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Eight Years Later: Canada's Place in Major League Soccer

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In 2007 the introduction of Toronto FC into Major League Soccer put Canada on the league's map. Technically this made Canada and the United States partners, but eight years later that is far from true.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The more domestic Major League Soccer becomes to Canada, the more successful the national team program will become. It is a fact that has been uttered since Toronto FC joined the league in 2007, and reinforced when the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact followed suit in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

However, while Canada has added its name to the American league, it is far from equal with its partners to the south. Major League Soccer remains a league with the main goal of developing the sport in the United States. As a result, eight years after joining MLS, Canada is still on the outside looking in on the league's identity.

The only other major professional sports league where the two countries each have multiple franchises, the National Hockey League, is a decent measuring stick. Through years of development, America is getting closer in terms of talent to Canada in hockey. As a result, Americans now make up 24 per cent of the league, Canada still leads with 50.6 per cent.

During the 2014 season in Major League Soccer, Canadians made up just over 4 per cent of Major League Soccer's population, with America leading at 55 per cent. To make the NHL comparison again, that puts Canada in the MLS where the United States was in hockey in 1970. It was 1996 before America won the World Cup of hockey, their first major tournament victory, at which time they represented 18 per cent of the league.

By that metric, Canada is almost three decades behind the American soccer program. In order to get to the level where American hockey was when it won the World Cup, Canada needs about 71 more players in Major League soccer. To reach today's standard, MLS would need over 100 more Canadians.

Canadian MLS Players Graph

There are some differences between these situations, and at least some cause for optimism for Canada in this regard. For one, the United States is not nearly as knowledgeable or versed in soccer as Canada is in hockey. In fact, even the United States has a better hockey structure than soccer. Secondly, the number of Canadian players in the league is increasing with some rapidity since the introduction of Toronto FC.

However, there is a major obstacle holding Canadian soccer back and it has consistently been the same: the fact that Canadians are still considered internationals on American team rosters. Until this is solved there is no chance 71 Canadian players will be playing in MLS.

It doesn't help that Canadians are finding it harder to get playing time on Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Montreal Impact either. In 2014 only the Impact were trending in a positive direction in terms of Canadians on their MLS squad. That is a fact that will almost surely change now that Issey Nakajima-Farran and Karl Ouimette are no longer with the team.

Canadians in MLS by Team

Toronto FC have had the most striking decline, from 16 on the roster in 2007 to just 7 last season. Again, that number looks set to decline as Kyle Bekker and Issey Nakajima-Farran have gone elsewhere. Minus a small spike in 2010 when the academy produced its first batch of talent, the trend has been almost exclusively downward.

This has forced Canadian soccer to create League 1 Ontario in order to develop young Canadian players who are not getting an opportunity with Major League Soccer. The same can be said of USL Pro, and the new affiliates Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal have created.

It also begs the question as to whether or not Major League Soccer can be a long term development option for Canadian Soccer. Sadly, in current form that answer is an unequivocal no. Everywhere but the Canadian teams, Canadians serve essentially the same purpose as everyone else: international competition to help develop American players.

Even on Canadian teams, at the top level at least, bringing in Canadian players is not on the agenda. The past two offseasons, Toronto FC has brought in five US internationals, while only Dwayne De Rosario was brought in from the Canadian team. He has since left the team after starting only four games in 2014.

But the number that needs to be looked at most is where Canadians would be in MLS without Canadian teams. It really is concerning. Even adding Steven Vitoria as a fringe Canadian, Karl Ouimette should he make the New York Reds, Kyle Bekker's move to FC Dallas, Cyle Larin being drafted 1st overall and Marcel De Jong's on trial with Sporting Kansas City won't really help the situation.

In the NHL, 33 American players currently play for Canadian teams. Many of them are stars: Dustin Byfuglien, Max Pacioretty,  Johnny Gaudreau, Phil Kessel, Ryan Miller and Bobby Ryan to name a few. Only 5 Canadian players played for American teams in 2014: Will Johnson, Kyle Porter, Nana Attakora and Tesho Akindele who technically isn't American just yet. Of that group, only Will Johnson could really be considered a star.

Canada has a few options before Major League Soccer starts to hurt the national team's development instead of helping it. The simplest would be to push hard to get a resolution on the rules that make Canadians internationals for American teams. If that doesn't work, it might be time to look at making an all Canadian league. The time is now for Canada to figure out whether or not MLS is the future, because if not it must make a turn before the league becomes a dead end.