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.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Next Sunday could be pivotal for Canadian soccer

As most people are probably aware there has been a lot of uncertainty over the future of the second tier of North American pro soccer over the past couple of years. Back in 2009, a majority of USL-D1 franchises (including the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps) attempted to break away back from the United Soccer League (USL) because they were disenchanted with the way the D2 tier of the sport was being managed and felt that team owners should have a greater degree of control in future. Trademark control over the old North American Soccer League name was obtained and the plan was to launch this second incarnation of the NASL in time for the start of the 2010 outdoor season. The USSF turned down their initial bid for sanctioning, however and managed to negotiate a short term compromise between the two parties so that a unified schedule of D2 soccer could continue this past under the USSF-D2 banner.

After the USSF issued a stringent new set of standards for the D2 level, in an apparent effort to force a merger between the two rival factions, the USL surprised most onlookers by announcing that they were going to merge their USL-D1 and USL-D2 divisions at the D3 level.  This left the field clear to the NASL to attempt to gain D2 level sanctioning in time for the 2011 but a new requirement that a majority owner had to have a personal net worth of $20 million appeared to rule out participation by Crystal Palace Baltimore, NSC Minnesota and AC St Louis, while the Rochester Rhinos and Austin Aztex decided to side with the new USL Pro division at the D3 level. This left the NASL with just six franchises (including two in Canada, FC Edmonton and the Montreal Impact) two short of the minimum number required for sanctioning.

The latest news emerging from the recent NASL AGM is that the league now has eight teams in place that can meet the USSF's D2 level sanctioning requirement. Brian Quarsted of the Inside Minnesota Soccer blog has posted that those teams are the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks, FC Edmonton, FC Tampa Bay, Montreal Impact, Miami FC Blues, NSC Minnesota Stars and the Puerto Rico Islanders.  The two new additions are bolded and appear to have found funding from other ownership groups within the league. Word is that AC St Louis may still be added in time for 2011 if they can get their ownership situation sorted out, while San Antonio and possibly Austin (the Aztex having since been sold and moved to Orlando) are expected in 2012.  A decision on sanctioning will probably be made by the USSF at meetings in Toronto during the MLS Cup weekend.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of having Canadian based pro teams playing at the D2 level. Although TFC, the Whitecaps and the Impact are doing a good job of developing youth players through their academy systems, there is a huge gap between playing at that level and starting regularly at the MLS level, which all but the most exceptional prospects will find very difficult to bridge. It is worth bearing in mind also that opportunities for Canadian players are going to be few and far in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal due to the probable heavy reliance on import players and Americans. Currently MLS is talking in terms of having a 10 game reserve team schedule for fringe players on their rosters but the last time this was tried many of the games were little better than practice ground scrimmages that didn't really fit the needs of players in the 18 to 23 age range, who turn pro rather than accepting an NCAA scholarship.

What is really needed is another stepping stone to the MLS level where top prospects can get regular first team action in a fully professional league with a playing standard not too far removed from that of MLS. That is the obvious niche that D2 franchises can potentially fill in player development terms in a Canadian context as well as providing more opportunities for pro level Canadian players to ply their trade in their own country rather than overseas. Although players will obviously always want to try their luck in the largest European leagues in countries like England, Italy and Germany if the opportunity arises, there is really nothing to be gained either from the player's or the CMNT's standpoint by having players based in countries like Sweden, Finland and Lithuania relative to the D2 and D1 levels in North America. The good news is that the NASL has plans for aggressive expansion into Canada should they gain sanctioning with the USSF.  In addition to FC Edmonton, who should start play in 2011 if everything goes according to plans at the USSF meetings, there are investor groups already in place in Ottawa and Hamilton with plans to start play by the middle of the decade.

Although many Canadian soccer fans will be oblivious to the events that will unfold, people who have the best interests of the Canadian game at heart should have their fingers crossed that the USSF decide to sanction that NASL, since that should help to ensure the ongoing participation of Canadian teams at the D2 level in the aftermath of the Impact's move to MLS. It remains to be seen if the CSA will agree to the entry of Canadian teams into USL Pro at the D3 level (the Victoria Highlanders and FC London have already expressed potential interest in recent months) given their recent sanctioning of the Canadian Soccer League to act as a national league at the D3 level in a Canadian context. The absence of a D2 league in the USSF's league structure could, therefore, mean a complete absence of Canadian pro teams between the PDL and MLS levels.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Teal Bunbury opts to play for the USMNT

With today's news that Teal Bunbury has accepted an invitation from Bob Bradley to play for the USMNT against South Africa next week it looks like another young player has turned his back on playing for Canada. Bunbury is quoted on the Kansas City Wizards website as saying "It’s a wonderful opportunity, and its great to get this reward after the hard work that I put in this year," and “I’m honored and blessed that I will have the chance to showcase myself as a player to Coach Bradley.”

It will be difficult for some people to come to terms with this defection emotionally given his father is a near legendary figure in Canadian soccer and older generations of Canadian soccer fans still remember his exploits for the Hamilton Steelers, Toronto Blizzard and Montreal Supra in the original CSL and his stellar performances for the national team where he linked up so well with players like Radzinski and Peschisolido as a target man striker back when a long ball 4-4-2 was very much the order of the day tactically. The thing to bear in mind, however, is that his son is probably too young to have vivid recollections of any of that and has lived in the United States since he was ten years old no doubt doing the pledge allegiance to the flag thing children do there every morning at school.

This doesn't look like the sensible move for Teal Bunbury from a career standpoint. Competition for a place on the United States team is likely to be very fierce in the years ahead given the larger population and significantly higher FIFA ranking. If truth be told is he even assured of getting a regular game for Canada in future? With players like Simeon Jackson, Marcus Haber (recent injury notwithstanding) and potentially David Hoilett around that's far from a sure thing, in my opinion. When viewed from that sort of standpoint this starts to look like a move that was based on where his feeling of national allegiance truly lies and if that is the case his decision should be respected and the CMNT and its fanbase should focus on the players who actually want to play for the national team on that basis.

Edit: it turns out that Teal Bunbury's prime motivation was to be able to play in the World Cup finals:


MLSsoccer.com: What one factor tipped you over the edge to the US side instead of the Canadian side?
Bunbury: The biggest thing for me is I want to play in a World Cup, bottom line. Every player in the world ultimately wants to play in a World Cup, and the way it’s looking the US has the better chance of making it to the World Cup, to be honest. That’s what really stuck in my mind every time I would contemplate it and that’s ultimately what swayed me.

Have to say that I think the kid has an inflated sense of his place within the pecking order of the game (does he not realize that the USMNT hands out caps to vast numbers of players in friendlie games who never get anywhere near the final 23 selected to go the World Cup finals?) and may have blown the only opportunity he will ever realistically have to fulfill that goal, which is to play for the land of his birth and help the CMNT qualify for the first time since 1986. Even then it's no sure thing he would actually be selected for reasons explained above.

2010 Expansion Draft

On Wed November 24th, the Whitecaps and Timbers will get to select 10 players each from the rosters of the 16 existing MLS teams in a ten round draft with the Whitecaps picking second each time. The existing teams get to protect 11 players with homegrown and Generation Adidas players automatically protected. No team can lose more than two players and if a player is selected a twelfth player can be added to bring the protected list back up to eleven again. A key stumbling block when considering who to put on the protected list is that teams can only make three fewer foreign players available than they have on their roster. With those ground rules explained here is who I would place on TFC's protected list if I were the one calling the shots at BMO Field:

DP players

1  Julian DeGuzman Assuming there is a no-trade clause in Julian DeGuzman's contract and he is on a guaranteed deal for 2011 there is no question who the first name on the list will be. Mista's deal was only until the end of the 2010 season so presumably he can be made available.

The three foreigners (non-Canadian or non-American citizens or permanent residents)

2 Maicon Santos Given the uninspiring form of many of the other import players it would be a major shock if Maicon Santos is left off the list. Arguably his injury in the home game against Chivas was the beginning of the end for Preki and Mo Johnston.

3 Amadou Sanyang Not universally liked amongst the fanbase but if he has recovered from his injury will probably be retained given he does a reasonably competent job for a low salary number in a position that is much more difficult and pivotal than most fans realize.

4 Martin Saric A difficult selection because a strong case can also be made for Milos Kocic. The reasoning here is that a core nucleus of players that can start regularly needs to be retained to avoid trying to make too many changes all at one like last season. A question mark would be Saric's contract status in 2011 and if he is headed back to Europe then I would protect Kocic here assuming he doesn't have a green card with an eye to what might happen if a good tranfer offer is received for Stefan Frei during the January transfer window.

The Canadians (there may be no Canadian content requirement now but TFC still need domestic players for marketing reasons)

5 Dwayne DeRosario Although his self-indulgent cheque signing gesture should have been the beginning of the end for DeRosario at BMO Field there are signs that MLSE management are prepared to overlook it and there is no way a competent management team (interim or otherwise) will risk losing him for nothing to the Whitecaps. If he leaves in the build up to the 2011 season it will be as part of a trade.

6 Nana Attakora No brainer for reasons that should be obvious to all. Good enough to start regularly while being paid a bench player's number against the salary cap. He is only going to improve in the seasons ahead.

7 Adrian Cann A great addition to central defence. It is debatable whether TFC would have been anywhere near a playoff spot if he had not been signed. As long as he is under contract for 2011 at a reasonable salary cap number (and comments made at the postseason press conference suggested that he expects to be) there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he will be on the list.

The Americans (given the salary cap and roster rules the backbone of any MLS roster are the players that enter the league through the NCAA)

8 Stefan Frei Assuming he graduates from Generation Adidas status his inclusion is an absolute no brainer.

9 Chad Barrett A player TFC may want to trade eventually if a better option can be found on the international transfer market but not a player TFC management will want to lose for nothing during an expansion draft.

10 Nick LaBrocca Another player who has his critics but his low salary and versatility in midfield should be enough to see him claim a place on TFC's protected list barring any complications with his contract situation.

11 Dan Gargan As with Matin Saric this is another difficult selection because a case can also be made for Jacob Peterson or Ty Harden. If the team is going to hit the ground running in 2011 there probably needs to be at least one fullback returning who can be relied on to do a competent job. Peterson's salary number may scare Vancouver and Portland away despite signs of improved form at the end of the season and TFC may not be too sorry to see him go for the same reason. Harden like Gargan provides good inexpensive depth to the roster but plays at the same position as Attakora and Cann and is therefore more expendable at this point. 

Up for grabs:

Unprotected foreigners: Mista, Hscanovics, Usanov, Joseph, Gomez, Kocic
Unprotected domestic Canadian players: White, Gala
Unprotected Americans: Harden, Garcia, Peterson, Conway

Protected younger players:

 Homegrown players: Doneil Henry, Nicolas Lindsay
GA players: Fuad Ibrahim {assuming GA status retained}

Given TFC's relatively poor season and given there are now 15 other teams available to choose the 20 players from, TFC may avoid losing any players. I suspect TFC will probably wind up losing one player, however, because there are some obvious potential targets that are likely to be left unprotected. An expansion team might be willing to be patient with O'Brian White to see if he can turn things around, for example, and Ty Harden might look like a good bargain as a serviceable defender costing the league minimum against the cap. There are usually a large number of goalkeepers made available so TFC probably have a good chance of getting away with leaving Conway and Kocic unprotected but Conway in particular might look like a good option as an inexperienced and relatively inexpensive goalkeeper. Very few people would have predicted that the Sounders would select Jarrod Smith (possibly in error thinking it was Johann) so it's difficult to rule any scenario out completely at this point. I will be more than a little bit surprised if Mista, Hscanovics, Usanov, Gala or Joseph wind up plying their trade on the Pacific coast next summer.

(Nov 18th) Edit: Fuad Ibrahim and Stefan Frei have both graduated from Generation Adidas. I don't think Ibrahim has done enough over the past four years to make it onto the protected list. He might be a tempting target for the Timbers if his number against the salary cap (as opposed to his total earnings with guaranteed bonuses factored in) is close to the league minimum.

A visionary in soccer even if he won't be remembered fondly elsewhere

Given the current speculation over Richard Peddie's future as president of MLSE, it's worth taking a moment to assess his influence where the emergence of Toronto FC is concerned. Although the Toronto sports media will focus primarily on the failure of the Maple Leafs to win a Stanley Cup under his tenure, as soccer fans we should always bear in mind that it was Richard Peddie who stuck his neck out by persuading MLSE's ownership to close the funding gap on the U20 World Cup stadium deal and invest in an MLS expansion franchise. That looks like a no brainer in investment terms now but back around 2005 it looked like a major gamble to the extent that some people were liable to seriously question the sanity of anybody suggesting it given the failure of the Lynx to draw a regular crowd for A League games and the shaky finances and limited spectator appeal of many of the existing MLS franchises. It's worth mentioning also that Peddie's interest in MLS stretched all the way back to 1996 when he was involved in efforts to bring a charter franchise to the Skydome (as it was then). When he eventually leaves MLSE our sport will have lost one of its most influential friends amongst the executives of mainstream major league sports franchises in Canada.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Better days ahead for Canadian Pro Soccer

From the 1970s to the 90s tough economic times have tended to spell doom for the dream of having a viable and sustainable pro soccer league emerge in Canada, but in contrast with decades past the past three years have been really positive times despite the credit crunch of 2008 and the subsequent deep recession. The landscape has been well and truly transformed by Toronto FC's ability to operate profitably in MLS due to regular sellout crowds of over 20,000 and that is leading exciting developments from coast to coast. Don't believe me? Well let's take a look at what has been happening in the twelve cities, which were able to field a team in the original Canadian Soccer League between 1987 to 1982. I don't think I need to describe what has happened in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver over the past few years in detail or explain the fact that in 2012 Canada will have three teams playing in a fully professional top tier D1 league for the first time since 1983 so the focus instead will be on developments in the other nine cities, which have received considerably less coverage in the national media. 

Victoria - After the Vistas folded soccer in Victoria was confined to the local Vancouver Island amateur league and Victoria United of the PCSL, a regional elite amateur league in BC and the Pacific northwest of the United States. Since 2009, however, the Victoria Highlanders of PDL, have emerged as the focus of spectator interest. Having drawn crowds of up to 2000 at times there has been talk of stepping up from the short season PDL format, which is designed primarily to cater to players with NCAA scholaships, to the new USL Pro setup. If, as is  rumoured, a western USL Pro division is launched, Victoria would be a natural fit. 

Edmonton - Over the past two decades since the demise of the Brickmen there have been failed attempts to make pro soccer work both indoors and outdoors in Edmonton in the shape of the Drillers and Aviators, but things finally appear to be on the right track with the newly emerged FC Edmonton. The key difference this time around is playing games at the smaller Foote Field rather than trying to use Commonwealth Stadium. After playing a series of exhibition games this past summer, the team should be ready to finally make their debut at the D2 level in 2011 in the NASL (assuming that league is sanctioned by the USSF) with the added bonus of Canadian Championship entry along with TFC, the Whitecaps and Impact. FC Edmonton are talking about building their own SSS over the next few years, which may prove to be the key to finally making pro soccer work financially in Alberta.

Calgary - Calgary has already been through the process of having a PDL team, the Storm, which moved up to USL-D1 as the Mustangs. Unfortunately the step up to the pro level was premature in the absence of a suitable stadium. The Mustangs had to play on astroturf with CFL permanent CFL markings at McMahon Stadium. If things work out in Edmonton in an NASL context, however, odds on a Calgary franchise won't be too far behind. The Boomers soon followed in the footsteps of the Drillers in the original NASL after all.

Winnipeg - After the Fury briefly attempted to continue in the CNSL (a merger in 1993 of what remained of the CSL and Toronto's NSL), very little has happened in Manitoba other than rumours of a PDL team called the Sundogs possibly being launched by local amateur team Lucania. The good news is that according to a recent post on the Voyageurs board a formal announcement will be made of a new PDL franchise for the 2011 season complete with talk of higher ambitions in the years ahead should that initial step work out well. 

London - No doubt inspired by the success of Toronto FC two hours down the 401, FC London started play in PDL in 2009. Crowds have consistently been in the 1000 - 2000 range prompting recent talk from FC London's ownership of possible entry into USL Pro along with conference rivals like the Dayton Dutch Lions and Michigan Bucks. As is the case in Edmonton the building of a new SSS appears to be part of the franchise's plans and could be the key to making pro soccer work in what would until recently have appeared to be an improbable location.

Kitchener - Since the Kickers folded in 1991, soccer in the wider KW region has been limited to the local amateur setup, the KDSL and the occasional foray into the Toronto area's elite amateur league, the OSL. D2 level soccer does not appear to be in any way imminent in a Kitchener and it looks like for now at least soccer fans will have to be content with the more limited horizons of the present day CSL, which continues the legacy of the Toronto based National Soccer League, a semi-pro league that has operated from the late 1920s to the early 1990s.

Hamilton - A relocation of the Toronto Lynx to Brian Timmins stadium has been rumored in recent years but never materialized, but there now appears to be very good chance that pro soccer will return to Hamilton again for the first time since the demise of the Steelers. Earlier this year, a conditional NASL expansion franchise was awarded to Bob Young, the owner of the CFL's Hamilton Ticats, who is already heavily involved in that league as part owner of the Carolina Railhawks. The plans appear to be contingent on a new stadium being built for the Ticats as part of the preparations for the Pan-Am games so it still remains to be seen whether the Canadian Championship will feature a Golden Horseshoe derby by the middle of this decade.

Ottawa - Unfortunately Eugene Melnyk's recent efforts to land an MLS expansion franchise failed when Ottawa's city council opted to approve plans for a new CFL stadium at Landsdowne Park rather than Melnyk's own vision of an SSS located close to the Senators'  hockey arena in Kanata. There is still plenty of activity in Ottawa where pro level soccer is concerned, however. There are two rival groups aligned with the NASL and USL. The CFL ownership group plan to field a USL Pro soccer team in the new CFL stadium. The local PDL franchise, the Ottawa Fury, form part of this bid. The rival NASL group have floated the idea of using a downtown baseball stadium formerly used by the now defunct Lynx AAA franchise. It appears highly likely, therefore, that the nation's capital will soon have a pro soccer franchise.

Halifax - Since the Nova Scotia Clippers folded there has been very little indication of pro soccer returning to Nova Scotia. A PDL franchise would be the obvious first step to achieving that goal.

It seems clear then that by the middle of this decade there could easily be up to five pro soccer franchises in the smaller non-MLS cities playing in D2 level leagues (with D2 being defined from a CSA rather than a USSF standpoint). The prospects for the emergence of a viable D2 tier to the sport would receive a further major boost if MLS teams were allowed to have an affiliated D2 level team similar to Major League Baseball's relationship to the AAA minor leagues.

If several D2 level teams do emerge and they prove to be economically viable, the issue that could soon loom over the horizon at the CONCACAF and FIFA levels will be whether Canada should be forced to have its own D1 national pro league. The exemption that Canada currently receives, which enables entry into USSF sanctioned leagues by Canadian teams, is based on there being no prospect of a viable domestic D1 or D2 level league emerging. Should that change Canadian soccer might start to be viewed as an awkward precedent that could cause problems for the integrity of the national league structure elsewhere. Given where we have been in the not too distant past with pro level soccer that would be a wonderful dilemma for Canadian soccer to suddenly have to face.

Monday, November 1, 2010

CSL expansion for the 2011 season

During halftime at Sunday's Canadian Soccer League final between the Brantford Galaxy and Hamilton Croatia, it was announced that conditional franchises have been awarded to teams in Kitchener, Pickering, Mississauga (Erin Mills) and Ottawa with the new teams expected to start playing next summer. The identity of a fifth team apparently can not be revealed at this point. There have been rumours of interest from the Buffalo, NY area so maybe the delay is for an American based team that still needs to obtain permission from the USSF to play in a Canadian league? Time will tell.

It may come as a surprise to some people that three of the four new teams are based within one hour's drive of Toronto but it really shouldn't be a huge shock. The angle that people never seem to be able to grasp is that a regular travel distance of more than about 2 hours to away games starts to place an intolerable strain on most semi-pro or elite amateur players who play the sport essentially as a hobby in their spare time away from holding down a regular job. The new Ottawa team appears to be linked to a youth academy so maybe they plan to operate using a team comprised of teenagers along the same sort of lines as TFC Academy? If so, it will be interesting to see whether they will be able to field a competitive team given they won't be able to use the possibility of a future contract from the club's full-time professional side to entice players and PDL's Ottawa Fury is already firmly entrenched locally as a competitor in the youth soccer market and has plans to be involved in a new D2 level franchise.

If the CSL are serious about expanding into eastern Ontario and Quebec based on semi-pro teams comprised of adult players they really need to start attracting some of the top clubs in the LSEQ such as Panellenios and Corfinium St-Leonard. With a core nucleus of teams based in the Montreal area travel distances could be kept reasonable and the league would have a legitimate shot at genuine growth in eastern Ontario and Quebec. As things stand with most away games likely to involve a 15 hour round trip to the Golden Horseshoe the CSL's new Ottawa entry is a long shot to survive for more than three seasons. Perhaps the issue that still has not been fully grasped by people based in the GTA is that in other parts of the country the annual National Championship contested by the ten provincial cup winners has always been viewed as the big prize within the sport and there is no obvious need for an entirely new tier of the sport to be added between the existing elite provincial level competitions and genuinely professional leagues such as USSF-D2 and MLS. The CSL should perhaps focus on its area of core strength and be content to be a strong local semi-pro league for the Toronto area similar in setup to the top state leagues in Australian cities like Melbourne and Sydney.