The 2 Missing Ingredients for Success in Canadian Soccer

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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:

2007 25 7th (out of 7) 13th (out of 13)
2008 35 7th (out of 7) 12th (out of 14)
2009 39 5th (out of 7) 13th (out of 15)
2010 35 5th (out of 8) 12th (out of 16)
2011 33 8th (out of 9) 16th (out of 18)
2012 23 10th (out of 10) 19th (out of 19)
2013 29 9th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2014 41 7th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2015 49 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.


8 thoughts on “The 2 Missing Ingredients for Success in Canadian Soccer

  1. Doug Martin

    The CSA can solve the incentive issue in one meeting by enforcing the existing payment process mandated by FIFA their ongoing failure to do so indicates a lack of desire for youth clubs to gain in stature.

    For the pro clubs our promotion/relegation is via the Voyageurs Cup, win and you compete in Champions League, with potential for more games and revenue as well as prestige.

    NASL should adopt a second division by 2017 with promotion relegation, if they wish to eclispe MLS in ten years, the failure to do will be a missed opportunity. Set a promotion standard for stadia size/budget and develop a NASL division 2 with 4k stadium size.


      Hi Doug, thanks for your reply! I agree with what you have said. I think the Voyageurs Cup / CONCACAF Champions League does have great potential to incentivise teams to win, but the MLS league season has even greater potential (because you need to win consistently all year, rather than just in one or two matches versus other Canadian teams). I have heard rumors that the NASL was looking to set up a 2nd division – I think it would be great! Even better if the NASL teams also had youth academies, and/or an NASL academy league.

  2. I agree on many points made but culture and the need to play soccer in order to survive is a big factor in Canada as well as the USA, the average Canadian kid does not need to have a soccer career in order to survive unlike many South American countries and Europeon Countries. We can argue the fact that Germans dont need soccer as well to survive but its part of their culture. The average Canadian kid has a good life so busting their balls to be a soccer player is not as important compared to South Americans or even Europeons, I think that is a problem that should be solved. I agree the Canadian structure of doing things should be changed and more like what the Americans have done these past years but when there is no Money to be put in it makes it difficult for a positive change.


      Hi Fernando, thank you for your reply/comment! I agree with you – we do not have a soccer culture here in Canada (and for the most part, neither does the United States). I am also not sure if we ever will have the kind of soccer culture that exists in South America (where incentives to develop are for escaping poverty and to have a better life) or in more wealthy European countries (where players are not necessarily trying to escape poverty but soccer is the most popular sport, and there are numerous professional clubs in each major city). You have mentioned that there is “no money”, however, if clubs were compensated for developing and selling players, the there would be more money available. I also think we have much more power to control and affect the changes I have suggested, regarding club compensation and creation of a tiered-league system with promotion and relegation. Changing soccer culture is a lot more challenging!

  3. Thank-you gentlemen for your enlightened perspectives on the state of Canadian Soccer and its dearth of creative inventive play leading to international successes. I am also delighted that you high light South American Football as this brand of football is almost ignored here in Canada. I believe in integrated foot ball where the Zenith of European concepts and South American concepts are merged and not ignored as is the case here.
    Skill development is essential with consistent and knowledgeable qualified coaching. The impetus must be the love of soccer , skill development and technical and later tactical awareness and enlightenment.
    South American football has nuances of distinct differences compared to Continental European Football and vice versa. Integration would be a brilliant avenue for success with the relegation system and coach compensation. Let’s have an open dialogue. It would be brilliant to exchange.
    Hilton Tobin.


      Hi Hilton, thanks for your comment! I like what you have said about South American football. I have had some experience working in Uruguay, and I think that the main reasons they are able to develop successful players are:
      1. They have a well-functioning professional league, with tiered divisions and promotion-relegation, which incentivises the clubs, teams and players to be successful (as I have mentioned in my article)
      2. They have excellent coach education programs (it takes the equivalent of a 4-year university degree to become a coach in the youth academies there).
      3. AS you have mentioned, they have a strong soccer culture. Everyone there is passionate about the game and everyone supports local teams, as well as the larger club teams and the National team. I think this culture provides great motivation for the players to push them to become more successful.
      Thanks again for your comment and feedback!

      • Thank-you so very much for your gracious feedback. It is a pleasure to connect with you Sir and to read your unbiased excellent posts. Cheers !
        Hilton Tobin.

  4. Mark Beck

    The Foundation is the Culture and we simply don’t have a soccer Culture here in Canada and it’s compounded by weather for 5 months a year . The old adage “Numbers don’t lie ” comes to mind . The average HIGH end Youth player in Canada trains 4.5 hrs. a week and outside of training plays another 2 hrs. week (on average) for fun / recreationally (Remember winter makes it very difficult for pick up soccer ) That’s 312 Hrs. a year with a ball for 10 formative years of development from 6 -16yrs of age total 3120 hrs. on the ball for a 48 week year . Just came back from Spain and here is their numbers the AVERAGE player trains 4.5 -6 hrs. a week plus on average plays 20 hrs. a week with the ball outside of training for a average total 1248 hrs. a year with a ball . Total for same 10 years for AVERAGE youth player in Spain 12480 hrs. on the ball , that’s over 9000 hrs. MORE time on the ball , 4 Times more experience , more touch , more comfort , more everything than the highest level Canadian youth player . I agree with most everything said but no matter what league’s , promotion System , OSA , CSA and everything in between until our Foundation (Player development ) TIME on the ball as youth players is addressed and a true soccer culture occurs in Canada we simple will never get to the lofty standards set by Europe and South America . The reality is “numbers don’t lie” Now their is 1000 arguments on how to make Canadian futbol better and most will help but without the very first and most fundamental of issue’s REAL Youth player development , and” time on ball” is solved it will be very difficult . Nothing replaces the brilliant , creative , competent , composed and FUN play exercised in the School yard , back yard , street , failed a 1000 times without being chastised by Parent , Coach and then success finally ! then they bring that confidence to organized training and then to the big game . Just my perspective . Cheers

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