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.