TORONTO - A host of U.S.-based MLS clubs are passing on current Canadian internationals due to an imbalance in league roster rules, according to officials at the Canadian Soccer Association.
The Toronto Sun has learned that despite growing interest in European-based Canadians since the 2009 Gold Cup, clubs located south of the border have had to pass on at least three Canadian national team players, two of which took part in the most recent round of World Cup qualifying, due to the international status bestowed upon Canadians playing in the U.S.
“There are a couple of (U.S. MLS) coaches that have put out some feelers about potentially having some Canadian national team payers but they’re hesitant ... because the Canadians count as foreigners,” Canadian head coach Stephen Hart told the Sun.
“There are a few players they have liked and if they didn’t count as foreigners I have no doubt they’d be in the league.”
At the start of the 2012 season, clubs based in Canada (Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact) were allotted eight roster spots for international players. Although the league stipulates that Canadian clubs must have a minimum of three rostered Canadians, the rest of their squads can be comprised of as many Americans or Canadians as they like.
The rules are different for U.S.-based MLS sides.
For the 16 American clubs, Canadians are considered international players, which means their inclusion takes away one of the eight allotted international slots a team is granted — a rule the CSA said has caused a handful of managers to pass over Canadian talent in order to avoid losing a coveted international spot.
“What concerns me is ... on the senior side you potentially have players that could be playing in a decent league and could be playing consistently,” Hart said. “But because of the foreign rule they end up playing in countries where the league is unstable.”
While multiple attempts to contact MLS were unsuccessful, coaches and front office staff around the league identified roster restrictions on Canadians as an issue for the future.
“I think it’s worth looking into just from a competitive standpoint,” said Houston Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who has coached multiple Canadians in Dwayne De Rosario, Pat Onstad and Andre Hainault most recently. “When you look at it, it’s not just an American league now ... If it can be changed legally and easily I think it would be a good (rule) to change.”
Legally and easily being the key issue.
Information obtained from two separate MLS clubs pointed to U.S. immigration policy as being the defining issue in terms of roster regulations.
Although Canadian immigration rules are more relaxed on the matter, American employers aren’t allowed to give preferential treatment to the citizens of any one nation — which could be partly to blame for the roster rules.
“What I believe and what can happen legally I think are two different things,” said Earl Cochrane, Toronto FC’s director of team and player operations. “Would it be a great situation for Canadians to count as domestic (players) in the U.S.? Yes, probably, it would help us from the perspective if we’re looking to make a move in our league.”
As with the U.S. national team, MLS commissioner Don Garber is on record saying one of the league’s goals is ensuring the Canadian national team improves from its current No. 68 FIFA world ranking.
But Hart reiterated that it’s difficult for Canada, which is currently at a crucial stage in its campaign to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, to develop talent at the youth and senior levels when the league its Canadian franchises play in, for whatever reason, holds back Canadians.
“The league is shared between two countries,” Hart said. “And anyone can see that the Canadian franchises have brought a lot to the league. I think the rule needs to be reviewed ... You have three very important franchises based in Canada. With that respect, the league now crosses borders.”
POWERS THAT BE
The players the CSA identified to the Sun as being of interest to an assortment of MLS franchises aren’t exactly high-priced players — one of which played a significant role in Canada’s June qualifiers in Cuba and against Honduras.
If nothing can be done to change U.S. immigration policy, so be it. But stringent attempts need to be made by those at the top of both federations to fix a rule that will undoubtedly hold Canada back for the foreseeable future.
“That’s a good question and a good point,” said Hart, when asked if the CSA’s top brass should dig a little deeper into trying to determine if MLS roster rules can be altered. “At the end of the day, I’m just the coach. I suppose there are powers that be that need to vigorously discuss this.”
For at least three potential returning Canadian internationals, it’s already too late.