Developing Canadian talent is a continuous topic of discussion among Canadian footy fans. Everyone has an opinion. However, depending on the team you support, your views will be influenced by the tendencies of your club’s attitude to utilizing and developing Canadian talent. I wrote part of this article months ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish it because of my own internal battle regarding the merits of the arguments and my desire to bridge the gap between the different sides of the argument. After thousands of words, editing, reducing and more editing, I was left where I had begun. So I put the article aside until earlier this week when the following tweets by journalist, Steven Sandor, motivated me to take a slightly different approach to this topic.
— Steven Sandor (@stevensandor) July 26, 2015
You can’t win with Canadians: Quintessentially Canadian Power Rankings, MLS Week 20/NASL Week 14 http://t.co/WKOcKjA9AU
— Steven Sandor (@stevensandor) July 20, 2015
I would like to note that in Mr. Sandor’s Quintessentially Power Rankings article he briefly discusses the argument that teams can’t win using Canadian players. I have considerable respect for Sandor and the work he has done covering both FC Edmonton and Canadian soccer. I want to be clear that I intend to use Mr. Sandor’s tweets as only an example to discuss the general ideas behind some opinions regarding developing and utilizing Canadian talent.
The common belief I’m of course referencing is that the three Canadian MLS teams don’t do enough to include Canadian talent in their senior squad, both in the 30 man roster and their starting eleven. Overall, I agree with this notion. However, a distinction must be made. The apparent methods which lead to success in the NASL are not necessarily applicable to MLS.
Many reporters, fans and staff in MLS circles are quick to point out that the quality between MLS and NASL is significant. While their counter parts in the NASL are quick to point to the Voyageur Cup and US Open Cup examples of NASL teams defeating the big bad MLS teams. I have been watching more and more NASL matches thanks to the increasing availability of NASL matches online. I can honestly say I have thoroughly enjoyed the matches I have seen. Of course, like MLS, there is the occasional snooze-fest, but that happens. The fact remains, the two leagues are not on par when it comes to overall technical ability of players. Like MLS, the NASL has improved significantly but they are not on the same playing field. When NASL teams defeat MLS teams it is mostly due to the fact that the MLS team in question doesn’t care about the competition. Most American MLS teams know they will never win the USOC. They make their profit from MLS league play. While they may defeat a few teams, eventually they will come across Sporting KC, the Sounders or the Red Bulls, teams who really want to win the USOC and all the effort and resources to get to that stage will be mostly a waste. So why bother trying when a NASL opponent comes to town? There is also the factor that MLS teams don’t feel their NASL opponent will be a challenge so they field their B/C squad. This means NASL players, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain, fight for their lives, while in the MLS player’s mind, they believe they hold all the cards.
I have spent time studying the mental processing of athletes as a student in the field of psychology. Athletes have their rituals. They stack their water bottles just so or they listen to a specific song on the bus. While these idiosyncrasies help to a point, at the end of the day the athletes are human. A match versus a NASL team is not the same as a MLS regular season match. Yes, they are pros, and part of being a pro is getting yourself mentally prepared for the match. The reality is it isn’t that simple. When a MLS player steps onto the field versus a NASL player, there is a nagging voice in the back of their head that is telling them they are better and this means 3 points is a given. Of course, this is flawed position to take. Over confidence is the bane of many an athlete. I will leave the psychology at that for fear of boring you, but this is leading to my overall point.
The Ottawa Fury are top of the NASL and yes, they field a starting eleven that features many Canadians. In fact, they are second in the team ranking for minutes played by Canadians. Ottawa sits top of the 2015 NASL combined standings with 24 points with a 6-6-3 record. Only 13 goals against and an undefeated streak of 10 matches and counting. Impressive numbers and it warms my heart to see that Canadians are playing an important rule. The same can be said for 2nd place FC Edmonton (Fall Standings). However, anyone who believes that this model of success could be instantly transferred to the Impact, TFC or the Whitecaps is being quite simply, ridiculous. While more and more Canadians are proving themselves worthy and talented enough to succeed in the NASL, the same cannot be said for MLS. Look at Julian de Guzman, Nana Attakora and Kyle Porter, to name but a few. They are impressing for their NASL side, but they simply didn’t make the cut during their time in MLS.
The talent pool of Canadian professional soccer players is shallow. So much so that it is impossible to field a competitive starting eleven of only Canadian players for the three MLS teams. This is undeniable by any fan of Canadian soccer and the result is the destruction of that argument. We will talk about this again in a decade. Having been a long-time supporter of Canadian club and national footy, I dream of the day when we see competitive rosters of the three Canadian MLS teams and the NASL teams stacked top to bottom with Canadian talent.
At the end of the 2014 season, I predicted that during the coming season we would see young fullback Sam Adekugbe finally become a starter for the Whitecaps senior team and so far my prophecy has come true. Since signing with the Whitecaps back in 2013, Sam has put his nose to the grind stone, showed a great deal patience and he has been rewarded. After a poor performance by Jordan Harvey against Toronto FC, Adekugbe was given the start on the road in Chicago and it quickly became apparent that Harvey would be spending more than one game on the bench. Unfortunately, an ankle injury has forced Sam to the rehab table but he is slowly returning to full health.
In Toronto we see Jonathan Osorio and Ashton Morgan in the TFC starting lineup on a weekly basis and they have earned their spots. The Montreal Impact are developing youth and have a talented pool of youth who could one day play in the first team but I’m not confident we will see them anytime soon. Truthfully, most Montreal coaches and FO have been pretty tight lipped about their views regarding using Canadians so it is hard to accurately judge them.
From 2011-2013 there is no question in my mind that the Whitecaps coaches during these years did not reward deserving Canadian youth. Under the leadership of Robbo, things have improved but I remain extremely disappointed every time I see Erik Hurtado warming up as a sub instead of Caleb Clarke (6 goals in USL). The situation is similar with Nicolas Mezquida. The South American midfielder has moments of brilliance, like his long range effort against RSL last season, but unfortunately, he has spent much of his time on the pitch for Vancouver as a ghost. Kianz Froese has impressed in every match he has graced the field. In San Jose earlier this summer, he changed the game with his energy and ball control. Yet, Mezquida remains a frequent starter.
To ensure the longevity of success for Canadian soccer it means that winning by any means possible is paramount and the inclusion of Canadians in the starting eleven comes secondary. At the end of the day, soccer is a business. They won’t have bums in the seats if they aren’t winning and if they aren’t winning then they could eventually fold and thus won’t be around to develop Canadian youth.
I apologize if you began reading this with the idea I would give you a concrete answer to the question of what is the best way to develop Canadian youth and how to eventually include them in the senior team. I can’t give the answer because well, I’m not in charge of the CSA. What I can say is, the method that is working for Ottawa and Edmonton is not a sure fire way to achieve success in MLS. Just like saying it wouldn’t work with 100% certainty is also wrong. The future of Canadian soccer cannot live or die with the rise and fall of Canadians getting NASL or MLS minutes. Putting untoward pressure on the 5 teams to start Canadians before the players are ready is ludicrous. How do we know if they are ready? Well you get their feet wet and you can tell pretty quickly if they will swim or more time is needed with the reserve squad. The reality is players must earn their starting roles based on their performances, not because of their passport.