Pro Soccer for Canadians is a ton of hard work, endless dedication, a touch of good luck…and the right documents.
Everyone knows I am a Forge fan. My ability to dampen my bias is sometimes suspect. (All right, it’s impossible). But while this piece was influenced by discussions with Forge players, I see this around the league. Triston Henry is happy to be back home with Forge. But that wasn’t necessarily the plan. He pointed out to that visa issues played a role in him potentially missing an opportunity elsewhere.
“Unless you have a green card, or are a permanent US citizen, no team is really going to take you unless you are going to be a starter, and they have to make you an international.”
That’s a tough way to get a foot in the door.
I’ve been fortunate enough to interview players from a variety of teams. And something is becoming clear. While our beloved CPL is giving players opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had, the league that many of them are gunning for still let’s them down.
So let’s just say it, the MLS is a jerk.
Look, don’t get me wrong. The Big Three (ou Le Grande Trois) have done some heavy lifting developing Canadian Soccer. A quick look at the MNT roster shows their fingerprints all over it. But while they are big dogs in Canada, they make up a tiny fragment of their league. And no other Canadian city is ever going to join them. Canadian expansion is dead. 1/10th of MLS teams are Canadian. C’est dommage.
It shouldn’t be this way. I mean think of all the benefits of bringing in Canadians:
1. We’re cheap. Canadians are happy to play for the minimum in the MLS. Because it comes in USD. And we get the idea of a glorified internship here because our soccer framework has been largely semi-pro at best.
2. We don’t get culture shock easily. Players from Europe have complained about the sometimes overwhelming car culture of America. They get blown away by Walmart (Right Daniel Krutzen) and don’t understand gun culture either. We live all those things here. America is basically just Canada South, with louder racism.
3. We can play. A quick look at recent international play shows we can hang with our Concacaf brethren. We qualified first in Concacaf for the World Cup. Sure the results in Qatar were not so hot, but either were Mexico’s or Costa Rica’s. Some of the players on CanMNT came through L1O, which is now CPL’s feeder system. Levels are close. And while there may be the tendency to write off our current stars as ‘one-offs’ down south, the growth of the game up here through the pyramid means the sky is the limit when it comes to future talent.
4. The recent success of players on MLSNextPro teams speaks volumes. Mo Farsi is a case in point. He played well on their NextPro team, got a short contract with the first team and turned that into a full contract with Columbus in 2022. (Side note. I am curious if Farsi’s international experience helped. He was a member of a Canadian national team in Futsal, and had a contract in the Algerian League. Getting visas often depends on proving yourself in paperwork, and international play can bump you up in some circumstances). But the fear of ‘one-offs’ (see above #3) means the MLS is still hesitant to ‘waste’ an international spot on Canadians.
5. We have experience. Forge and PFC players have played internationally, and successfully, through Concacaf tournaments. Cavalry and PFC players have knocked off MLS talent in the Canadian Championship. Athletico Ottawa players have trained in Spain and in Mexico with affiliates of the big club. There are players here with big game, big pressure experience. It seems silly not to give that talent an opportunity.
6. CPL players have been well-coached. One former CPL coach is now working in the MLS in America, Pa Madou Kah. Bobby Smyrniotis has been linked to the MLS (rumours, but still) a couple of times. Tommy Wheeldon, Jr has coached successful CPL teams and won it all at lower competitive levels. With this kind of professional training and coaching, CPL players are among the most professional young men looking for work at the MLS level. Having spoken to Sigma players before, the organization and elite programming from that program puts you in good stead for a jump up in quality and professionalism. And I assume Foothills and Athletico’s programmes at least do the same, and maybe others. (Nash has played on the National team and Dos Santos has been a part of an MLS staff).
S. 2 Ep. 21: Canada Doing What Canada Does – FC13 Podcast
Look all of these points suggest that MLS is missing the boat by not betting on Canadian. Not every international is going to pan out, and the idea that every international has to be a star is a little short-sighted. Depth is often the difference between success and failure.
But let’s face it, if I was to ask the MLS in general why they don’t sign Canadians, I’d get a pretty easy answer.
“Because you can’t make me! Nyah na!” Or something like that.
And they’d be right. We can’t. We can’t because, despite all the fancy talk and good intentions, the MLS is an American Soccer league. It is run under the auspices of the USSF. Whatever development happens for Canadian pros outside of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver is just gravy. It is not mandated. It is not a priority. And it never will be.
Now that doesn’t mean all is lost. We have seen CPL players get opportunities abroad. Canadian CPL players are currently playing in the UK. In Sweden. One just returned from the Qatari league to re-join the CPL. But there’s the rub. We are a nation from many nations. And most of these players have something in common. That most magical of things for a Canadian soccer player on the cusp of pro footy. Another passport.
When you are born abroad, or your parents or grandparents were immigrants from a decent footballing nation, you have other options. If you’re just rockin’ the good ol’ Maple Leaf on yours (It’s actually our Coat of Arms, but you get me) then you are going to need some help. Our co-efficient will continue to rise with Nations League and Gold Cup results. And with shots at the Champions League, long shots that they are, we could grow on the club front too. But that takes time. And it is in other people/s hands, not those of individual players in our league.
Kwame Awuah put it this way in our recent conversation. “…it’s unfair for Canadians to count as internationals on US MLS teams and not vice versa…In a league where international spots matter, it takes away opportunities from Canadians that deserve it just because they are not American.”
There are only three teams that they aren’t internationals on. Our aforementioned Big Three. And Kwame himself has played for NYCFC, and has been on the cusp of the MLS again with St Louis CITY, where he appeared in 20 of 24 games for the 1st place team in the conference. (Taking up an international spot with the expansion team though meant that he was overlooked when opportunities for “sexier international – Europeans” entered the expansion teams MLS mix). He is still working towards the dream, now with Loudoun United (DC United affiliate). He benefitted from not taking up an international spot back in New York, but the struggle to get a foot firmly in the door continues now as he is an international again. (Among the Byzantine roster rules that are MLS was one that allowed for you to sign to MLS directly from a high performance academy, of which Canada has many, and you were considered domestic. Arbitrary and annoying, but one Kwame initially benefitted from).
All in all, the CPL is providing chances to expand that soccer pathway. I just wish Concacaf’s El Presidente -Victor Montagliani would have pressured the MLS to do more for his home nation. Maybe he could have tied it to recognizing that stupid Leagues Cup travesty that does nothing for our Premier League either. (Except damage our Cup ties).
But back to reality right. MLS doesn’t need Concacaf as badly as it needs Mexican/Latinx eyeballs to shift from LigaMX to its brand of soccer. It is looking up to Mexico, and as a result, down on Canada.
Sigh. With friends like these, amirite?
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