent by doing this, but it might be necessary before they can entice players who are at the pinnacle of their careers and will have to give up their places at elite American and European clubs.

Matheson wants each team in the NSL to feature at least one Canadian national team player. Canada’s World Cup squad of 2023 comprised 23 players; 14 played in Europe, 8 played in the US, and one was still playing at university level. By the time of the 2027 World Cup in Brazil, the Canadian squad could look very different. 

While the NSL aims to bring home domestic talent, it will not exclude foreign players. Seven international roster spots will be available to each team, essential to bringing in a wider audience and giving an air of internationalism that all good leagues possess.

Beginnings are difficult, and Matheson and Gilbert deserve credit for getting this far without pulling the plug. Canadian soccer has a history of failed leagues and proposals, often the result of mismanagement, a lack of interest, or chasms between provincial soccer associations. It’s hard to tell if this is another phase of failure or whether the growing appetite for soccer in Canada means this is the right time. The men’s professional league is in its sixth season, and despite a few bumps, it appears to be stable. Only time will tell how successful Project 8’s NSL will be.

One thing is for certain: thousands of young women across Canada need this to be a success. The only way out of Canada’s provincial leagues and into a professional career is by leaving the country. Many players give up on their dreams due to the logistical difficulties of an overseas move and the mentally draining process of finding one. When this domestic door opens, fresh hope will be given to thousands of women and girls across the country, as well as those who want to come home.