By now most of you will be familiar with the CBC documentary regarding match fixing in the Canadian Soccer League. For anyone who is not, you can still find the clip from last night's The National online and read about it on CBC.ca as well as Canadian Soccer News. The report builds on a German court case to prove that match fixing has taken place in the CSL and explains why that could happen. It starts a conversation that needs to happen in Canadian soccer and could well be one of the most important ones we ever have if this country intends to ever launch a national soccer league.
The conversation is not what I want to focus on though as the report does not suggest that there is fixing in MLS matches. They have targeted the CSL because of its low profile and the fact that many of the players do not make much money. Going after the MLS and players on a team like Toronto FC would be far more difficult. The problem is that Toronto FC's youth teams are connected to the CSL with the U17 and U18 academy sides competing in the league.
So TFC's, and many of the GTA's, top young players are playing in a league that is tainted by the influence of foreign gamblers. That does not sound like a very good place to be developing the top young talents. Prior to these reports there was already a lot of talk about the fact that the CSL was not the ideal place to prepare players for the MLS, but now that talk should reach a whole new level.The first issue with the academy being in the CSL remains the fact that there is just such a huge gap between the skill level in that league and in the MLS. If a player like Stefan Vukovic can be the top scorer in the CSL despite being a teenager playing against mainly adults, but not be good enough to earn a professional contract with Toronto FC, just what value does playing in that league hold? This year you have a player like Sergio Camargo who has scored 10 goals in just 11 appearances but does that make him a realistic candidate to make the senior team next season? Not really, because doing that in the CSL is not at all the same as being able to do it in MLS.
There is one main benefit to having the academy play games in the MLS and that is that they have to work hard to win matches and are getting regular games. If they were in any youth league around Toronto for U17 or U18 players it would not be much of a challenge and they would not develop at all by walking over teams every match. So having them play in CSL and normally struggle (this year being the exception as they sit in 4th place) is probably better for development.
At this point there is no other viable option for the academy to get matches. They could skip out on being in a league and travel around setting up friendlies against other academy and development sides but that would be a lot of mileage for a group of teenagers to log. There really is no other league to put them in and keep them under control of the club the way that Toronto FC wants to. Even the approach of forming a PDL side to give academy and reserve players more playing experience is far from ideal.
So for now Toronto FC is faced with the fact that their academy teams need to play in the CSL until a better option comes into existence. So what do these match fixing reports mean for the academy program?
On the surface it is scary to think that someone could approach a teenager from Toronto FC academy who is not making any money and offer them a couple thousand dollars to throw the match. It would probably be very tempting to a young player who would only see the dollar signs rather than the potential long term consequences of making that deal. If match fixers tried to impact a match between Real Madrid and Toronto FC (CSN will have more on that) then why would they be afraid to go after a Toronto FC academy match? They clearly are not doing that much homework in some cases so it is conceivable that they would not be aware that there are two teams in the league that are quite different from the rest. Along with the Montreal Impact academy team, TFC academy should be the two teams that match fixers would avoid.
The other side of my gut reaction to this is that the academy sides are more professional in their approach to games than most other CSL sides. The players are under a fair bit more of a watchful eye from coaching staff meaning the chances of being able to pull one of them aside without anyone noting it as odd are much smaller. Toronto FC looks after these young players to make sure they are kept safe and nothing happens that could derail their careers.
It would also be foolish for a match fixer to go after a teenager in the hopes that they are naive. That is because of that exact naivety. The players would not be aware of the consequences of fixing a match and how crucial it would be to remain quiet about it. Imagine yourself as a teenager and what you would have done if someone gave you a couple thousand dollars. I know I would have been flashing it around, buying all kinds of toys, and telling all my friends about it. That is not really the kind of person you would want to go after to fix a match.
The likely target is the older CSL player who is just scraping by working a low end day job and only making a few dollars for playing on the team. They are the ones who would know to keep quiet about the dealings but also could still use the money. Not a teenager.
All that is my long way of saying that I am not really afraid that the academy is being tainted by match fixing. The key is that Toronto FC does listen to these reports and do everything they can to keep the players away from that side of things. They do have a responsibility to look after the players who are in the academy program and part of that is to make sure they are not getting caught up in illegal activities that could end their changes of going pro, playing in NCAA, or even worse land them in jail.
Of all the teams in CSL the two MLS academies might just have the most muscle to flex and the ability to take the lead on reform. Ideally the clubs would start to work with the CSA and we can see some reform and a better Canadian soccer league come out of all of this. Until then though, it seems the best the team can do is look after the players and make the best of a far from ideal situation.