An Organic Vision of Major League Soccer

Jul 18, 2012 by

An Organic Vision of Major League Soccer

In my last article I was critical of the quality of soccer regularly displayed by Major League Soccer (MLS) and more specifically by Toronto FC (TFC).  But I also suggested there are promising aspects in place that can serve as a foundation for optimism.  It is my hope that MLS is a successful enterprise and that it one day becomes a world-class professional league.  Many of you will steadfastly disagree and suggest that it already is; but I’m not content watching second-grade talent and former greats play in the twilight of their career.  I want the best to play here.  I want to watch greats play in the prime of their career in MLS.  But there are realities that we must all understand and embrace.  The best soccer players want to play in Europe – that will likely never change in our lifetime.  In order for MLS to be a great product it has to be local and ,although it already has strong American representation, I argue that MLS needs to go even further: it should reduce the amount of international players teams are able to sign and designate a minimum number of places on each team’s roster for Canadian players.  I will discuss how the promotion of international players is holding back the development of local soccer talent.  Also, I will suggest ways to improve the future direction of the league by building and reinforcing a locally focused game that I believe will serve its aspiring athletes and its fans for the better.  The result could one day lead to MLS being a stand-alone product and perhaps even the envy of other professional leagues. 


MLS must reduce the number of international players per team and promote a more domestic league.  Currently 152 international player slots are divided among 19 teams, allowing for potentially 8 international players per team.  On the surface, 8 players do not sound like a lot, but that could potentially make up the majority of a starting line-up and almost a third of a team’s 30 roster spots.  Additionally, if an international player has been brought in he’s likely playing regularly, otherwise why would the player or  the team agree to a contract in the first place?  Some will argue that it improves the overall play and makes MLS a top-notch league, but the improvement is likely marginal and it hinders the development of native-born players.  Perhaps many fans are content with the status quo, as we are afforded the opportunity to watch players from around the world. MLS’ predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL), founded in 1968, followed a similar model; despite a handful of successful teams, like the Pele-led New York Cosmos, soccer didn’t capture the imagination of American and Canadian cities. It had trouble with attendance and would ultimately come to its demise in 1984.  The reasons for its failure are more complex than that of allowing international players to play a defining role in the league – but it played a part. If MLS should ever falter like the NASL, what then?  Where will American and Canadian players go to develop? If they were good enough they would already be playing in the top leagues in Europe; instead most would struggle, competing for spots on second-tier clubs – most likely as role players.  This would be partly due to a lack of talent, but also because local teams in countries like Italy and England are more likely to play their own domestically produced players over internationals – that is unless the international player is good enough to play a greater role. When all things are equal, why would an organization play an international over a native-born player with similar talent?  Is MLS that much better for allowing such a high number of international players? Many will suggest that it is, but I don’t think there is any compelling evidence to suggest that this is in fact true.  So why is MLS pandering to a broader audience at the expense of the development of locally grown soccer players? Why is MLS so concerned with projecting an image that it is an elite league which is competitive in luring and retaining world-class soccer talent?  The obvious answer is money – MLS is first concerned with building a profitable league and awards its teams for their willingness to buy talent as opposed to developing it.  The truth is that international players come to MLS as a last resort, either because they are not good enough to play domestically or because their local league is even worse than MLS or because someone is willing to dramatically overpay like the LA Galaxy did to get David Beckham. Do you really thinkEngland’s former captain would prefer to play for the LA Galaxy over Manchester United?  Yes it is still a treat to watch him and other former elite players play from time to time, but the marginal international players who are replacing local talent are not impacting the league as positively. In fact their presence is hindering the long-term stability of the game and the development of soccer in America and Canada. Sadly, MLS is complicit in encouraging international participation at the expense of local talent development and in my opinion, with little benefit to the overall product on the field.   


An obvious solution to promoting local soccer development is to dramatically reduce the role of international players.  Restricting the international presence to 3 players per team would leave room for some international representation and is enough to still maintain a strong presence.  It would also ensure that internationals who are playing here are actually elite talent.  MLS shouldn’t encourage battle between an international player and a local player when they are similarly skilled players – they should promote local development first, only allow the exceptional internationals to play a role.  If MLS reduced the presence of international soccer players, in the long run, it would force organizations to invest more money in local communities and nearby regions.  This financial support would also help provide the infrastructure and stability sorely lacking in the smaller American and Canadian soccer communities. Promoting a locally developed game also gives hope to youth that the local professional league is behind them and that it is a league that is worth aspiring to play in.  Hence, when young elite talented boys like Canadian-born Owen Hargraeves come through the system they are more likely to stay and retain their citizenship rather than flee to Europe to build their career.  These rare talents cannot continue to be lost to other professional soccer leagues; they need to be mainstays in the MLS – a league proud to promote and develop its own. It may be years before we see the fruits of this development, maybe even generations, but it will eventually come to fruition if the infrastructure is there to foster it.  For this to happen it must be a defining part of the vision of MLS and mandated among its teams. In the short-term we may see a decline in the overall product, but MLS has an opportunity and, I would argue, an obligation to build locally; the current policies that are in place do not go far enough to support this initiative. This is even more obvious with their lack of promotion of Canadian born players. 

 There is simply not enough representation of Canadian soccer players in MLS.  Current rules stipulate that Canadian MLS franchises are required to keep 3 slots open for Canadian citizens.  No slots are imposed on American based teams. This is simply not enough and the international composition of teams suggests that MLS is not doing enough to promote Canadian players.  TFC has the highest representation with nine Canadian born players, while the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact each have four.  Comparatively, among the sixteen remaining American teams there is a grand total of 8 Canadians playing, with nine teams having no Canadian representation.  Yes, there are more Canadians playing on TFC then all US-based MLS clubs combined.   The cynics will argue that this is a partial reason for understanding TFC’s poor record; but regardless, at least this team acknowledges the importance of developing locally.  It’s refreshing and will hopefully rub off on both the Vancouver and Montreal franchises.  Teams such as the reigning MLS cup champion LA Galaxy have over 20 Americans on their squad and the San Jose Earthquakes, currently leading the Western Conference standings, have 19 – both are among the leagues more successful franchises. Why shouldn’t some Canadian clubs take a similar opportunity to breed and develop some of Canada’s finest all together?  Wouldn’t that be a compelling team to follow? Canada should not be confused with being a world soccer power, but its league-wide underrepresentation among American teams is appalling.  How is MLS going to convince Canadian soccer fans and future Canadian soccer players that it has their best interests in mind while having such paltry representation of them and doing so little to address the issue?  As long as there are Canadian teams in the MLS, there has to be a greater effort made to provide opportunities to Canadian-born soccer players.  The first step that should be taken is to introduce a minimum number of Canadian players for all American-based teams, with two being the bare minimum.  Also, for Canadian teams, its official minimum representation should double to six; even if these players are on the practice squad, they’re still getting access to a higher level of training than from whatever senior men’s soccer league they might play in.   In addition, the Canadian National soccer team would benefit by having more of its players play at a higher level and locally, making it easier for its players to train with one another during qualification periods. If there is a soccer organization that could use a lift, it would be Canada’s national program, which is currently ranked 68th in the world and has not qualified for the World Cup since it first gained entry in 1986.  Assuredly the Canadian Soccer Association would be thrilled at the prospect of seeing more Canadian talent being given the opportunity to gain the experience and confidence that could one day translate into better individual and team performance.


There is talent to be seen at an MLS game, but the overall quality is lacking and difficult to support. As much as I don’t enjoy watching, I feel like there is a great deal of potential and hope in this league – but not as it currently stands.  Seeing the type of fan support in buildings like TFC’s BMO field, I feel like there are enough soccer enthusiasts to do something unique – that is to develop and promote, almost entirely, a league made up of American and Canadian soccer players.  Already there are teams like the LA Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes who are building teams almost entirely composed of American players and witnessing a great deal of success.  MLS should go further and reduce the number of international players available to the league.  It should also encourage the representation of Canadian soccer players by adding minimum Canadian player slots to all American teams and increasing the current slots for all Canadian based franchises.  Some will argue that this concept will never work and could be construed as xenophobic and anti-capitalist among others.  Naturally, these critics fail to see what’s important.  The truth is MLS needs to support local soccer development for the long-term success of the league and also for the game’s development in America and Canada.  Unapologetically, MLS should be brave and define itself by its local soccer stars and characters rather than former international greats playing out their final years as novelty items to the trendy followers of the game.  MLS shouldn’t be concerned with solely maximizing profits at the expense of local development.  It should focus on bringing in the best coaches available and building and stabilizing the infrastructure in the smaller communities that make organizations in sports like hockey so powerful in countries like Canada.  Yes this might be a bit of a radical suggestion; but I want the best soccer to be played on the fields of America and Canada, both on a national level and a professional level.  The best of the world don’t want to play here unless they have no other alternative; so we should focus on building a great domestic product.  This is something to aspire to; and even if there are growing pains along the way, eventually the great soccer that is currently played on foreign soil will become commonplace in cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.  Isn’t that what all true soccer fans want?

by Nick Kazos

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