Docked points, dirty team kits on the floor of garages and players helping set up stands for the fans.
One year on and Will Cromack and Colin Elmes both admit they’re still coming to grips with all the nuances of owning and running their own club.
“It’s like you’re in high water and have a very short snorkel,” Cromack says, leaning forward during his interview on a crisp day in Vancouver, Canada.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can survive,” he adds.
Cromack and Elmes bought a Player Development League – the fourth rung on North America’s football pyramid – franchise from the United States in 2016 and moved it northwards, creating the TSS Rovers in Vancouver, Canada. They added a caveat to their ownership model: they would only sign and play Canadians. In their words, “if you can ball and you’ve got Canadian citizenship, then we’re interested.”
The club has a three-year deal with both the stadium they play and train out of, as well as the PDL to keep the club in existence.
The pair say they envisage themselves as a stepping stone to develop Canadian footballers and have them join the national team program.
“We want to win our own Canadian championships with our own Canadian players,” said Cromack.
Along the way, there’s been disappointment, celebration and a steep learning curve.
The club went unbeaten at home throughout the season but failed to win a single point on the road. Elmes says the club was mildly caught off guard by the quality of players American teams only fielded at their own home games. In their debut game, the club was docked points for fielding an illegible player.
Injuries also played a large part, with the club only able to field the minimum amount of players the league demands for a majority of the season.
“We never got to truly have the starting eleven we wanted,” said Elmes. “The entire season was about improvisation.”
Part of the challenge for this season is pushing players to approach games as if they are professional players. Although the league isn’t full of paid professionals, the duo say they want their young players to treat it as such, and to recognize that doing so will help them join bigger, professional clubs — especially with a new league forming in the near future.
“We ask if they want to be a pro, ’cause if you don’t want to be a pro, this isn’t glorified beer league,” Cromack says. “There’s not enough clubs in our country for Canadian players to mail it in.”
The Canadian Premier League, mooted to feature 10 clubs across the country, is planning to launch in 2019 and both Elmes and Cromack say such a league offers an even better next step for their young charges.
“That opportunity (the CPL) is a watershed moment,” said Elmes. “Once it’s established, it’ll be harder for players to get involved after the fact.”
Elmes cites his own experience in the Vancouver Whitecaps program when the North American Soccer League folded in the 1980s. He went from envisaging a future as a professional player to one without both a league and a club.
“I want to show the guys how much of a chance they have this year,” he said.
They’ve decided to expand their model as well.
They’ve added a women’s club to the mix. Total Soccer Academy, the pay-for-use football academy owned by Elmes, is compiled of roughly 60 percent girls and Cromack says the move made sense.
“Why not step up when the solution is both necessary and ahead of the curve to support that national pool?” He says.
It costs roughly $25,000 to $30,000 to run the women’s club, on top of the expenses incurred on the men’s side.
The women’s team will play in the Women’s Premier Soccer League, largely against opponents from Washington State. Cromack says the team is looking at hosting doubleheaders, with both the men’s and women’s team playing on the same night to bring in fans.
Despite the additional team and desire to improve, the pair both say they’re looking
to delegate some of their work from last year. They found that they were burned out by the end of the season, due to the demands of organizing nearly every last detail.
But both claim their experiment thus far has been a success. Supporters have formed fan groups and hosted tailgates that are more reminiscent of the time the Vancouver Whitecaps played out of Swangard as a United Soccer League club during the 1990s and early 2000s.
“A pathway for Canadian soccer was really alluring to me,” says Chris Corrigan, a member of the Swanguardians, a Rovers supporters group, when asked about why he threw his support behind the club.
Corrigan says the little things the club have done to help fuel the supporter culture is being appreciated from those tired of Major League Soccer. In the first game of their debut season, the players set up the bleachers used by the supporters groups at the end of the field. That has since become a pre-game tradition, tying in the concept of a club literally supporting and helping its fans.
“You’re not just a fan group for a franchise,” Corrigan says, alluding to the nature of North American sports where teams are formed by the whim of a league and often don’t take local supporter culture into consideration.
Cromack says the goal this season is to build on that initial fan support and get more people filling out the stadium.
He says the club has set a goal of drawing in 1,000 fans a game and improving their performances from last year. The club’s record attendance stands at just over 800 people in their final game of the season.
He acknowledges that there are ongoing conversations about letting fans buy an ownership stake in the club they support.
“It’s important for people to recognize that we want it to stand for them,” says Cromack. “A supporter lives forever.”