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Promises, promises

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We look back on a decade of promises, pledges and calls to action. Gathered in one place, they show that those who want to see Canadian soccer succeed really can’t be sure what to make of MLS, even though the league has been playing games on our soil since 2007…

It was an announcement that changed not only the professional sports scene in Toronto, but the destiny of Canadian soccer.

In the fall of 2005, Major League Soccer announced that it would no longer a league exclusive to American-based franchises. In 2007, Toronto FC would begin play in the circuit. With TFC came the new BMO Field, a soccer-specific stadium that would rise on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. The new venue would be oh-so-close to the site where that famous “mistake by the lake,” Exhibition Stadium. once stood.

With the new Toronto stadium also acting as the centrepiece of the 2007 U-20 World Cup, the sentiment then was that the rise of a Canadian pro soccer franchise and the real estate that came with it represented a win-win scenario for Canadian soccer.

Now, a decade after the TFC franchise was approved by MLS, its safe to question if the rise of Canadian teams in American leagues has been good for the game in this country. Our men’s national team is arguably further away from qualifying for a World Cup now than it was in the mid-2000s. When TFC’s membership was greenlighted, the Canadian soccer system was locked in with the Americans.

True, through the 1990s. the Canadian and American teams mixed in the United Soccer Leagues’ then named A-League, but the Canadian clubs participated with rosters that were dominated by Canadian players. MLS was a different level, with pressure to sign American and international talent.

How to describe marrying the Canadian and American systems?

The Americans regularly qualify for World Cups and compete against the best in the world. Canada hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1986 and rarely gets a friendly with a top-20-ranked nation.

It was like asking a Tour De France contender to team with a cyclist who still needs training wheels.

After TFC came the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact. There is no doubt that Toronto FC, the Whitecaps and the Impact have enjoyed great business successes since joining MLS. They consistently finish in the top third of the league when itcomes to attendance.

But, outside of two one-and-done playoff appearances by the Whitecaps — and one for the Impact — the Canadian MLS teams have not succeeded on the field, despite being allowed the, ahem, competitive advantage of only needing to have a minimum of three Canadians on each of their rosters.

And, when it comes to the promotion of soccer in the United States, MLS is clear in its mission; to help lay the foundation for a strong American national team. But, when it comes to Canada, there have been promises, pledges, excuses, more excuses, contradictory statements, put-downs, patronizing comments — and very little action.

JULY 2008

In Toronto for the All-Star Game, MLS Commissioner Don Garber says Ottawa is in running for an MLS expansion franchise. But he warns that Eugene Melnyk, who is looking to bring MLS to the nation’s capital, will be in tough.

“The  passion is not enough. It needs to make business sense,” Garber says. Garber also says that there is no guarantee that MLS will ever have more than one Canadian franchise.

A year-later, Melnyk’s plan to bring a team to a suburban yet-to-be-built soccer stadium is dashed as the City of Ottawa opts to support the centrally located stadium at Lansdowne Park. Six years on, the new TD Place becomes the home of the North American Soccer League’s Ottawa Fury — owned by the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group.

MARCH 2009

A year before, Garber said there was no guarantee of more than one Canadian team in MLS. In March, the league approves the Vancouver Whitecaps as the second Canada-based MLS franchise. The Caps, currently playing in the North American second division, are set to begin MLS play in 2011.

Don Garber, David Miller, Tom Anselmi

MARCH 2010

In Toronto for a press conference to announce that Canada’s largest city would be hosting that year’s MLS Cup, Garber — who is currently negotiating with Joey Saputo to have Montreal move up — says he envisions an MLS that has more than three Canadian teams. “I think there are opportunities for other markets,” he says. (In 2014, when Garber announces MLS plans to expand from 20 to 24 teams, he makes it clear that the league does not plan to have more than three Canadian teams). Garber standing next to then-Toronto mayor David Miller and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment COO Tom Anselmi, also says Canadian national-team success is extremely important to MLS.

“We want to have Canada in the World Cup.”

At the same press conference, he hints that MLS might open a Canadian office, and the league needs to find better ways to promote itself in Canada. The league still has yet to open a Canadian office.

MAY 2010

MLS confirms that the Montreal Impact will join the league in 2012. Garber reiterates his stance that MLS is not done when it comes to expanding to Canadian markets.

NOVEMBER 2010

Garber says that the success of the Canadian national team is still a priority, but the league has to correct the competitive imbalance between the teams based in Canada and those inside America’s borders. Toronto FC has yet to make the playoffs, and the Whitecaps are set to enter the league in 2011. The Impact will follow in 2012.

“We have no intent of having any competitive imbalance between our American- based teams and the Canadian-based teams,” says Garber. “With three first-division teams, they will be able to drive increased quality and, ultimately, success of the Canadian national team.”

JANUARY 2011

MLS, under pressure from the front offices of its Canadian teams, makes major changes to its roster rules. When TFC entered MLS, Canadians players continued to be considered as import players on the rosters of the American teams. Likewise, American players were imports on the Canadian club (TFC). TFC had 13 international slots — with a catch. TFC had to use five of its 13 international allocations on U.S. players.

Now, the new rules require Canadian teams to carry just three Canadian players each — and those players don’t have to be Canadian citizens. Landed immigrants would also count. As well, Americans would now be considered domestic players on Canadian teams — but Canadians will still be treated as imports on U.S. teams.

Since the rule was introduced to help address the competitive imbalance, Canadian MLS teams have yet to win a playoff game, and TFC still has yet to qualify for the playoffs.

APRIL 2o11 

FC Edmonton begins play in the North American soccer league. The NASL, like MLS, recognizes Americans as domestics on the rosters of Canadian teams, but Canadians are considered imports on the rosters of American teams.

MARCH 2012

The Montreal Impact faces the Vancouver Whitecaps in an, ahem, all-Canadian First Kick opener at BC Place. Of the 22 players on the field at kickoff, only one would be eligible for Canadian call-up. MLS president Mark Abbott, at BC Place for the game, says he is sure that Canadians will contribute more in the future.

“It is something that will continue to grow over time.”

Mark Abbott

He compares where Canada and MLS stand in 2012 to where MLS and U.S. Soccer stood in 1996, when the league first began playing matches. Abbott feels MLS has contributed to the improvement of the U.S. national program. But, he stresses that the process took 17 long years, and is still evolving. Canadian teams have only been in the league since 2007, so the league’s contribution to state of soccer in this country can’t yet be measured.

Abbott also says a task force has been created with the Canadian Soccer Association, the goal of which is to improve the game in Canada. Three years on, there is no sign such a task force ever existed.

“If you have players, day in, day out, plying their trade, they are going to get better,” Abbott says in 2012.

But are Canadians playing more? In 2009, an average of 1404.1 minutes were played by Canadians per MLS team. By 2013, that number will dip to 1025.2 minutes.

Despite claims from Abbott and Garber that, eventually,Canadian soccer would improve because Canadian players would see more time, the changing of the roster rules have had the opposite effect. Canadians have less chances to play in MLS now than they did five years ago.

Maybe a task force is needed.

MARCH 2013

In an interview with TSN’s Jason deVos, Garber says that U.S. labour law prevents MLS from allowing Canadian players to be considered domestics on American teams, even though Americans are allowed to be treated as domestics on the Canadian sides.

In response, The 11 contacts the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. agency that oversees the labour market in America and addresses the issues of labour inequality. It says that the rulebook of a sports league “is not a topic we cover.”

USL-PRO also confirms its longstanding policy that Canadians are considered domestics on its American teams, placing the legitimacy of the labour-law claim in doubt.

From USL-PRO spokesman Nicholas Murray: “As long as they [Canadians] are legal workers in the United States, under a visa or green card, then teams can sign them. While they would be considered foreign to the government, they would be considered domestic for our purposes.”

JULY 2013

Responding to rising criticism on the issue of roster inequality in MLS — Garber says that MLS is looking to make changes to its rulebook. “We are working on a new approach to our international player rules as they relate to Canada. Stay tuned.”

Bill Peterson

SEPTEMBER 2013

In a Plastic Pitch interview, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson says that the issue of making Canadians domestics on U.S. teams was a “federation question, so I can’t ultimately say how that gets resolved.”

DECEMBER 2014

Don Garber begins his MLS Cup roundtable with a group of five selected

journalists with an overture intended for Canadian ears.

He says that if Canada doesn’t qualify for a World Cup in his time as MLS commissioner, “It will be a mark I truly regret.”

But he adds Canadian players will continue to be treated as foreigners on American teams, and retreats to the labour-law argument. It contradicts his statements from July.

He also pulls the competitive imbalance card, in a year when Toronto FC”s “Bloody Big Deal” ends up as yet another season without the playoffs. The Impact finishes at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

“Canadian players aren’t good enough yet to allow their teams to be competitive,” Garber cautions.

That’s the same argument that was made in 2010. As long as that card is played, can Canadians can take it as yet another confirmation that MLS is failing the game in this country?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #5.

THE TAKEAWAY

As we head into 2015, we know that Toronto FC, the Whitecaps and Impact will all have developmental teams in USL-PRO. The Canadian Soccer Association has agreed to sanction these teams on a year-to-year basis. The performance of these teams — in terms of developing Canadian talent — will be regularly reviewed.

The CSA wants to see at least six of the 11 players on the field for each of these USL-PRO teams to be Canada-eligible players. No more counting guys because they are landed immigrants or have chosen to play for other national teams.

But we still have the issue with the domestic rule in MLS and NASL. Garber said in December that he hoped there would be a time where Canadian teams would have a domestic talent pool that was deep enough to allow a new rule that would see Americans be treated as foreigners on those clubs. Unfortunately, lip service doesn’t make for change. MLS needs to make concrete plans, not vague promises that will be contradicted or retracted a few months down the road.

MLS and its players union were able to come to a memorandum of understanding in the first week of March, avoiding a labour stoppage. Minimum salaries are going up, and there is going to be a very restricted form of free agency within the single entity. But, the roster sizes will be shrinking. Now, each MLS team has two less slots to fill. Sure, with more players going to USL to develop, there’s an argument that those roster slots were no longer necessary, and their elimination allows for just that much more wealth to be spread amongst the first-team players.

But it also means that there’s even more pressure on rosters, and that Canadians looking for work in MLS will find it got just that much harder to find work.

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