The problem with the MLS Combine: Where are the Canadians? By Steven Sandor Posted on December 11, 2012 4 0 788 Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Kyle Bekker, right, in a promo photograph from MLS. Major League Soccer has released the names of 54 players who will attend the Player Combine, which begins Jan. 11 in Fort Lauderdale. Of the 54 players, only three were born in Canada. And of those three, only Kyle Bekker and Oregon State’s Emery Welshman retain their, well, Canadian-ness. The other, University of Michigan defender Kofi Opare, was born in Niagara Falls, Ont. and won the Ontario Cup in 2008. He played his youth soccer in St. Catharines, Ont. But Opare was part of the U.S. U-20 program and is now part of the American soccer pool. So, of 54 players at the combine, Bekker is the only one who has a realistic chance of ever suiting up for the Canadian men’s national team. Bekker, who was a star midfielder at Boston College, played for Canada’s U-23s in the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament. He will get his chance to play in front of the brain trusts of the 19 MLS clubs in Fort Lauderdale. Two out of 54 for Canada. And for a league that has three of its 19 teams operating in Canada, that’s a sad state of affairs. Would it be too much to ask that MLS ensure there are three fully fledged Canadians invited, equal to the number of Canadian franchises in the league, which have Canadian quotas they need to fill? (Yes, MLS would recognize Opare as “Canadian” just as it does the Whitecaps “Alain Rochat.” But it doesn’t help the Canadian program) Daniel Haber, the Canadian terrorized Ivy League defences as he paced the Cornell attack, was a junior this past season, and the combine is for the senior class. Haber led the NCAA in goals per game, with 1.06, but detractors will say that he plays in the Ivy League, which is wonderful if you want to be a scientist or a captain of industry, but not so great if you want to excel in athletics. The fact that Cornell got as high as No. 10 in the U.S. is a man-bites-dog achievement. But Haber, unless he leaves school early, is not a this-year prospect. So that brings us back to the question of Bekker and 53 others. If MLS wants to signal to Canada that it is serious about developing talent, it needs to back up the words with actions. Fifty four players is a big number. There will only be 38 chosen in the two rounds that matter. So, what would be the harm in ensuring there would be one spot reserved for the CIS Player of the Year? It’s one spot, not opening the floodgates. But it would be great for all to see just how the best player in CIS would fare against the NCAA big-conference elite. This year it’s Laval’s Samuel Georget (who is French, by the way). History has shown us that many of the players in the combine will end up in the NASL or USL. And, we have seen CIS grads compete against those ex-combine attendees in NASL action. If they can do it in Division-2, why not give one, count ‘em, one, CIS player the chance for that baptism of fire at the combine? And, if not that, what about Canadian prospects in the NCAA, who are then left to wither and scramble for USL jobs that pay so poorly, that it’s better for them to quit or go into coaching right away? We shouldn’t have to ask for equal representation; really, Canada would be scraping just to ask for a token amount of players at the combine. And it’s wrong for MLS, a league which centrally controls contracts, to court the Canadian audience, to enjoy major attendance successes in Canada, to then pretty well have a no-Canadians-allowed policy with the combine. It shows that the league’s so-called commitment to developing Canadian players may be just, well, so-called. For the Canadian program to thrive, we need not only players on the Canadian MLS squads, but we need more Will Johnsons and Andre Hainaults and Dwayne De Rosarios, Canadians who made their MLS impacts while playing for American franchises. In the future, academies will replace the draft as the main sources of young talent. But the draft still sets an example. It’s a media event. But, in Fort Lauderdale, any Canadian covering the event will wonder if he’s only there by accident. As Canadians, we need to stop apologizing for ourselves. No doubt, there will be people who read this who will say “but our Canadians aren’t good enough.” Trust me, I see a lot of these kids when they come down to NASL, or have followed them as they toil anonymously on MLS reserve squads. We do have kids are good enough to compete with them. We can talk about player-development plans and strategies till the cows come home. But until we back up those plans with ambition, we’ll always be a country that wonders why we can’t get a point in Central America. The “aw, shucks, we’re not good enough” has to stop here.