Former Toronto FC fullback Gabe Gala was a beneficiary of an MLS Canadian quota. And see how much it helped his career. (AbelImages/Getty Images)
So, the Major League Soccer Canadian quota isn't dead after all. Months after multiple sources states that MLS was going to kill the rule for the 2011 season, we learn now that it's back. However, it has been watered down to the point of insipidity: Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and soon the Montreal Impact will be required to have three Canadian players each on their roster. Three's not a lot: both Toronto and Vancouver have that covered almost incidentally without dipping into their academies or signing fringe free agents. This isn't a return to the old days of 2007, when scrubs like Andrea Lombardo and Gabe Gala were being turned out just because of their country of origin. This is a restriction that is barely a restriction at all.
The Canadian Soccer Association will probably be at least a little pleased. They railed against the removal of the quota last year, starting a row with Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi in the process. None of the Canadian teams were likely to dip below three domestic players regardless of the rule, simply because they don't take up international slots and will be coming through their various youth academies. But it's still nice to see.
The other teams in Major League Soccer will probably be pleased too. In fact, I bet they were a major impetus for the new rule, since without a Canadian quota the Canadian teams had a significant advantage in terms of their player pool. Canadians and Americans counted as domestic north of the border, just Americans counted as domestics south, and both countries got the same number of international spots. Not much was made of this disparity in the media, but you know that somebody out there noticed and was letting Don Garber know.
But here's what gets me. On the same day that Major League Soccer announced a Canadian quota, and we knew that the MLS teams would still have an incentive to let Canadian talent bubble up through their squad, we also learned that Toronto FC had parted ways with former interim head coach and current jobless amoeba Nick Dasovic. A Canadian, and a young one for a coach, sent on his way because he didn't fit into the team's new Dutch identity.
We're right to worry about player development. But that's not the only sort of development Canada has fallen down short in. This country's lack of young coaching talent could bite it almost as badly as a lack of players.
When I say that the Canadian MLS teams have to develop coaching talent, I'm not referring to a Canadian coaching quota. Such a quota would be ridiculous, not least because there'd be no reason a team couldn't hire some Canadian on the cheap and put him in charge of training part-time goalkeepers whose names begin with "Q" or something similarly useless. Besides, Toronto FC does still have Jim Brennan in the system, so it's not like they're entirely devoid of Canadian content.
Apart from everything else, there's no evidence quotas are effective. Ask Gabe Gala or Andrea Lombardo or Kevin Harmse how much being Canadian and getting a chance to struggle with Toronto FC helped their careers. Of the many Canadians Toronto brought through their revolving door to try and fill their quota, the only successful ones have been either promising youngsters or seasoned, talented professionals: the sort of players who would have made the team in any case. Certainly nobody was suggesting that Toronto drop the likes of Nana Attakora or Adrian Cann when it seemed there would be no quota. In Vancouver, Canadians Terry Dunfield, Philippe Davies, and Alain Rochat all made the team on merit, not because of any quota. Montreal will no doubt be the same way: their roster already boasts Ali Gerba, Reda Agourram, and Antonio Ribeiro as Canadians who could play (and, in two cases, have played) in MLS. That's the way it should be, lest the team and the country be weakened handing undeserved roster spots to unready prospects or simply inferior players.
The situation's not so clear-cut with coaches. After replacing Preki as Toronto head coach last season, Nick Dasovic did a fairly commendable job. His team was playing out the string and from the moment he took over there was no real chance that Toronto could make the playoffs, and yet with a lineup of young players that was already building towards 2012, his team played solid soccer and got some good results that included victories in Houston and D.C. They got some scoring at last and were only prevented from getting a few more points by bad luck, such as Will Hesmer's heartbreaking equalizer on October 16. Dasovic's Toronto hardly blew the bloody doors off, but he did better than could have been expected.
Yet Dasovic is gone. Why? Well, obviously neither Toronto nor Dasovic are gabbing about the reasons. It's easy to guess, though. Dasovic is a man with strong opinions, many of them justly earned. But he doesn't come from the same Dutch environment as new boss Aron Winter and might not have fit into Winter's system. Moreover, Dasovic madef on-field success. Toronto's new coaching staff has zero North American experience and are coaching in the most idiosyncratic major soccer league in the world. If they deprive themselves of Dasovic's experience and know-how for any reason other than Dasovic being hugely unprofessional, they're idiots (and if Dasovic was being hugely unprofessional, then frankly that information should be made public).
The various Canadian teams have tended to look for foreign coaching solutions as they've moved into Major League Soccer. Dasovic and Earl Cochrane were the only Canadians to hold major soccer operation roles in Toronto FC's history and both have been shunted to the side. Vancouver has had a number of Canadian coaches in their history, but they're currently led by the Icelandic Teitur Thordarson and the American Tom Soehn with Bob Lenarduzzi serving as a public relations face rather than a hands-on operator. Montreal retains the most Canadian content in their organization, with their two big soccer men being director of football Nick de Santis and head coach Marc dos Santos, but they are the exception to the rule.
This can't be good for Canada in the long run. Coaching has been a glaring weakness for our men's national program since Holger Osieck left, and since then he has had no worthy successors. Frank Yallop was a shocking disappointment despite his MLS experience, of course, but his replacement was Dale Mitchell, who could boast one good coaching campaign with the Canadian U-20 team, one terrible campaign, and a couple mediocre seasons coaching the Vancouver Whitecaps. He was then followed up by Stephen Hart, who has no professional experience outside the Canadian Soccer Association and whose relative success as a head coach has been by virtue of playing simple soccer and knowing both his and his team's limitations. Below Hart, the Canadian coaching staff is filled with unsuccessful mediocrities like Tony Fonseca and Valerio Gazzola with no relief in sight.
It's hard to come up for a solution to this problem. I have no solution. Toronto FC has given a number of Canadians their first real shot at professional coaching, such as Brennan and TFC Academy head coach Jason Bent, but when the experienced Dasovic got a taste at the top job he was cast aside for yet another European flavour of the month. Toronto's fans have grown understandably restless and one can see why Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was so keen to bring in experienced Europeans rather than promising Canadians to coach the team. But it's bad for Canada. We need to find a way to develop talented, experienced domestic coaches, or our hard work on player development will go to waste: our national teams will just be lions led by donkeys. It's a weakness in our development model that gets very little media attention, but it's more important than any three-man player quota could ever be.