Our Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team recently concluded the second of two FIFA World Cup qualification matches versus Mexico, in the 2nd stage of CONCACAF qualification, last week. Unfortunately, we lost both of those matches, by a score of 3-0 in the first match and 2-0 in the second.
Canada’s hopes of progression to the “Hex” (the group of six teams which represents the final stage of CONCACAF competition) and ultimately of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia now rest on our final two matches, versus Honduras on September 2nd, and then El Salvador on September 6th of this year.
Defensively, aside from the most recent games against the much stronger Mexicans, Canada has been solid. We secured a 1-0 win versus Honduras back in November of 2015 at BC Place in Vancouver, before earning 1 point in a tough 0-0 draw away to El Salvador later the same month.
It has been on the offensive side of the ball, however, where we have looked deficient, having only managed to score the one – albeit game-winning – goal against Honduras six months ago. This deficiency will need to be addressed soon, as the only possible scenario that would see Canada advance through to the final round of World Cup qualification would be to secure at least 3 points (at least one more win) out of the next 2 matches.
Why are we having such a problem scoring goals at the senior international level? And by extension, why are we also seemingly having a problem developing soccer players who possess the attacking talent, skills, and insight necessary to create and score goals? There are likely many reasons, including a need for better player development programs and coach education at the youth levels, more and better domestic professional opportunities for our best players, as well as better funding and programming for our National Teams programs.
The following two reasons, however, can most accurately account for our inability to develop creative and talented attacking players, who can in turn create and score goals for our National Team:
- Youth soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to develop players.
Why would they want to?
Canadian youth clubs and academies are not financially rewarded for producing players who become professionals (either locally or abroad) nor, in many cases, are they even recognized or acknowledged for the role they have played in the development of talented players who have progressed to these higher levels.
In most countries with successful national teams programs – especially in Europe where most professional clubs have youth academies – player development is treated as a business. Professional youth academies, most notably those without investors or large budgets, are able to sustain their expenses partially through revenue earned when a player they developed – their “product” – is “purchased” by another club – the “consumer” – and signs a professional contract.
Unfortunately, in Canada, our own youth clubs and academies are disconnected from this “business” model, and thus there are no tangible, financial incentives for them to develop players. This lack of incentive in turn means that the player development system in our country is fragmented, and we are not able to help our young players reach their maximum potential.
Furthermore, until very recently, the great majority of the youth soccer leagues and tournaments in Canada have only rewarded clubs for winning, irrespective of the quality of their play and/or the quality of the players they produce. Thus, the primary aim of all Canadian youth soccer clubs has been, for decades, to win league titles and trophies at tournaments, not to develop players. If these clubs are not incentivised to develop players, then players will not develop.
- Professional soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to win.
Once again, why would they want to?
Canada presently has three professional teams competing in Major League Soccer or “MLS” (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps), and another two in the North American Soccer League or “NASL” (FC Edmonton, and the Ottawa Fury). Because neither MLS nor the NASL have a tiered-division system with promotion and relegation (whereby the top teams from the lower division are promoted to the higher division, and the bottom teams from the higher division are relegated to the lower division), none of the teams competing in these leagues (including the Canadian teams) are ever going to be truly motivated to win.
Of course, if a team in MLS od the NASL wins enough games, they will have the opportunity to make the play-offs, and eventually to win the league championship (the MLS Cup in MLS or the Soccer Bowl in the NASL), and this success could in turn bring more fans, exposure, and revenue to the team. Regardless of any potential motivation that the prospects of success from winning games might bring, however, none of our Canadian professional teams will ever have to face the threat of being punished for losing through relegation to a lower division. As long as they can continue to generate revenue by maintaining fans’ interest, attaining and maintaining a television deal, and attracting corporate sponsors, any of our professional clubs can survive and even thrive in MLS or the NASL without ever having to produce a winning team.
Interestingly, MLS and the NASL are the only professional soccer leagues in the world which function without tiered divisions and a promotion-relegation system. In any other country, anywhere else in the world, soccer teams who finish in last place in their division (or, in many cases, also in 2nd or 3rd last place) get relegated to a lower division. This means that the teams playing in MLS and the NASL (including the Canadian teams) are the only soccer teams in the world who do not have an incentive to win in order to avoid being relegated to a lower division.
There could not be a more perfect example of how the lack of incentive to win has affected a Canadian professional soccer team than Toronto FC, which entered MLS as an expansion team in 2007. Here is a summary of Toronto FC’s record (point total, place finished in their division, and place finished in the league) sine their inaugural MLS season:
||7th (out of 7)
||13th (out of 13)
||7th (out of 7)
||12th (out of 14)
||5th (out of 7)
||13th (out of 15)
||5th (out of 8)
||12th (out of 16)
||8th (out of 9)
||16th (out of 18)
||10th (out of 10)
||19th (out of 19)
||9th (out of 10)
||16th (out of 19)
||7th (out of 10)
||16th (out of 19)
||6th (out of 10)
||12th (out of 20)
In any other professional soccer league, in any other country in the world, Toronto FC would have been relegated in at least two and possibly as many as five of their previous nine seasons in Major League Soccer. And it’s not just Toronto FC; Montreal Impact, another Canadian MLS team, finished with just 28 points, 10th out of 10 in their division and 19th out of 19 overall in the 2014 MLS season. You get the point. It seems only logical then, that the Canadian players competing in these leagues and for these teams (many of whom end up representing Canada at the senior international level) may end up lacking some of the competitive edge needed to be successful in World Cup qualification and, ultimately someday, at the World Cup.
In conclusion, if we expect to develop better soccer players in Canada, then we need to make some changes to the paradigms which exist in our present youth and professional soccer systems. What we need in order to be successful is to incentivise our soccer clubs. Canadian youth soccer clubs and academies need to be incentivised to develop and produce talented players. Canadian professional soccer clubs need to be incentivised to win. If we can find a way to set up and enforce these incentives, then maybe we can be more successful at the international level.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.