The single biggest moment of growth for MLS came about 10 years ago, when the league announced the creation of the ‘David Beckham Rule’. Now a decade later, it hopes to recreate some of that impact with what essentially can be called the ‘Atiba Hutchinson Rule’.
For those who missed it, Don Garber recently spoke to Canadian media and discussed growing the game in Canada beyond the existing MLS cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
The core of Garber’s idea to grow the league north of the 49th parallel is to essentially create a special fourth designated player spot that the Canadian teams could use to repatriate Canadian stars currently playing in Europe or elsewhere overseas.
Three more high-profile Canadian players in the league would generate buzz in the immediate short-term, but is it really enough to create increase interest in cities like Calgary, Halifax and Winnipeg?
Viewed on its own, I think this rule moves the needle about as much as offering free hot dogs at the respective stadiums. Sure, the fans in Montreal would love it, but what do soccer fans in Hamilton care what happens another province away?
For argument’s sake, let’s say Montreal signs Junior Hoilett, Vancouver signs Hutchinson, and Toronto signs Scott Arfield. That’s just about the best-case scenario, but are those names big enough that those out west with deep hatred for the Big Smoke would suddenly rush out to buy Reds jerseys with Arfield on the back? I think a fan in Regina would turn the soccer page just as quickly to see what their Roughriders are doing. Likewise in every other city across this country.
While success of MLS cities in Canada hinges on the teams in those cities itself, growing the game across Canada will come down to one thing; the success of the Canadian men’s national team.
Take hockey as an example. It’s very hard for fans in Edmonton to cheer for a Maple Leafs player, even if he is Canadian, so long as he’s wearing the jersey of a team that’s not of their beloved city. But this changes every four years during the Olympics, when players don the red-and-white maple leaf and play for country, not club. I can still remember 2002, when Jarome Iginla became a huge part of Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and cheering for him was a nationwide exercise. Just three weeks later, when he was back in a Calgary Flames uniform, I couldn’t stand the sight of him on the ice despite still following his every move with Canadian pride and affection. Needless to say, my Edmonton Oilers fandom was in a bit of confusion and flux after that.
If MLS wants to truly grow the footprint of the league in this country, it will be predicated on the success of the national team and not one more player in each MLS city.
To that extent, Don Garber has actually made a mistake. His offseason of rule changes has done little to move that needle.
Around the time of the MLS Cup, the league announced that Canadians who were on MLS-approved youth clubs or team academies would become domestic players for their clubs, whether in Canada or the United States. This was definitely a positive move, but it’s a half-measure and ultimately not enough to make an impact to the extent that the commissioner thinks it will.
What this move doesn’t address is those players who are late developing or go through the NCAA system. It’s fine if young talent is identified at a very young age, but what about that superstar who is spotted at 18 or 19? He will be still be shut out of this system.
If MLS - and to an extent Canada Soccer - is truly serious about growing the game in Canada and increasing the level of talent for the league as a whole, there’s one solution: list Canadian players as domestics, or create a special sub-category to allow three or four Canadians on each team without disrupting the international spots that each club is currently afforded.
Garber recently alleged that the NASL (just like the USL) decision to list Canadian players as domestics was in violation of U.S. law. Excuse me if I need a giant bin of salt to process that. While they may be second-tier leagues, I am certain that they can at least afford an immigration and labour lawyer who would have clarified the legality of this issue prior to these leagues announcing their decisions publicly.
And while Garber has announced his misgivings about the rule, neither he nor MLS has actually provided any listed law that this decision violates. Now, I’m no lawyer, but I’m married to one and I’ve watched enough Law & Order and The Good Wife to know that precedent is everything. If the courts don’t contend the USL and NASL decisions as being in violation, there is no reason why the MLS shouldn’t also be able to extend the domestic tag to Canadian-born players as well.
Nation-building events like Vancouver 2010 is how you grow a game. A country as diverse, and geographically distinct, as ours needs tent-pole events that unite its citizens. When Sidney Crosby scored his golden goal, I saw Canadians of all walks of life come together to celebrate as one. It’s no coincidence now that, after that event, Hockey Night In Canada is broadcast in Punjabi because of the overwhelming support that particular community has shown for the game.
Soccer has a distinct advantage. It’s already the world’s game. If MLS and the CSA can take steps to grow the game and sprinkle Canadian stars across the league, it will do a lot more good than the casual lip service of having a DP in each city. Imagine Canadians united across this country to watch the national team at the 2022 World Cup. Once those players return to their club cities, fans will then follow and keep up with them. They may not cheer the teams, but their adherence to their Canadian heroes will last far longer than the 90 minutes of MLS action once a week.
If the game and the league are truly to be grown in Canada, then we need real action and rule changes. Once the sizzle is cooled down, there needs to be a damn good steak behind it.