Self-Indulgence Sunday: Would a Canadian League Help Canada?

Will a Canadian second division allow the next Joseph di Chiara to learn his trade on Canadian snow? (Krylya Sovetov Samara/kc-camapa.ru)

News came from the Canadian Soccer Association earlier this week that they had officially commissioned a report on the viability of an all-Canadian professional second division. The report, to be created by the Rethink Management Group and headed by a former Canadian international, is expected to run through the spring of 2012.

This comes after an earlier announcement from Metcalfe Street that it was studying the possibility of such a league. Much later. A little less than eleven months, to be exact. The CSA grinds slow but it grinds exceedingly... well, slow.

I have long supported an all-Canadian professional league. The idea that a country of 35 million people and almost 10 million square kilometres can thrive in world soccer with four professional teams clinging onto American leagues is laughable. In the past decade too many top players to name have been born or raised in Canada, trained in soccer elsewhere, and eventually decided that they owed nothing to the country that did little more than provide them a start. Would Teal Bunbury have represented the United States if he had spent his career training, learning, and playing north of the border rather than south? If the Hargreaves family hadn't viewed going to Europe as his only chance at a professional soccer career, might Owen have shown more loyalty to the country of his birth? This is without considering the uncounted would-be internationals who, playing far from major cities or without quality coaching, face a bigger up-hill battle to a soccer career than young players in any other industrialized country.

But Canada is not like other countries. Only the United States can relate to our methods of youth development, largely focused on pay-to-play academies rather than free ones attached to professional clubs. It's questionable whether a Canadian second division, however large or successful, could change that.

The example of FC Edmonton proves that Canadian teams can win by giving young domestic players a second chance in professional soccer. That's important, but it's not as important as ensuring even younger players get the best first chance possible. Canada's elite players of the future can only come through elite youth development. A second division is unlikely to save us.

The recent example of Joseph di Chiara should prove instructive. As I type this, di Chiara is in training with the full Canadian national team at just 19 years old. Playing with Krylya Sovetov Samara of the Russian Premier League, di Chiara rarely appears in league games but has a bit of time under his belt and is a semi-regular feature in the game-day 18. He's obviously a quality talent, but prior to this round of World Cup qualifying games di Chiara had never been on the national radar at any level.

Why did an obviously-qualified young player slip through the cracks? Because di Chiara was playing youth soccer in Ontario and his parents didn't have the money and/or inclination to send him to the well-scouted pay-to-play academies. Luckily, the youth coach he did have was both competent and connected, landing di Chiara a few European trials and finally a successful one in Cyprus which is leading him to greater things.

This is a familiar story. The CSA had so little knowledge of the young star that, when Stephen Hart considered calling him up, he relied on a video package from his Russian club rather than testimony from a youth career played within driving distance of his office; most young players toil in similar obscurity.

There's probably a Joseph di Chiara in every province of Confederation, one whose coach is a bit less well-connected or determined. In Canada, nine out of every ten professional players joins the professional ranks after paying to join an elite youth academy: an academy where the coaching isn't necessarily of a very high standard but tends to be better than your average metro team and where talent will at least be spotted by scouts. But that's a bloody expensive process and not every player of talent can afford it.

I have nothing against those who charge for a youth team provided the team is well-run. Soccer coaches need to make a living too and a youth academy that costs $700 for a summer of part-time instruction is infinitely better than no youth academy at all. Most of these coaches genuinely want to see their young players succeed. In British Columbia, we've seen top youth teams create the High-Performance League in an attempt to consolidate and improve the elite youth level: there's been criticism of the results from those better-informed than me but the intentions were good.

If a Canada-wide professional soccer league led to an improvement in free soccer instruction for elite talent, this would be the greatest leap forward in Canadian soccer history. A couple of Canadian professional teams in British Columbia, a couple on the Prairies, a couple more in Ontario and Quebec, and one more in Atlantic Canada: if each of those organizations could provide a professionally-run and scouted academy at no cost to its players, it would all but eliminate the possibility of the next Joseph di Chiara selling shoes in Abbotsford rather than scoring goals with Arsenal.

Would a professional league bring us to that promised land, though? Could it?

Of Canada's four professional teams, three (the Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, and the Montreal Impact) run professional academies in the sense understood by world soccer fans: the player and his family incur no costs with room, board, and schooling taken care of by the team. Toronto and Vancouver have already placed a number of players into the professional ranks despite being relatively new by world standards; the Montreal academy is nascent but has promising prospects. However, these academies can only take a small percentage of worthwhile Canadian soccer talent, and particularly outside of respective regions they scout from those same high-priced academies that are part of the whole problem.

The Montreal Impact only began anything but the most perfunctory youth academy when they were attempting to join Major League Soccer. Toronto FC didn't have a serious academy for its first years and the Vancouver Whitecaps' Residency program was initially conceived as a way to make money for the club by selling players to Europe. FC Edmonton, the newest Canadian professional team, has no academy in the sense we're speaking of: their players and coaches go out into the community and the club charges for instruction from the professionals but it's nothing which will bring a young player to world prominence. Quality young players in the Edmonton area either stick with their youth club or go to the Whitecaps Residency.

The profit margins in division two soccer for most teams are razor thin. The Whitecaps, when owned by Greg Kerfoot, weren't afraid to spend money, and the Montreal Impact have been massively successful at the gate in the Saputo era. However, no Canadian second division can count on owners as dedicated as Kerfoot and Saputo or regular 10,000-fan crowds like the Impact have enjoyed. Most will be closer to Edmonton: drawing fewer than 2,000 fans a night in their first season. A youth academy looks like an expensive luxury when you're struggling to just meet payroll.

Of course, if that youth academy could sell a few quality players for transfer fees or bring promising talent into the first team that'll go a long way to making such an academy viable. That is, however, a very theoretical benefit compared to the harsh reality of a bank balance. No academy can pump out good players immediately; why would you make an expensive investment that you hope might pay off five years down the line when it's uncertain you'll be able to afford the team for that long?

If a team that's financially marginal has a certain amount of money to invest, it has a lot of competing interests: it can buy better players and hope to draw more fans by being successful, it can upgrade the stadium, it can improve its marketing. It would take a very philanthropic turn of mind to put that money into creating a youth soccer academy.

Does this mean I'm no longer in favour of a Canadian second division? Certainly not. If all FC Edmonton ever does for Canadian soccer is give a second chance to young players like Kyle Porter, Shaun Saiko, and Paul Hamilton then it will have done enough. Moreover, it is difficult to think that Canada could improve any other way. Attaching ourselves like leeches to American soccer can only get us so far and, with three teams in Major League Soccer, we've probably reached the limit. Somewhere in Canada there's a town ready to host the next Montreal Impact, with five-digit gates for second-division soccer and an owner willing to spend money if it creates a world-class team. And as decades pass and Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto's academies create top players, those owners with money to spend will look covetously at the big clubs and decide to emulate them.

A Canadian professional second division remains an idea whose time has come. But it may not generate elite youth talent for generations.

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