As the Canadian Soccer Association looks forward to integrating the next generation of Canadian players into the national team, it is absolutely fundamental that the most promising prospects are playing regularly and competing at the highest levels possible on a weekly basis.
When people usually look back at Canada’s lone World Cup appearance in 1986, they often point to the North American Soccer League (NASL) as being one of main factors that lead to Canadians’ qualification. The majority of the players on that World Cup squad played in the NASL and had developed by playing with and against the top quality players that made up that league before it disbanded in 1984.
Major League Soccer, which was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ bid to host the 1994 World Cup, is seen by as the current equivalent of the NASL. Now that the 2012 MLS regular season is over, it is an interesting time to look back and gauge how efficient the league has been in terms of developing young Canadian talent.
On the surface, this campaign does not look like it was particularly fruitful. Most of the Canadian players under the age of 25 rarely saw the pitch in MLS competition. How much they developed via first team training sessions, reserve league matches and run outs with academy teams is a question that only their coaches can likely answer.
While Vancouver deserves major credit for breaking through and becoming the first Canadian team to qualify for the MLS playoffs, it was still somewhat disconcerting to see that they achieved that distinction without utilizing any Canadian players in significant roles.
Three of Canada’s most promising youngsters — Russell Teibert, Caleb Clarke and Bryce Alderson — are graduates of the Whitecaps’ highly-rated Residency Program, but the trio saw little to no time playing with the senior team.
Similarly to Vancouver, the expansion Montreal Impact delivered some impressive results on the pitch this year but also essentially did so with only one Canadian player (33-year-old Patrice Bernier) playing a significant role. Promising young striker Evan James was picked in the first round by Montreal in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft back in January and made the Impact roster during pre-season training camp. But he did not make an appearance with the senior team for the entirety of the 2012 campaign, and was released earlier this week.
In July, Impact Academy product Karl Ouimette earned the distinction of becoming the first youth player to sign a professional contract and move up to the senior team, but he only made two league appearances in his four months with the Impact.
In terms of playing opportunities for young Canadians, Toronto FC basically set the bar early on the year, with former coach Aron Winter often being vocal in expressing his strong belief in using the youth academy as a prime vehicle for populating the senior team roster. While Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry played significant minutes over the course of the just completed season, homegrown players such Oscar Cordon, Matt Stinson, Keith Makubuya and Quillan Roberts rarely made the first team bench, while at the same time seeing virtually no minutes on the pitch in MLS games.
In all three instances with the Canadian MLS clubs, from the standpoint of employment preservation, it is hard to find too much fault with the manner in which Martin Rennie, Jesse Marsch and Aron Winter/Paul Mariner ultimately elected to go mostly with older veteran players. The pressure to win in the MLS is immense and all three coaches likely felt like they could not afford to use young Canadian players who were still not completely developed or who were not as ready to contribute as some of the more seasoned and experienced players on their rosters.
Thus, for many of Canada’s most promising prospects, they were likely asking a similar question: “How can I get experience if no one will give me a chance?”
The MLS reserve league was supposed to be the answer to that question, but with only a 10-game schedule, it just isn’t enough to fill the void.
Interestingly, a league called the North American Soccer League could be the salvation for Canadian soccer once again. The current iteration of the NASL launched in 2011 and has been sanctioned as a Division II Professional League by United States Soccer Federation, placing it just under MLS in the North American soccer hierarchy. FC Edmonton is currently the only the Canadian club in the league but Ottawa is expected to launch in 2014 and the NASL leadership has been candid in stating that it is open to further Canadian expansion.
While many usually like to point to how unique the MLS is when compared to other leagues around the world, one thing that is common regardless of the country is that young players have to play regularly against quality opposition in order to improve. And that is where the NASL could serve a major role in the development of young Canadian players.
The MLS and the NASL have flirted previously with respect to some type of official affiliation and rumours currently abound that the two leagues are in the process of coming together with some type of framework that would simultaneously benefit both parties, and the young American and Canadian players who are currently finding minutes hard to come by at the MLS level.
MLS clubs sent eleven players on loan to NASL sides in 2012, with Bryan Arguez move from Montreal to FC Edmonton providing an example of an agreement that benefited all parties. Arguez played regularly and helped FC Edmonton on the pitch and eventually returned to Montreal after playing in 13 highly competitive games and having developed as a player.
If the two leagues could come to some type of agreement that is similar to how things are done in Major League Baseball, with its minor league system and affiliate clubs, it would likely be a major boon to player development and it would play a role in solving the conundrum that is currently the norm for young players such as Cordon, Alderson and James.
Imagine franchises in Montreal and Ottawa, Vancouver and Edmonton and Toronto and Hamilton working together to fill the competition and development void that many of Canada’s elite prospects face when they are too old to play with their various academies but are also not quite there yet in terms of being regulars at the MLS level.
Ultimately, whatever form a closer affiliation between the two leagues takes, it can only be good for the development of young Canadian professional players. They need to be playing often and against good competition.
All of you have to do is look across the pond at how players like Jack Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe have excelled following loans at lower level clubs prior to making their marks in the English Premier League.
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.