We need Canadian content rules in MLS

GARETH WHEELER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:01 PM ET

TORONTO - Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber’s 2010 State of the Union didn’t have the usual personal feel as previous years; a conference call hardly replaces a live, in-person, eye-to-eye address. No matter the method, Tuesday’s message delivered had a distinct Canadian feel.

Garber was full of praise Maple Leaf Sports and Enertainment, Ltd., and Toronto FC’s model “supporters’ culture,” despite many media outlets not making the trip north of the border for Sunday’s MLS Cup final.

It’s not sucking up to a local fan base when everything said about Toronto supporters is true. Garber drove home that “expansion into Canada has transformed MLS” and that “they would not be the league they are without Toronto FC.” The Commissioner even boasted that “Toronto FC fans and the support for the sport overall in the country is helping to guide the connection many American fans have with their local clubs.”

But through singing Toronto’s praises comes an alternative, not-so-bright outlook on the league’s commitment to developing the Canadian game.

Garber said Tuesday Major League Soccer is in discussion with the Canadian Soccer Association about modifying the league’s Canadian content rule that stipulates Canadian franchises have a minimum of eight Canadian players on their roster. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC spilled the beans last month, publicly acknowledging a movement to get rid of the quota altogether. With Vancouver joining MLS next season and the Montreal Impact the year after, some believe modification to the rule to be necessary.

Garber was wishy-washy as to what modifications would be made. But Garber did say MLS has “no intent to have competitive imbalance between Canadian and American teams.”

In other words, changes are coming and despite Canada being a great soccer market, its players aren’t up to snuff.

An assessment as such is rather premature, considering Toronto FC is the first professional set-up of its kind in Canada, and the previous regime at the club had little or no connection to Canadian soccer in its inaugural years. Time will tell as to how Canadian talent can be developed in professional set-ups like Toronto, and those being established in Vancouver and Montreal.

Peter Montopoli of the CSA responded to Garber’s remarks by saying: “The Canadian Soccer Association is meeting with Major League Soccer this weekend to discuss the subject. We look forward to a mutually beneficial situation for the future.”

And that’s the key: It’s all about the future. Garber regularly speaks of MLS going through an evolution. Part of this evolution is the determining the most effective way to build and cultivate talent; the quality of MLS play will always be the determining factor how successful the league can be.

MLS announced Tuesday it is resurrecting the Reserve Division for 2010, a move beneficial for development. MLS also announced it is expanding first-team roster sizes from 26 to 30, with five spots designated for home-grown talent who don’t count against the salary cap (players under the age of 25) — another move for the future.

Following from this forward-thinking approach, it would be hypocritical of MLS to dump its Canadian-content regulation, which is essential to long-term growth of Canadian professional franchises through development in our own backyard. The quota doesn’t exist to create a “competitive imbalance,” but to ensure the process is seen through.

Simply having professional Canadian teams is not enough. The biggest roadblock for Canadian soccer has always been a complete lack of infrastructure and opportunity for male players in their teens to carry on through their development years at a high level.

It’s no coincidence Canadian hockey remains the best in the world when our junior programs are vastly superior to those in any other nation.Professionally-run academies are a must, as is the opportunity to rise through the ranks and play for the senior side.

The tangible benefit of the current structure, as is, is evident through the blossoming career of Toronto FC defender Nana Attakora. The Canadian quota gave the 21-year old an opportunity to develop into a TFC regular while working his way into the national set-up — a chance he would never have had otherwise.

And for a developing player like Nicholas Lindsay, the academy structure and home-grown incentives have brought him through the ranks, and given reason to believe he can develop into a professional.

It’s up to Garber, MLS and its Canadian franchises to stick with the plan and advance the game from grassroots up. MLS will only be an “incredible platform” for soccer in this country as long as Canadian players remain front and centre for Canadian teams.


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