Starting a whole new professional league from scratch may sound like a mammoth and unique task but it is something that Elliot Simmons will be part of this year. The 20-year-old from Luton is back in the country where he spent part of his childhood as the Canadian Premier League gears up for its inaugural season this year.
Simmons may have been born in the UK but spent seven years growing up in Canada after his family relocated to Ottawa at an early age. At the age of 12, he returned to England where he lived in Milton Keynes and soon went on to play for the youth sides at MK Dons. Although his youth was spent between different countries, he does not believe that unsettled his football development.
“My first professional club at age nine was Ottawa Fury and the owner John Pugh was English. The club had a possession based philosophy for its academy teams which was really unusual for Canadian soccer and there was a real emphasis on developing intelligent, technically strong players.
“When I moved to England just after my 12th birthday and joined MK Dons, the transition was quite smooth as Dan Micciche had a very similar philosophy too and I was comfortable with all the small sided games and reduced sized pitches.
“If anything, playing indoor every winter for Ottawa Fury really helped me develop my skills and decision making.”
At the age of 16, he continued his development at MK College where he was regularly called up to the England Colleges side, something that did not go unnoticed back at his previous home of Ottawa as he was called up to the Canada under-20 side when he was just 17.
After college, Simmons was on the move again, heading to Scandinavia, first signing for Swedish top flight side Dalkurd before spending last year on loan at Finnish third-tier side Mikkelin Palloilijat.
“Finland was a very easy place to settle,” he says. “It reminded me of a mini Canada so I was used to cold winters, lakes and forests. Mikkeli, where I lived, was a very friendly town and everyone was welcoming and spoke good English which really helped me.
“The standard at Mikkelin Palloilijat was good as well in that it was perfect for me coming from U21 Superettan (youth league in Sweden) and being my first season at first team level. I was pleasantly surprised at how professional it was. We trained relentlessly for four months pre-season and I got really fit and strong. Even during the league season we would invariably only get one day a week off and even then came in for recovery sessions.”
After a tough but enjoyable pre-season, Simmons went on to make 20 league appearances in his first season of senior football but it meant more than just game time. The playmaker also learnt what it was like to be part of a close-knit first team and everything that goes with that.
“I was the youngest regular starter and had teammates who had played at the highest level in Finland, youth national teams and the Cameroon national team so there was a real mix of experience. I learnt so much about first team football – politics and stuff – but it was a very positive ten months and I definitely came away a stronger player and mentally much stronger and independent. There was great camaraderie as well and I made some great friends.”
After impressing in Finland, the 20-year-old had several sides from across Europe interested in signing him but it was a new project in his old home of Canada which appealed to him most.
A new project
Founded in May 2017, the Canadian Premier League will finally kick off for the first time in April this year with six brand new teams and another which will be transferring from playing in America. The league comes following the lack of a fully professional league in the country with the only previous professional teams in the country being the likes of Toronto, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps who play in America’s MLS.
And Simmons will be part of it. Last month, the young midfielder joined newly formed side HFX Wanderers, a side based in Halifax, the capital of the Nova Scotia province. The club will be managed by former Trinidad & Tobago coach Stephen Hart and he is just one of the reasons why the former MK Dons youngster chose to come back to Canada over his other options.
“Playing for such an experienced manager as Stephen Hart and being part of something relatively high profile and brand new really appealed to me. The easy option would have been to remain in Scandinavia or even head to Scotland where opportunities were opening up for me but I feel this will be a good opportunity for me to establish myself in North America.
“I have never been to Halifax but it looks beautiful. Some of my old friends in Ottawa are studying in Halifax so will be great to meet up again.
“When I left at age 12 I had a very strong Canadian accent and now at 20, I sound totally British so I’m sure I will soon blend back into the Canadian way of life again!”
With the league not set to begin until the end of April, clubs are still building their squads ahead of kick off. Simmons’ side currently have 15 players signed, including four Trinidadian internationals with manager Hart using his former contacts. The side also includes an Ivorian and a Japanese player in a squad which is allowed seven foreign players.
Simmons is not the only Englishman to have been recruited so far. Former West Ham United prospects Jordan Brown and Nathan Mavila have been signed up by Cavalry and ex-Barnsley youngster Stephen Hoyle will be leaving his club in New Zealand soon to join Valour. The league also includes many returning Canadian youth and full internationals. With the competition bringing in a whole variety of players, what does the Luton-born midfielder expect from the standard?
“Judging by the signings so far, I think it will be a good competitive professional standard. I’m familiar with lots of the players and have been at Canadian under-20 camps with some of the younger signings.
“There are lots of really talented Canadian footballers but opportunities to turn professional are really limited to three MLS clubs and one USL club so this will be a great development pathway for many.
“I expect the first season to be intense and very competitive. Canadians in general are very professional so I expect everything to be run very efficiently and I think the standard will surprise many.”
This season will see the young midfielder competing in just his second season of senior football but after regular game time last year, it is likely that he is back on the radar of the Canadian national team, having previously represented them three years ago. There is also the question of a possible call-up to an England youth side, although that seems less likely now.
“At youth level I have been involved with Canada and also wore England colours with the ECFA national team (England Colleges) in five games. At MK Dons, I know England U16 youth scouts watched me a number of times but realistically, I’m probably not even on the FA radar these days. My main aim is to just keep playing well, keep improving, keep developing and hopefully get noticed by national team scouts in Canada.”
A little is still up in the air when it comes to the Canadian Premier League as teams still fill their squads and the standard of the league is yet to be seen but for Simmons, his goal this season is a simple one.
“I want to hit the ground running with HFX Wanderers, work hard, establish myself in the starting line up, make an impact and help the team have a successful first season.”
With experiences across Europe already behind him, there is a good chance that he can achieve his targets for the following year and it would certainly be interesting to see how the new competition unfolds.