Since Toronto FC joined the league in 2007, Canadian teams and players have often been treated like second-class citizens in MLS. From Canadian teams not being eligible for MLS qualification spots into the CONCACAF Champions League to Canadian players, with the exception of a very select few starting in 2017, not counting as domestic, MLS has made it clear that the league is far more interested in the development of American teams and players at the expense of those above the 49th parallel.
NSXI guest correspondent Jeff Salisbury offered a scathing indictment of the American soccer system presenting the argument that Canadian soccer needs to divorce itself from the US system. Even with the emergence of the upcoming Canadian Premier League and proposals for a proper Canadian pyramid, I do not see this as likely to happen and I do not think it is necessary, either. Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and the Montreal Impact have all bought heavily into the single-entity system of MLS with expansion fees and much more and it’s unfair to expect them to leave it. Swansea City, Cardiff City, Newport County, and more are all examples of Welsh teams playing in England who were not forced to join the Welsh Premier League when it was founded in 1992 and the Welsh league has been able to function without them. I see no reason why the three Canadian MLS teams can coexist happily beside the Canadian Premier League.
However, the problems of inequality in MLS between American and Canadian teams still need to be addressed. The first of these issues is Champions League qualification. Although TFC won both the Supporters’ Shield and the MLS Cup in 2017, TFC, after winning both the regular season and playoff titles, are currently without a qualification spot to CONCACAF’s premier club competition in 2019. CONCACAF explained that “since the 2017 MLS Cup was won by a non-US based club, [the 2017 MLS Cup Champion] position will be awarded to the U.S.-based team not already qualified with the highest aggregate point total at the end of the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons combined.” The only way TFC can qualify is through winning the 2018 Canadian Championship and if they fail to do so, 2017’s best team in MLS will not be represented.
There is no reason nor precedent for this. When Cardiff City, a Welsh team playing in England, qualified to the FA Cup final in 2008, the FA ruled that if Cardiff won, they’d be one of England’s representatives in the UEFA Cup (the predecessor to the Europa League). Although Cardiff lost the final and failed to qualify, the FA set the precedent that Welsh clubs could qualify for continental competitions just the same as any English club. And it certainly wouldn’t have taken a qualification spot away from the Welsh Premier League, as I anticipate Americans making the argument that the CanPL could give up a qualification spot if a Canadian team in MLS is successful. I believe that because Canadian teams are full members in MLS just like any American side, they should be eligible for MLS qualification spots. The United States already has its US Open Cup qualification spot and if they want more, they need to earn them.
Additionally, there has always been the problem of American players counting as domestic players in Canadian squads while Canadian players count as internationals in American squads. In 2017, MLS introduced convoluted rules allowing Canadian players to count as domestic in the US only if “the player became a member of an MLS club academy or Canadian Approved Youth Club in the year prior to the year in which he turns 16; AND the player signs his first professional contract with MLS or an MLS USL affiliate club.” While MLS commissioner Don Garber has maintained that allowing all Canadians to count as domestic players in the US would break the law, both the NASL and the USL have been successful in classifying Canadians as domestic. With the likely demise of the NASL, many opportunities for Canadians to play in North America will be shuttered with fewer opportunities for them in MLS. Additionally, if classifying Canadians as domestic players breaks the law, as Garber claims, it’s incredibly unclear how the new rules MLS put in place for certain Canadians meeting the criteria are not breaking the law. Canadian players should have the same opportunities to play in MLS as Americans.
While there are many criticisms of MLS from all sides of the soccer world, I believe that opening the CONCACAF Champions League qualification spots to Canadian teams and allowing Canadian players to count as domestic on all teams in MLS is a good first step to improving MLS and Canadian soccer.