Ben Woodfinden: Canada finally has a reason for optimism about men’s soccer

The team has seen the emergence of global superstars in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David
Canada midfielder Alphonso Davies at BMO Field in Toronto, on Sept. 7, 2019. Cole Burston/The Canadian Press.

When you think about soccer in Canada, especially soccer excellence and success, chances are it’s Canadian women’s and not men’s soccer that comes to mind.

The women’s team has finished as high as fourth at the World Cup, is consistently among the most competitive teams in the world, and has produced superstars and household names like Christine Sinclair.

Canadian men’s soccer is a different story. Canada has qualified just once for the World Cup, in Mexico in 1986. The team picked up no points and failed to score a goal at the tournament. Canada has won the Gold Cup, the North American (CONCACAF) equivalent of the Euros twice, in 1985 and 2000. But few would say Canadian men’s soccer punches at or above its weight.

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Canada has produced plenty of solid players over the years, like goalkeeper Craig Forrest, midfielders Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson, and the all-time men’s leading goalscorer Dwayne De Rosario, but since the generation of players that got Canada to the World Cup success has been fleeting and rare.

The team was a penalty shootout away from qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, but since 1997 Canada’s efforts to qualify for the World Cup have gotten increasingly embarrassing. In the 2014 qualification cycle the team was making good progress, and to advance to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying all they needed was a win or a draw in Honduras.

Instead, they were thrashed 8-1 in perhaps the most humiliating defeat ever for the men’s team and one that represented a real low point.

Canada’s underwhelming performance internationally for the last few decades is a product of much deeper structural problems, ones that are finally changing. In a previous column for The Hub I wrote about how Canada is sparsely populated nation with most of the population spread out across a transcontinental strip. This poses challenges for national unity in abstract ways but also in real tangible ways when it comes to things like having national sports leagues, as fans of the CFL will know. Canadian soccer is no exception.

The Canadian Soccer League was, until very recently, the last national professional soccer league in Canada, and it folded in 1992. The league, now largely forgotten, struggled in its brief existence and never really established itself either financially or in the sporting landscape. Having no national professional soccer league in Canada until 2019 has put Canadian players at a huge disadvantage for decades, one that has become apparent in the dearth of talent Canada has produced.

Why would this matter? Well until recently the reality for serious Canadian soccer players was that if they wanted to go pro they would almost certainly have to go elsewhere to do so. While soccer teams will bring in talented players from all over the place, the vast majority of teams are still built around a core of domestic players.

French teams will have lots of french players, German teams lots of German players, Italian, English, Spanish the same and so on. What this does for virtually every other country is mean they have a series of professional teams that can help nurture and grow talent.

Until 2019 Canada was an outlier in this regard. It had no domestic league that could act as a home league to develop and offer chances to Canadian players. Canadian soccer players found themselves almost as exiles, unable to hone their craft at home, and force to travel abroad to go try and go pro. In addition to limiting opportunities for Canadian players, one of the unfortunate effects of this is that talented Canadian players who did end up going abroad to pursue a professional career often end up defecting and playing internationally for another country.

Some recent examples of this include England international and former Bayern Munich and Manchester United midfielder Owen Hargreaves, Bosnian international goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, and Jonathan de Guzman, the brother of the aforementioned Julian de Guzman who opted to play internationally for the Netherlands instead. The choices players make in who they represent internationally are complicated, but forcing Canadian players abroad has undoubtedly influenced the exodus of talent that Canada has seen over the years.

Canadian men’s soccer hasn’t been in the doldrums in recent decades simply because no one in Canada plays, watches, or cares about soccer. It’s a popular recreational and youth sport, and viewing numbers of the best leagues around the world like the English Premier League are strong. Instead, these structural disadvantages have seen Canada fall behind in men’s soccer. For decades Canada was a spectator to the world’s biggest game, and its best players forced to play in exile. But this is changing.

That Alphonso Davies is now helping guide Canada potentially to the World Cup in 2022 is a sign of real progress.

After the collapse of the CSL a few surviving teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact joined lower tier American leagues and survived. But in 2007 Toronto FC became the first Canadian team to join Major League Soccer (MLS) and ensured there was at least one professional Canadian team playing in a top tier league. Since forming in the 1990s MLS has improved substantially, and Canadian teams along with it. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact (now CF Montreal) joined in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

The Canadian trio of MLS clubs have had mixed success on the field, but each has built large and loyal followings and the teams are firmly established in their respective sports markets. Toronto FC struggled in their early years, but have found their footing and won the MLS Cup (playoff) and Supporters Shield (regular season) in 2017. The team was arguably one of the best ever fielded in MLS, with some genuinely elite talent like the American national team captain Michael Bradley and Italian international Sebastian Giovinco.

While the Canadian MLS teams are a minority in a predominantly American league, these three teams are an important part of Canadian soccer’s revival both for domestic and international purposes. First off, it gives us professional teams to build soccer culture and interest around and brings soccer home in a tangible way. But it also gives Canadian players natural homes that matter for the nurturing of talent.

The structural disadvantage Canadian players have faced are well illustrated by MLS rules on domestic players that were changed in 2017. There are a limited number of spots on MLS rosters for international players. Prior to 2017 American players on Canadian teams counted as domestic players, but Canadian players on American teams were considered international players. This meant that Canadians were competing for limited international spots on American teams while American players were considered domestic for Canadian MLS teams. This has been changed now, but these kinds of structural issues put Canadian players at an enormous disadvantage in all sorts of leagues and countries.

MLS success has helped lead to what is really needed however, which is the development of more all-Canadian competition.

This growth has helped produce, for the first time in decades, a new national professional Canadian Premier League that started in 2019. The league has had the ill fortune of dealing with a global pandemic in just its second and third season, but the third season begins this weekend and the league looks to be on firm footing financially.

No one is under any illusions that this league will all of a sudden be among the world’s best, but it has teams across the country and plans for expansion, and long term provides exactly the kind of national league needed to provide homes for emerging and end of career Canadian talent, as well as helping to cultivate what you might call a national soccer consciousness that deepens soccer’s roots in Canada.

All of this points to foundations that will ensure Canadian men’s soccer is set for success long term, but the most encouraging of all the encouraging signs that soccer here is ecaping the doldrums is the recent performance of the national team and the emergence of some bonafide global superstars in Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David.

Davies, who is becoming a household name, was born in a refugee camp in Liberia and eventually ended up in Edmonton. He joined the Whitecaps youth program in 2015, and after flashing his unbelievable potential as a teenager in Vancouver was signed by Bayern Munich where he has established himself as one of the world’s most exciting young players.

Davies is exactly the sort of talent who, a decade ago, may have ended up having to leave Canada before going pro to continue his career and ended up choosing to represent another country internationally. That Davies is now helping guide Canada potentially to the World Cup in 2022 is a sign of real progress. Jonathan David, a striker from Ottawa is another emerging superstar who became the most expensive ever Canadian player when he signed for Lille and helped blast Lille to an unexpected Ligue 1 championship in France. Davies and David are just 20 and 21 respectively.

Davies and David, along with a young squad growing together under the leadership of the former women’s team coach John Herdman have begun to show their potential in World Cup qualifying. Canada has reached the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying for the first time in decades, and Canada has a genuine shot at being at the World Cup in Qatar next year. Even if they don’t make it, the long term foundations are set both domestically and internationally.

Soccer is never going to be the dominant sport in Canada, but for too long Canadian soccer has been embarrassing and made us spectators to the world’s most popular sport. But Canadian sports and soccer fans have reason for genuine optimism that we are about to escape the doldrums, and it may just be that Canadian men’s soccer is finally coming of age.

Sports play a role in helping shape national consciousness and pride and finally all Canadians should be genuinely excited by the prospect that a country that considers itself as globally oriented and pluralisitc as Canada may finally be able to enter the stage as a player and not just spectator to the beautiful game.

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