Ever since rumours about the launch of the Canadian Premier League began, talk of a domestic quota has been center stage. After a decade of Canadians being given limited opportunities in MLS, followed by a woefully inadequate change to the domestic status for a handful of Canadian players, the growing discontent among Canadian soccer fans about MLS’ apparent lack of interest in helping Canadian development has helped drive interest in a fully Canadian league.
For some, this has led to a call for a 100% Canadian player pool, but this is a dangerous line of thinking. Beyond the simple fact that this league will have to be sell tickets by being watchable for people who first became interested in pro soccer through MLS, it is unlikely that such opportunities would cause the Canadian player pool to improve to a vast degree. While it would certainly help to an extent, by allowing players to turn professional and committing all of their time to development, the quality of the league would not be high enough to push players to improve. If anything, it might even cause stagnation, where players that would otherwise have had to push to make the leap to Europe to get a chance become satiated by a decent paycheck in a domestic league.
The Ideal Quota
The ideal domestic quota would have to balance opportunity for Canadians and quality of opposition. Following MLS’ lead, in which 400 of the 560 roster spots are awarded to domestics (effectively a quota of ~70%), seems like a pretty good idea. It is undeniable that the progress made by the USA from the early 1990s to the present has come, in large part, to the opportunity afforded by Major League Soccer. Other leagues, such as the Australian A-League, have an even higher quota where 180 of the 230 roster spots are awarded to domestics (amounting to a 78% quota). These are two leagues that, like the potential Canadian Premier League, are founded in nations without a long history of professional soccer and began with a relatively small pool of domestic players. These quotas ought to represent the ideal for the CPL to match.
The Realistic Quota
However, neither of those leagues had to compete with three of their biggest markets being occupied by teams from a larger and higher quality league. Despite the fact that the Canadian Premier League should not position itself as a direct competitor to Major League Soccer, in fact it is my hope that most Canadian soccer fans become fans of both, they will have to deal with the fact that they aren’t the only option for pro soccer fandom in Canada. The CPL cannot afford to launch with starting lineups filled with university players, like the early days of MLS, as it will be too easy to change the channel. While the CPL will certainly have to deal with its share of “MLS snobs,” just like MLS has to deal with vast swaths of “Eurosnobs,” this league will only get one first impression with new fans. It has to be a good one.
Canada has a professional player pool consisting of 391 individuals, including 230 players overseas, 118 in the United Soccer League, 31 in Major League Soccer, and 12 in the NASL (which still exists at the time of this article’s writing). In addition to this, there are approximately 600 pro-am soccer players between League 1 Ontario and Premiere League de Soccer du Quebec. At first this appears to be more than enough, considering eight teams with 25 player rosters would only need 150 players to hit a 75% quota. However, the existence of a Canadian league will not necessarily mean Canadians of all stripes will come rushing home.
First, there are financial considerations. The Canadian Premier League is rumoured to be launching with a salary cap of 1.5 million – equivalent to a $60 000 average salary across a 25 man roster. That would put average salaries at the bottom end of the Scottish Premiership, or roughly at the minimum MLS salary. At this price point, I think it would be fair to assume that almost anyone playing in MLS currently will not be interested in a switch to CPL. Further, it is safe to assume that almost anyone playing in the top flight in a European country, or in the top two divisions in England, Germany, Spain, France, Portugal, or Italy, will be uninterested in a move, as these leagues simply pay more. This brings the pool of professional players down from 391 to 328.
Second, there are developmental considerations. Many players in are in club situations that, despite likely paying poorer than CPL, may be preferable as a career path. Many USL players, for example, are prospects for an MLS team. While the majority of these are unlikely to win MLS contracts, it is unlikely that many would leave a chance at MLS on the table for an unproven league, even for a raise. As such, I will assume any U23 player on an MLS2 USL team will not be available. This reduces the pool further from 328 to 269.
Third, many Canadians will have simply built life abroad and will be uninterested in coming back to Canada. Many people in the database of professional Canadian soccer players (credit to Rednation Online and @Canucks_Abroad) are Canadian through a parent and may not feel any personal connection with the nation itself, and even an offer of a raise would not spur them to move. Still others will have put down roots in their adopted countries and started families, and will find a move to CPL untenable. For this reason, I am somewhat arbitrarily going to assume that only 1/3 of Canadians playing in a country where they have dual citizenship would be interested in a move to CPL, and 1/2 of single-passport Canadians would be interested in such a move. This reduces the pool again from 269 to 213.
Fourth, there will be players simply unwilling to consider moving to a brand new league, on the grounds that it is unproven. Maxime Tissot, a player widely considered to be a perfect match for a league like CPL, recently stated in an interview with Stoney Monday Riot that he would go to CPL “after a few years, if it is good.” While this is a very difficult how prevalent this opinion would be, I will generously assume only 1/4 of the remaining players would have such reservations, reducing the pool to 160.
Finally, there is the very realistic consideration that not all players will be contractually available for a free transfer. With the league being very unlikely to consider paying transfer fees just to hit Canadian quotas, the fact is that anyone with a contract running through 2018 will simply not be available. Again, this is a difficult estimate to make, but I do not think it is a silly estimate to say that half of the remaining pool are on multi-year contracts. This reduces the player pool available in 2018 to 80.
With this breakdown in mind, I suggest a 40% Canadian quota in year 1, with an escalation of 5 percentage points every other year, reaching a 70% quota in 2030.
Many will call this approach overly conservative. After all, a 40% quota in an 8 team league could be fulfilled by 80 players without even dipping into League 1 Ontario or PLSQ, assuming 25 man rosters. I would respond that conservatism is needed in the first years of any league. Any quota that is chosen must not only be achievable, but a guarantee to be fulfilled with good players in year 1. The league can’t afford a smaller number of decent players signing on than expected, as it will either result in a poor product that will turn many away on first impression. If the supply of Canadian players dramatically outstrips the demand generated by the quota, it can always be escalated faster than the proposed schedule. That is a fixable problem. A problem that is not fixable is turning off the crowds of fans who may give the league a shot in year 1 and be permanently turned off by what they see.
Some objections to this idea are predictable. For example, some will say that if the league launches with only six teams, a higher domestic quota is achievable. That is true, however, with reports that there are twelve markets interested in CPL, any quota should factor in a degree of expansion that risks stretching the player pool. If we are at 8 teams in 2020, this proposal would call for 90 Canadian roster spots, 10 teams in 2024 would call for 138 spots, and 12 teams by 2030 would call for 210 roster spots. By contrast, a hard 70% quota from the beginning would necessitate finding a larger number of additional players during every expansion in a time when the league will be too young to have produced a large number of their own players. Any such barrier to expansion should be dealt with carefully.
Others will say that this does not give enough opportunity to players in League 1 Ontario, PLSQ, and any other provincial D3 leagues that emerge by 2018. To an extent I agree, more opportunity needs to be provided to the top end of these players, as well as to top CIS players and undrafted NCAA graduates. To that I will say that the products of those leagues deserve chances, and they will get them as the quota escalates, but their quality is not at the point where they can be depended on as the backbone of a league launching in 18 months. Time is needed to develop proper scouting networks and even affiliate relationships with CPL clubs to ensure that the cream of the D3 crop can be skimmed off properly, instead of thrusting them into the spotlight and acting disappointed when they do not fulfill our expectations.
Finally, some will come from the other side of this discussion and state that escalation does not make sense, as they don’t see a reason why the Canadian player pool would expand. This, I believe, is clearly false. Currently, if a player is in the development stream for an MLS team but never makes it into the first team (example: Chris Mannella of Toronto FC), being cut either means moving abroad at great personal expense or simply retiring. This annual shedding of players from MLS clubs would provide a consistent source of late bloomers that CPL could capitalize on. Further, with an economic demand for Canadian players, it is not unreasonable to foresee an increase in the number of reputable private academies such as the highly celebrated Sigma FC, improvement among other D3 pro-am sides, as well as a larger number of CIS programs taking the sport more seriously. Finally, most rumours have stated that academies will become mandatory at some point for all CPL franchises, meaning that the player pool will expand dramatically in the long term.
There is a lot of room for argument here, especially with the rate of escalation. I have taken a very conservative approach in this article with plenty of ungenerous estimations – primarily because I think the greatest risk this league can take in 2018 is appearing “bush league” in front of fans willing to give this new league a shot. You will only ever get one first impression, one first analysis article, one first television spot, and it has to be good. I know several people who gave Toronto FC a chance in 2007, were turned off by what they saw, and still don’t give MLS a chance despite the improvements made over the last ten years. It is inevitable that there will be eurosnobs and MLS snobs who turn their nose up to CPL, but you only get one chance to reduce their numbers. A quota that is too low can be fixed, but the consequences of launching with too high of a quota cannot.
Does the idea of the Canadian Premier League excite you? Consider joining a fledgling supporters group in your city.
- In Hamilton, the Barton Street Battalion (@) are ready to lead the charge.
- In Halifax, the Halifax Wanderers SG (@) are getting ready to storm the field.
- In Calgary, the Footsoldiers SG (@) are already marching.
- In Vaughan, Vaughan City (@) are watching hopefully.
- Regina, Pile O’ Bones (@) keeps piling on.
- In Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge and Guelph, Grand River SG is uniting the region.