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.


  1. Can you please define Pro leagues for the reader?

    It seems to me that being professional is where you have a career that pays you a livable wage. In NA, the MLS is the only real pro soccer league where players can have a career making a livable wage.

  2. are you serious about putting Sweden, Lithuanian and Finland football leagues in the same group like Division 2 football. Especially Sweden. The top teams in Sweden would have a run at Mls championship every year. And although Finland and Lithuania are not as good as Sweden, the top 2 or 3 teams in these leagues can compete in Mls, maybe not for titles, but definitely better than some sides. Just look at some Uefa cup results when talking about these lower leagues. They are behind, but not that far behind teams from Austria, Poland and Belgium etc. Plus, the population of these countries is smaller than Toronto and Montreal put together. That is one big assumption you made there...

  3. In response to the first comment, the key to me is that soccer is the player's primary income source rather than something they are doing essentially as a hobby during their spare time away from their regular job. The latter I would define as semi-pro. What I was arguing was that Canadian soccer needs a second tier of teams below MLS that can serve the same sort of role as AA and AAA baseball for top Canadian prospects. Minor league baseball is not necessarily the greatest in terms of the money that is on offer but it provides a place where top prospects, who are not quite ready to step right in at the major league level, can give the sport a serious go in a pro environment for a few years. In a soccer context I think D2 level soccer would provide a more competitive environment for players to learn their trade than a limited 10 game MLS reserve team schedule.

    In response to the second comment, I think it's worth bearing in mind that the Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders have shown that D2 level soccer is not that far off D1 in playing standards with their CONCACAF Champions League performances. I think there is a tendency in Canada to talk about "Europe" as if it were a homogeneous entity in playing standards. I agree with you that the top 2 or 3 clubs in smaller European countries are often much more impressive than the rest but who do they play in most of their games during the domestic season? Teams of significantly lower quality. It's worth bearing in mind also that leagues that play a summer season have a big advantage in the qualification rounds of European competition because they get to face teams that play the conventional fall-spring season format while they are still in their preseason training.