Manuel Veth –
A proposed Canadian Premier League would be a major step towards growing the game in Canada. But there are major obstacles towards creating a national soccer league in Canada.
On Monday February 6, the Major League Soccer commissioner made a rare visit to Canada. Speaking to a panel of journalists and fans of the MLS franchise, Whitecaps, in Vancouver, Don Garber made a strong commitment toward the market in Canada, and also promised that Major League Soccer would help grow the game in the True White North.
Garber also pointed out that the game was truly on the right track, citing the recent success of Montreal Impact and Toronto FC, who faced each other in the Eastern Conference MLS Cup final. Both games attracted record attendance, both in the stadium and on television, for soccer games in Canada.
Toronto then represented Canada for the first time in an MLS Cup final when they hosted Seattle Sounders. The Sounders would later win the match in penalties, but the match was still viewed as a major milestone in Canadian soccer history. Yet, despite the success of Montreal and Toronto, in MLS there are still major problems to growing the game in Canada on a professional level.
Soccer has outgrown the traditional sports in North America
In terms of grassroots, soccer has experienced similar numbers as in the United States. Like in the United States, soccer has outgrown the traditional North American sports in terms of popular participation. Grass roots soccer has expanded to such a degree that soccer has, since 1998, been ranked as the number one sport for children aged five to 14.
According to MacLean’s Magazine, 32% of boys and girls who participated in sports played football that year. By 2010, that number had grown to 42%, and the percentage continues to rise, even though a large share of the youth also engage in various cybersports or participate in the trading contests like Forexball. There is, therefore, no problem when it comes to getting kids actively involved in the game.
This is also something on which Canada’s MLS franchises have capitalized. The Vancouver Whitecaps, for example, have now established youth academies all over the country in an attempt to capture the next generation of Canadian talent.
Canadian talent is still not displayed by Canadian MLS teams
At the same time, there are still problems when it comes to displaying actual Canadian talent on Canadian MLS teams. Toronto FC only named one Canadian, Jonathan Osorio, to their MLS Cup starting eleven against the Seattle Sounders.
At the moment, the Whitecaps now have seven Canadian players in their MLS squad for the upcoming season. This includes wunderkind Alphonso Davies, who is anticipated to play for Canada in the future, but does not yet hold a Canadian passport—he was born in Monrovia, Liberia.
Davies, alongside Orlando City striker Cyle Larin, might represent the most promising talent for Canadian soccer. But the recent successes in developing Canadian talent cannot mask the fact that the progress of the game, at the moment, is stalling somewhat in Canada.
This is a fact that has not been lost to Don Garber and Major League Soccer. The league, therefore, brought in a change that treats Canadian-born players as home grown players from this season onward, not only when they play for Canadian teams, but also when they play south of the border (although as the below tweet shows, MLS rules on home-grown players are not straight forward).
— Alexander Abnos (@AnAbnos) February 8, 2017
The fact that the likes of Larin are no longer treated as foreign-born players when they play for teams like Orlando should go a long way toward having more Canadians play in the MLS. But Garber felt that this was not enough, and suggested that MLS could bring in a fourth designated player spot for Canadian-born players.
Beckham Rule won’t work for Canadian teams
This, in theory, would allow Canadian clubs to attract Canadian-born stars to play in Canadian markets, which would result in higher attendance numbers. Garber even went so far as to suggest that it could have a similar impact on Canadian soccer as David Beckham’s arrival to MLS in 2007.
The problem, of course, is that Canada does not have any real stars to speak of. Canada’s most talented players, Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş) and Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) are important players for their respective clubs in Europe, but they are hardly of superstar quality that will spark sales of season tickets.
Therefore, in order for this strategy to work, Canada first has to make superstars. But the question is whether MLS can get that job done?
Of course, having training centres all around the country, as the Whitecaps do, will help to identify more players who have the calibre to play in Major League Soccer, and perhaps even abroad. But what about late bloomers, or players who do not live close to a Major League Soccer development centre?
Canada has only five professional teams
Excluding the farm teams of the MLS franchises, Canada only has five professional teams at the moment. The three MLS franchises, and the Ottawa Fury in the United Soccer League (United States Division 2), and FC Edmonton in the North American Soccer League (the other Division 2 league in the United States).
Further down the ladder, there are numerous smaller teams competing in the Premier Development League (Division 4)—such as the Victoria Highlanders, Kitchener-Waterloo United FC, Thunder Bay Chill, WSA Winnipeg, Calgary Foothills FC, and the TSS FC Rovers from the Vancouver area.
These teams, however, are more or less amateur teams that, in many cases, are prolific in developing talent. The PDL, therefore, does very little to further grow the professional game in Canada. In fact, the only way to achieve growth would be to create, in Canada, a professional league that is independent from the MLS.
As discussed in the latest World Football Index – North American Soccer Show Podcast, the establishment of a Canadian professional league is the only way forward that would help build the game in Canada.
Plans for a Canadian Premier League do in fact exist, and there has been talk about establishing a league as early as 2018. But, while there have been announcements about the imminent creation of the league, there are still some major question marks about franchises and locations. The only known facts thus far are that Hamilton and Halifax have seriously considered establishing teams.
The league itself wants to have teams all over the country. One scenario could, of course, see the current PDL teams switch to the Canadian Premier League. This would mean that these teams would have to turn from amateur to professional. This could be a major obstacle for some of the franchises involved.
A Canadian Premier League would help grow the game in Canada
There are, however, benefits. Having teams compete on the highest level against other Canadian clubs will likely lead to an increase of attendance for clubs that make the switch from PDL to the Canadian Premier League. This, in turn, would get more young kids involved with their local teams and, consequently, more locals playing at a higher level, which in turn would mean that Canada’s national programs could identify more top talent.
But there are questions about such a league, and its relationship to the MLS. For example, how will Major League Soccer see such a league? In our recent podcast on MLS expansion, one of the themes that emerged was the MLS’ endless appetite for growth.
For now, however, Don Garber seems to be reluctant to establish further franchises in Canada and, instead, wants to make Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver more popular in their region and across the country. But what would happen if a Canadian Premier League is established and turns out to be a success? Would the MLS make a push for those markets?
The relationship between the MLS and an independent Canadian Premier League is indeed one of the major questions when it comes to establishing a new nationwide competition in Canada. But one thing is certain—such a competition needs to be established in order for the game to become a success in Canada.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and podcaster for WorldFootballIndex.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus.