When talking about the potential impact Major League Soccer can have in developing players for Canada’s national team, Toronto FC Academy graduate Ashtone Morgan is usually held up as the gold standard.
There’s little question that Morgan, voted 2011 Canadian U-20 Player of the Year, is a young talent who has been able to benefit from developing at home and honing his skills in MLS.
But while Morgan’s story bodes well for the next generation of Canadian talent, Quebec native Andre Hainault is also an under-the-radar MLS success story who has used his years playing with the Houston Dynamo to develop into a versatile and important player for Canada.
"I think I have developed a lot here. When I was playing in the Czech Republic before coming here it was always tough. The language barrier kind of restricts you a little bit and being here in Houston, I have been able to grow here," the 26-year-old defender told sportsnet.ca.
"In the Czech Republic we were always scrapping for wins and were just trying to stay up. And coming here it was a situation where I was joining a team that wants to win every game — every friendly, league match and everything. It’s a different mentality here and I have enjoyed every minute of it."
When it was announced that Montreal would be joining MLS in 2012, many league observers expected that Impact would make a major push to bring Hainault home. The club tried to do that last November when it selected Dynamo legend Brian Ching with the first pick in the MLS expansion draft with the express purpose of using him as trade bait for Hainault.
Unfortunately for the Impact, as much as Hainault loves the city of Montreal, he was not interested in leaving a fantastic situation in Houston.
"The locker-room and the coaching staff here are great. Coming in everyday and just enjoying it, it’s pretty easy. We went to the MLS Cup last year, so why would you want to leave a team that went to the finals and was so close. Why would you want to leave that? Of course Montreal is home and what not, but it’s sort of an unknown. So I’m very happy here and I didn’t want to go anywhere else," Hainault explained.
Houston’s remarkable late season charge into the playoffs and MLS Cup final was one of the most exciting stories in the league last year. The Dynamo look like they are going be one of the contenders for MLS’ ultimate prize this year, as their recent performances have them firmly placed as one of the teams on the ascent as the schedule enters August.
Interestingly, it was two losses and a draw against three Canadian clubs in June that prompted coach Dominic Kinnear to make tactical changes that have paid major dividends in recent weeks. Since switching to a 4-3-3 formation, the Dynamo have gone undefeated in seven matches and have been the hottest team in MLS. Asked to highlight the reasons for the club’s blistering form, Hainault was quick to give credit to Kinnear.
"We’ve changed up the formation a little bit. … I think the guys have just felt comfortable playing it. Our first game was 0-0 and we were successful, but not overly so with us not getting the full three points that we wanted. But we have stuck with it and it has just been a snowball effect where the confidence has grown and built up," Hainault said.
As a consistent starter with the Dynamo since 2009, the versatile 6-feet-2 defender has parlayed his impressive performances at club level into a key position with the Canadian national team. In Canada’s recent World Cup qualifying matches, Hainault started at centre back alongside captain Kevin McKenna in the hybrid 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation instituted by coach Stephen Hart.
Asked if there is any inherent benefit in consistently playing a similar formation for both club and country, Hainault downplayed the significance of Houston’s recent tactical switch in terms of how it could benefit his performances for Canada.
"The principles are the same but your personnel (are) always different. Maybe it works a little bit differently because the players are different but the principles are the same. Even with a 4-4-2, soccer is soccer. It doesn’t change a whole lot," Hainault offered.
More importantly for Hainault is simply playing week in, week out a high level with good players who have seemingly always had a clear succession plan in place. Former Houston stalwarts such as Stuart Holden, Dwayne De Rosario, Ricardo Clark and Pat Onstad have all left the Dynamo during Hainault’s tenure with the team, but overall the Dynamo have barely missed a beat, as younger players have stepped up to fill the void.
With Geoff Cameron now likely off to join Stoke City in the Premiership, Hainault, who has played mainly at fullback this season, filled in as a central defender against TFC on Saturday. While Hart won’t mind if Hainault sees regular action in a position he often plays for Canada, Hainault indicated that nothing is set in stone in terms of where he will play for the Dynamo in the coming weeks.
"I think it’s going to be game to game. We’ve got a pretty deep team back there. It is unfortunate that Jermaine (Taylor) wasn’t able to travel with us (to Toronto) for personal reasons. I’m happy to play wherever. I do enjoy playing centre back but I really enjoy when the team wins. And when the team wins on the road and in Canada for the first time, I’m really happy, so I don’t worry about things like that," Hainault said.
Hainault is also clearly happy whenever he is called upon to represent his country and admitted he will be one of the players suiting up for Canada against Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly on August 15.
MLS has come a long way from years past when an incongruity between the schedule and the international calendar saw TFC having to field a number of semi-pros while a slew of their players were away representing their country. But MLS players still find themselves in predicaments from time to time when trying to balance out international duty with their club obligations.
That was the case last October when Hart called up Hainault for World Cup qualifying matches against St. Lucia and Puerto Rico at a time when Houston was scheduled to play a make-or-break game against the Portland Timbers late in the season. Hainault was also battling an injury and offered to make himself available only for the St. Lucia match, to which Hart declined and selected a replacement.
That episode is now in the past and Hainault’s starting role in recent World Cup qualifiers against Cuba and Honduras highlights he is very much an important player for Canada going forward.
Capped 27 times, Hainault is hopeful that such a difficult scenario will not present itself again anytime soon, as he is clearly looking forward to playing a role in Canada’s quest to qualify for Brazil 2014.
"You just try to keep the communication lines as open as possible to make sure that everyone knows what the situation with the schedule is. Ultimately, I have to make a decision. It was a tough one last year, but that is part of playing both club and international soccer," Hainault stated.
"Hopefully situations like that won’t come up too often, but if they do, I will have to make a decision and talk to Stephen and talk to Dom and figure out what I want. In the end, you have to do what makes you happy. You can try to please everyone and then in the end you end up not being happy."
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.