Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where now for D3 level soccer in Canada?

A couple of key snippets of info from the Canadian Soccer League this week suggest that the landscape of Canadian pro soccer isn't going to be changing as much as some people have been anticipating in the short to medium term. Firstly, Dominic DiGironimo stepped down as league commissioner after he tendered his resignation and it was accepted by what was described in an official CSL press release with the explanation provided being "The league has been charting its future during the past year and differences eventually appeared which became irreconcilable, leading to the commissioner’s departure". The sticking point would appear to have been some aspect of DiGironimo's aggressive push for coast to coast expansion and the insertion of the phrase "long-term expansion" at the end of the press release suggests that plan may have been placed on the back burner by the "equity owners" (i.e. the older members of the league with full franchise rights). The second snippet on twitter from London City, mentioned that there are only four expansion teams for 2011 (i.e. the previously announced teams from Ottawa, Kitchener, Mississauga (Erin Mills) and Pickering). That means the fifth team from Quebec City that was expected to be announced later has fallen through.

The problems that the CSL always seems to face in adding additional franchises in Quebec are a bit of a mystery with Quebec City having been announced as a target for expansion as far back as 2007 with a team called FC Quebec later being mentioned as a new team that would start play in 2009. The two rumoured explanations have been that the Montreal Impact hold the CSL franchise rights for the entire province and are not letting anybody else in, or that the Quebec provincial association has plans of its own where league structures are concerned and is blocking the sanctioning of any additional CSL teams in that province for that reason. My guess would be the latter explanation is closer to the truth based on the fact that the CSL seemed reasonably confident that Quebec expansion would happen up until almost the end of the 2010 season, which is a better fit for something that was pending approval by a provincial board than a case of waiting on a member team (i.e. Montreal Impact Academy) to grant permission.

So if a transformation of the landscape at the D3 level no longer seems imminent perhaps the powers that be in the CSA should stop and consider exactly what they are trying to achieve at this level of the sport? There are two issues that really need to be looked at before progress can be made, in my opinion. Firstly, what exactly is the rationale behind having separate elite amateur and semi-pro tiers to the sport in southern Ontario and Montreal in the early 2010s? Historically the amateur level of the sport was kept fully separate from anything that involved open above the table cash payments because of the ideals of amateurism that used to be promoted by the Olympics movement. When that changed in the early 70s, any lingering distinction between being elite amateur or semi-pro were erased in many other parts of the world. For example in England top amateur divisions like the Isthmian League turned semi-pro and are now fully integrated with historically semi-pro divisions like the Southern League, which used to form a separate tier of the sport leading to rival divisions with similar playing standards covering the same geographical area. In Scandinavia, the top national divisions finally became openly professional at around this time for similar reasons leading over time to a marked increase in playing standards.

Up until recently the issue of NCAA eligibility provided a reason for continuing to keep the distinction in North America but now even that has fallen by the wayside with recent changes to NCAA regulations enabling several openly semi-pro teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency and the Kitsap Pumas to compete in PDL against amateur teams comprised of NCAA scholarship players. Instead of having a small cartel of "equity owners" setting the agenda in the CSL and dictating the pace of change in creating a new separate semi-pro tier to the sport from coast to coast maybe maybe it is time to move in the opposite direction of having greater integration by creating a conventional promotion and relegation style league structure in each major city that is open to both amateur and semi-pro clubs with the existing National Championships for the ten provincial cup winners used to crown an overall national winner?

The second issue that needs to be examined is how do you create a single league format, which provides the highest possible level of competition for amateur and semi-pro players based in heavily populated area like Toronto, while at the same time also catering to the needs of those based in remoter cities like Thunder Bay? The answer is clearly that you can't in a sparsely populated country with a continental scale geography and that there should be no attempt to force everybody into a one size fits all league system but I'm not sure that concept is firmly grasped by the powers that be. In the most heavily populated areas nothing is gained through long distance travel and playing standards can be diminished if travel demands become too onerous as players are scared away by the time commitment that is required, while in smaller cities travel on an all star team sort of basis is a necessity for the best younger players to be exposed to a higher level of competition and get noticed by scouts elsewhere.

Leagues like the CSL, OSL and VMSL are the answer in the big cities, while leagues like the PCSL and PDL have an important role to play in remoter areas like the interior of BC and northwestern Ontario in other words. That means that there is a very real need for two parallel league systems at the D3/D4 sort of level on an ongoing basis not based on an amateur vs semi-pro split but on an open age division vs U-23 development format. An open age format with pro/rel similar to the state leagues in Australia is the key for the big cities, while a short season PDL type franchise format with a greater emphasis placed on U-23 pro player development is the only viable approach for providing a flagship franchise to make soccer a successful spectator sport in smaller communities from coast to coast in a similar manner to the niche in the entertainment market that is currently filled by junior hockey in the winter months.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Making sense of the CSA's recent actions

In Canadian soccer, a lot of what happens internally in leagues and associations never seeps out to see the light of day outside of executive level meetings and a lot of the decisions made are based primarily on petty personality clashes and empire building rather than any notion of what is good for the actual participants in the sport at an amateur level or for the players, coaches and fans at the pro level. Any inconvenience caused on their part by bizarre executive manoeuverings seems to be of no consequence to many amongst the powers that be. You only need to look at what is happening in Alberta right now for the prime example of that, but that's just the visible tip of the iceberg, unfortunately. When there is a fierce debate going on between the power brokers only small snippets of information tend to be released, which fit the agenda of an insider at one moment in time. The partial picture that emerges on that sort of basis can leave people on the outside wondering just what on earth is going on, when there is a complete lack of credible Bernstein and Woodward style investigative journalism (not a cheap shot aimed at anyone just the reality of the situation) to put the pieces together and provide the full context.

I have put together a chronology of the key snippets of info that have leaked out over the past few months so that they can be read sequentially. The motivation behind recent actions of the CSA that appeared a bit bewildering when viewed in isolation starts to become a lot more obvious when this info is placed together like this and with a bit of reading between the lines a much clearer picture of what has being going on behind the scenes emerges:

Sun 8th Aug, The regular It's Called Football podcast contains an interview with Scott Mitchell describing the Hamilton Tigercats' NASL expansion bid {35:35 to 49:40} and with Dominic Di Geronimo of the CSL describing his league's future expansion plans. {16:45 to 27:00} Sharply contrasting views about the future of the sport in Canada are expressed.

Sun 8th Aug, Victoria Times Colonist reports on a friendly between Victoria Highlanders and FC Edmonton to gauge interest in a move out of PDL and into pro soccer.

“There is no doubt the Victoria organization can play pro in the NASL. The stadium needs to be bigger and other things need to be done, so it’s not going to happen overnight. But they have a good owner [Alex Campbell Jr.] and good GM [Drew Finerty], and that’s a great sign as they move forward.”

Wed 11th Aug, USSF announces tough new D2 level sanctioning requirements casting doubt on the future viability of that tier of the sport in North America.

The much-anticipated USSF D2 meeting on Monday took place in New York without much fanfare or negotiations according to sources involved with teams that participated. The meeting was in general amicable and US Soccer did allow discourse.

Thurs 12th Aug, CSL announces desire to expand to BC and an exhibition game to be played on the 27th at Swangard Stadium between Toronto Croatia and a top local amateur side, Athletic Club BC.

The Canadian Soccer League, a 13-team loop based in Ontario, will check out B.C. expansion possibilities this month in a push to become a true national league — ultimately with anywhere from 36 to 48 teams.

Wed 8th Sept, USL announces formation of USL Pro and pulls out of competing with the USL for D2 level sanctioining for 2011.

Team owners and league officials are meeting in Tampa, Florida today to lay the groundwork for the 2011 debut of USL PRO, which will be governed by team owners and present the highest level of competition in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean outside of Major League Soccer (MLS).

Wed 15th Sept, London Free Press reveals that FC London of PDL are contemplating turning pro in the new USSF sanctioned D3 level USL Pro.

There may be a new professional soccer team in London's near future. And while there are a lot of things that have to happen before then, owners of FC London in the United Soccer League's PDL division recognize that at times you have to get bigger in order to survive. Ian Campbell, majority owner of the two-year-old PDL team, has been part of meetings that will lead to a restructuring of the USL.
Tues 28th Sept, BC based Tony Waiters becomes a consultant to the USL after being involved on CSA pro soccer committees.

“I’m delighted to be joining USL,” Waiters said. “With the infrastructure USL has in place our best young players, both male and female, have a proven ladder for development. The USL pyramid is something that, hand on heart, I can recommend to Canadian and other North American organizations. With USL, Canadian teams will be able to not only look East and West, but North and South as well. It’s truly a continental opportunity.

Wed 29th Sept, Inside Minnesota Soccer reports that the NASL have initiated its bid for D2 level sanctioning from the USSF with the Montreal Impact and FC Edmonton as part of six core franchises that meet stringent new requirements.

The six teams that were included in the bid all meet the financial requirements of the new USSF D-2 standards. The teams included were: Carolina RailHawks, FC Edmonton, Miami FC, Montreal Impact, FC Tampa Bay and the Puerto Rico Islanders.

Wed 29th Sept, CSA vice-president Victor Montagliani criticizes MLS over domestic content rule changes in the Vancouver Sun and calls for a domestic league.

He feels the CSA should seriously consider launching a new league — with a high Canadian-player content — to develop young players that will move up to a higher level. Montagliani said countries that have done well at the international level recently are those whose national governing bodies have been involved in player development.

Fri Oct 1st, The CSA's Victor Montagliani describes his vision for a new D2 level national league with a U-23 format. {35:11 to 54:48}

Fri Oct 15th, The CSL's Dominic Di Gironimo discusses the league's expansion plans for a second time on an It's Called Football podcast and mentions that major expansion into Quebec will be announced during the half-time of the league's championship game at the end of the month with "several teams" from Quebec and eastern Ontario said to be joining in 2011. {1:28 to 15:20}

Sun Oct 31st, CSL announces 2011 expansion plans with no BC or Quebec teams announced.

CSL commissioner Domenic Di Gironimo announced also that teams from Ottawa, Pickering (Pickering Power), the Kitchener area and Erin Mills in Miississauga have received conditional acceptance into the league for 2011.

Wed 3rd Nov, Ben Rycroft reveals that a CSL expansion team in Quebec City is pending approval due to a hold up at the provincial association level.

Two sources within the CSL say the group, headed by Jean Sebastian Roy – a partner and VP of marketing for the Quebec Kebs of the Professional Basketball League (PBL), is moving ahead with plans to bring a second semi-professional soccer team to the province of Quebec for the 2011 or 2012 season....The only hurdle now standing between Quebec City and a CSL team is approval by the local and provincial bodies – and that’s where it gets sticky. A second group, made up mostly of members of the Quebec Regional Soccer Association, recently applied to the Quebec Soccer Federation for approval to pursue Professional Development League (PDL) franchises in the region. They were looking to create a conference of fourth division soccer in the province....

Mon 15th Nov, A few days prior to the key USSF meeting in Toronto during the MLS Cup weekend, which was going to determine the fate of the NASL's D2 sanctioning bid the CSA announces a one year moratorium on sanctioning entry of additional Canadian teams into the NASL and PDL and forms ad hoc committee to explore the formation of a new D2 level national league.

The Canadian Soccer Association has announced that it has established an Ad hoc committee to examine the feasibility of a Canadian Professional League. While this committee completes its feasibility study the Canadian Soccer Association has passed a moratorium on the sanctioning of any further applications for Canadian franchises in USA based leagues until 30 September 2011.

Tues 16th Nov, Ben Rycroft reports that an Ottawa group is rumoured to be funding an NASL team in Minnesota that is required to bring the NASL's number of franchises up to the USSF's minimum requirement of eight and also to ensure that there are American teams in at least two timezones.

Two sources confirmed that Ottawa investors agreed to the funding under the provision that they would then receive an NASL franchise for 2012 - or would be able to move the NSC Minnesota Stars franchise to the Canadian capital for 2012 if additional financial support was not found for Minnesota by that time...Either decision has now been thrown into question with the news of the CSA’s moratorium on sanctioning any new Canadian D2 teams. While the moratorium is to end in September 30, 2011, it is believed additional sanctioning will not continue past that date as the CSA pursues its goals of creating a new national league.

Mon 22nd Nov, The USSF provisionally sanctions the NASL's D2 sanctioning bid so FC Edmonton and the Montreal Impact have a new USSF sanctioned league to play in next summer.

The North American Soccer League (“NASL”) was provisionally approved as the Division II men’s outdoor professional soccer league by the Board of Directors of the United States Soccer Federation (“USSF”) at its meeting in Toronto, Canada on November 21, 2010.  The provisional nature of the sanctioning is consistent with the USSF’s bylaws which require approval by the National Council of the USSF.  This approval is expected to be forthcoming at the USSF Annual General Meeting in February, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Tues 23rd November, CSA's national league plans lambasted in the Vancouver Sun by Bob Lenarduzzi of the Whitecaps and Alex Campbell of the Victoria Highlanders.

Vancouver Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said that in a perfect world, the concept of a Canadian soccer league is “wonderful.” “But unless they have a plan,” he said, “it seems ludicrous to stop teams from playing (in U.S. leagues). As long as players are playing at a good level, does it matter whether they’re playing in a Canadian league or a North American league?” 

Thurs 26th November, Aaron Davidson reveals in an It's Called Football podcast that both the Whitecaps and Impact will retain membership even after joining MLS and talks of possible reserve team links and states that the identity of a 2013 expansion team will be revealed by the end of the year. {0:00 to 25:49}

Sat 4th Dec, the Ottawa Citizen reports that the sanctioning moratorium will have no effect on that city's bid for an NASL team.

I spoke with CSA General Secretary Peter Montopoli and he assured me that, when the Ottawa franchise asks the association to sanction it to join the NASL, "we are not looking to stop anything. There will be no withholding." So we can rest easy. 

Mon 6th Dec, Ben Rycroft reveals that Dominic Di Gironimo had stepped down as CSL commissioner

Canadian Soccer News has learned that Dominic DiGironimo has stepped down as the Canadian Soccer League commissioner effective immediately.

Mon 7th Dec, Winnipeg Sun reports that there will be a press conference on Monday 10th to announce PDL expansion into Winnipeg.

A press conference has been called for Monday to reveal the details of the WSA Winnipeg under-23 team that will compete in the well-respected United Soccer League’s Premier Development League at the Winnipeg Waverley Complex. Winnipeg will play a 12-game regular season in a division that will include Thunder Bay, Kansas City, Des Moines, Iowa and others this summer.

So what have we learned? Clearly the chaos caused by the bitter USL - NASL split and D2 sanctioning battle has been viewed as a window of opportunity for a major push behind the scenes for everything below MLS to be brought back under the CSA umbrella in sanctioning terms with some of the statements by the CSL's commissioner on ICF podcasts appearing to point to his league very much wanting to control that process. That push appears to have been successfully headed off at the pass, at least for now, thanks not only to the USSF's sanctioning of the NASL but also to the influence and actions of persons unknown inside the loop, who made the case for the continued use of USSF sanctioned leagues. I suspect, based primarily on the snippet about soccer association politics getting in the way of the sanctioning of both PDL and CSL teams in Quebec City, that an individual with strong family connections to the cheese trade has been the main mover and shaker in the latter category despite having had almost nothing to say on the record about any of these issues in the mainstream media.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Players to look out for in the reentry draft

On Wednesday MLS will hold the first stage of the new reentry draft process based on the terms of the new CBA between the league and the Players' Union. The players who are eligible for the first stage on Dec 8th are (i) those at least 23 years old who have a minimum of three years' MLS experience whose options were not picked up at the agreed option salary rate (they are listed as "od" for option declined at the bottom of this entry), (ii) players who are at least 25 years old with four years' experience who are out of contract and have not been made a bona fide offer of a new contract at their 2010 salary level (they are listed as "ooc" for "out of contract" at the bottom of this entry), (iii) players who are at least 30 years old with eight years' experience who are out of contract and have not been made a bona fide offer at a minimum level of 105% of 2010 salary (they are also listed as "ooc" for "out of contract" at the bottom of this entry). If players are not happy with reduced terms offered by their existing teams or no new bona fide contract offer has been made they enter a draft process in which a new team can draft them at either their option salary rate if they are in category (i) or at 100% or 105% of their 2010 salary if categories (ii) and (iii) are applicable. The selection order will be the same as that used for waiver drafts based on the end of season finish in 2010 with TFC selecting 6th overall and the Whitecaps 17th based on being an expansion team.

Once the first stage is complete players can still negotiate to try to reach a new deal with their old team. Should that fail to happen there is a second stage on Dec 15th when players can be drafted by a new club and made an offer at a lower rate than their old salary, the new club will then hold the right of first refusal to the player's services if this offer is declined. An interesting quirk is that if all the other clubs decline to select a player then the player's existing club can select the player at this point and can then make a take it or leave it offer. After the second stage players who have not been selected by any club are free to negotiate with any MLS team in future since no club holds their rights at that point. One of the key gains claimed by the Players Union negotiators after the new CBA deal was reached was that the reentry draft should eliminate the kind of contract limbo faced by Dan van den Bergh last season due to the actions of FC Dallas. 

Guillermo Barros Schelotto

The list of players available in the first stage is provided below along with a description of how likely they are to be selected and key stats including age, 2010 base salary, games played, games started and the number of goals scored and assists. There probably isn't going to be all that much activity because the majority of the players available are either those with marginal ability who would normally have been placed on waivers at the end of the season but had too much time served for that to apply this season or are veteran players in their mid-30s, who have a salary number consistent with how they played at the peak of their careers rather than their current contribution to their team's performance level. Many in this latter group are likely to renegotiate to a lower number between the first and second stages once it becomes clear that nobody wants to pick up their existing contract option. The two players who look like the best bargains to me at this point are Schelotto of the Crew, who although 37 years old was productive enough last season to look like a bargain if his option number is still a basic salary of $140k, and Chris Seitz the Union's starting goalkeeper for most of the season if his option number is still $100k. It's difficult to look good playing behind an expansion team's defence so a change of scenery might do wonders in his case.

Juan Pablo Angel

Other high profile players to look out for are Jimmy Conrad who at 33 is still not that old for a defender and could attract interest despite the relatively high price tag of around 250k and Juan Pablo Angel who might be viewed as being worth a one year DP deal. Given TFC had money for Mista and Izaguirre in the last transfer window, for example, Angel might be viewed as a relatively low risk option in that context. Other players with low enough numbers and a reasonable level of performance over the past couple of seasons to be potential targets would be Frankie Hejduk, Richard Mulrooney, Carey Talley, Jovan Kirovski, Cory Gibbs, Adrian Serioux and Khano Smith. It will be interesting to see if Earl Cochrane decides to undo one of Preki's most controversial moves by selecting Adrian Serioux. In addition to Serioux, Cory Gibbs might interest TFC given he is an experienced left-sided defender, who could do a similar job to Nick Garcia's role last season and is available for the same sort of money that Raivis Hscanovics receieved. The recent Nathan Sturgis trade shows that Earl Cochrane has the green light to make significant player acquisitions despite his "interim" tag. While there will probably be scope for Toronto to acquire a worthwhile player with the sixth pick in the first round, Vancouver may find they are left with very slim pickings by the time the 17th selection is reached given the limited number of players that are likely to be selected at this stage of the process.  

Past or present DPs
High - although old the low base salary number should attract interest
Guillermo Schelotto (od) Columbus Crew M-F $140k 37 29GP 29GS 9G 8A (Argentina)

Moderate - although old now might still be seen as worth a one season deal as a DP
Juan Pablo Angel (od) New York Red Bulls F $1 ,620k 35 30GP 29GS 13G 4A (Colombia)

Low - overpaid veteran likely to eventually retire
Claudio Lopez (od) Colorado Rapids F $120k 36 11GP 0GS 0G 0A (Argentina)

Well paid Mr Beens who are 33 years old or over
Moderate - although old now might still be seen as worth a one year deal
Jimmy Conrad (ooc) Sporting Kansas City D $232.8k 33 26GP 26GS 1G 0A (USA) 
Frankie Hejduk (od) Columbus Crew M $120k 36 20GP 20GS 0G 2A (USA)
Richard Mulrooney (od) Houston Dynamo M $120k 34 23GP 19GS 0G 3A (USA)
Carey Talley (od) New York Red Bulls D $100k 34 15GP 13GS 1G 0A (USA) 
Jovan Kirovski (od) Los Angeles Galaxy F $84k 34 21GP 11GS 4G 2A (USA)

Low - overpaid veteran likely to renegotiate to a lower number prior to second stage
Jeff Cunningham (od) FC Dallas F $220k 34 27GP 13GS 11G 1A (USA/Jamaica)
Josh Wolff (od) Sporting Kansas City F $220k 33 25GP 16GS 2G 3A (USA)
Tyrone Marshall (od) Seattle Sounders D $165.4k 36 20GP 14GS 1G 1A (USA/Jamaica)
Gino Padula (od) Columbus Crew D $165 34 15GP 13GA 0G 0A (Argentina)
Pat Onstad (od) Houston Dynamo GK $164k 42 23GP 23GS (Canada/USA)
Jaime Moreno (od) D.C. United F $160 36 21GP 8GS 2G 0A (Bolivia/USA)
Dario Sala (od) FC Dallas GK $160k 36 11GP 10GS (Argentina)
Dema Kovalenko (od) Los Angeles Galaxy M $ 136.5 9GP 8GS 1G 0A (Ukraine)

Middle earners that teams may be trying to chisel down to a lower number
High - likely that another team will be interested
Chris Seitz (od) Philadelphia Union GK $100k 23 23GP 22GS (USA)

Moderate - low enough salary number that a team may still see as useful depth
Cory Gibbs (od) New England Revolution D $121 25GP 25GS 0G 0A (USA)
Adrian Serioux (od) Houston Dynamo D $96k 31 13GP 7GA 2G 1A (Canada)

Low - overpaid player who will have to renegotiate to a lower number prior to second stage
Fred (ooc) Philadelphia Union M-F $250k 31 25GP 24GS 4G 1A (Brazil)
Nick Garcia (od) Toronto FC D $190k 31 23GP 20GS 0G 1A (USA)
Khari Stephenson (od) San Jose Earthquakes M $151.5k 11GP 11GS 1G 1A (Jamaica)
Marcelo Saragosa (od) Chivas USA D-M $130k 28 14GP 9GS 0G 1A (Brazil)
Peter Vagenas (od) Colorado Rapids M $117k 32 7GP 7GS 0G 0A (USA)
Ryan Cochrane (od) Houston Dynamo D $100k 27 12GP 5GS 0G 0A (USA)

Marginal players who have enough time served to avoid the waiver draft
Moderate - low enough salary number that a team may see as useful depth
Khano Smith (od) New England Revolution M-F $50 28 16GP 6GS 0G 1A (Bermuda)

Low - would normally have been on waivers and gone unclaimed in that context
Nico Colaluca (od) New England Revolution M $100 24 1GP 0GS 0G 0A (USA)
Ciaran O'Brien (od) Colorado Rapids M $75k 23 0GP 0GS 0G 0A (USA)
Joseph Ngwenya (od) Houston Dynamo M/F 29 $72k 12GP 6GS 1G 0A (Zimbabwe)
Preston Burpo (od) New England Revolution GK $70 38 11GP 11GS (USA)
Alex Zotinca (od) Chivas USA D $60k 33 1GP 1GS 0G 0A (Romania/USA)
Duncan Oughton (od) Columbus Crew D $40k 33 3GP 0GS 0G 0A (New Zealand)
Aaron Hohlbein (ooc) Sporting Kansas City D $40k 25 2GP 1GS 0G 0A (USA)
Luke Sassano (od) New York Red Bulls M-D $40 25 3GP 2GS 0G 0A (USA)
Chris Sharpe (od) League Goalkeeper GK $40k (USA)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why not Canada as host of the 2026 World Cup?

About a decade back when the CSA were talking about a 2014 World Cup bid using CFL stadia I saw it as being very much a "Pipe dream" that had zero chance of happening. Looking into the medium term future, however, 2026 could be the prime window of opportunity for Canada to actually have a legitimate shot of entering a winning bid. Europe will have had 2002 and 2018 in Germany and Russia so 2026 would probably be too soon for it to go back there, Africa will have had 2010 in the relative recent past and Asia will have had 2022 (also effectively eliminating Australia from consideration). Given South America will have hosted in 2014, it will probably be seen as being very much CONCACAF's turn to get it. Mexico has hosted twice in the past so a third World Cup final in Mexico City may be seen as one too many for any country in a span of under 60 years, while many people around the world have a less than favourable view of the United States at the moment based not just on global politics but also its stringent approach to visas and airport security. A strong case could probably be made then that 2026 is not only CONCACAF's but also very much Canada's turn given the United States hosted the finals in 1994 and the rest of the countries in CONCACAF would probably be seen as being too small to be credible candidates given they lack Qatar's oil wealth.

Having been in Port Elizabeth, one of the smaller cities in South Africa that hosted the 2010 World Cup, earlier this year I was surprised to basically walk from the edge of the runway after getting off a domestic flight into a very basic terminal building that appeared to have little in the way of public transportation links into the city itself given the airport would soon be expected to cope with the arrival of thousands of visiting supporters from around the world. From what I understand everything went reasonably smoothly during the World Cup with the provision of extra long distance bus travel more than compensating for a limited long distance passenger rail service very much comparable to Via Rail and the use of some relatively small and primarily short haul domestic flight oriented airports. Canada easily has the transportation links in place to cope with a World Cup bid in other words despite the large number of foreign visitors. The South African experience suggests that the extra infrastructure that is often built to support international sports event bids is often complete overkill in logistical terms.

Beyond the transport infrastructure angle South Africa also provides a precedent for using a relatively small number of cities. South Africa used 10 stadia with two in Johannesburg and one each in Cape Town, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Nelspruit, Polokwane and Rustenburg. Of these, six had capacities of around 40,000 similar to what the CFL always seem to be able to conjure up for Grey Cup games even in the smaller cities like Regina, while three were in the 60,000 range and the other had a capacity of 85,000. With BC Place, Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, the Rogers Centre, and the Olympic stadium in Montreal already in place there would be no difficulty handling the latter stages, while BMO Field, Stade Saputo and hopefully Greg Kerfoot's waterfront SSS in Vancouver could be used during the group stages and round of sixteen along with CFL stadia in Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Ottawa (two of which will probably have D2 level NASL soccer clubs as tenants by the middle of this decade). New stadia for Quebec City and the Maritimes could always be added as well for political reasons with CFL expansion being the legacy used to entice interest from federal level politicians in that regard but that sort of thing wouldn't actually be in any way necessary to put together a viable bid.

Something that is also worth bearing in mind is that the similar field dimensions used by soccer and the CFL gives Canada a key advantage over the United States, because the large NFL and college football stadia that would tend to have to be used south of the border are often too narrow and short to comfortably accommodate an international sized soccer field. Given the precedent that has just been set by South Africa there is absolutely no doubt that the existing transportation and hotel accommodation infrastructure could cope so why not go for it? The stars are almost perfectly aligned in 2026 in terms of it being seen not just as CONCACAF's but also Canada's turn to host. The multicultural nature of Canadian society can be used to full advantage to portray our country as a natural venue for the world's greatest sporting event given visitors from all over the world will be able to interact with ex-patriots from their own country and feel fully welcome and accepted by the cultural mainstream. Now all we need is a competent and credible national association to steer a professionally organized hosting bid of that magnitude to a successful conclusion. Unfortunately that may be the one missing ingredient.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Time for TFC to get the GM and head coach positions sorted out

There have been a flurry of moves in recent days which suggest that Earl Cochrane may be shaping up to be more than just an interim GM. The first round draft pick (arguably the only pick that really matters in the Superdraft) was traded to the Whitecaps for Nathan Sturgis. Reports out of Dayton, Ohio suggest that TFC are actively trying to sign Bas Ent, a Dutch midfielder who appeared as a trialist last summer in the Carlsberg Cup game against Bolton, while Nane Joseph has been traded to the Colorado Rapids for a third round pick in 2012. There are also rumours on the Red Patch Boys messageboard that Dwayne DeRosario may soon be traded as his seemingly never ending pay dispute with both MLS and MLSE continues to rumble on. At least some of those moves are larger in scale than would normally be expected for a short-term and soon to be replaced interim appointment so a cynic might get the impression that Jurgen Klinsmann's role was firstly to generate season ticket sales and secondly to validate the new regime of Cochrane and Dasovic by using his high profile within the game to enhance their credibility amongst the fan base.

Nick Dasovic interviewed by OSATv

On paper at least Nick Dasovic has the credentials to be TFC's head coach. His record within the game certainly would not look out of place relative to that of Gary Smith and Schellas Hyndman, who just led their teams to the league's championship game. What I would question is why TFC would still want him after the ten game stint at the end of the season. Did he really not realize that the so called "Prekiball" tactics were necessary given the players that were available at that point? The team was still very much a work in progress given the dent in the salary cap caused by the acrimonious departures of Robinson and Gerba and the fiasco in the handling of DP signings during the summer transfer window (i.e. Mista's arrival and the lack of a plan B after Izaguirre's non-arrival when the team was crying out for better quality at left back and a viable option on the overlap out wide). Opening things up and playing a more attacking style with Dan Gargan and Nick Garcia at fullback was asking for trouble and then experimenting again with Hscanovics and Usanov pointed to his learning curve not bearing much of a resemblance to the north face of the Eiger.

Where TFC really need to get real, if a traditional North American GM role is still regarded as the normal way to operate by Tom Anselmi and other MLSE corporate types with a hockey sort of background is with Earl Cochrane. He may be a really good guy, I have only met him once briefly at a fan group meeting in late 2006 so have to take other people's word on that angle but his resume simply does not match what you would normally expect for a GM of a major league sports franchise. After playing for Carleton University, he is alleged to have played professionally in Asia but details appear to be sketchy as to what was actually involved in that regard. His previous experience within the game in North America at DC United and the CSA was primarily in a PR and logistical sort of capacity which would tend to point to him being better suited to fill the vacancy created by Michelle Lissel's departure rather than that of Mo Johnston.

I'd greatly prefer to see somebody else appointed but if Earl Cochrane is going to hang around in a GM role because MLSE suits find it much easier to relate to him than a more traditional soccer personality from the wrong side of the tracks of a European city like Glasgow, Newcastle or Belgrade, hopefully Jurgen Klinsmann will at least be trundled out at a press conference at some point to recommend that the role of the head coach be greatly enhanced in future with front office staff like Cochrane and Brennan carrying out the coach's instructions where trades and drafts are concerned. The next head coach would be closer to a British style "manager" than has been the case in the past three seasons in other words.

Eusebio wins Soccerbowl 1976 with MetrosCroatia

At that point some of the season ticket money that was secured by the Klinsmann consultancy role could be put to good use to entice the best possible candidate to fill that role. I've already explained in an earlier blog entry why I think that is Colin Clarke of the Puerto Rico Islanders. I suspect that somebody higher profile like Roberto Donadoni might emerge, however, given the way a large portion of the fanbase appears to be mesmerized by big name reputations and the importance of that in giving TFC the big time soccer aura that drives season ticket sales. Although a famous coach from Europe could prove risky and would probably lead to another season or two of failure, on the bright side it is perhaps worth bearing in mind what Metros-Croatia achieved 35 years ago next summer by signing Eusebio. Sometimes the big name from Europe actually delivers the goods even when in washed up hasbeen mode relative to the peak of his career. Hopefully Jurgen Klinsmann still has the level of contacts within the game required to point Tom Anselmi in the right direction.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A possible pathway to a U-23 focused Canadian league

I've always been slightly wary of nationalism when it leads to people making decisions based on irrational emotions rather than pragmatic considerations but those emotions of tribal belonging are very much part of the human condition and participation in modern society inherently involves being part of a wider society of people governed by a set of shared laws and social values so the nation is a concept that most definitely exists and plays a huge role within our lives. It's understandable then that some people have a problem with the fact that Canada currently doesn't have a national level soccer league of its own even if it's somewhat odd that the people who tend to make the most noise about this issue online never seem to spend any of their time on hockey forums arguing that the Canadian franchises should leave the NHL to form a separate exclusively Canadian hockey league.

It's Called Football interview with Victor Montagliani

Judging from comments made on an It's Called Football podcast a few weeks ago, the concept that Victor Montagliani of the CSA seems to be pursuing at the moment where a national league is concerned is a D2 level league based primarily on a U-23 development format. This recently led to the current moratorium on sanctioning new NASL and PDL teams and some very skeptical comments in response from people involved with the Vancouver Whitecaps and Victoria Highlanders. Given the NASL usually operates in media markets comparable to those in MLS, the NASL component of the moratorium seemed to me to be bizarre to the point of being irrational and very much a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has already bolted. There are seven cities that would be credible entries at both the D1 and D2 levels i.e. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with Winnipeg and Quebec City being too small for MLS but close to the NASL's 750,000 market requirement. With arguably the four strongest available markets amongst those nine already operating in USSF sanctioned leagues there really isn't a niche available now in the sports landscape for a D2 level Canadian league.

From a pragmatic sort of standpoint it seems strange then that Montagliani didn't simply focus on the PDL part of the equation particularly given his stated interest in U-23 player development, which lies at the core of the PDL business plan. Indoor soccer provides a model for how a Canadian league could be formed in that context. The Canadian Major Indoor Soccer League plays an interlocking regular season schedule with the US-based Premier Arena Soccer League, while retaining separate Canadian branding. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that Canadian PDL franchises could do something similar? There are already teams based in Victoria, Vancouver, Abbotsford, Thunder Bay, London, Toronto and Ottawa with a Winnipeg team rumoured to be starting next season (assuming the moratorium didn't get in the way) and talk of a number of would be teams in Quebec failing to gain sanctioning from their provincial association. That would clearly form a solid nucleus for having a coast to coast U-23 development league with a Canadian brand, while retaining the economic benefits that flow from having regular season games with American teams based just across the border.

Thunder Bay Chill in 2010 PDL final

A key advantage of PDL is that the use of younger student athletes enables a level of travel, in a similar manner to junior hockey, that would be very difficult to sustain in an open age semi-pro context. One potential objection to a rebranding and refocusing of Canadian participation in PDL might be that the league is viewed by many as "amateur" but that would be based on a misconception. Changes in NCAA eligibility rules have made it possible for NCAA athletes to play against professional players as long as they do not play alongside them during the course of their scholarship. A number of PDL teams, who do not make use of NCAA players, including the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program now operate on an openly professional basis based on a program referred to as PDL-Pro. The greater flexibility of CIS rules on eligibility in this regard (even MLS players are able to play for CIS teams if they are on development roster deals) would help greatly as would the flexibility of PDL's rules on using overage players. Up to 8 are currently allowed on a 26 man roster with three having to be under 18 years of age.

TFC Academy visit to Thunder Bay

A CPDL may not be what some people really want with regards to a national league but bearing in mind that the horse has already very much bolted on that it would represent a rational and pragmatic approach to achieving a viable and sustainable economic model for getting pro soccer into smaller cities from coast to coast including many like Thunder Bay that can not be easily catered to by the GTA-centric CSL. Most importantly perhaps it mimics junior hockey by providing a mechanism for moving promising young players out of the three main metropolitan areas where spectator interest in lower level soccer is likely to be limited at best due to the presence of an MLS team into cities like London and Victoria where a PDL soccer game is a significant news story in the sports section of the main daily newspaper and on the sports roundup of the local TV channel. This makes it easier to generate the ticket and sponsorship revenues required to fund the operation of strong U-23 pro development teams and as the youtube clip immediately above describes could help to spread the influence of the youth academy programs of the soon to be three MLS franchises out into smaller towns and cities from coast to coast.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

MLS expansion as the key to player development for the CMNT

Amid all the excitement over the MLS expansion draft, one story that has perhaps received less attention than it should have is the news that the Montreal Impact are starting a youth academy comparable to the one that is already in place in Toronto and the residency program of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Until recently Montreal has been the weak link at the D1 and D2 level where player development is concerned with their focus being in a CSL team in Trois Rivieres essentially being used as a "taxi squad". With their imminent move to MLS in 2012 they are now setting their sights a lot higher than that, which should not be in any way surprising given some of the changes that have been taking place in MLS in recent years.

Traditionally in mainstream North American sports there is an entry draft, which usually revolves around NCAA graduates, or in the context of hockey and baseball context 18 year old high school kids, to try to ensure competitive parity. Major league franchises, therefore, usually have no direct involvement in developing elite youth players. In the early MLS initially copied this model where American players are concerned with a complicated discovery and allocation signing system being used in the context of players from overseas. In the last few years there has been a move towards having a more European approach with each MLS team having its own youth academy program, so MLS teams can select players at around 14 years of age and can be moved directly onto the senior roster without having to go through the entry draft. Under the new CBA between MLS and the Players' Union that was negotiated prior to the start of the 2010 season, two roster spots specifically for "homegrown" players were added above and above each team's existing roster of twenty four players. Next season that is expected to change to four homegrown roster spots out of thirty with no limit being placed on the number of homegrown players that MLS teams can add from their youth systems each season. Rosters are being increased because a reserve team competition is being introduced to address what was seen as a missing step in the development ladder between the youth level and the MLS first team.

OSA TV interview with Paul Beirne concerning TFC Academy

In the latter half of the 2010 season Doneil Henry and Nicholas Lindsay became the first players to graduate from TFC Academy in this manner. With that backdrop, recent events in pro level Canadian soccer have been a bit bizarre to say the least. Given the emphasis now being placed in MLS on developing home grown players it would be difficult for fair minded observers to question the commitment level of TFC, the Whitecaps and Impact to developing top Canadian pro level prospects into pro level players, who may one day also represent their country at the national team level. TFC are not spending over $1 million a season on its youth academy program just for the fun of it after all. But that is exactly what has been happening. It came as a bit of a shock back in August when Mo Johnston suddenly let slip on a Gol TV program that MLS were planning to eliminate the Canadian domestic content regulations and move to having only North American and International player categories where Canadian MLS teams are concerned. Clearly the thinking was that this would do away with unnecessary red tape but in some quarters it was immediately portrayed as a dark plot to eliminate Canadian players from MLS rosters.

Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program

In September Victor Montagliani of the CSA publicly criticized the rumoured roster regulation changes and has been pushing ever since for a new Canadian D2 league to be formed with the bizarre rationale being that it would provide a greater focus more on the development of Canadian players than MLS does. The full implications of the 75 mile home territory radius of the MLS youth academies appearing to be lost on Montagliani. Moving beyond the rhetoric, it is worth bearing in mind that the move into elite youth soccer by the pro level clubs has involved treading on a lot of very influential toes where the existing CSA and provincial association controlled elite player development structure is concerned. Given that potential turf war, MLS executives were naive at best, if they didn't realize they were handing an ideal opportunity for unscrupulous people with empire building agendas to launch into a misleading propaganda campaign when they moved to eliminate the domestic content quota.

Given some of the uproar that has also broken out over having the MLS Cup game as part of TFC's season ticket package (can you imagine NFL fans complaining about getting access to the Superbowl that way?) it would not be surprising if Canada's soccer community is starting to be viewed as a bunch of whiny ingrates by some people at MLS HQ. I suspect there's still a solid "silent majority" out there, however, who see through all the self-serving posturing by CSA execs and realize that participation in USSF sanctioned leagues has provided massive benefits to Canadian soccer at the pro level. Assuming lessons have now been learned, I suspect we will see MLS do a better job of handling the optics of their roster regulation rules in future. If as many claim, US employment law makes it very difficult to have Canadians count as domestic content in the United States, it simply doesn't look good to have a complete lack of symmetry in the treatment of American and Canadian players north and south of the border with Americans counting as domestic players in Canada but Canadians being treated as imports in the United States. A domestic content quota of some description is very much required in a Canadian context for PR reasons even if it is unlikely to make a practical difference given the strong commitment that is being made to player development.

It's worth noting that Bob Lenarduzzi stated on a It's Called Football podcast this week that discussions on the domestic content regulations between TFC, the Whitecaps, MLS and the CSA are ongoing and that the minimum number of Canadians is likely to "wind up being somewhere between zero and six".

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Now the focus shifts over to the reentry draft

After all the talk of Vancouver being much better organized in management terms than Toronto FC, it's worth noting that the Whitecaps appear to have adopted Mo Johnston's strategy where the expansion draft is concerned by selecting a series of relatively high profile players such as Sanna Nyassi, Alan Gordon, Alejandro Moreno and O'Brian White and then moving them on quickly for allocation money, international roster spots or draft picks. It will be interesting to see what unfolds where Joe Cannon and Atiba Harris are concerned over the next few days. It remains to be seen if Vancouver will do a better job of making use of their newly acquired assets than Mo Johnston did but the changes that have been made to the domestic roster regulations should make life a lot easier for them.

Now that the expansion draft is out of the way the focus now shifts to the first ever reentry draft based on the terms of the new CBA between the league and the Players' Union. The players who are eligible for the first stage on Dec 8th  are (i) those at least 23 years old who have a minimum of three years' MLS experience whose options were not picked up at the agreed option salary rate, (ii) players who are at least 25 years old with four years' experience who are out of contract and have not been made a bona fide offer of a new contract at their 2010 salary level, (iii) players who are at least 30 years old with eight years' experience who are out of contract and have not been made a bona fide offer at a minimum level of 105% of 2010 salary. If players are not happy with the terms offered by their existing team they enter a draft process in which a new team can draft them at either their option salary rate if they are in category (i) or at 100% or 105% of their 2010 salary if categories (ii) and (iii) are applicable.

Once the first stage is complete players can still negotiate to try to reach a new deal with their old team. Should that fail there is then a second stage on Dec 15th when players can be drafted by a new club and made an offer at a lower rate than their old salary, the new club will then hold the right of first refusal to the player's services if this offer is declined. After that players who have not been selected at either stage are free to negotiate with any MLS team. One of the key gains claimed by the Players Union negotiators after the new CBA deal was reached was that the reentry draft should eliminate the kind of contract limbo faced by Dan van den Bergh last season due to the actions of FC Dallas. 

The prime candidates for the reentry draft where TFC are concerned will obviously be the players who were neither waived (i.e. not Gala, Saric, Hscanovics, Mista, Usanov) nor left unprotected (i.e. not Attakora, Cann, Conway, De Rosario, Frei, Gargan, Gomez, Harden, LaBrocca, Peterson, Santos), were not selected in the expansion draft (White), are not young players either on close to the league minimum (Nane, Sanyang, Kocic), homegrown player deals (Henry, Lindsay), or teenaged Generation Adidas graduates (Ibrahim) or high profile older players who have played almost their entire career over in Europe (de Guzman), so that would leave Chad Barrett and Nick Garcia, basically:

Chad Barrett: At 25 years of age and with 6 years of experience Chad Barrett appears to fit category (i) given he signed a four-year deal back in 2008 so will now probably be entering into the first of two league held option seasons if the standard two plus two MLS contract with high profile players applies in his case. Given Earl Cochrane has stated that TFC want him back and were taking a calculated risk by leaving him unprotected, odds on his option will be picked up even at the somewhat inflated rate of $205k

Nick Garcia: At 31 years of age and with 11 years of experience Nick Garcia appears to fit either category (i) or (iii). Given he received what was described as a "multi-year" deal in January 2009 he will probably be entering an option year at this point. It seems unlikely that Mo Johnston has left any unwelcome contract clauses in that regard given the rumour amongst well-connected fans has been that San Jose have been paying most of his salary, since the Gerba/Garcia trade was made during the 2009 season. It's possible then that his non-appearance on the waiver draft list is because he fits category (i) and could not be waived yesterday. If so he will soon be leaving BMO Field. If category (iii) applies, there is clearly absolutely no way he is getting back at 105% of $190k so a reduced offer would have to be involved. Although Nick Garcia is very much the man TFC fans love to hate, some coaches and GMs could conceivably still see him as an option worth exploring if he agrees to sign a new contract on John Conway type money ($60k), but it seems far fetched that an interim GM would make that kind of move in TFC's case right now. Odds on Nick Garcia will feature during both stages of the reentry draft, with the second stage being his best bet where finding a new team is concerned.

From a Vancouver standpoint the reentry draft process is a complete unknown at this point given it is the first to ever be held. With a substantial amount of allocation money available the Whitecaps and Timbers are potentially in a strong position to sign talented players that other MLS teams are trying to force into reduced terms to squeeze them in under their salary cap. It will be interesting to see if there is much in the way of player movement when this process gets underway next month or whether as often happens with waiver drafts there is only a low level of activity.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Now the MLS season is finally over where now for Toronto FC?

After some of the negativity on fan group messageboards about the inclusion of MLS Cup into the season ticket package it was refreshing to see a near capacity crowd show up for a Sunday evening kickoff in late November to watch FC Dallas vs Colorado Rapids. That suggests that even a relatively lacklustre MLS game lacking the appeal of big name DPs such as Thierry Henry and David Beckham is still of sufficient interest to the core TFC fanbase that they will make the effort to attend when the championship of the league is at stake. If the stadium had been only half full serious questions would have to be asked about TFC's continuing ability to draw 20,000 fans in the years ahead, now that the novelty factor has worn off. Now that the MLS season is finally over the focus turns to the rebuilding process that is now underway at BMO Field as TFC prepares for the 2011.

With news that the protected list for the expansion draft is going to be Frei, Conway, Gargan, Cann, Attakora, Harden, Gomez, LaBrocca, Peterson, DeRosario and Santos the emphasis with the exception of DeRosario appears to have been placed on keeping relatively inexpensive players who can be relied upon to do a solid job if called upon. It will interesting to see if Julian DeGuzman takes the hint and tries to negotiate an exit from MLS and a return to Europe after being left unprotected (assuming of course that both Vancouver and Portland decide against selecting him) and whether Chad Barrett's will be a candidate for the league's new reentry draft process next month if the key issue is that TFC management see him as being overpaid. 

Assuming Mo Johnston hasn't left any nasty surprises in terms of guaranteed contracts where Hscanovics, Usanov and Saric are concerned, chances are there will be a massive clearout of the import players given Nane and Mista are also highly likely to be headed for the exit. It is now imperative, therefore, that Jurgen Klinsmann and Tom Anselmi identify and appoint the new GM as soon as possible. For 2011 to be a successful season rather than an exercise in rebuilding the new regime will need to start filling out the roster again with players suited to their preferred style of play from early January onwards based on the Superdraft, free agent signings and the international transfer market.

Now that Klinsmann's presence has helped to boost season ticket sales back over 16,000 again and the key issue at hand for MLSE will once again be the playing and coaching side of TFC's operations, hopefully the powers that be at BMO Field will have noticed that the success of both the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas was achieved by relative no names in coaching terms who had been involved in North American soccer to some degree prior to being appointed. A month ago Eric Soler and Hans Backe would probably have been mentioned as the management team to emulate but since then NYRB have made a hasty exit from the playoffs after Backe appeared to be outcoached by the Earthquakes' Frank Yallop. Hopefully TFC will now look closer to home for their new management team rather than trying to find a big name like those mentioned by Gerry Dobson a few weeks ago (i.e. Roberto Donadoni, Franco Baresi, Carlos Queiroz, Iain Dowie), who are probably only making themselves available because their careers are very much on a downward trajectory right now. The scale of the rebuild that is required at TFC this offseason is not something that should be attempted by a newcomer to the league.

Colin Clarke of the Puerto Rico Islanders would be the ideal choice, in my opinion. Many thought he was unlucky to be sacked by FC Dallas back in 2006 after impressive regular season performances and his subsequent record with the Puerto Rico Islanders at both the USL-D1/USSF-D2  level and in the CONCACAF Champions league suggests that he has now learned how to achieve success in a playoff type format as well. The Islanders won the USSF-D2 title this season after all. A key stumbling block could be whether MLSE would be prepared to pay the Islanders the compensation that would probably be required but it is worth bearing in mind that the best possible candidates for a job will usually not be found amongst the ranks of the unemployed because their services will already be very much in demand. If I were calling the shots at TFC I would appoint Colin Clarke to a shared coach and GM role similar to that of the manager at a British club. Bruce Arena does this in LA as does Sigi Schmid in Seattle so there are precedents for it working well in an MLS context. The key then would be to find a high quality assistant coach to take a larger share of the workload on the training field than would be normal under a GM and head coach model of operations with Clarke being the one to make that appointment and also being allowed to decide who to retain and who to discard where the current coaching staff is concerned.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How to increase support for the national team?

A lot of people like to think that Canadian soccer has really turned the corner with the arrival on the scene of TFC and their regular 20,000+ crowds. Unfortunately, there have been definite signs in recent weeks that Toronto has not suddenly turned into a hotbed of fanatical support for the game domestically (even if spectacular ratings during the World Cup demonstrate that plenty of people follow the game overseas) and that things are not necessarily as different from twenty or thirty years ago as people like to think. Recent crowds for CMNT and CWNT games at BMO Field were disappointing from that standpoint. Only 10619 showed up for the Peru game with many being recent immigrants from Peru supporting the visitors, while the women's team game had what has been described by some as a very generously announced attendance figure of 5000 against China.

The question that clearly needs to be explored is why even with 20,000 crowds showing up regularly for TFC games, the CMNT is lucky to be able to draw 5,000 supporters to a home game in a metropolitan area with over 5 million within an easy travel distance of the stadium for what was a reasonably attractive international friendly? It isn't a lack of interest in the sport. Nobody can sensibly claim that any more. Ratings during the World Cup and for club level games played overseas show that there is a vast level of interest in the sport in the GTA. The problem is clearly that a very large number of avid soccer fans in Canada still do not take the sport seriously in the land where they live and work and are only interested in what happens overseas. I've always been puzzled that the CSA doesn't do more to market its team to the post-WWII immigrant portion of the population to try to break down this cultural barrier that still seems to stop people from identifying with soccer in a forward looking Canadian context rather than as something associated with the "old country". Personally speaking when I watched the Olympic hockey gold medal game I was happy Canada won, don't get me wrong, but I honestly can't really say that I felt a huge emotional connection with the team or saw it as some kind of "Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" type moment because hockey isn't something that is central to my experience of Canadian life no matter how often people in the mainstream media try to tell me that it is or it should be.

Canada 2 Colombia 0, February 27, 2000
{Forrest, Stalteri, Brennan, Hastings, DeVos, Menezes, Fenwick, Watson, Clarke, Nash, Corazzin}

When Canada won the Gold Cup back in the year 2000, however, having had considerable direct involvement in soccer at a grassroots level I found it much easier to identify with the team's achievement because it was accomplished by a portion of Canadian society that has been much more central to my personal experience of Canada. For example, I watched Jason Devos play for the London Lasers and have played at the Croatian Club in London where he had his first senior level soccer involvement. Now that is a minority type of outlook in Canadian society but I suspect it isn't so hugely out of step with the outlook of the people who are most fanatical about soccer in a Canadian context, who are most likely to pay to go and watch a game if they can be persuaded to make the emotional investment in the national team in the sort of numbers that are now being attracted to pay for season ticket packages in an MLS context in Toronto and Vancouver. I have often wondered what would happen if the CSA and their broadcasters started to market upcoming national team games with short professionally made commercials targeted specifically at people who watch MLS games and games from the top overseas leagues on channels like Rogers Sportsnet, TLN and the digital speciality channels like Setanta, Gol TV and Fox Sportsworld, appealing to people to actively support the CMNT on the basis that it represents their kind of Canada? The culture of urban Canada of the youth soccer registration boom and of senior level soccer teams representing ethnic social clubs in other words rather than the rural Canada of the frozen pond beside a wheat field in Saskatchewan that seems to be central to marketing hockey any time I watch HNIC.

With the emergence of TFC, the Whitecaps and the Impact there is a huge opportunity for the CSA to finally make a major breakthrough in this area. Since the demise of the original CSL in the early 90s national team players have tended to play for relatively obscure teams over in Europe and only a few dedicated national team supporters have regularly followed their exploits closely in that regard on the internet. It was understandable why many people found it difficult to identify with the national team to the same extent that hockey fans can identify with Team Canada in other words. Now with players like Adrian Cann, Nana Attakora, Dwayne DeRosario and Julian DeGuzman playing for a D1 level team based in Canada (with many more to follow in Vancouver and Montreal with the focus being placed on developing youth academies), there are high profile national team players playing regularly in games that are being broadcast on basic cable and mentioned by the mainstream media during sports news roundups. It should be possible for the CSA and their broadcasters to do much more than could be done previously to get the vast numbers of people in urban Canada who know and love the sport to embrace the CMNT as their own and to support it passionately. I suspect given the shambolic amateurism of the CSA that nothing much will happen in this regard during the 2014 World Cup qualification cycle but by 2018 positive changes should start to be obvious no matter what they do. Hopefully, with some much needed reform in the way they operate they will get their act together in the next couple of years, however. The existing CMNT fanbase and the growing domestic soccer media have an important role to play in pushing for change.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Déjà vue all over again on the CSA's ongoing national league fantasy

In the late 1990s, with the emergence of MLS south of the border and given the widespread belief at the time that it would not expand its operations into Canada, the CSA commissioned KPMG to carry out a study on how Canada could start its own national league. The conclusions of KPMG's report outlined why the conditions were not in place for a national league to work financially and recommended against pursuing one. The CSA chose to ignore this advice and what followed was a prolonged saga referred to as the Canadian United Soccer League, a plan for an eight team single entity league, which ultimately had to be discarded when sponsors and broadcasters failed to show the required level of interest and the owners of the existing USL franchises made it clear that they were not interested in participating.

With yesterday's announcement of a one year moratorium on the sanctioning of new Canadian based D2 and PDL franchises and the setting up of an ad hoc committee to study the formation of a separate Canadian D2 level pro league, it's very much a case of what Yogi Berra once described as "déjà  vue all over again". Have the people in charge at the CSA really learned nothing from what happened a decade ago with the CUSL blueprint or with earlier failed attempts at national leagues like the original coast to coast Canadian Soccer League of the late 80s and early 90s and the even shorter-lived Canadian Professional Soccer League of the mid-80s? The latest fantasy scenario appears to revolve around combining reserve teams of the three MLS franchises with the would be NASL investors from Edmonton, Hamilton and Ottawa, and finding two additional teams to put together a league of eight, despite the fact that all of these groups, when interviewed on the subject, consistently express a strong preference for participation in USSF sanctioned leagues. Two key questions come to mind:

Who would actually pay to watch reserve teams play? Crowds for TFC's MLS reserve team games and for those of TFC Academy in the CSL have typically been in the dozens rather than the hundreds or the thousands even with the TFC name attached to it. This isn't unusual. Soccer fans around the world are usually only interested in watching their club's first team play. In many ways it is the presence of MLS teams in the three major metropolitan area that should have placed the final nail in the coffin of talk of a national league. If sponsors and broadcasters were reluctant to get involved with a D1 Canadian league a decade ago, why are they suddenly going to be interested in a second tier league containing three MLS reserve teams? If there is no advantage to be gained from having a separate standalone Canadian structure from a media or sponsorship standpoint why fence things in at the border given all the failures with national leagues in the past? 

Where are the other five teams going to come from? It's all very well talking about interest in Edmonton, Hamilton and Ottawa but what people seem to lose sight of is that it is interest in the NASL that is being expressed, which wouldn't necessarily translate into interest in investing in a Canadian league if the people risking a sizable portion of their personal net worth see it as an unattractive investment. USL pro level teams are reputed to have had a 75% failure rate over the last 15 years or so. What makes the CSA think that it would be any different in a Canadian context, especially when two of these failures have been in Edmonton and Calgary? D2 level minor league soccer can find a way to survive in a North American context because of the large number of metropolitan areas that are available in the United States with populations of over 1 million people. This makes it possible to put the numbers together for a viable league even with a success rate of only 25%. In a Canadian context, with the three largest markets already taken by MLS and media markets of over 1 million people few and far between failure in even just a couple of the larger cities could spell doom for the entire project. Hence the reluctance of investors to get involved with a Canadian national league concept rather than the NASL's continental approach. Even if they do a good job in their own city it could all ultimately be for nothing if the deck of cards caves in because of problems elsewhere.

This one year moratorium is a prime example of the pitfalls of having our national association run by the empire building and perk seeking amateurs from the provincial associations. It appears to be a very sly attempt to scuttle the NASL's D2 level sanctioning bid because the Minnesota franchise is rumoured to be funded by an Ottawa group who plan to fill the void left in a Canadian context by the departing Impact in 2012. If as seems likely that group now reconsiders their involvement, the NASL bid will fall short of the USSF's requirements because only seven teams will be left with all four of the remaining American teams based in a single timezone. In other words, we now have the bizarre spectacle of having a national association that appears to be intent on sabotaging rather than assisting the growth of pro soccer in Canada based on multimillion investments by would be private investors. A scale of investment, which the CSA would clearly not be able to make to get its own plans off the ground.

The reform that badly needs to take place is for the CSA to be controlled primarily by the full-time professional clubs and to be staffed by professional people with a background in sports administration at that sort of level. In other countries, somebody like Paul Beirne, the business manager of TFC, would be a prime candidate to eventually head up the national association, rather than people like Jim Fleming, Colin Linford and Dominic Maestracci. As things stand at the moment, however, there is zero chance of that ever happening.

Nov 21st Edit: perhaps worth pointing out that Brian Quarsted of Inside Minnesota Soccer posted a blog entry questioning Ben Rycroft's claim about the Ottawa group funding the NSC Minnesota Stars for the 2011 season.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Key problems and potential solutions in semi-pro soccer

When I first arrived in Canada from Scotland in the late 80s, beyond trivial stuff like McEwan's Export, Barr's Irn Bru and a fish supper at the local "chippie", which you soon start to realize have Canadian equivalents that can be just as good or better, the only thing I really missed about my native land was not being within easy travel distance of soccer played at a fully pro standard. I've tried watching hockey, baseball and the CFL but unlike pretty much every other aspect of Canadian life where the Canadian way of doing things is better than what happens in Scotland, they just don't fill the void. Sorry, I know as a first generation immigrant that I'm supposed to say that hockey is the greatest sport known to man and that I grew to love and appreciate it as I have slowly integrated into Canadian culture but the truth is that it isn't and I haven't.

So in the early 90s after the failure of the London Lasers to establish itself in the original CSL, what else was on offer in pro soccer terms in London, Ontario? Well that's answered easily enough, that would be London City on Friday nights at the German Club. There are positive aspects to watching a game at the German Club. For example, it's great to be able to pop into the bar at half time for a beer, something sorely lacking at Scottish stadiums these days due to an alcohol ban enforced after a major riot at a cup final in the late 70s. When it comes to the soccer, however, it's hard to describe how unbelievably bad a City game can seem like when you are used to being able to hop onto a bus headed for either Edinburgh or Glasgow to watch teams like Hearts or Rangers. For a few years I found it very puzzling that a country that put up a reasonable level of performance at the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986 and, which can clearly produce some very good soccer players, could have such a low playing standard in a league like the NSL/CNSL/CPSL/CSL, which although semi-pro is still a very high level league in sanctioning terms. Over time and after a greater level of direct participation in the sport I started to see what the problems were and why Canadian soccer doesn't even come close to fulfilling its potential at the semi-pro level. In my opinion, there are two key issues that need to be addressed.

Where's the passion? I have been involved in any number of amateur games in Canada where tempers have become extremely frayed either between the two teams or between players and spectators due to the level of emotion. An attempted Bruce Lee style karate kick narrowly failing to connect with one of my teammate's head being a particularly vivid memory. Don't get me wrong fights have absolutely no place in soccer but the passion that drives those sorts of emotions does have a place in competitive team sports when athletes can channel it properly into a greater level of performance. All too often when I watch CSL games, however, I see two sets of players very much going through the motions in front of a small and somewhat bored crowd. Canadians have the passion culturally when they play and watch hockey but somehow it often seems to be missing when it comes to elite level soccer (recent developments at the MLS level being an obvious and highly welcome exception) and it's not always easy to identify what the root cause is.

The problem probably revolves around the lack of an emotional investment in the teams involved at the CSL level, which are often essentially one man's ego trip rather than a conventional club controlled by a wider membership that a large number of people identify with and care about deeply. The exception to that trend has traditionally been ethnic based clubs, but in recent decades there has been an effort on the part of the powers that be within the sport to move away from that to try to appeal to a more mainstream demographic. Unfortunately this hasn't really worked to any significant extent in a CSL context and has had the damaging side effect of alienating many of the recent immigrants, who used to watch this level of the sport. What is clearly needed in the years ahead is a deeper level of engagement with the communities that the teams are trying to represent. The obvious solution is developing clubs with broad based memberships based on having teams ranging from U-8 to master's divisions. The key stumbling block to achieving this is that a youth soccer culture has developed that is often almost completely disconnected from the senior level of the sport. Elite youth clubs usually don't have a senior team and, therefore, tend to prioritize success at the youth level over developing players to play for a senior level team. Some progress appears to be being made at the moment in the CSL in bridging the divide between the youth and senior levels of the sport with the entry of TFC Academy, which hopefully will lead to better things down the road but I suspect the cultural changes required will take a generation to unfold.

A key issue that flows from this lack of passion about semi-pro clubs is that it is only when a lot of people care deeply about a team that there is likely to be a culture in which it is normal for elite youth level players to continue playing the sport in their 20s and 30s in a highly committed elite amateur or semi-pro sort of way as opposed to a more laid back and recreational "beer league" approach. This has a major impact on the level of play. There is a reason why clubs backed by recent Croatian and Serbian immigrants do so well in elite amateur and semi-pro leagues at the moment. Those ethnic communities have a culture in which elite senior level soccer matters to people and where playing for the team to represent your community is an honour to be sought after. There are some Canadian communities where soccer is treated like that by a more mainstream demographic but they are few and far between. St. Lawrence in Newfoundland and the exploits of the St. Lawrence Laurentians in the National Championships comes to mind, for example. One of the keys to semi-pro level soccer's future progress will be fully harnessing the youth soccer registration boom to create that kind of interest in local soccer clubs in communities elsewhere as the generations that grow up playing the game as a recreational activity move into adulthood.

What is the penalty for failure? The other key problem with semi-pro soccer in Canada is the absence of promotion and relegation. In most other parts of the world if a soccer team does badly in any particular season they will be forced to move down to a lower division and a team that has excelled at the lower level will step up to take their place. The aim is to maintain the highest possible level of playing standards to ensure a schedule of highly competitive games that will be of interest to potential spectators. In the CSL, however, the poorly run franchises hang around regardless of performance and unlike in major league sports there are no measures designed to ensure competitive parity so a set of perennial alsorans emerges. This places a serious strain on the league's overall playing standards and reduces the level of interest in the league by undermining its credibility. The franchise system makes sense at the fully pro level in North America when a risky and substantial financial investment is involved or if a short season local all star team type format such as BC's PCSL is being pursued with long distance travel and overnight stays. In more localized semi-pro league structures, however, where most of the clubs are based within relatively easy driving distances of each other there is no obvious reason for doing it unless the aim is to create a cosy cartel in which league status is bought and sold in the boardroom rather than earned out on the field of play.

For the semi-pro tier of the sport to really make progress the next step should be to create an integrated pyramid of play centred on each of the major cities where new clubs can start off at the bottom in amateur level divisions and slowly work their way to the top where a semi-pro approach can be actively pursued, once they have connected with the wider community sufficiently to be able to field a strong and well-supported team. The state level soccer league structures in cities like Melbourne and Sydney in Australia provide a prime example of how this can be achieved in a society that is broadly similar to Canada in cultural terms.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ex-Thunder Bay Chill player scores goal that takes Rapids to 2010 MLS Cup final

One footnote to this weekend's MLS semi-finals that is perhaps worth highlighting is that the goal that won the Eastern Conference Final for the Colorado Rapids yesterday was scored by Kosuke Kimura, who used to play for the Thunder Bay Chill in PDL.