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MLS and its hard sell to Canada: Games on CTV, promises of more to come for Canadian fans

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To say it’s been quite the week for MLS in Canada would be an understatement.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber played up some of his league’s pro-Canadian initiatives during his visit to Vancouver on Monday. He talked about opening an MLS office in Canada; he talked about the league providing subsidies for teams to sign Canadian national-team players who would like to return to North America.

Then, on Thursday came the announcement that, as part of its national English-language television deal with TSN, seven MLS games will be broadcast coast-to-coast on CTV. That’s a massive sign of BellMedia getting behind the MLS property, with the same kind of fervour we have seen dedicated to the Canadian Football League in the past. Of the seven national CTV games, five will feature match-ups between the Canadian sides.

But, as MLS moves to massively expand the footprints of the three Canadians teams (and Garber was clear that adding teams in Canada is not on the table),  the questions about Canadians-as-domestics continued to dog the commissioner. The NASL recently announced that Canadians would now be seen as domestics league wide and would no longer take up international roster spots on the American teams.

Both USL and NASL, both second-division pro leagues in North America, grant Canadians domestic status, granting them exemptions from taking up import slots on their teams’ rosters. Garber reiterated the stance that this violates U.S. labour law — that an American employer can’t give any one foreign country’s citizen preference over any other foreign national vying for the same job. But, it’s an ironic stance considering some of the USL teams are run by their MLS parents. So, is Sporting Kansas City already breaking the law when its USL Swope Park Rangers affiliate employs Canadians as domestics? There were games last season which saw Rangers play four Canadians in the starting XI. So, in essence, Sporting Kansas City was employing Canadians as domestics on its reserve team — even though the commissioner of MLS continues to say it’s an illegal practice.

But SKC has never been censured by MLS. Nor has USL, which had the Canadians-as-domestics policy in place when it entered into its affiliate relationship with MLS.

No matter what side you stand on, if you believe Canadians-as-domestics break U.S. labour law or not, you have to allow that the Sporting Kansas City/Swope Park Rangers double standard is confounding.

MLS has a policy where Canadians and Americans are domestics on Canadian teams, but the majority of Canadians are considered foreigners on the U.S. teams. But, the league announced an adjustment to the rules in late 2016. Canadians who sign with an MLS Academy or an MLS/Canadian Soccer Association-approved academy before they turn 16 — and then sign their first pro contracts with an MLS side or an MLS side’s USL affiliate — get league-wide domestic status. Same also goes for players who are brought in through the league’s Canadian Generation Adidas program.

What we do know is that the new MLS rules are already causing confusion. I’ve been contacted by several Canadian players who have asked me that if they tried to come back to MLS, would they be domestic or not? They used to play in MLS, but will the academy they played in be retroactively approved by MLS/CSA? As well, some academy heads have told me they’ve been asked by parents and players if their programs are MLS/CSA approved as per the new rules. And, honestly, they don’t know.

Without a published list of approved academies, the rule is becoming a source of confusion. That list should have been ready when the rule change was announced.

Already, Canadian coach Marc Dos Santos (who was with Swope Park Rangers last season) has inked three Canadians to play for his San Francisco Deltas; Nana Attakora, Karl Ouimette and, most recently, Kyle Bekker. Could this have been done if Canadians weren’t treated as full domestics throughout NASL? (It needs to be stated, though, that when he signed with Fort Lauderdale last season, the Strikers issued a release stating Attakora had the requisite paperwork to be considered an American domestic).

But, for many, it will be difficult to focus on the Canadians-as-domestics issue when MLS is giving its fans north of the border so many pretty lights to look at. Toronto FC’s playoff run — which included that not-to-be-forgotten Eastern Final against Montreal — generated record smashing ratings for MLS in Canada. It’s clear that the league and the broadcaster don’t want what happened in the autumn of 2016 to be a blip; they don’t want to be like the NBA Raptors, which generates big numbers in the playoffs, but get back to the regular season and the national interest disappears.

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