Over the next few days — and ahead of the league welcoming its second Canadian franchise, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, into the fold — MLSsoccer.com will explore the state of Canadian soccer — where it's been, where it's at, and where it's going. On Tuesday we looked at the national team's recent struggles and presented some ideas for moving the program forward. Here, Vancouver Whitecaps FC president Bob Lenarduzzi takes it a step further and suggests MLS' academy systems will be wholly beneficial to Canadian soccer.
Uruguay, a country of approximately 3.5 million people with 42,000 registered soccer players, came within one win of playing in the FIFA World Cup final this past summer. Yet Canada, with 10 times the population and more than 800,000 registered soccer players, sat at home and watched for the sixth consecutive time.
The problem, then, is not with the quantity of players in Canada. It's the quality.
Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The situation appears to finally be progressing with Whitecaps FC and the Montreal Impact joining Toronto FC in MLS the next two years. This will be the first time since the North American Soccer League that Canada has housed this many teams playing elite level professional soccer.
The presence of professional soccer alone, however, won’t get Canada to a FIFA World Cup. The consensus among critics is that player development is the key to success, and it's the only way for Canada to turn their fortunes.
“The [original] NASL was great for players that were older and could step into rosters right away, but we haven’t had anything to ever allow for proper development from a very young age through to the professional level,” said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi, one of the strongest advocates for such infrastructure. “What will make a difference over the long term is clubs investing in player development and allowing that process to do what we think it can do.”
This is not to say that Canada hasn’t produced some great players. Canadians such as Tomasz Radzinski, Paul Stalteri, Paul Peschisolido, and Dwayne De Rosario have played at an elite level and achieved great success.
But based on the sheer number of soccer players in Canada, these success stories are not as common as they should be.
“Players have done well, but it’s really down to their drive and initiative that they’ve done well,” Lenarduzzi said. “It’s by accident as opposed to by design.”
Another problem that has hurt the Canadians is the inability to keep their most talented players. Fans cringed when Calgary-born Owen Hargreaves opted to play for England, but Lenarduzzi is adamant that the problem is internal and that the lack of proper support structures is really what’s to blame.
“People say, ‘Well he’s from Canada, he developed here and he should have played for Canada’, but I never agreed with that,” Lenarduzzi insisted. “I think [Hargreaves] made decisions based on what was best for him.
"If, in fact, Canada had a program that would provide him with a good opportunity at an international level, I would have said that he should really seriously consider Canada," he added. "But when he did decide to go play elsewhere, I never blamed him.”
Lenarduzzi is optimistic that things are headed in the right direction here and points to MLS as a catalyst for player development.
“What MLS has provided is the basis for the national team coach to select his players,” he said.. “Yes, players have gone abroad, but that’s okay. That’s the case for most countries, except maybe the top three or four soccer nations.”
Vancouver have been doing their part in shaping the future of Canadian soccer through their highly successful Residency program. Toronto FC have also seen progress with their own academy system, signing two homegrown players to their MLS roster.
Lenarduzzi hopes that Montreal will follow suit, but he warns that improvement in Canada’s performance on the international stage will take time and fans need to be patient.
“My caution to people out there is that it will take a cycle,” he said. “The players that currently play for Whitecaps FC, for Toronto FC, and eventually for Montreal, are players that have got to where they’ve got to on their own hard work. We really haven’t done anything for those players and I don’t think we can claim them as results of our player development.
“When Montreal come in 2012, we might see some benefits in 2014, but that’s highly unlikely,” he added. “But by 2018, if all the clubs are doing what they say they’re going to do, we should see the benefits of the player development that these clubs initiate.”