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Lowball contract offers. Teams that don’t want to “waste” precious international roster spots on a Canadians. A player being told that he’ll get a chance to make a team once he gets a U.S. green card. These are the realities of Canadians trying to play in North America. In NASL and MLS, Americans are allowed to be treated as domestic players on Canadian teams. But, on the American teams, Canadians are treated as internationals. Here’s a look at the domino effect of roster inequality in North America…

Professional athletes will talk about their games, their rivalries and how they made it to the big leagues.

But when it comes to talking about the politics of their leagues and their business affairs, they often will only speak in hushed tones — and off the record. They fear that speaking out against a league or team will see them branded as malcontents. Their honesty could derail their careers.

So, in many ways, soccer supporters only see a very two-dimensional picture of what it’s like to be a pro in North America. They don’t see the struggles of making the league minimum in an expensive city like Vancouver or New York. They don’t know what a player makes after taxes and expenses — and the agent’s share is paid out.

But, some brave players have stepped forward, to put on the record the sort of topicsthat are usually left for off-the-record discussions — or aren’t talked about at all. And they paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to be a Canadian professional soccer player.

David Monsalve

After the Canadian keeper’s contract with AC Oulu expired at the end of the 2014 Finnish league season, he wanted to get back to North America. Monsalve had played with Toronto FC in 2007 and with FC Edmonton for part of the 2011 season and all of 2012.

Monsalve secured a trial with the expansion Jacksonville Armada of the North American Soccer League. As a trialist, he paid the travel expenses, but the team covered the accommodation. The Armada confirmed that Monsalve did have a trial with the club.

Monsalve claims that the Armada was interested in bringing him on board, but only as a domestic player. Had he taken that route, it would have meant waiting to get the needed U.S. paperwork before the Armada would add him to the roster. That wait could have taken Monsalve up to a year. So, to play for the Armada down the road, he would have to accept that, for the 2015 season, he’d have zero chance to get into a North American Soccer League game.

But Monsalve isn’t bitter. In fact he says that the expansion Armada is well-run and might just surprise more than a few people in the North American Soccer League. His issue is with the Major League Soccer and NASL rulebooks; they allow for American players to be regarded as domestics on Canadian teams, but the courtesy isn’t reciprocated on the American clubs. The Americans have the advantage of being seen as domestics on both sides of the border, while the Canadian players can only be domestic with the Canadian clubs. Problem is, most of the teams are located south of the border.

David Monsalve is seen playing for FC Edmonton in Canadian Championship action against the Vancouver Whitecaps. The Canadian keeper had a sorta-successful trial with the Jacksonville Armada. Monsalve says the Armada would have signed him — but only AFTER he got the paperwork needed to be counted as an American domestic. Monsalve now plays with Colombian side America de Cali. PHOTO: CANADA SOCCER/BOB FRID

“They wanted me and I am still in contact with the coaches there,” says Monsalve. “I guess they liked me that much. I had a great relationship with every single coach there, and every single person on the staff. The general manager [former MLS goalkeeper Dario Sala] I had known from before. It was a great experience, a great time.

NASL teams can only carry seven internationals. And, for an American team, using one of those precious spots on a Canadian is tough. It’s not as easy to sell a Canadian selling to an American audience as it would be a South American or a European.

“We even tried talking to the team lawyer to see if there was any way I could get the green card,” says Monsalve. “We looked atit and it would have taken too long. And, I would have needed to have a job [in the meantime]. And they weren’t willing just to give me a contract, to give me a job, without me being part of the team.

“The idea was that they didn’t want me to take up a foreign spot. They wanted me to be there, training till I got my green card. But it was too long a process. If it has been a few months, maybe half a year, they would have thought about it. But it was going to be at least a year, and really fighting for it, and they weren’t willing to go that far.”

Over the past few months, Monsalve was able to secure his Colombian passport — so he’s now officially a dual citizen. And, with that Colombian paperwork in hand, he was able to secure a trial with America de Cali. In January of 2015, he signed a six-month contract with the Colombian club, and he hopes he will play well enough to earn a long-term extension. Monsalve followed in the footsteps of so many other Canadian players — falling back on dual citizenship in order to better his chances of landing a job.

On the international soccer market, a Canadian passport is an anchor. So, many players who do find success abroad rely on other citizenships to do so; and, of course, it makes Canadian soccer supporters uneasy to find out that these Canada-eligible players could also be capped by another country. The fact that the U.S. market is closed to Canadians helps contribute to the double-passport standard.

Monsalve says that the Colombian teams don’t pay quite as well as MLS does — but it’s close. And, in Colombia, the teams look after many of the players’ cost-of-living expenses, such as accommodation. When you factor that in, the quality of life for the player in Colombia is arguably better than a player at the MLS average salary in North America.

Monsalve has played in spells with Finnish sides Inter Turku and AC Oulu. Before heading to Finland for the first time, Monsalve spent part of the 2007 campaign and a little bit of time in 2008 with Toronto FC.

That was in a time before MLS changed the rules that would recognize Americans as domestics on Canadian teams. Monsalve said the club put a premium on finding Canadian players when MLS rules officially tagged Americans as internationals on Toronto FC. Mo Johnston, who ran TFC’s football operations at the time, is still vilified by Toronto soccer fans for getting the franchise off on the wrong foot. The losses piled up. But Monsalve remembers a man who cared greatly about the health of the Canadian soccer program.

“What Mo Johnston tried to do was to look for the best Canadian players, the best young Canadian players. What he did was go to a lot of national-team camps. He looked at us and picked and chose which of us could be the best guys.”

After dislocating his shoulder, Monsalve was released. But after winning a penalty shootout for Canada’s U-23s against Guatemala — after a 0-0 draw through 120 minutes — in a March, 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament match, he got invited back to the TFC fold. But Monsalve realized there was no room to be anything but the third-choice keeper, and left shortly afterwards.

In 2011, Monsalve was offered a sort-of four-year contract with TFC after a successful trial. But he rejected it. That’s because it wasn’t a true four-year deal; it was a typical MLS entry-level deal, laden with team options. The team would have held the options on each year of the contract. With Stefan Frei and Milos Kocic already on the roster, Monsalve didn’t want to be in the position of being a third keeper with little chance to prove himself — and no contract certainty.

“I didn’t want to sign because of the way the contract was structured. It was four years, but every year was an option. It was 1+1+1+1. I wasn’t going to take that chance of will they re-sign me or could they release me? I wasn’t willing to feel that sense of insecurity. If I’m going to be here, and I’m not going to play, I need to know that if I am making the minimum salary that I have at least the guarantee that I’ll have that time to dedicate myself to developing and learning, so when the time comes to play I will be 100 per cent prepared.”

Monsalve’s decision not to sign a team-option-loaded contract follows the example of Canadian midfielder Mozzi Gyorio, who rejected an offer from Sporting Kansas City in 2012. After impressing in NASL with FC Tampa Bay, the Prince Edward Island native got the chance to impress SKC boss Peter Vermes. But Gyorio walked away from a contract that offered a low salary and gave the team the chance to extend it without offering much in terms of a raise, even if Gyorio were to break through and get first-team minutes.

So, instead of returning to TFC, Monsalve signed with FC Edmonton in 2011.

When he got released in Edmonton, it came in spring of 2013, not in the fall of 2012. He went to the league to ask if the release was legal and the NASL backed FC Edmonton.

“Joe Petrone [who director of soccer at the time for the Eddies] released me one week before training camp, and that was months after he had told me in November that I would be back with the team.”

But Monsalve doesn’t hold any ill will to the current FC Edmonton regime. “Every year since, I’ve tried to get back with Edmonton especially with the relationship I had with many of the guys there, and it never worked out.”

So, with three Canadian teams in MLS and two more in NASL, why aren’t there more opportunities for Canadian players?

In the States, we see American journeymen bounce from team to team, and find work because they are domestics and have league experience. But, for example. we don’t see the Whitecaps and Impact often snap up Canadians players who are released or out of contract after a spell TFC.

Monsalve says it’s because the teams have close relationships.

“There are three Canadian teams in MLS. So, if things don’t work out in Toronto, for example, Montreal and Vancouver are just sitting there thinking, ‘why is this guy not getting a contract again?’ And those three clubs all know each other like the back of their hands. All the coaches speak to each other. If you didn’t do well at one team, or if the coach didn’t like you for a particular reason, the other two coaches aren’t going to take a chance on you. And then you look to the States, and you don’t know how many times I’ve approached people I know there, coaches who have taken a liking to me, and I’ve asked them if I can have the opportunity to try out for the team and they think about it and they come back to me and tell me, ‘David, they’re just not willing to look at you. Even if you are good enough, they’re not willing to spend a foreigner spot on a Canadian and, on top of that, a young goalkeeper.’

“Take a look at Clint Irwin, the guy who plays for Colorado, he’s an example of a guy who worked his ass off. He played in Ottawa [Capital City FC of the Canadian Soccer League], for fuck’s sakes. And he ended up going to Colorado and doing well, enough to earn the starting spot for the year. And it could have been me. But it wasn’t. Why? Because of the fact, as a Canadian keeper, I really only have three [MLS] opportunities. Vancouver wasn’t interested because they had great keepers. Toronto was full of keepers and still is, especially because they just drafted some keeper [in the first round]. And then Montreal, I don’t think they’ve ever really considered me.”

But, despite all of the issues he’s had trying to find work with American teams in North American leagues, Monsalve doesn’t feel Canada is ready for its own first division. For him, fairness comes down to MLS and NASL following the USL model; to recognize Canadians as domestic players league-wide, not just on the rosters of Canadian teams.

“I just don’t understand why they can’t just say ‘Canadians are domestic players.’ But, I guess what it comes down to is that if we become domestic players, Canada becomes a better national team within the next five years. If I become a domestic player, and I go to the States — and MLS is a league I feel I can play in — I go there, I play and do well, I’ve just raised the competition level in the national goalkeeper pool. I think one of their fears is that if Canadians become domestic, we could start beating the U.S. more than we have before.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s a double-edged sword. We need them.  We don’t have enough of a fan base, enough money, enough anything to sustain our own league for more than a couple of years. And, let’s say, we did get a Canadian league like the one that’s been talked about with NASL. How are we going to fill these teams with Canadian players? There aren’t many Canadian players playing right now. We need some time. That league would be bad. You know what it would be like? Those Icelandic teams or Moldova or the European countries where there is one or two or three good teams and everyone else struggles. If we had our own league, it would be as atrocious as MLS was in 1996. That’s where we’d start.”

Shaun Saiko

It was the summer of 2014. Just days after his San Antonio Scorpions played in his hometown of Edmonton, midfielder Shaun Saiko was told by coach Alen Marcina that he was being cut.

Saiko understood the circumstances; he’d been injured for most of the season — a double hernia — and, as a Canadian, he took up one of the Scorpions’ seven international slots allowed by NASL. The Scorpions has just made a trade for another international — César Elizondo — and needed to jettison one of their seven non-Americans in order to make room. Saiko was gone.

“I don’t blame them,” says Saiko. “I had been injured most of the season. They went on to win the championship. I can’t say it was the wrong decision.”

Now, in 2015, three and a half years removed from being a member of the NASL Best XI, Saiko has applied to get his amateur status back so he can play men’s league soccer in Edmonton. In 2015, he got two offers from NASL clubs — but the offers were so low-paying that it wasn’t worth it for him to really even consider them. One offered US$2,500 per month; the other was at US$3,000 per month. Add that up over the life of a one-season contract — seven or eight months — and it’s not a lot of money.

“After taxes and expenses, I’d be making less than $15,000,” Saiko says. “Look around the league. Show me any guys who have kids who are playing. When you’re single, you can live the dream.”

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #5.

Soon after he was cut by the Scorpions, Saiko’s partner, Erin Bennett, gave birth to their daughter. So, if Saiko left for another part of North America to make peanuts, he’d be leaving his family at home for months at a time, and have nothing to show for it financially.

It’s so often a mistake that we see on Twitter or on message boards. Canadian fans say “why doesn’t this player go to MLS?” or “that player would be good in NASL.” They don’t think about the player’s wife or his family. They don’t ask — does a U.S. team pay for healthcare for the player’s wife and kids? Does the wife make more money at her job than the player does? Is it worth it for her to leave that vocation, or for the couple to live apart?

After the 2011 NASL season, Saiko, then a member of FC Edmonton, was named to the NASL Best XI. After the 2012 season, a plan was in place for him to join the Montreal Impact of MLS. The Impact was set to go on a tour of Italy, and Saiko was supposed to join the team — if it worked out, a deal would have been made for the MLS team to secure his rights. But, just before he was supposed to go, he was told that his potential move to Montreal would be delayed. Then, the delays turned into disappointment, as he learned the deal was off. To this day, Saiko says he’s not sure why the deal got scuttled.

It was his MLS chance, and it was gone.

When Saiko was talking to NASL clubs before the 2015 season, he said that one executive from an American team was taken aback when Saiko reminded him that an international roster spot was needed. Saiko says the GM didn’t know that Canadian players were considered imports on American NASL teams.

“I don’t understand why we can’t be domestic,” Saiko says. “On our teams, Americans can take up domestic slots. But we can’t be domestics on their teams. It’s not fair.”

Before the 2014 season, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson toured the NASL cities to meet with each and every team. When he was in the San Antonio dressing room, Saiko says he put up his hand and asked the commish “when are Canadians going to be considered domestics in this league?”

The answer?

“He just changed the subject,” recalls Saiko.

Paul Hamilton

Like Saiko, central defender Paul Hamilton could still be playing professionally in 2015. But, in 2014, he made the decision to get his amateur status back and spent the year with Edmonton Scottish as a player and coach.

In 2012, Hamilton was named to the NASL Best XI; but, in 2013, FC Edmonton declined to offer him a new contract and so he went shopping; he found a new one-year deal with the Carolina RailHawks. But, after the 2013 season, Hamilton had to weigh his options. Was heading away from home for most of the year just to make peanuts fair to not only himself, but his new wife?

“It is very tough for a Canadian to play in the American market,” Hamilton says. “Teams need to use international spots so that we can play in the States, and my feeling is that most teams want to spend their international slots on big-name players who will make a big difference. Not to say that Canadian players can’t make a big difference… But teams want that ‘wow’ factor when using their international spots, not just an everyday player who goes about his job.

Paul Hamilton is seen challenging former FC Edmonton teammate Michael Cox for the ball. Hamilton played for the Carolina RailHawks in 2013. PHOTO: TONY LEWIS/FC EDMONTON

“After I left Edmonton, I looked abroad and in the U.S. for the chance to continue playing — and I landed in Carolina. I left my new wife — my wife of only three months — my family and friends to go play for crap money for eight months a year. After the year was done I explored some options, but in the end living away from my wife, my home, on way less money than I could be making doing something else wasn’t worth it for me. I had other ambitions in life that were not feasible if I continued to play.”

Hamilton and Saiko’s stories show what happens to Canadians who do get offers in the U.S.; because they are told that they should be fortunate to be offered one of the coveted international slots, the players have very little bargaining power. It’s easy for the general manager of an American team to make a lowball offer because he knows the Canadian player doesn’t have a lot of options.

Hamilton and Saiko were both NASL Best XI players post-2010; both are now out of the game. Would an American who was recently a part of the NASL Best XI struggle to find a deal in the NASL? Of course not.

And this is where we get to the chicken-and-egg argument. Sure, it’s fair to say that, if Canadian players want more bargaining power and more options, they need to be, ahem, better. But, if Canadian players aren’t getting decent offers and are retiring in their mid-20s because there are dozens of better career options than continuing with soccer, what incentive is there for us to improve our program?

It’s like any vocation; if there isn’t enough decent work available, why build a training program around that occupation?

So, for Canadian soccer to improve at the grassroots, we need to show the kids and parents that there are benefits at the other side of the bridge; legitimate chances to make real money in soccer careers.

Agent John Horvath admits that it’s a struggle to try and find work for his Canadian clients. He says that if the marriage between the Canadian and American systems is to continue, both sides need to reassess the relationship and begin anew.

“For me being a manager-agent for these young, and up-and-coming Canadian soccer players, is a struggle. The only way I see things changing, is that first both the CSA [Canadian Soccer Association] and USSF [United States Soccer Federation] have to come to terms on expanding the new policy of youth development for professional players.

“There has to be a new policy in place that both countries must have equal access to all North American pro teams.

“If the two federations cannot come to terms with this agreement, then at least a percentage of Canada vs. U.S. players shall be allowed on these teams. The Canadians and U.S. both should not be counted as foreign players, given that the fact that we now have a lot of Canadian cities in all three leagues — MLS, NASL and USL.”

Horvath thinks that the relationship that now exists between USL and MLS — which has been strengthened with the addition of USL teams in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver which are affiliated with the respective MLS sides — will eventually force NASL into a pyramid with the two other leagues. But, for that to be good for Canada, he thinks the rights of Canadian players to move freely to American sides needs to be recognized.

But, whether NASL is in the pyramid or not, the truth is that, without reform, we could put out an issue a year where we document twentysomething Canadian players who have been shut out of the system.

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