The marriage between Major League Soccer and Canada is now six years old. On the surface, it seems like a happy union.

Three teams are involved. Even with Toronto FC’s on-field struggles and Montreal’s slightly disappointing launch, attendance is solid in the three markets. More importantly, from the league’s perspective the sponsorship money is flowing in Canada—the Canadian teams have some of the richest deals in MLS.

So, MLS has to be happy with its Canadian experiment. They’d likely even point to the Whitecaps playoff appearance in 2012 as evidence that the team’s are starting to figure things out.

Debates about whether MLS would be a good thing for Canada—debates that were common in 2006 when Toronto was awarded a franchise—seem antiquated now. Very few people in Canada are critically evaluating the role MLS has played in Canadian soccer.

But, should we? Has MLS worked out for Canada? Are we getting as much out of the league as the league gets out of us?

The answer to those questions might not be as black and white as people think.

On the surface it does seem that MLS accelerated the growth of the club game, at least in the three cities in which it operates. Certainly, the visibility of the Whitecaps and Impact is greater than it was when the clubs featured in the USL/NASL, where only hardcore fans followed them. In Toronto, the Toronto Lynx were arguably invisible even within the soccer community.

Al three teams are now part of the general sports fan’s consciousness now, a product of increased media coverage.

The effect of the increased exposure could be seen this past summer and fall during Canada’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign. Although most people would like to see bigger crowds at the games, the crowds that did turn out were historic in context. There has never been as much attention, nor as consistent a pro-Canadian turn-out, as we saw in Toronto for the men or in Vancouver in women’s Olympic qualifying.

The increased interest in the Canadian national teams is related to an increase in interest in the sport. And, that’s directly related to an increase in interest in the club game.

This is a good thing, of course. However, it’s also a little on the surface. An argument can be made that the sport would have grown to its current level regardless of the arrival of MLS. It might have taken a bit longer, but the sport was already breaking through to the mainstream in 2006 when TFC was born.

The more important question for Canadian fans then is whether having MLS in Canada is helping Canada get better in the sport.

Are players getting more opportunities? Are young players being developed better and are more kids being inspired to take up and stick with the sport?

On these questions, the answers aren’t nearly as clear.

Actually, when it comes to playing opportunities there might be less now. Whereas both the Whitecaps and Impact used a great deal of Canadian talent when they were competing for D2 championships, now both clubs are mostly made up of foreign talent.

According to data compiled by the blog Out of Touch, the Impact played Canadians for just 2,239 minutes in 2012. That represents just 6.49 percent of total minutes played.

Vancouver was even worse. Much worse, actually. The Caps used Canadians for just 132 minutes last season, a pathetic 0.34 percent of total minutes. Even Toronto, which was by far the team most likely to use Canadians, came in at just 25.5 percent.

When you look at those numbers and factor in the fact that Bob Lenarduzzi actively campaigned to reduce the domestic player quota down to two in 2011 (the CSA later successfully raised it to three), and that both the Whitecaps and Montreal use “on paper” Canadians (those cap tied to another country, who qualify as Canadians through an accident of birth only) to meet even that small quota, you have to question just how committed the clubs are to giving Canadians a chance.

They counter that argument in two ways. First, it’s suggested that the youth academies associated with the clubs are producing the next generation of Canadian stars and that their true commitment to the Canadian game will not be seen until those players start to graduate to the senior roster.

The clubs also argue that they cannot grow the game if they are unsuccessful on the pitch, and to be successful they cannot be burdened by having to make room for Canadians on the roster.

It is perhaps telling that the club with the most Canadian minutes—TFC—was, by far, the worst in the country (although they did win the Canadian championship). And their Canadian competitors weren’t too far ahead of them; Vancouver made the play-in game, but they did so with a record below .500 and with one of the worst records in MLS after July.

On the whole, MLS still probably provides a net benefit to Canadian soccer. However, concerned fans should watch the clubs carefully to make sure they follow through on their promise to eventually develop and play more Canucks.

Comments (12)

  1. The CSA failed this country. Not the two clubs which have been in MLS for a total of three years combined.

    How does it help the system to go and buy the likes of perhaps Rob Friend or someone who is of Canadian nationality and play them in the MLS? Just because Toronto fielded Jonathan de Guzman and Dunfield among others does that improve our national game more so than the other two clubs?

    Toronto has only started somewhat reaping the benefits of having an improved youth academy. It is a process which it seems “journalists” keep attacking blindly

  2. I think the MLS will be as good for Canada as the CSA is willing to make it.

    I completely understand that clubs feel there isn’t enough Canadian talent out there RIGHT NOW. But I feel down the road, that equation will have an answer of their own design.

    If the CSA gradually raises the quota, and at the same time creates a foundation where better players enter the youth academy… MLS clubs will have the incentive to develop our own players and everything will be great. But if we keep focusing on the short term without an eye on the future, then we’re lost.

    TFC, Vancouver, and Montreal, need a little bit of fire under their asses to develop players faster and more robustly. Someone like Tiebert shouldn’t be riding the bench in favor of other marginal MLS journeymen. The rules should be set up in a way where the decision to play him is easy.

  3. Well you have to think since Toronto is in its 6th rebuild in 6 years doubting the MLS must be the problem! blah! sure from that lens I’d question folding the sad sack squad too, the question more likely should be if Toronto even belongs in the MLS?

    It is far to early to evaluate a Canadian breakthrough at all. Yes Toronto has sort of been in the league by name only for 6 years but Vancouver just 2 and Montreal just the one.

    As mentioned the attendance, the interest and the sponsorship are all there. Clear indicators that the most important thing for development is there – money! The responsibility of development Canadian talent should be with the CSA not MLS clubs.

    It is the CSA’s lack of vision, poor organizational structure and plagued by “old boys club” mentality that hinders Canada progress (if any) at the World Stage.

  4. “The responsibility of development Canadian talent should be with the CSA not MLS clubs.”

    Maybe, but that is the oposite of how the vast majority of countries in the world do it. Domestic quotas are common in nearly every league in the world and most countries understand the importance of ensuring professional opportunities at home for their young players.

    England is a notable exception, and likely the league most readers here are familiar with.

    • The problem is that its not “our” soccer league. So the CSA really doesnt have to be included in the decision making of the MLS. They can develop their league without Canadians help.

      The quota is there because its a handycap against Canadians, in the same way that the Blue Jays were capped to winning 2 World Series in a row by MLB. The same way that the CFL folded when the Grey Cup went to an American team.

      MLS cares that Canadian teams compete, but they will not cheer when they see a roster thats not half filled with Americans. The Canadian team are only there for profile. It adds to the intrigue of MLS for outsiders and new domestic fans.

  5. I dont think there’s any doubt that the MLS is good for the development of players in Canada. IMO, its a bit unfair to cast doubt on the development of players by the TFC, Whitecaps, and Impact academies when theres signs that it is working in the Canadian (youth) teams:

    *I hate to say this but Im using Wikipedia to look up the rosters, but here they are*

    CMNT (Senior): 8 of 22 players were in MLS in the last selection to face Cuba and Honduras.

    CMNT (U-23): 7 of 23 players were in MLS and selected for the 2012 Olympic Qualifying tournament. 3 of 23 of those selected were from FC Edmonton in the NASL.

    CMNT (U-20): 12 of 20 players listed as having been called up by Nick Dasovic for the Mexico training camp in Jun of 2012 were part of the 3 Canadian MLS academies.

    CMNT (U-17): 12 of 20 players who were selected to compete in the 2011 U-17 World Cup in Mexico were from the Vancouver, *Montreal and Toronto academies.

    *Montreal was not in MLS at the time, but they had a development academy prior to joining MLS.

  6. The roster of the youth teams doesn’t necessarily tell us that the academies are working — it could just as easily be exposing the long-held problem of player identification. It used to be that Canada just picked players that came through the provincial system. Now, hey seem to be just picking players in the three pro academies. We’d best hope that the pro teams are identifying the best players and that there still aren’t players slipping through the cracks.

  7. Have to say the teams arguments for not playing Canadians are persuasive. Sure, an NASL Whitecaps team would be full of Canadians; they would also be worse than an MLS team. Patience is the name of the game—the number of academy kids to actually make it through to first-team regular is tiny. Entire generations pass through academies everywhere and none make the first team. Vancouver has had very little time to filter their academy and move the real gems to the first team. Give it time and they will—if only because it’s in their best financial interest to use homegrown players. The very fact that they’re not just throwing any old Canadian out there—the old CSA way of operating—and are developing Canadians properly shows that the benefit they do provide in that sense may be long-ish coming, but will be real when it does.

  8. And moreover, even if the pro clubs are identifying the best talent properly, what good is it if 9 of those 12 players graduate for their respective academy and fail to land a pro contract, or have their development stalled by lack of playing time? A solution to this must be found. I’m optimistic that one is on the horizon, but if the majority of our most promising junior players continue to find themselves out of football by their 22nd birthday we will continue to fall further behind the curve. MLS has done many things for soccer in Canada, but as of yet expanding the player pool is not one of them.

  9. I believe that the clubs have no responsibility to the national team… but the CSA does HAVE a responsibility to help the clubs produce players… does that make sense?

    I’m from Montreal, i’m an Impact fan, but by no means am i a good soccer mind like i am with basketball (my fav sport). I could care less if our team fields Canadians or not because right now, in 2012, Canada has no depth. We’re not England or Spain where there are solid players (not stars) from those countries that can be picked out from here and there. If you take away the star MFs of Spain, you can still field a Javi Martinez, a Mikel Arteta, a Jose Manuel Jurado. Are they talented enough to bring Spain to a world class level? Probably not… but they’re still very solid option B or C players. But with Canada, we have option A… and then the backup to that player may be an option C or D quality player. Sometimes, our option A player is actually an option B talent.

    With that in mind, – TFC, Vancouver, Montreal – in my opinion, should have no obligation to field Canadian players just for the sake of fielding Canadian players. Why force yourself to play a Canadian player? Because he’s on a Canadian club? Come on… Montreal, Vancouver and TFC (even at 6 years) are young MLS clubs. Their responsibility should still be to themselves, not Canada or the CSA.

    I know Mtl’s academy did very well this year. But I didnt watch any of their games because there’s no coverage on TV. So maybe, in 3-4 years time… heck, maybe even for the next WC cycle of 2018, maybe then the academies will be in position to help not only the club but also the senior national team. But right now, Canada and the 3 MLS clubs are not at that level yet.

  10. It’s a tricky situation that these teams are in since they are competing with teams from another country. Typically countries have their own domestic league, and the majority of the players in the league are from that country. If there are quotas it’s fair because everybody is pulling from the same player pool. In MLS however, it’s tougher. The American player pool is deeper, and MLS for the American teams was around for 11 years before any Canadian teams joined.

    Duane has brought up interesting points, and I think he’s right to say that Canada is probably better off being in the MLS, but we’ve still got work to do. If we can get that domestic 2nd tier league that’s being mumbled about up and running, then that could help things along immensely and hopefully the Canadian quota can rise for Canadian MLS teams.

  11. There has not been enough time to evaluate whether it has been good or bad. It will take 15 to 20 years before we can draw a conclusion on this.

    The best example to look at is the Toronto Raptors…they were born in 1995. They never had a Canadian quota and it wasn’t until last year that a Canadian was even on the Raptors roster (Jamaal Magloire).

    Look at how basketball has evolved in this country, in particular and more specificially in Toronto. There are now 94 Canadians on the rosters of NCAA D1 mens basketball teams, a number that has steadily been growing every year. Canada is now qualifying for all the FIBA youth international tournaments. A lot of credit has gone to the establishment of a professional team(s) in Canada.

    Look in Toronto, the best AAU team on the circuit this year was comprised of boys from the GTA. The best amateur basketball player in the world is from the Toronto area.

    None of this was happening when there wasn’t a pro basketball team in Toronto. The Raptors have given young men role models and people to aspire to and work hard to become. There involvement in the community, although not always noticable has had an effect on the growing amount of young Canadian basketball talent in this country.

    Give the professional soccer teams in this country some more time…I am willing to bet that having professional soccer in this country will have a similar effect like having professional basketball has done.

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