Club over Country: Why MLS and the Whitecaps have no overriding responsibility to improve the Canadian national team
It’s a battle that’s raged on in various guises, and in various contexts, around the footballing world for many a year. Club v Country.
For many, especially those outwith Canada, in footballing terms it will always be their club first and then their country second. For others, country comes first without any question.
Those that fall into that latter category are wrong.
And for those of you who feel that Major League Soccer, and the three current Canadian clubs within it, have an overriding responsibility for helping to improve the Canadian national team, you are also wrong.
Don Garber delivered his annual MLS State of the League address this morning. Canada featured a lot more prominently than in previous years. For starters, we were mentioned or referred to five times in Garber’s first few minutes of speaking. There were even some Canadian specific questions. Someone’s had feedback!
The big one, once again, was on the issue of Canadians not being counted as domestic players on US squads, but American players being counted as such in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Garber gave the stock labour law reply that doesn’t seem to bother USL PRO and the whole situation is frankly unacceptable, but there’s been enough written about that issue elsewhere that there’s not any point in me traipsing over old ground any further.
One of the other big issues that once again came to the surface today, especially in Twitter and blog discussions, and is somewhat tied into the whole domestic categorisation issue, is that of getting more playing time for Canadian players and MLS benefitting and helping to grow the Canadian national team as a result.
It is NOT, and nor should it be, Major League Soccer’s responsibility to help improve the Canadian national team. Neither should it be their responsibility to improve the American national team.
They are separate entities, and rightly so. They should also elicit different emotional buy ins, but more on that shortly.
MLS clearly are keen to help better the USMNT and are saying the same things now around the CMNT. Why? Does the English Premiership make such statements and are seen as the key for developing domestic players in England? La Liga about the Spanish national team? Serie A about the Italian? Are those league’s primary aim to help their respective national teams or to grow the business of their own league? If it was the former, there wouldn’t be so many non EU nationals in every top team.
Of course, it would be a nice knock on effect of a successful league with top domestic talent playing in it to see Canada do better on the international stage, but why the obsession here?
Is it pressure being put on MLS by the USSF and CSA and trying to be seen to appease? As Garber rightly covered in his address today, then there also has to be some give and take both ways, especially when it comes to calling up players for meaningless matches during crunch times in the MLS season.
Neither is it the primary role of the Whitecaps, the Impact or TFC to help the Canadian national team pull themselves out of the rut the CSA has allowed them to get into over the years.
Again, it would be a nice side effect if it were to happen, but the main fundamental for a football club is to challenge every year and win trophies. Not to act as a development ground for a national team. If the CSA want that, then they should set up their own national league with such stipulations for clubs to benefit them.
How much of Vancouver’s $35 million MLS expansion fee did the CSA chip in? How much of Montreal’s $40 million and Toronto’s $10 million? Yet they want these clubs and these owners to spend their own money developing something that isn’t theirs and can actually prove detrimental to their own club – the CSA product that is the Canadian Mens national team?
We’re not talking loose change here either. The Whitecaps have spent millions on their Residency program. Not because they want to benefit the Canadian national team, but because they want to develop their own player pool of young talent that they can promote the first team, when ready, and save paying transfer fees. In some cases, selling some of these players to help fund the program.
And they key here is the phrase “when ready”. A player should always be playing for the Whitecaps first team on merit and not on nationality. You want to know why the Whitecaps haven’t played as much Canadian talent as TFC have? Simple. There have been better playing options at the club. The result – two playoff appearances to none.
As nice as it would be to see the Residency talent I’ve watched and cheered on for years make it through the ranks and into the MLS side, it can only be because they are good enough to have got there and make a difference and a significant impact to the team.
Take the case of Bryce Alderson as an example. When he left the Whitecaps a few weeks ago, all the nonsense started about the ‘Caps not playing Canadian talent. Yup, they’re right. Vancouver didn’t play him. Why? Because he was fourth, maybe fifth, in the DM depth charts and simply not good enough to be playing first team football in MLS right now.
Would people have seriously had him playing over Matias Laba or Gershon Koffie and the ultimate knock on effect that would have had on the Whitecaps and their playoff push, just because he was Canadian? If the answer from anyone is seriously yes, then they need to give their heads a shake.
I don’t want to watch a losing Whitecaps team full of plucky Canadians. I want to see the Whitecaps win trophies, at all levels, and I couldn’t give a flying fuck what nationality the players are that take them to that point.
And I can assure you, I am not in the minority here.
Now I can’t speak for the fanbases in Toronto and Montreal, but if you were to poll Whitecaps supporters (and I’m not talking about the hardcore supporters’ groups element here but the general majority of fans here) about whether they would rather have a successful ‘Caps side or a successful Canadian national team, I can guarantee you that success at club level would be the clear winner.
Now, I admit that the two are not mutually exclusive, and the ‘Caps could, one day, lift the MLS Cup with a core base of homegrown talent, but let’s face facts – the Canadian talent pool is mighty thin right now. If it was so wonderful, Canada would not be ranked 110th in the world alongside Ethiopia and be 28 years and counting since it’s last World Cup finals appearance.
The top Canadian players can earn far more overseas, so the Canadian clubs are left with the second best options, sometimes third or fourth. Not the quality that will be bringing home silverware on a regular basis. Anyone who thinks that increasing the Canadian quota throughout MLS, or allowing them to be classed as domestics, is going to see a sudden influx of Canadian talent come back from overseas is living in cloud cuckoo land.
Most players dream of playing in Europe and many speak very openly about that. Given the choice they won’t be coming back to play for Columbus.
But if you can get the club game right here, then it will become more appealing over the years. You’re not going to do that by turning the clubs into poor quality teams that are basically just development sources for the national team.
In places like Scotland, England, Spain and Italy, teams mean something to their fans more than just being a football club. They have a long, proud history. They have local and family emotional attachments. That’s something that will take some time to fully build up in North America and it may never reach the psyche of some over here.
And part of the reason that the club game brings this level of passion is the regularity of it all. You can watch your side week in, week out. For about three quarters of the year or more, not just a few matches a year like you get with a national team and if you’re lucky at a major tournament every couple of years.
The key for the continued success of football in North America, and especially Canada, is a strong game at club level. Successful sides, winning trophies, raising interest and increasing attendances. Out of that will naturally come strong domestic talent and a better Canadian national team. It may take a while.
Clubs like Vancouver Whitecaps need to look after themselves and their fanbase first and foremost. The ‘Caps remit is simple – focus on what they are there for and that is becoming a consistently successful and trophy winning football club. Helping the Canadian national team along the way would be an enjoyable added bonus but it certainly should not be a main priority.
Trying to force playing time for Canadians, and making teams weaker as a result, will only kill the game here and many people’s passion for it. If the CSA want to improve their national team then they need to find a way to do it with their own initiatives, their own leagues and their own money.