Let's get professional!

DAVE 'CRASH' CAMERON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

There's already a Canadian Football League.

Having a Canadian football league of another sort, would be the dream scenario for getting Canada back into football's - aka soccer's - great showcase, the World Cup.

In three separate conversations, three Canadians with slightly different backgrounds in soccer have similar thoughts as to what it would take to elevate Canada in the in the international game.

And all three see the problem right now for the national team.

An elite regional player, Ross Ongaro had to leave his hometown to pursue the game he loved.

"We're in exactly the same state we were in, in the '70s. If you want to make it, you have to leave Edmonton at 16 or 17 years old.

"Where were we in 1977 when I left Edmonton? There was only Vancouver and Toronto (in Canada). If you wanted to play professionally you went to the States or you go to Europe," said Ongaro who returned to become a fixture in the local soccer community as a player, coach and educator.

While the system has produced the elite, the problem continues to be depth and availability to the national team.

"The players that are leaving at 13 or 14 years old are becoming professionals in the hands of another country. It's not like we are developing these players.

"They are good athletes ... but they have to go somewhere else and become a professional by using their coaches, their higher level of training, their higher level of competition and structure," said Ongaro.

"Let's look at the positives we have in Canada," said Paul James from Toronto. The Welsh-born midfielder was a key component on Canada's last and only World Cup squad in 1986. "We have the participation rate ... the provincial bodies and the Canadian Soccer Association (have) channelled more money into youth development.

"It creates a good learning environment for players. Those are positives and we shouldn't forget that.

"(It's) that final step, that final level ... the only way a player can continue to play, to either make a living out of the game or chase that dream of playing for your country, they have to go out of the country, in most circumstances."

And re-assemble - sometimes - from all the faraway places and form a team for Canada.

Pat Onstad has chased those dreams.

The Vancouver-born goalkeeper remains active at 38 with Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo, and with Canada's national team.

That's how the U.S. has done it, he said from Houston.

"They qualified with a team predominantly made up of MLS players. They are playing at the same level, with and against each other, week in and week out, so everybody knows each other.

"That's the problem for (Canada coach) Frank Yallop, completely.

"There's times that I've been on the team, when you're calling in the best players, but there's three or four guys you've never met before. And you're supposed to go out and qualify for a World Cup. It makes it very difficult.

"That's no fault of the coach or the organization, that's just logistically the way it is right now," said Onstad, who played in Edmonton in 1996 for the indoor Drillers.

James concurs.

"It creates problems, creates obstacles and hurdles in terms of jet-lag, players getting hurt, players getting pressured by their clubs to not come across."

The new Toronto franchise in North America's Major League Soccer is viewed as a great start.

"MLS, I think, is a right step," said James. "It becomes a motivator for players, coaches and administrators. You improve your depth pool. A professional infrastructure fuels attitudes and behaviours."

"The Craig Forrests, the Paul Peschisolidos, the Tomasz Radzinskis are success stories," said Onstad. "But it's few and far between.

"I think now that Toronto is getting a team, hopefully Montreal and Vancouver follow quickly. And once kids have something to strive for, that's when you see the growth of the game, then on the international level we'll be much more competitive."

All agree that the buzz from the World Cup is a key to creating interest in North America.

"I've always found throughout Canada, particularly in the big urban centres, there's been a huge undercurrent of interest in the sport.

"(In Toronto) the ethnic diversity, first of all, definitely helps. So does the huge participation of the youth game."

Said Ongaro: "Anybody who knows anything about soccer has been counting down the days."


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