‘Inspiring the next generation’: Vancouver FC president Friend eager to bring CPL On Tour to his hometown Kelowna
Canadian Premier League

When the city of Kelowna, British Columbia welcomes the Canadian Premier League this weekend, it’ll be a new experience for most involved with Vancouver FC and Cavalry FC.

For one VIP, however, this weekend’s CPL On Tour match at the Apple Bowl is a homecoming.

Vancouver’s president and CEO Rob Friend is as familiar with the Kelowna soccer scene as anyone, having grown up in the city. His career as a player — which took him all over the world, to as high a level as the Bundesliga and Eredivisie as well as the international stage with Canada — began in Kelowna in the late 1990s, with the Okanagan Challenge in what was, at the time, called the Premier Development Soccer League (now USL League Two).

“To play at the highest level coming from a smaller market at the time, I still look back and wonder how I was able to do it,” Friend said, reminiscing on his youth in the Okanagan Valley before returning this week.

RELATED: Canadian Premier League to launch ‘On Tour’ series in Kelowna, B.C. with Vancouver FC vs. Cavalry FC

The former Canadian national team striker explained how, when he was an ambitious young player, soccer was very much a small, primarily recreational sport in Kelowna. Hockey dominated the city’s sports landscape, with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League being the main draw.

However, Friend is grateful he was able to play for the Challenge in the PDSL as a teenager. That club was his first senior-level experience, and his first experiences playing at the Apple Bowl helped vault him toward a professional career.

In 1997, Friend captained the B.C. provincial team, and he was the first ever Kelowna-based player to represent the province.

Rob Friend becomes the first player to represent Kelowna on the BC Provincial Team

“To really see the city of Kelowna grow up since my time growing up there, playing youth soccer there, it’s such an incredible place,” Friend said. “It’s always been sort of a smaller town that’s starting to emerge as a mid- to larger market in this country. With that comes more opportunities and obviously sports is one.”

Rob Friend playing for the Canadian national team against Brazil. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

From his early days in Kelowna, Friend went on to play top-flight football in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany with major clubs like Molde, Heerenveen and Borussia Mönchengladbach. His playing career finished when he lifted the 2014 MLS Cup with the LA Galaxy, and he retired with 32 caps for the Canadian men’s national team under his belt. Friend even scored against Brazil in a friendly in 2008.

Now, Friend returns to Kelowna to bring the professional game back to his hometown. Already, he’s seen the sport explode in popularity in the Okanagan Valley; according to Friend, the number of youth soccer players in the area now exceeds 7,000, which he estimates is four or five times what it was when he was growing up.

As the president of a professional club in B.C., Friend is now eager to introduce Kelowna to the CPL.

“What we’re doing across the country in the Canadian Premier League is showing there’s a tier-one domestic league in our country that has a great level, has some great players, and is creating opportunities, whether you’re an aspiring soccer player or someone who wants to work in the sport as well,” he said.

“I think to show the Okanagan that this league exists and the level is very high, that we have some fantastic role models and players, young Canadians that are coming into our league that I believe will be the next role models and Canadian national team players, is really inspiring the next generation always.”

For Friend, it’ll be a full-circle moment seeing the club he runs playing a match at the Apple Bowl, where his career kicked off.

“I think it’s a really exciting time for the city, and I really hope that this game could potentially be a catalyst for further investment in soccer in the city,” Friend said.

The VFC president added that he’s been blown away by the enthusiasm in Kelowna so far, particularly from the city’s mayor, Tom Dyas, and from Tourism Kelowna who have been instrumental in ensuring this CPL On Tour weekend is a celebration of both the Canadian Premier League and the grassroots soccer community in the Okanagan.

“This game is going to showcase soccer in Canada and create hopefully a ton of opportunities for investment, but ultimately I think it’s just going to be a fantastic event,” Friend concluded.

“There’s going to be a huge crowd, and I’m just really looking forward to bringing this game and celebrating the CPL in my hometown.”

Make sure to get your tickets as Vancouver FC and Cavalry FC kick off pro soccer at the Apple Bowl this Sunday, June 16 at 2 p.m. PT .

Rob Friend announces the Inaugural CPL “On Tour” match in Kelowna with Mayor Tom Dyas and CPL Commissioner Mark Noonan