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".

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