Will MLS help or hurt Canada’s men’s soccer team’s attempts to make a future World Cup?

The Eh Game

Every four years in the lead-up to the World Cup, there's a discussion of why Canada hasn't been there since 1986. It's not for lack of ambition; fans, players, and administrators all would love to get that far, and the Canadian Soccer Association has even called its long-term player-development guidelines "Wellness to World Cup." However, the men's national team hasn't even been particularly close recently; they've fallen before the final round of CONCACAF (North and Central American) qualifying every year since 1998, and that year saw them finish last of the six teams in the final round. Professional soccer clubs are clearly flourishing in Canada at the moment, with three MLS teams and two NASL teams all doing well, and there's still plenty of interest in the sport at the youth levels (there were 845,313 registered soccer players in Canada in 2012, more than any other sport, and over 490,000 of those were male), but that hasn't translated into success for the men's national team; June's FIFA World Rankings put Canada 110th overall, 11th in CONCACAF, behind the likes of Bahrain, Latvia and Kenya. Is Canadian soccer development progressing or regressing, and has having so many MLS teams in particular helped or hindered it?

At first, that seems like a silly question. Having high-level teams based in your country carries plenty of benefits, including stimulating more interest in the game and encouraging top athletes to stick with it. Moreover, the extensive academy systems that Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal's MLS teams have developed are helping to train plenty of young Canadian talent. While some of those systems (Vancouver's in particular) predate the team's time in MLS, competing at that level (and bringing in the revenues from doing so) allows for massive and more complete funding of club academies than was possible earlier. There aren't many countries where having top club teams seems like a negative, and it's not like MLS is a bad league these days; in fact, improvements in the quality of that league have significantly boosted the U.S. national team, which enters this World Cup as an intriguing side at the least (and one with 11 current MLS players and 15 players who started their career in the league).

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It's important to remember that MLS is an American-based league, though, and one whose quotas are about American players. Canadian teams can fill their domestic slots (all but eight international players must be domestic, although those international slots can be traded from team to team) with Canadians or Americans, but U.S. teams can only use Americans (which is more about league policies and lawsuit risks than immigration issues). There is a separate quota that must be filled with specifically Canadian players (although those with a right to work in Canada can be counted as Canadian here), but it's only three players per team, and it was almost eliminated entirely a while back. That puts Canadian MLS teams in a difficult position when filling "domestic" spots beyond the mandated three Canucks. If a Canadian and an American who play the same position are available, both count the same on the roster; if the American's better at the moment, do teams dare pass him up in favour of trying to develop Canadian talent, or do they go with what's seen as giving them a better chance to win right now?

Similarly, that quota doesn't mandate Canadian starters (unlike, say, the CFL's rule), so it's quite possible for Canadian teams to have Canadians on the roster and not use them all that often. Over the last few years, they've often gone with American-heavy lineups. As Duane Rollins wrote in 2012, that's a change from how things were when Vancouver and Montreal were both still in the second division:

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.

That issue hasn't gone away since then. While there are several Canadians doing well in MLS at the moment, and not all with Canadian teams (the top current Canadian in MLS might be midfielder Will Johnson, who plays for the Portland Timbers), and while clubs like Toronto FC proudly pump up the Canadian players they do have on their roster, the league is still anything but a Canadian talent factory. On one week in April when TFC wasn't playing, just five Canadians made it onto an MLS pitch. The CSA is still heavily lobbying to make Canadians count as domestic players for U.S. sides, and that might change things notably; if every MLS club had reason to be interested in developing Canadian players as well as American ones, the league might turn into a much better developmental platform for Canadian soccer, one that could help the Canadian national team progress towards World Cup qualification.

Still, the Canadian MLS teams have to be examined here as well. Are they doing enough to promote Canadian talent? There's a difficult line to walk between building for the future and trying to win now (and keep in mind, these teams don't compete for the World Cup; their chief goal is to succeed in their league), but the easiest way to overcome that is to develop top Canadian players who force their way into the side regardless of nationality. That's not a simple task, but Canada's MLS teams do appear to be making strides in the right direction with their academy programs, and some results are being seen at the top level already. We'll see if that proves to be enough to help Canadian players regularly appear in MLS, grow and develop and help carry the national team closer to World Cup qualification.

On the whole, it would be difficult to say that Canadian club soccer is worse off now than it was before Vancouver and Montreal went to MLS. While the Whitecaps and Impact may use fewer Canadians regularly now, the ones they are using are getting experience at a higher level (and because of the aforementioned MLS import rules, most Canadians in the league are going to play for Canadian clubs, so more Canadian clubs means more Canadians in the league). They're also investing at least some of the extra money from MLS in their academy programs, which are more elaborate than they were when these clubs were in Division II. Moreover, there are again two Canadian teams in the second division (the North American Soccer League) with Ottawa joining Edmonton this year, and both of those clubs use plenty of Canadians; there's also progress being made further down the soccer pyramid. The state of Canadian club soccer as a developmental tool isn't dire overall, and it's probably better than it has been if you consider the extra NASL teams as well as the MLS ones. It's just worth keeping in mind that MLS is first and foremost about Americans, and that having top Canadian teams in that league has drawbacks as well as advantages.

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