As Candian MLS Teams Boom, Players Feel Sting

Toronto FC

The MLS is finding success with its Canadian teams, but there is some concern that the country’s players are not seeing any benefits to expansion.

The MLS’ shift into Canada has been a promising development for the league. Starting with Toronto FC‘s inaugural season in 2007, the MLS has added three teams in Canada, including the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2011 and the Montreal Impact in 2012. According to the most recent attendance figures, all three teams are in the league’s top 10, with Toronto leading the way at third, followed by Vancouver in sixth and Montreal eighth.

The attendance figures combined with the organizational growth of all three teams–we recently looked at how the Impact are helping to reshape the sport in Montreal–is certainly an encouraging sign for the MLS. However, a contentious issue for the league is its player relations, specifically how it classifies Canadian players.

Under the league’s roster rules, each team is given eight international slots, which can be traded. As far as United States teams are concerned, players who are Canadian citizens are considered international. However, U.S. domestic players do not count against the international slots on any MLS team, including those in Canada.

This has caused something of a rift. Whereas the MLS says its hands are tied by U.S. immigration laws, officials from Canadian teams are concerned that the rules hurt the sport’s growth in the country, something that was exposed recently in an in-depth report by The Guardian:

In New York, the MLS president Mark Abbott sees only sunshine: “We have created lots of opportunities for Canadian players that did not exist before those teams were there. The investment that each of our teams are making in player development, if not exclusively focussed on Canadian players, is also a benefit.”

Abbott says “immigration laws in the United States don’t allow us to treat Canadian players as domestic in the US.” However, Bob Foos, executive director of the MLS players union, says the issue is MLS not wanting to challenge US discrimination laws and expose the league to a potential lawsuit.

“In essence, [if MLS claimed Canadian players as domestic] you would be discriminating against non-Canadian people in the US in favor of Canadians,” says Foos. “It is one thing to say you need to be a US citizen or a green card holder to be considered domestic. It is another thing to say if you’re Canadian you have these rights and if you’re not Canadian you have different rights.”

But the disparity cuts deep into Canadian soccer, especially for youth development at a time Canadian soccer is desperate to improve its national team. Tim Bezbatchenko, the general manager at Toronto FC, is an American whose previous roles at MLS head office included acting as a liaison between MLS and Canada Soccer. He believes under current regulations Canadian MLS teams are running expensive youth academies for players that have nowhere to go.

“Our players are less desirable for US teams,” Bezbatchenko says. “We put a lot of money into our academy system but the players we are developing have limited roster spots. If there is an additional restriction, that is an impediment for those Canadian players to move to the US. That impacts our team and our budget and the way that we operate our roster.”

From a fan base perspective, the move into Canada has undoubtedly amounted to a win for the MLS. Yet with more teams such as Toronto investing in academies, the emphasis on development is becoming a priority for the league. It has been playing out in the U.S., but it remains to be seen if current the roster rules–which limit the leverage for Canadian players–cause a negative effect on the country’s ability to develop talent.

Image courtesy of Montreal Impact. 

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August Publications