VANCOUVER — A decision by the second-tier North American Soccer League to count Canadian players as domestics south of the border violates labour laws, according to Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber.
Garber made the comments Monday during a wide-ranging media availability while visiting Vancouver to help the Whitecaps launch their 2017 season.
"It’s a violation of U.S. law," said Garber. "We’ve looked at this issue since we launched teams up here in Canada."
Like the United Soccer League, the NASL started counting Canadian players as domestics last week, with MLS now the only pro league in North America that does not.
The continent’s top soccer league, MLS has teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal along with its 19 American clubs. The NASL and USL are a step below MLS.
MLS has changed some of its roster rules to increase the number of Canadians who count as domestics, with younger players being the main beneficiaries.
Canadian players who qualify as homegrown or who have met similar requirements as a member of specific youth teams now count as a domestic player for all MLS clubs, but only if they meet certain conditions.
If treated as an international player in the U.S., Canadians have to occupy one of eight international spots on a club’s 28-man roster. All U.S. players on Canadian MLS teams count as domestics.
"The rule change that we enacted is a step in the right direction," said Garber. "Our estimate is 40 to 50 per cent of the players this year that are playing in Canada would qualify as domestics because they’ve come up through our academy systems."
NASL teams are allowed seven internationals, with the new rule stating Americans and Canadians now count as domestics. The NASL has eight clubs, including FC Edmonton, while the USL’s 30 teams include the Ottawa Fury, Toronto FC 2 and the Vancouver Whitecaps 2.
An email to the NASL was not immediately returned.
Garber has maintained his hands are tied on the issue and stayed consistent on Monday.
"In the years to come it’s going to be a non-issue, but U.S. law is such that we cannot discriminate against one nationality and give certain employment opportunities to Canadians that we don’t provide to Hondurans and Brazilians and representatives of any other nationality," he said. "I’m mindful of its impact on how people view it up here.
"The issue, in essence, is going to resolve itself."
Garber also said that MLS would like to bring in as many Canadian players as possible, with a financial incentive now in place for Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal to secure services, if the clubs so choose.
"We will subsidize Canadian teams’ efforts to bring a Canadian designated player in to Major League Soccer," said Garber. "We’re doing that for the same reason we subsidized L.A. to bring in David Beckham — because we believed that’s the best interests of Major League Soccer."
One player mentioned was midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, arguably the best talent Canada has ever produced, who currently plays in Turkey.
"I know there has been interest in bringing Atiba home," said Garber. "I don’t know why a deal was never done with him, so I can’t comment on that. As we did with the top American players, we do need to bring as many of the top Canadian players home to Canada to play in Major League Soccer. We want our league and our clubs to be a league of choice."
Garber also said he has been monitoring U.S. President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office, including the current court battle over his travel ban on people from seven majority-Muslim countries.
"I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as every American is," he said. "As a guy that runs a league like my compatriots who run the other leagues in the United States, we’re closely watching what’s happening and trying to get an understanding of how it will impact our league, our players and our fans. It’s new, and we’ve got to do everything we can to get a better understanding of what impact it will have on us.
"Right now, it’s too early to tell."