Garber hints that Canadian-player rules in MLS may change: Why we need to look at minutes played, not roster spots

Don Garber

Don Garber

In a Facebook chat with fans held on Monday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was greeted with the thorny question about Canadian players in the league.

Francis Ghanimé asked him: “Will Canadian players ever stop counting as internationals for American clubs?”

And this was the answer from the commish.

“We are working on a new approach to our international player rules as they relate to Canada. Stay tuned.”

We have asked MLS for more clarification on the issue.

But, we do know the rules as they pertain to Canadians are on the radar. We also know the Canadian Soccer Association has lobbied MLS to changes the rules so Canadians are seen as domestic players, league wide. This would then put MLS on an equal footing with USL-PRO, which allows Canadians to be domestics on U.S. clubs.

Right now, the Canadian teams are required to each carry three Canadian players on their rosters. On the U.S. teams, Canadians are counted as international players and take up roster space that many American teams would prefer to give to players from, well, sexier parts of the soccer world. Meanwhile, on Canadian teams, Americans are seen as domestics.

The timing is interesting. We know CSA has been pushing for changes for a while. But, now, the CSA has gone public with its stated goal of having Canada’s own “Division 1A” (CLICK HERE or see issue 2 of Plastic Pitch), and reports continue that NASL, CFL owners and the CSA are discussing the formation of a Canadian division — something that NASL won’t deny, but says it simply can’t comment on… at this time.

So, pressure is no doubt building on MLS.

As we discussed in “The Law of Diminishing Returns” feature in the first issue of Plastic Pitch (see the end of the article on how to find issues 1 and 2 of the magazine), in the 2013 MLS season, Canadian players got an average of 1025.2 minutes per team. That works out to just a little more than 11 full games.

In 1996, the league’s debut season, Canadian players averaged 946.7 minutes per team. That’s an average of a little more than 10 full games.

Yes, the number of teams has nearly doubled since 1996. So, you can argue that, in total, there are more roster spots available for Canadians. But, with the addition of three Canadian franchises, you’d think the minutes-played average would have skyrocketed. But it hasn’t.

Clearly, the system isn’t working.

We spent thousands of words (with charts!) on the minutes-played in MLS piece. It’s all there.

But what did we prove? That roster spots shouldn’t be an end goal to itself. As MLS rosters become larger, it’s becoming a lot easier to bury players at the end of the bench. Over the last couple of years, when it comes to Canadians MLS teams, we’ve seen players who don’t get a minute of first-team action.

That was the case with Drew Beckie with the Columbus Crew in 2013; even though injuries and a coaching change with the Crew did play their roles. Babayele Sodade was released by the Seattle Sounders in 2013 after being drafted by the club in 2012. An ACL tear curtailed his progress, and the Sounders felt it would be better for him to find a new club. Evan James spent the 2012 season with the Montreal Impact, didn’t play a game, and was released. Philippe Davies spent all of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ inaugural MLS season on the roster, didn’t play a game.

And there are some who come close to never seeing time. Emery Welshman had one appearance for TFC in 2013, spent the season with the Reds, and was released. Last year, Kyle Bekker played more minutes with the Canadian national team than he did for Toronto FC.

So, you can give Canadians more roster spots; but you need to back it up with a meaningful goal. And that’s first-team minutes.

So, as MLS looks to tweaking or making major changes to the international rule as it relates to Canadians, the Canadian Soccer Association and the league need to set a goal that’s more cut-and-dried than giving more roster spots or even, gasp, dropping the Canadians-as-internationals-on-American-teams designation. Someone needs to write down a number. And that number would be a ballpark average of first-team minutes for Canadians.

Sure, you can’t guarantee time. Some players will be pushed to the bench for competitive reasons. Others will get injured. But, even with those variable, saying that we’d like to see the Canadian minutes, on average, move to 2,000 per team would be a reachable goal.

It would represent double the playing minutes Canadians are getting right now, but would still represent a total of just a touch more than 22 games of playing time per team. If anything, the modest goal shows just how badly the current system is serving the development of Canadian soccer.

In the end, it’s a question of if we see MLS as a developmental league or not. It surely is a chameleon, isn’t it? It has a stated goal of being a world-class league by 2020, which should mean the influx of more international players, but also ties itself closely to the success of the U.S. national team. It still conducts an amateur draft, even though world-class soccer leagues don’t control youth talent in that fashion — nor do world-class soccer clubs trust schools to teach their young players how to play the game.

So, as long as a draft exists, as long as American players are given protection on Canadian rosters, it is absolutely fair to see MLS as a developmental league — and therefore expecting something as small as a 2,000-minute Canadian player average shouldn’t be onerous to MLS at all.

And, by calling for a league-wide average on minutes, you might find a loophole in the U.S. labour laws MLS has cited in preventing Canadians as domestics in American markets. USL-PRO does see Canadians as domestics, and sources have told us that this is more of a USSF issue than a true labour-law issue. The prejudicial nature of sports rosters makes them difficult targets for labour law; if we did apply labour law strictly to rosters, you could argue that the veteran who gets cut to make way for the rookie could sue the team or league. He is being replaced by a cheaper worker who doesn’t have anywhere close to the same kind of résumé.

In Canada, we have watched MLS evolve in this country since 2007. It has coincided with a deep funk for our national men’s team. In the early ‘90s, we still made it to the hex. We got to playoff games with other confederations. Now, we crash out in the early stages of CONCACAF qualifying. Our players see no minutes.

But, the problem also exists at the front-office level for MLS. MLS lists 12 major executives (CLICK HERE). How many are Canadians? None. Considering that this league has had Canadian members since 2007, and now has three of 19 teams in this country, it’s amazing to see that there still isn’t a vice-president who is from Canada and has an “I grew up with it” understanding of the game in this country. That’s another issue MLS must address. At the executive level, it needs a Canadian. And, getting around labour laws in that case is easy. Rent an office in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver if you’re worried about that. In fact, it might just be the PR move the league needs, to have a dedicated vice-president for Canada, who deals with Canadian soccer issues and acts as the voice for the league in this country.

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SEE The fine lines: Labour law, competitive balance, Canadians and MLS (CLICK HERE)
The MLS “domestic” rule: Why allowing more Canadians in wouldn’t run afoul of U.S. Immigration (CLICK HERE)


About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.