TORONTO — The North American Soccer League has joined the United Soccer League in counting Canadian players as domestics south of the border, leaving Major League Soccer as the lone holdout.
"Canadian players have played a big role in the development of our league on the field," NASL interim commissioner Rishi Sehgal said in a statement Thursday. "We believe that this change will help us become better contributors to the growth of the game, not only in Canada but in the U.S. as well."
MLS, which has 19 teams in the U.S. as well as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in Canada, is at the top of the soccer pyramid in North America. Both the NASL and USL are operating this year with provisional Division II status, as per the U.S. Soccer Federation.
NASL teams are allowed seven internationals. Under the league’s new rule, any American or Canadian player on an NASL roster will count as domestic and not affect that international player count.
The USL has had a similar rule in place for some years now, treating Canadians and Americans as equals on both sides of the border.
The Canadian Soccer Association, which has been working behind the scenes to ease access for Canadian players in the U.S., welcomed the NASL move.
"It’s encouraging, it’s positive. It’s moving in the right direction," said CSA general secretary Peter Montopoli.
MLS has been harder to budge, although Montopoli praised moves announced by the league in November to take the international tag off some Canadians south of the border.
MLS modified its roster rules to increase the number of Canadian players considered domestic. Younger players are the main beneficiaries, with commissioner Don Garber saying the rule change immediately meant 40 per cent of all Canadians in the league counted as domestics with more to come.
However, Garber has consistently said his hands are tied when it comes to treating Canadians the same as Americans in the U.S.
"When you look at U.S. law which does not allow any employer to treat one passport-holder differently than another, we could not have a different rule for Canadians than we have for Hondurans or Guatemalans," he said in his state of the league address in Toronto in December. "We have players from 60 (now 61) countries."
"So we came up with a mechanism that will allow us to designate players based on whether or not they played in an academy in Canada or United States. And that’s something that will allow us, based on our legal advice, to be able to manage this issue."
Under the new MLS rules, Canadian players who qualify as a homegrown player as a member of an MLS club academy or who have met similar requirements as a member of a Canadian-approved youth club will count as a domestic player for all MLS clubs, provided they meet certain conditions.
If treated as an international player in the U.S., Canadians essentially only have a shot at the eight international spots on a team’s 28-man roster.
The MLS did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on how the two Division 2 leagues have managed to do what Garber has said is not possible.
All U.S. players are considered as domestics in Canada, a move Garber said was made to allow teams north of the border to be competitive with their American counterparts.
Like the NASL, USL teams each have seven international slots that cannot currently be traded.
The NASL has 10 teams including FC Edmonton. The USL has 30 clubs including Ottawa Fury FC, Toronto FC 2 and the Vancouver Whitecaps 2.