TFC goes international

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:30 AM ET

Toronto FC can have a competitive team in Major League Soccer. Or, it can have a team of Canadians. It just can't have both.

Someday, maybe. But, not this season. Not anytime soon.

As general manager Mo Johnston puts the finishing touches on the sophomore franchise, it is quite evident how far Canadian soccer needs to come before it is a major player in the world game.

The good news, as the team prepares to meet Red Bull New York tonight, is that it has improved with the addition of internationals such as Rohan Ricketts, Amado Guevara, Laurent Robert and Olivier Tebily.

The unfortunate side is that it means the Reds, who had seven Canadians on the 18-man roster for their 2007 opener, now have only three in Jim Brennan, goalie Greg Sutton and Kevin Harmse, who was actually born in South Africa.

"I want to put a competitive, winning team on the field. That's the most important thing for me. I would love to have certain Canadians on my team, trust me," Johnston said.

But there are several factors that ensure this cannot happen.

First, there's population. With a pool of 33 million people Canada simply doesn't produce as many elite soccer players as the United States or most European and South American countries.

Secondly, when Canada does produce an elite player, the player almost always ends up going to Europe.

"It's a dream of a lot of the kids and you can't take that away from them," Johnston said. "The lure of European football and the Champions League is very strong for a lot of Canadian kids. Would we like them to be here. Sure we would."

But a league salary cap of $2.18 million US means even if Johnston wanted to dip into Canada's shallow talent pool and sign the best, he can't afford them.

So, he goes fishing in the deeper international pool looking for bargains or players willing to earn less now in hopes of proving they're worth more somewhere else in the future.

That, then, translates into two things. First, constant player movement. "The salary cap is so small that when players make bonuses it puts you over the cap," Johnston said. "That means players move on, or guys don't want to come back and others you don't want back. Then there's the two drafts that mean potentially eight new faces."

So, of the seven Canadians who originally dressed in 2007, Marco Reda, Adam Braz, Rich Asante and Stephen Lumley are gone. Development team member Andrea Lombardo remains but hasn't played in the first five games and appears destined for another summer playing in reserve games.

Second, it means that: "The better Canadian players are all playing in Europe for more, in some cases, than our team salary cap," Johnston said. "Take Jonathan DeGuzman (a Scarborough native in Holland). It would probably cost $10 million to buy him, and that's before contract talks. Owen Hargreaves (in England but out of Calgary) has just been purchased for $25 million. Let's take a look at Atiba Hutchinson (a Brampton native playing in the Danish Superliga). He'd cost us between $3 and $4 million to buy. So it's kind of difficult."

Not that Johnston is discouraged. He believes it is possible for Toronto FC to become both competitive and Canadian. But it is going to require patience.

"People want us to sprint but we have to crawl for a bit here," Johnston said. "We've only been up and running for 30 games."

The club has established an academy through which it hopes to funnel the best young players in the province.

"We're just getting started on the future of Canadian soccer," Johnston said. "Hopefully it gets better and we can help the national teams, the Under 17s ... Sure, there will be hiccups but hopefully we can have two or three players come through it and move up to the big team in the near future."

Johnston also has seen movement to get MLS franchises into Montreal and Vancouver where he anticipates similar grass-roots initiatives.

"That would be very healthy," he said. "I think Canada needs that so players make Canada their soccer home -- a place we can be proud of."


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