Canadian soccer at a crossroads - Toronto Sun


By GARETH WHEELER

The Canadian professional soccer climate is poised to look much different in 2010.

Looming labour issues threaten the start of the Major League Soccer season with the expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement come Jan. 31. Although the two sides are reportedly not close to seeing eye-to-eye, sources indicate a work stoppage is still highly unlikely.

Light will be shed on progress in negotiations in coming weeks, so Toronto FC supporters can breathe a little easier … for now.

Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps supporters, however, have much bigger concerns. Last week, the United States Soccer Federation voted against both the North American Soccer League and United Soccer League’s bids to establish two separate professional circuits for 2010. Meaning, it’s unknown which league Montreal and Vancouver will play in for the 2010 season.

Worst-case scenario: Both teams hypothetically could lose their seasons entirely. And that likely would mean no 2010 Nutrilite Canadian Championship.

If Montreal and Vancouver are not playing in sanctioned leagues, they won’t be able to participate in CONCACAF Champions League qualification — the reason for the competition in the first place.

The USL, North American pro soccer’s second and lower divisions, was sold by parent company Nike Inc., last August, prompting Montreal and Vancouver, among other teams deciding to exodus, to join an upstart group trying to relaunch the NASL.

The USSF, thus far, has shot down that idea, citing too many future uncertainties for both organizations. Translation: Neither league would be financially feasible and would gut an already unpopular, unprofitable brand of soccer.

The ruling, surprising to some, shouldn’t be, considering the lack of viability and interest in the lower leagues. Quite frankly, the issue wouldn’t even be discussed in the Canadian media if not for the charm and escalating popularity of the Impact and the Whitecaps.

The two teams have been success stories on the field and off. Ownership’s commitment to winning and the popularity of soccer in their respective cities has more to do with their success than interest in the USL.

While the quality of soccer is a step below MLS standards (and in some cases comparable), the presentation and marketability of a secondary brand just isn’t there.

Division II soccer simply doesn’t resonate here. The product doesn’t translate, the coverage is sparse, the stadia are largely underwhelming, and the organization is forgettable. Not to mention, wide-scale marketing and appeal is next to nothing. And most importantly, the fan base isn’t there to support it. This all makes the USL/NASL idea unsustainable.

Thus, the USL, NASL, or even any idea being floated around for an all-Canadian domestic league stands to be a way to hemorrhage money with little return.

It’s widely acknowledged a multi-tiered professional soccer set-up would benefit the game this side of the Atlantic. More teams, more jobs, more opportunities for development and more awareness are all positives.

But it has to be done the right way. And that doesn’t mean that the same teams and cities, under the NASL banner, will work any more effectively. Especially when two of its nine prospective teams, are MLS bound — Vancouver in 2011 and Montreal seemingly shortly thereafter.

And even if a proposed team in Edmonton would join the NASL fold in 2011 as reported, there is more than enough evidence of pro-soccer failing in the other proposed NASL cities to raise red flags on the entire operation.

Most believe MLS eventually will become a two-tiered entity, with the idea of promotion and relegation being bandied about. Such a move is a long way down the road.

But it’s realistic to think MLS, a league with a name and 15 years behind it, could oversee another division without having to absorb the contentious issue of teams moving up and down divisions.

gareth.wheeler@suntv.canoe.ca