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The law of diminishing returns

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In 2013, the chance of a Canadian player getting first-team minutes with an MLS side was only slightly better than it was in 1996. We looked at every minute played by all Canadians who have ever been in MLS employ; we found that, over the last four years, the first-team minutes granted to Canucks by MLS coaches have been in steady and serious decline…

The Canadian Soccer Association hasquietly been lobbying Major League Soccer’sbrass for roster equality.

Roster equality? That all MLS teams, no matter if they are based in Canada or the United States, should consider both Canadians and Americans as domestics. Currently, under the league’s roster rules, the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps can each recognize Americans and Canadians as domestics, with the caveat that each of these clubs have a minimum of three Canadians on its roster.

But, if a Canadian player trials for the Columbus Crew, Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake, he knows that the import rule works against him. If he gets onto the roster, unless he can get American residency, he’ll be considered an import, taking up a valuable spot that more and more MLS general managers want to grant to sexy European or South American signings.

MLS has stuck to its guns when it comes to border protection. The league office has repeatedly said that, if Canadians were considered domestics across the board, the U.S. teams could lock up the Canucks, knowing the Canadian teams need three domestics each. According to the logic that comes from MLS headquarters, the American teams could hold the Canadian clubs for ransom — making it difficult for Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal to find native sons who could actually get minutes at the MLS level.

It’s not an argument that’s recognized by the CSA, which wants a rule change that would see Canadians and Americans seen as domestics across MLS, no matter if they play for Toronto FC or the Colorado Rapids.

Ironically, the United Soccer Leagues’ USLPRO division, which has an affiliation pact with MLS, does recognize Canadians as domestics. And, currently, USL-PRO has not one Canadian team in its stable.

Meanwhile our national team calls up more and more players who aren’t seeing playing time with their MLS sides. Simon Thomas didn’t play one single minute in the Whitecaps’ goal in 2013, but played for the national side. Kyle Bekker was a regular starter for the national team in 2013, despite being not much more than a depth guy in his rookie season at Toronto FC.

Kyle Bekker got five national-team starts and played a total of 481 minutes for Canada in 2013. He only started three MLS games and played a total of 335 minutes for Toronto FC. In what world does a player get more national-team minutes than club minutes over the course of a calendar year? PHOTO: JAN TAUBER/CANADA SOCCER

Colin Miller, who coached the national team on an interim basis for a series of 2013 friendlies and the Gold Cup, has more than 60 caps as a Canadian international. At no time in his career — either as a player or a coach — has he seen a national side that’s been as dependent as the current Canadian team on players who aren’t getting first-team minutes in either North American or European club football. Technical director Tony Fonseca was picking the majority of the rosters for the national side when Miller was coaching the team in the first half of 2013.

And Fonseca was forced to look at players who were sitting on benches throughout MLS, Germany, England and Norway.

“Many of the players we had last year were getting their first full 90 minutes in two or three months,” says Miller. “And that was comingin a full international, not a club game. It’s hard to be playing against the best countries in the world when you’re using players who aren’t playing for their clubs.”

The results were poor — Canada was winless in its 2013 friendlies, with only one goal scored, a Marcus Haber set-piece marker against Japan.

That came in March of 2013. A Gold Cup saw Canada eliminated after the group stage, but the big, big takeaway was the fact that the national side went scoreless in the tournament.

But, given the amount of playing time the national-team players were receiving from their club sides, should anyone really have been surprised?

Miller says that the inexperience was on evidence against Mauritania, the minnows who were cherry-picked to give the Canadians their first games under Benito Floro. Canada couldn’t score against the nation that wouldn’t be one of the first 25 you’d name if you were asked to name the African soccer powers. There was one undeniable truth; the Maurtianians may not have been playing in top leagues, but they were getting first-team minutes somewhere.

And first-team minutes in lower divisions is still preferable to bench time in stronger leagues.

We can wax poetic about the rise of academies, that some players are being promoted from MLS and NASL youth sides to their first teams. But there’s a big difference between going being a depth player and actually seeing first-team minutes. No amount of training can replace the experience that comes with playing in league matches.

The Numbers

So, we wanted to see if, in MLS, if minutes for Canadian players are on the decline.

We looked at the history of Canadian players in MLS, and broke it down into first-team minutes granted to our country’s players, club by club. This survey doesn’t exist so we can all wax poetic about academies and the future of the game. It’s a practical look at where first-team minutes are available for Canadian players.

What did we find? That, in 2007, there was a noticeable spike in the minutes played by Canadians. Toronto FC came into the league and MLS, which usually had about three or four Canadians in the league per season, was opened up to talent from this side of the border.

But, when adjusted by the number of teams in the league, the number of minutes played by Canadians peaked in 2009, and has been in a steady decline ever since. In 2009, with still just one Canadian-based team in the league, our talent saw 21,062 minutes, or an average of 1404.1 minutes per team — in a then-15-club league.

Why did we go for a per-team average rather than just looking at total numbers of minutes played? Because comparing minutes available in a 10-team MLS to a 19-team MLS doesn’t work. Logic would dictate that, compared to a 10-team MLS in 1996, a 19-team in MLS in 2013 —including the Whitecaps, Toronto FC and the Impact, which have to carry three Canadians each — should offer close to or better than double the minutes available for our players.

But that hasn’t been the case. Not even close.

 

When the Whitecaps played their debut MLS season in 2011, Canadian minutes per team averaged at just 1129.4, a significant drop from 2009. Interestingly enough, the 2011 season was the one that saw the league introduce new roster rules for Canadian franchises, which reduced the number of domestic players our home and native franchises had to carry on their rosters.

The old rule, introduced in 2007, read like this. “Each team is allotted eight (8) International slots, with the exception of Toronto FCwho is allotted 13 International slots, five (5) of which may be used on domestic U.S. players. All International player slots are tradable, therefore a team may have more than or less than eight (8) International players on its roster.”

That was changed in 2011 to a more simple minimum of three Canadian players per Canadian team’s roster.

At the time, Commissioner Don Garber said, with more Vancouver coming into the league in 2011 and Montreal joining in 2012, there was no way they could be competitive if they all had to carry large domestic contingents. “We have no intent of having any competitive imbalance between our American-based teams and the Canadian-based teams,” said Garber.

In 2013, in a 19-team league — with three Canadian franchises — the average was 1025.2 minutes played by national-team-eligible players per team. Clearly, the Canadian teams’ only needing to carry three domestic players each — and the ability to park them on the bench — more than counteracted the job opportunities that should have become available when the number of Canadian teams tripled.

Put that into perspective: In 1996, with just 10 teams in the league and Canadians counting as full internationals, the average minutes played by our players that season came out to an average of 946.7 per team, because Frank Yallop, Geoff Aunger and Iain Fraser were all eating minutes that season.

In 2013, with an average of just 1025.2 minutes per team, we’re nudging closer and closer to the 1996 number. If the number of minutes played by Canadians falls again in 2014, we can argue that the chances of a Canuck getting first-team minutes in a league with three franchises on our side of the border is about the same as it was in 1996, when MLS launched with 10 U.S.- based franchises.

The numbers show that a Canadian’s chance to play in MLS were actually greater when there was just one domestic team in the league.

The boost of Canadian franchises from one to three hasn’t created more first-team jobs for Canadians; it has simply shifted them. U.S.teams are now less likely to have Canadianplayers in the rosters, so those who may have had job opportunities with American teams a decade ago are now finding that the job market north of the border is their only MLS job market. Garber’s plan to give Canadian teams a competitive balance has backfired. So far, Canadian teams have two wild-card game losses — one for Vancouver, one for Montreal — to show for all their troubles. TFC has yet to make the playoffs, and you could argue that the TFC teams of the post roster-rule change were actually worse than the teams that had to carry a large number of Canadians. Pressure on Canadian teams to make splashes on foreign or American talent is pushing the domestic players to the bench.

So, looking at the numbers, there looks to be a solid CSA argument for a uniform domestic- player policy for all U.S. and Canadian teams — which might relieve that squeeze.

Team-by-team

In a separate team-by-team survey, we find that TFC is No. 1 all-time in offering Canadians minutes in MLS matches. But, pro-rated by the amount of years each team has spent in the league, Montreal comes in third and Vancouver is seventh.

We broke the team-by-team numbers down to a per-season average, so we could be fair in our comparisons of new-to-MLS franchises like Portland, Vancouver and Montreal with the charter members of the league.

Of the current 19 MLS teams, two have never had a Canadian-eligible player appear on the field for a league match — Seattle and Philadelphia.

The Union does have Canadian forward Matt Greer in its youth academy, and Seattle once had Babayele Sodade on its books. But he never saw first-team game action.

A Canadian hasn’t played for the Sporting Kansas City franchise since it had the Wizards name and played in front of a 90-per-cent empty Arrowhead Stadium. The New England Revolution hasn’t had a Canadian appear for it since the days of video-game influenced uniforms.

Same with the Columbus Crew and Colorado Rapids. The Chicago Fire has only employed three Canadians since 1998, and most Fire fans would he hard-pressed to remember when any of them was on the field for their club.

Secretly Canadian

Searching for Canadian players in Major League Soccer isn’t easy. With so many dual citizens, foreign players with Canadian residencies, Canadian- born players who opted to play for other nations and foreign-born players who opted to play for Canada, it’s hard to decide who counts and who doesn’t.

For the purpose of the survey, we were purely pragmatic; if the player was eligible to play for Canada, he made the cut. If a Canadian-born player opted to play for another nation, he didn’t make the cut. We wanted to include only players who had helped our national program or were eligible to help our national program.

So, Teal Bunbury and Rick Titus, who both were born in Canada, didn’t count. Bunbury made the call to represent the United States, while Titus, who starred for the Colorado Rapids in 2002, played in Gold Cup qualifying for Trinidad and Tobago. So “Gilla T” is out.

Same with Mark Chung, maybe one of the best ever MLS players Canada’s ever produced. Chung was an MLS Best XI selection three times. He was a finalist for an MVP award. He was an all-star three times. But the Toronto- born midfielder moved to the United States with his family when he was still a boy, and he elected to represent the U.S. over Canada. But Jack Stewart, a Californian who was eligible to play for this country and even attended a national-team camp in 2007 under the watchful eye of then-coach Stephen Hart, is as Canadian as Shatner in our eyes.

In his book, Canadian Pie, writer Will Ferguson talks about how our country is “big tent,” that we welcome those who have even the slightest of Canadian connections. Our “big tent” definitely offers shelter to Stewart.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #1

But, we ruled against former Colorado and FC Dallas standout Ugo Ihemelu, who grew up in Winnipeg. He made some noise about playing for Canada, but later made his intentions know to play for the U.S. After playing in some friendlies for the U.S., Ihemelu said in the lead-up to the 2010 MLS Cup that “I’m not sure where things stand with the Canadian national team,” Ihemelu said after FC Dallas’s final training session before the big game at BMO Field in Toronto. “Now I’ve got in with the U.S., so I’m not sure where it all lies.”

(Ihemelu’s FC Dallas lost to Colorado after extra time in that final)

Ethan Finlay, a Columbus Crew striker, has a Canadian father. But Finlay was born in the United States and no overtures have been made to see him play for Canada, so he’s out.

Those with Canadian citizenships and/or residencies who are recognized as playing for other nations are not counted.

So, former Whitecaps defender Alain Rochat (born in Canada, represents Switzerland), current Whitecap Gershon Koffie (represented Ghana at youth level, has since obtained Canadian permanent residency) and former Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders striker O’Brian White (grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, but had a cap for Jamaica) are not counted.

MLS has many signed many Canadian players who never actually got into any actual MLS matches. This poll only includes players who made it onto the field, so the likes of Drew Beckie, Tomer Chencinski and Babayele Sodade aren’t on the list.

The Way it Was

So, what was it like to be an MLS pioneer? Geoff Aunger was the first Canadian to win MLS Cup, capturing a title with the powerhouse D.C. United squad of 1999. He was one of five Canadians — with Iain Fraser, Frank Yallop, Mark Watson and Pat Harrington — to play in MLS in 1996. He described what it was like to be a Canadian in MLS back in the ’90s and early ’00s.

“Making it in that league at that time was very difficult. At the time, we, the Canadian players, counted as import players. And each team was only allowed three imports. So, unless you had a green card, you were an import and you needed to produce. And that’s why, for players like myself, (Mark) Watson, (Frank) Yallop, (Iain) Fraser, (Rick) Titus and (Jason) Bent it was tough.

“And, remember, that every year, you were playing for next year. Everyone was on one-year contracts. There were no three- or four-year deals at that time.”

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