With the 2021 Canadian Premier League campaign set to kick off this weekend, CPL commissioner David Clanachan held court with media on Thursday after revealing the league's new four-team playoff format for the 28-game season. On a triumphant day after several difficult months working to ensure the season could begin, Clanachan told reporters -- including the CPL's own Kristian Jack in an exclusive one-on-one interview -- just how excited he is for CPL soccer to return with The Kickoff. "I couldn’t be happier, I feel like it’s Christmas Day for me right now," Clanachan told Jack. "We were dealt lemons, so to speak, in Canada this year and we’ve made lemonade out of it." He added: "When I look back, we’ve maintained our creativity; we showed we had that DNA in 2019, we’ve shown that we’re nimble and that we’re prepared to try things, and that we believe in the game and we won’t go dark. The fact that we’re prepared to do it that way and work with people, I think that brings you along. In the communities where we play football, people respect that. I think we’ve garnered a good level of that respect; we still have to prove ourselves every day." With the unique structure of the 28-game season -- eight matches per club in Winnipeg, followed by 20 games (16 of them against regional opponents) -- Clanachan explained that he's extremely hopeful that CPL fans will soon be able to return to stadiums to cheer on their sides.
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Breaking down the finer details of the schedule and format, Clanachan added that bringing four teams into the playoffs should make this year as entertaining as possible right down to the end. He recalled the final day of the first round at the Island Games last year, which saw all but one team still in the hunt for a top-four position. "Everybody was in it to win it that weekend, and you want that," Clanachan said. "It’s something that I admire about other leagues across the sea, so to speak. They kind of use promotion and relegation as a tool to keep everybody interested, this is another way of doing it for us now in where we are as a league." The commissioner also added that, with the unbalanced schedule format, he thinks rivalries across the CPL may start to grow as well. "We have some of those natural rivalries that have happened over the first couple of years, whether it be 2019, then obviously the Island Games," he said. "We all know Cavalry and Forge FC, it’s a tinderbox. We’re seeing it with the 905 Derby with York United and Forge, we know that’s gonna be there. We know FC Edmonton and Cavalry, they’ve got that rivalry. "Everyone wants to play Pacific because they’ve got a bit of a swagger to them, because they’re from Vancouver Island. The guys that have gone from last to runners up last year in HFX Wanderers, who are a relatively young team that are really feeling it themselves. Competition is all there. Don’t forget, you’ve got Valour, who always feels like they’re in the middle of the country and get forgotten; you’ve got Atlético Ottawa who haven’t played a game in their home stadium yet, and everyone’s gonna want to play in Ottawa." In his press conference with media across the country, Clanachan revealed some further details about the upcoming season. He announced that all members of the CPL's contingent in the Winnipeg bubble -- numbering around 275 -- tested negative for COVID-19, allowing clubs to prepare freely on the training pitch. He also explained that, judging by the current timeline, he expects the 2021 CPL playoffs to take place around the second week of November. "Certainly the one-game final is very interesting for us," Clanachan said in his interview with Jack. "You think about it, it’s one game, 90 minutes — extra time, if needed — but at the end of the day, it’s going to be decided on that day. The focus on that championship day, and the lead-up to that championship day, I don’t know who would be more nervous at that time — the coaches and players, or the fans and supporters, depending on which teams are in. "Having been to some of the largest matches in the world overseas, it’s an unbelievable experience. And it’s not a two or three hour experience, it’s a two, three, four, five day experience for some. I was at the Champions League final in Madrid a couple of years ago, and I know for a fact there were 20,000 Liverpool fans that were in Madrid that didn’t even have tickets to the game." Of course, step one on that path is having fans return to the stands -- which Clanachan said he's confident will happen, as soon as each province gives the green light and lays out whatever protocols will be necessary. Ultimately, though, getting the 2021 season off the ground will be vital for the sport in Canada. With Canadians making such an impact in the game worldwide (and with the men's and women's national teams having success at their level), Clanachan pointed out that he wants to domestic league to contribute to the growth of Canadian soccer as well. "We're going to do our part," Clanachan said in his press conference. "We're going to continue to grow the league and be the North Star for those younger people that want to play the game at a higher level in this country, and we want to make sure that we are part of that program that develops younger talent as we move forward, not just for 2022 but for 2026." The CPL commissioner left Canadians with one final message, pleading for fans to do their part to help ensure they can return to the stands this summer: Get vaccinated against COVID-19. "We need to be ready, and make sure that it’s seamless for our fans and supporters, because they’re going to come back in droves. They’re gonna want to be there," he said. "The best thing we can all do as Canadians is get our vaccines. It’s important, you look at what’s happening in our country right now with the amount of vaccines that are out there, and second doses, that’s important to the country and it’s also important to live sport, to be able to go and enjoy the events we love the most in Canada." The 2021 CPL season will finally begin this Saturday afternoon, when FC Edmonton takes on Atlético Ottawa (2 pm ET/1 pm CT) at Winnipeg's IG Field.