Upstairs in a bar, overlooking downtown Vancouver, they gathered. Despite the balloons and the sound system at the front of the room, the crowd of roughly 150 people weren't there for a birthday party, but a celebration of a different sort.
Will Cromack and Colin Elmes stood in front of the crowd, each taking a turn with the microphone. The group facing them had gathered to support the two's ambitious project, one the pair hoped would lead to better development of Canadian footballers.
The men had known each other as teammates on the same university football team and reconnected in the summer of 2016.
Elmes is a former University of British Columbia varsity soccer player and Canadian national team member, while Cromack played alongside Elmes and represented Canada at the youth levels.
An alumni dinner led to a discussion of best coaching practices and methods. A few drinks extended the night, with football and favourite bands dominating discussion.
The Tragically Hip, an iconic Canadian band, was touring the country in what was billed as their farewell tour. The band provided a sense of nostalgia for the pair, who used the discussion of the band as a springboard to discuss other issues, chiefly the development of footballers north of the 49th parallel.
Now, a year later, Elmes and Cromack are preparing to launch their own club in the Player Development League (PDL), which features teams from the United States and Canada.
The pair admit it’s one of those fantasy moments you may dream about as a kid. What would you do if you were handed the keys to your own club, from designing the jersey to finding a stadium?
They've wound their way through meetings with BC Soccer – the provincial governing body, followed by meetings with the Canadian Soccer Association and finally FIFA.
There were moments when the pair were nervous a board would reject their club, leaving them without a place to play.
But the dream came in to focus as the squad walked to the front of the bar with players Vaggeli Boucas and Mamadai Camara taking off their overshirts revealing the club's jerseys for the upcoming season.
Elmes, who owns and runs a pay-for-use football academy in Metro Vancouver, has long been an advocate for Canadian players and a change in playing style to develop homegrown players. Now he's got a chance to put his money where his mouth is.
"People kind of look at you a bit funny when you decide to go and take what on the surface appears to be not a terribly prudent financial move,” said Elmes. “We said if any body can figure this out, it might be us.”
Elmes and Cromack are working to run the TSS Rovers, an amateur club that will compete in North America's fourth rung on the football pyramid. The players – largely under the age of 24 – are unpaid and many are juggling attending training sessions with university studies and part-time jobs.
The task is more than a bit daunting. The two have moved a club from the United States of America to suburban Vancouver in less than a year, signed a squad of players, found a stadium to play out of and agreed a sponsorship deal with a local brewery to adorn their jerseys.
To buy the franchise cost USD $35,000 and it costs roughly CAD $200,000 to operate the club on a yearly basis.
The club has a three-year agreement with United Soccer Leagues, the group that runs the league. The league is split in to four conferences, with 72 teams competing.
"My wife is totally wondering why I’m getting involved," said Cromack, laughing when asked about the time and financial commitment.
At heart, the club is a romantic project. The duo want to see Canada make a return to the World Cup – which the country has only qualified for once in its history, back in 1986 – and they believe their club could play a role in developing players to achieve that goal.
They believe the path for Canadian players is limited by Major League Soccer – who import American and other foreign players – with Canadian players not necessarily getting a fair crack of the whip. Their goal is for their club to act as a showcase for Canadians, allowing more to get noticed and signed by MLS clubs.
The Rovers will only sign and play Canadian players. Any skilled player who has Canadian citizenship or is a landed immigrant will get a crack, but they're not interested in players for aren't Canadian.
"In principle we're not discriminating," said Cromack, when asked about only signing Canadian citizens. "You land here from Syria and you can ball? No problem. We need a place for our Canadians."
The TSS Academy will act as a feeder club, providing a base of players. The academy is known for its role in developing Christine Sinclair, arguably Canada's greatest ever female soccer player, as well as Canadian internationals like Terry Dunfield.
The two say they're constantly finding new things to work on, but refuse to be overwhelmed by the scope of the project.
"Our goal, frankly, is to make one dollar," said Elmes.
Elmes, who holds Canadian Soccer Association National B Licence, will work as the head coach and owner of the club, while Cromack will work as his assistant coach and club general manager. The pair have enlisted the help of another friend to work as a video analyst, and a colleague of Elmes' will work as the goalkeeper coach.
Their hope lies in invoking a crowd disillusioned by the corporate control of MLS. The Rovers will play out of Swangard Stadium, the former site of Canadian national team games as well as the Vancouver 86ers – the precursor to the modern Vancouver Whitecaps – as well as the Whitecaps during their USL days.
A concrete stadium on the edge of a forest in Burnaby, B.C., the covered stands look out not only on to the pitch but offer a glimpse of Vancouver in the distance. Fans that are so inclined can still climb a small hill just beyond the chain link fence that encircles the stadium and get a free view of the field.
“As a kid, they had the Sun Tournament of Soccer Champions, and that was always held at Swangard. If you were playing at Swangard, you were something,” Elmes said, describing the nostalgia the venue evokes. “It’s a great, old spot.”
The little things matter to the two, with Cromack offering up the example of travelling to games. They could rent vans, which are easier on their budget. But they believe travelling as a team in a bus, where they can collectively talk to players as well as let them interact after games, is a worthy expense.
Then there's the supporters group to keep happy. Casting aside initial concerns about whether anyone would actually show up to games, the club now has its own supporters group.
The Swanguardians – taking their name from the stadium – are looking to provide an atmosphere reminiscent of when the Whitecaps graced the grass pitch.
"We don't believe we should tell fans how to cheer," said Cromack about their burgeoning relationship with supporters. "They're a partner here. If you don't like us, that's just as important as if you do. It shows you care. Apathy is the worst form of hatred."
Their style of play reflects the purity of the game they’re trying to achieve in running the club.
The duo have a clear vision of how the game should be played. A Rovers club will play the ball out of the back, and build forward in a style reminiscent of the tiki-taka of the modern Barcelona or Spain squads.
But the club is also a business. If the style the pair has publicly aligned themselves to does not bring success, will there be a change?
"We're not going to sway from what we believe in, we will never ever do that," said Cromack. "We're going to take that build from the back which in North America has taken on a life of its own…and we are going to indoctrinate those that are with us."
The club will also operate differently than their fellow Canadian or American counterparts. Elmes and Cromack have created an advisory board consisting of advisors that they hope will keep the club in check and ensure the ideals they espouse are being followed.
Members range from local entrepreneurs to members of the footballing community, including ex-Whitecaps manager Martin Rennie and former Watford and Whitecaps defender Jay DeMerit.
The chance to assist a PDL club was a logical choice, DeMerit says.
The U.S. defender started his career as a 22-year-old, lacing up his boots for PDL club Chicago Fire Premier in 2001.
DeMerit, who went on to make 183 appearances for the Hornets, says he envisages his role as acting as a sounding board and providing inspiration for the Rovers' players.
"I know my experience is rare," he said, speaking about his rise from PDL to feeder clubs to the Isthmian League and eventually to the Premier League. "I'm here to make sure these guys know that they can do it."
The larger goal, he says, is supporting youth players if professional football isn't their final calling.
"We introduce them to sponsors, we introduce them to people who care about them, not just athletes," he said. "The fact you made it here is a major accomplishment and hopefully we can use local business owners, local business professionals [and] mentors like me and grow their personalities. If they're good enough to make it, they’ll make it. If they're not, then they're in a high-end community that will help them shine in other directions," he said.
The players are a collection of former MLS academy players, university varsity athletes and some are those who just impressed at tryouts. The consistent messaging from the group is one of optimism and a sense of gratitude towards the coaching staff for giving them arguably the final shot at making it as a professional player.
There have been hiccups in the early days of the playing season. The Rovers were cruising to a comfortable 3-0 win in their opening fixture, only to lose 4-3. Several days later, they were docked points for fielding an ineligible player.
They acknowledged the error in a tweet, jokingly suggesting they didn’t know what they’re doing, but the passion from the duo is only growing.
"It's a labour of love," said Elmes.
By Nick Wells, IBWM Senior Writer. All photo credit goes to the club.