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

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


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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  1. Kahkakew Yawassanay

    July 22, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Immigrant Canadians are not good enough to be designated as domestic players in an American league….if they were they would have taken up more of the international roster spots..how hard is this to understand…until investors here develop their own league or work with the CSA and either the NASL or USL Pro for an all Canuck conference/division where they can be ruled as domestic players on the rosters, they need to follow the current agreement…these are American based leagues and they have no reason to accommodate non American immigrant players…typical immigrant Canuck whining…

    • Glenn

      July 30, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      The MLS has a great opportunity to make this a truly Canadian and American league, and not just an American league with Canadians teams. You accommodate and reach a greater fan base between two countries, and use the MLS as a developmental ground for both countries. It would absolutely help the product on the field as well, there are both young and seasoned Canadians that don’t fit well into the system for the three current Canadian-based MLS teams, aren’t seen as worthwhile to eat up one of the limited international slots, but are more valuable than some domestic players on those rosters.

  2. OpenCupFan

    July 19, 2014 at 3:07 am

    This is just a response to the planned NASL/CSA division being worked out. They didn’t have an interest in Canadians before and they don’t now – this is a business move to cut off the NASL. Nothing wrong with that, it’s business, but don’t get it twisted for anything else.

  3. Scottish Teeth

    July 17, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    The entire purpose of MLS is to develop American players, not North American, and they are entirely justified in that stance. It’s an American league, built by Americans, for American audiences. In truth Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal are foreign clubs based in Canada, nothing more. And to look to those clubs as a means of developing Canadian players has always been unrealistic, if not downright silly. In fact, the entire premise is kind of insulting. As Canadians, it is our responsibility to develop our own players, instead of expecting the Americans to do it for us.

    • Seathanaich

      July 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm

      Of course the three MLS teams based in Canada will develop Canadian players. Anyone who follows the league and those clubs knows that they already have, and will continue to do so.

      What needs to happen is (1) for MLS to drop the “Canadians are foreigners” crap, because that is NOT dictated to them by US Labour law, as demonstrated by the fact that USL Pro counts Canadians as domestic players on US teams; and (2) for Canadians to build more D2 and D3 teams, as this is where we will create a critical mass of places for Canadian athletes to develop below the MLS level if they’re not yet ready for it.

  4. AGill

    July 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    Would love Americans not to count as domestics for the Canadian teams. Sure short term this would put them at a disadvantage but it would also force them to develop Canadian talent to compete. I think it would also be fun for the local fans to support teams with more Canadians on them.

  5. Herb

    July 16, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Great article and valid points all around. I’m American and never understood why Canadians are considered foreign players in MLS. It seems unfair to them considering how coaches have to juggle their roster spots. Maybe Canadian players should not be counted against roster spot or the salary cap. I bet that would spur some movement. I would love to see a stronger Canadian National Team. Better competition leads to better teams.

    Instead of a new Canadian top division, how allowing more pro teams via USL. I know CSA said no to third division teams from US based league but USL-Pro has the infrastructure. Use it to Canada’s advantage instead of banning it.

    • Steven Sandor

      July 16, 2014 at 9:16 pm

      The CSA didn’t necessarily say no to USL-PRO; originally, it said it would allow MLS teams to have Canadian USL-PRO affiliates, but that those affiliates wouldn’t get sanctions. That is TFC or Vancouver or Montreal could have a USL-PRO team, but that affiliate would not be seen as a separate entity from the parent club. Now, the CSA has softened its stance somewhat, stating it will look at USL-PRO applicants on a “case by case” basis.

      • Herb

        July 17, 2014 at 2:58 am

        Interesting. Thanks for the info. I wonder if Calgary would support a team. They used to have an old NASL franchise.

  6. vic

    July 16, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    A Canadian division within NASL? I wonder if it would be joined with a couple of teams from US (or elsewhere…remember Puerto Rico Islanders). If so, and that division had 9 members (at least 6 being Can), isn’t it feasible that the CSA could grant that division 1st division status over MLS? Would this be essentially ignored by MLS, be seen as a symbolic act in attempting to secure 2026 World Cup ( by saying to FIFA “why yes, we do have a 1st division league’), or possibly the first steps towards a full blown Canadian league ultimately joined by Van, TFC, Mont? This sounds crazy, but I think a Can league w/Cosmos, St. Louis, and San Diego could be successful…if unhindered by salary cap….North American Premier league

    • Seathanaich

      July 16, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      Vic, I wouldn’t worry about FIFA and “you need a pro league” requirements; that is not going to be an obstacle to a Canadian WC bid (it will fail for other reasons). Like the Welsh situation, FIFA understands the Canadian situation. Since that’s the case, the whole “Div 1 / Div 2” shenanigans aren’t necessary.

      Given the financial realities, a Canadian league will never compete financially with MLS, and the three existing Canadian MLS teams will not be leaving it for an all-Canada competition. And that’s not the end of the world: if we had a 6 (Vic, Edm, Cgy, Ham, Ott, Que), 8 (Vic, Edm Cgy, Wpg, Ham, Ott, Que, Hfx) or 10 (Vic, Edm, Cgy, Ssk, Wpg, Lon, Ham, Ott, Que, Hfx) Canadian pro league under the three MLS teams we would have all the pro clubs we need or could support, as well as a truly interesting Cup competition.

      • vic

        July 19, 2014 at 4:34 pm

        The “you need a pro league” requirement could be part of getting 2026. I mean, I could see Fifa saying that Canada is wealthy enough to support a 1st Div league in some capacity. In such situation, I could see CSA & MLS deciding in turn to create a “Canadian division” within MLS. Isn’t the minimum for a 1st division league 8 or 9? If Can/CSA was to get the same waiver that MLS has in order to bring in teams from another country, it would be possible to have just 5 or 6 teams along w/3 US teams to form that first division. It could also just remain within MLS in a configuration similar to how baseball used to be until recently- American league and National league technically being independent leagues, but within MLB.

        • Seathanaich

          July 19, 2014 at 8:36 pm

          There will never be more Canadian MLS teams than the three that currently exist, as long as MLS contains 40 or fewer teams. The population of the next three largest Canadian cities (Cgy, Edm, Ott) is all about 1.25M, less than about 30 US cities that currently do not have MLS teams. A 6 or 8 team Canadian MLS division will NEVER happen.

          FIFA knew circa 1990 that the USA could support a true national “D1” pro league, and were right to insist upon one being built as a condition of a WC bid. FIFA will be equally aware that, circa 2014 with three MLS teams in its three largest cities, Canada cannot realistically now build a D1 national league; and more importantly that that should NOT be an obstacle to a Canadian WC bid.

          A D2 league of 6 to 10 teams? That could be a realistic condition from FIFA to granting a Canadian WC. It’s also something that Canada could realistically support.

  7. Brett

    July 16, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Some may argue Canada doesn’t have enough talent to warrent dropping the forigen label by citing the high proportion of Canadians currently in MLS sit on the bench. However, there are many Canadians in Europe that would directly benefit from gaining access to American MLS teams.

    Off the top of my head, here are some MLS-Caliber Canadians who could find a home in MLS if opportunities weren’t so limited.

    Lucas Cavallini – Nacional (Uruguay 1st division)
    Olivier Occean – FC Kaiserslautern (Germany 2nd division)
    David Edgar – Birmingham City (England 2nd division)
    Kevin McKenna – FC Koln (Germany 2nd division)
    Tosaint Ricketts – Hapoel Haifa (Israel 1st division)
    Daniel Haber – Ayia Napa (Cyprus 1st division)
    Simeon Jackson – Millwall (England 2nd division)
    Randy Edwini Bonsu – Stuttgart Kickers (German 3rd division)
    Nik Ledgerwood – Energie Cottbus (German 3rd division)
    Pedro Pacheco – Santa Clara (Portugal 2nd division)
    Milan Borjan – Sivasspor (Turkey 1st division) *recently released
    Marcus Haber – Stevenage (England 3rd division)
    Lars Hirschfeld – Valerenga (Norway 1st division)
    Kenny Stamatopoulos – AIK – (Sweden 1st division)

    I have left out Canada’s players currently playing at a high European level who wouldn’t likely be interested in a move back, like Hutchinson (Besiktas) or De Jong (Augsburg).

    Also players who have already played in MLS, like Jakovic (J-League), Hainualt (2.Bundesliga) or DeGuzman (Greek Super League).

    • Kahkakew Yawasanay

      July 22, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      You are delusional to think any of these players would be starters in the MLS…or any top league in any European country…they are all immigrants and, like Hoilett and DG chosing not to play for the MNT or another country shows their reputation and opportunities to compete at high level tourneys like the Euros and WC would never be realized…the only true all Canadian MNT would be First Nations as the remaining people illegally residing in our lands are immigrants..it is up to these immigrants to improve their skills and system to be considered domestics, and that will never be MLS’s problem until they have no other choice to review this

      • Glenn

        July 30, 2014 at 4:19 pm

        “You are delusional to think any of these players would be starters in the MLS”

        While I certainly agree to that for some players in that list, guy like Hirschfeld (though he’s nearing the end of his career), Jackson, Edgar, Occean, Borjan, McKenna (likely to retire soon as well) would be more than capable of competing for, and likely earning, starting positions. Many of them likely have no interest in joining the MLS though.

  8. Jeff

    July 15, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Bottom line answer for this is our own top flight league. MLS is not a development league for Canadians. It is a development league for Americans only, where also players from the Caribbean and Central America can get good pro contracts. Only Will Johnson seems to have found a great situation of being a starter and making a good wage. We need to stop sucking the US league teet and step up for ourselves.

  9. Seathanaich

    July 15, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    Good points, particularly about a Canadian VP. The writers at MLS respond well to reminders that the league plays in two countries, but Garber clearly has NOT internalised this concept, judged on what he says. When he remembers Canada while speaking, it’s the exception that makes his usual lapses more glaring. And he needs to stop lying about how tied his hands are on the issue.

    Minutes cannot be mandated. Roster spots can. For what that’s worth.

    The first and easiest solution is for NASL and MLS to do what USL Pro does, and drop the “foreign” tag for Canadians in the US, just like Americans are not foreign on Canadian teams. That will mean more Canadian players plying their trade in the US, but it will at least get them playing. The second and more difficult solution is more pro clubs in Canada.

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