Canada’s early exit from 2018 World Cup qualifying should spark many questions in any rigorous postmortem. The glaringly obvious are rarely asked: why do Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer, and how exactly does Canadian soccer benefit?
It’s a question the most powerful man in Canadian soccer – who now also happens to be the most powerful man at Concacaf – is thinking about. And Victor Montagliani, Soccer Canada’s president and the recently elected head of Concacaf, is not happy with the answers.
Montagliani warns that unless a critical issue is addressed – that Canadian players are treated as equal to Americans under MLS rules – Soccer Canada may take sweeping and dramatic action to block Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps from continuing to play in the league.
“It is always going to create a glass ceiling when a Canadian passport makes you a second-class citizen in a league where three of your teams play,” says Montagliani. “We have been trying to address the issue but it has been frustratingly slow. Until that is dealt with, it is always going to be a challenge to put the Canadian flag equal to the American flag in MLS.
The big issue for Canadian soccer is an MLS rule that declares American players as “domestic” regardless of whether they play for teams north or south of the border, while Canadian players are designated “international” if they play for an MLS team on American soil.
This is great for American players – more teams equals more opportunities – but terrible for Canadians. They face unlimited challenges from Americans for roster places in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver and are considered equal to a midfielder from Ghana or Belize when a coach of an American team is balancing his roster. MLS rules designate eight spots per club for international players although those slots may be traded between teams in exchange for other roster benefits.
The numbers tell the story: according to MLS, of the possible 560 roster places available on MLS teams, just 24 are taken by Canadian players. Just five of those play for non-Canadian teams. The balance is so skewed, the math is worth checking again and again. But it’s true. Canadian teams make up 15% of the league but only just over four percent of the league’s players are Canadian.
League executives pitch the positives of Canada’s presence in MLS. Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal contribute stability, MLS market growth, league expansion, more opportunities for players, and excellent local stadiums such as TFC’s purpose-built BMO Field. There’s a good argument that MLS in Canada benefits everyone. Unless, you are Canadian.
In New York, the MLS president Mark Abbott sees only sunshine: “We have created lots of opportunities for Canadian players that did not exist before those teams were there. The investment that each of our teams are making in player development, if not exclusively focussed on Canadian players, is also a benefit.”
Abbott says “immigration laws in the United States don’t allow us to treat Canadian players as domestic in the US.” However, Bob Foos, executive director of the MLS players union, says the issue is MLS not wanting to challenge US discrimination laws and expose the league to a potential lawsuit.
“In essence, [if MLS claimed Canadian players as domestic] you would be discriminating against non-Canadian people in the US in favor of Canadians,” says Foos. “It is one thing to say you need to be a US citizen or a green card holder to be considered domestic. It is another thing to say if you’re Canadian you have these rights and if you’re not Canadian you have different rights.”
But the disparity cuts deep into Canadian soccer, especially for youth development at a time Canadian soccer is desperate to improve its national team. Tim Bezbatchenko, the general manager at Toronto FC, is an American whose previous roles at MLS head office included acting as a liaison between MLS and Canada Soccer. He believes under current regulations Canadian MLS teams are running expensive youth academies for players that have nowhere to go.
“Our players are less desirable for US teams,” Bezbatchenko says. “We put a lot of money into our academy system but the players we are developing have limited roster spots. If there is an additional restriction, that is an impediment for those Canadian players to move to the US That impacts our team and our budget and the way that we operate our roster.”
In 2006, MLS announced expansion into Canada by announcing the arrival of Toronto FC. The new team would be run by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – an organization that also owns Toronto’s professional hockey and basketball teams, the Maple Leafs and Raptors.
Cross-border teams are not unusual in North America. The NHL has Canadian teams as do, to a lesser extent, the NBA and MLB. In soccer, crossed borders are unusual. Australia’s A-League includes New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix while England’s football competitions include teams from Wales. We could argue whether Monaco, with a team in Ligue 1, is actually part of France.
“The league benefits from having strong markets with strong owners and great stadiums,” Mark Abbott says and, while Toronto’s Bezbatchenko has issues with the player status rules, he echoes MLS’s enthusiasm.
“If you look at attendance, [Canadian teams] have some of the most passionate fans in MLS,” he says. “Add the money we are investing in our academies and ownership that believes soccer will be the biggest sport in North America. The league wants to grow and it sees new markets where it can grow. It is important for MLS to be in the biggest markets in North America.”
Bob Foos, from the players union, agrees: “It is very logical from an economic perspective as to why it would be good to have teams from Canada in the league. I think that has borne itself out. They have all been good markets.”
Canada has been great for MLS on many levels, many of them financial. Just not so great for Canada’s MLS players. It’s not just young academy players or mid-level midfielders who struggle. Even the country’s top players – those MLS should want to attract to its teams – feel shut out.
Kuala Terengganu, population 400,000, is a city on the east coast of Malaysia. In good traffic, it’s about a six-hour bus ride to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. Thirty-two-year-old Issey Nakajima-Farran, born in Calgary, is one of just two foreigners who play for Terengganu FA, the local professional team that competes in the Malaysian Super League.
Nakajima-Farran has played 37 times for Canada during a club career that has taken him from Singapore’s S League to Denmark’s Superliga, and a season with Brisbane Roar under current Australia coach Ange Postecoglou in the A-League. He can also add stints with both Toronto FC and Montreal Impact in MLS.
Nakajima-Farran knows the ropes of the sub-superstar professional soccer circuit. However, his time in Canada during the 2014 season was a confusing disaster. He played just five times for Toronto, scoring three goals, before being surprised on his birthday with an overnight trade to Montreal Impact.
“I was like, hell, no,” he recalls. “You can’t tell me to go to Montreal. I don’t want to go there. I love it here!”
Nakajima-Farran said, approaching 30, he quit Europe – he was playing in Cyprus at the time – for Toronto to play out his career at home. He liked the idea where, as a national team player, he might be regarded the way he’d seen local players treated in leagues he’d played in abroad. National team players, he observed, are used as role models and “have a reputation and get respect.”
“As I experienced it, it wasn’t about the Canadian players,” Nakajima-Farran says. “It was about the American league exploiting the Canadian cities. I would understand it if the Canadian teams were bringing in young players and promoting them but Toronto was bringing these American guys back. Even Montreal was trying to replace me with an American guy.”
Montreal Impact proved no different and, after one season, Nakajima-Farran left for Malaysia. He is cautious to criticize, claiming he doesn’t want important issues for Canadian soccer to be clouded by sounding like a disgruntled former player whose deal didn’t work out. But he says he’s not alone. During his time with the Canadian national team, players talked about MLS. Team-mates, many who played abroad, were envious he had a MLS deal.
“The Canadian boys had been together for a long time,” he explains. “When you play with guys who have gone through the same system, you have respect for each other. We had always wanted to play together in a domestic league. We thought that would be Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal. It would make sense. But there is no respect for Canadian players in MLS.”
Mark Abbott says that at its conception, MLS wanted to create interdependence between the US national team and the same concept applies to Canada: “The league would work hard to provide opportunities for American players and, by the same token, the league would benefit from the national team’s success. I think we have seen that play out over the last 20 or so years.
“There is an opportunity to contribute to the growth of Canadian soccer in a variety of different ways: providing playing opportunities and investing in player development programs focussed on players that live in Canada. As you elevate the opportunity for Canadian players, we believe the Canadian national team will benefit from that.”
The actual benefits are debatable. Canada’s starting lineup for its last World Cup qualifier against El Salvador featured just two players from Canadian MLS teams – Marcel de Jong (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Tosaint Ricketts (Toronto FC). Striker Cyle Larin plays for Orlando City. By contrast, the United States team against Trinidad & Tobago included six starters from MLS. It’s worth noting that skipper Michael Bradley and striker Jozy Altidore play for Toronto FC.
Montagliani says that when Canada Soccer signed off on MLS operating clubs within its jurisdiction (a national federation, as well as the regional confederation, and FIFA must approve cross-border participation in leagues) the intention was for many Canadian players to be on the teams.
“That never came to fruition,” he says. “MLS still hasn’t dealt with the issue of treating Canadian players equal to American players. The truth is that if there was no protection for the American player like there is I bet there would be less American players in MLS. That protectionist attitude has helped the American player. Good on them but it definitely hasn’t helped the Canadian player. MLS has a duty to clubs in both countries. I think they are sincere but I don’t think they wake up in the morning and the first thing they think about is how they can help the Canadian players.”
Of course, MLS in Canada might be moot if a pro soccer league existed in the country. There is the the semi-pro Canadian Soccer League made up of teams from Ontario. That competition was embroiled in a 2009 match-fixing controversy and decertified by Canada Soccer in 2013. An investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is ongoing.
Soccer officials highlight several challenges facing any professional Canadian league including geography, population size, and travel expenses. Australia, however, with comparable obstacles, has carved out a professional league that is both a talent pipeline for its national team and a legitimate attraction for (ageing) international stars like Alessandro Del Piero, Robbie Fowler, and Dwight Yorke.
“It is possible but where are you going to get the players?” asks union boss Bob Foose. “It is going to be of a substantially lower quality. If you are going to put together 10 or 12 teams I don’t think you are going to find the volume of guys.”
Montagliani believes a Canadian professional league will be launched within five years. Canada Soccer is currently evaluating how such a competition will operate in conjunction with the five Canadian teams that play in MLS and NASL. While he is bullish about withdrawing approval for MLS to operate in Canada, he hopes to announce “by the end of the year” a solution about player status rules that will see more Canadian players in MLS teams south of the border.
“There is some movement with MLS where a Canadian player has an opportunity other than just with three teams,” he says. “It is an opportunity where players who come through the system are going to be considered domestics on both side of the ledger. With a pro league, a lot of the challenges can always be overcome by money.”
It is unlikely Canada’s MLS teams will participate in a national league, however.
“There is no reason to foresee any change,” says Toronto’s Tim Bezbatchenko, adding he can see a place for Toronto FC’s reserve side in a future Canadian league.
“I think the more players that can be playing professionally and earning a living in Canada is going to help the national team more,” Bezbatchenko says. “If you have more coaches, more administrators, more strength and conditioning coaches and more people staying in the game, then you have a wider net that is going to help the game grow.”
Canada last appeared at a World Cup in 1986 in Mexico. They are currently No100 in Fifa’s rankings, just one place above Haiti (Canada’s women are ranked fourth in the world but that is another story). Many reasons are given for the national team’s mediocrity: a dysfunctional youth system, a lack of qualified coaches failure to attract talented dual citizens over the country of their parents or grandparents, the team’s lack of national identity; and, believe it or not, the weather.
But if World Cup qualifying results are any evidence, MLS has not helped Canada’s national team to any degree. In fact, in a results-based business like professional soccer, if MLS is supposed to boost Canada’s national team, the league should be fired. The issues run deep and affect the current generation of players and fans – as well as the next.
“I was so disappointed after all those years in Europe and Australia to come back and see Toronto was not a Canadian team,” says Nakajima-Farran. “It is an American team in a Canadian city. National team players on a domestic league can be heroes to local kids and young players. Kids want to look up to something like that. It is important.”
“But who knows. I’m just a player.”
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