Monday, December 24, 2007

MLS Takes Step in Right Direction

Major League Soccer has taken a step in the right direction, by loosening the roster restrictions that had been forced upon teams regarding international players. From day one, the MLS had always focused on producing domestic talent, and strengthening the base of American born players. This focus has lead to the drastic improvement of the American national team, and the production of many American born players who used the MLS as a launching pad to move overseas, to play for better clubs. Over the years, the quality of MLS has also risen, because of this strong base that has been established by the MLS. However, although the league has grown significantly, it is still looked at as a secondary league, when compared to many European leagues, and this status as a secondary league will continue to haunt the MLS until they move away from the "America First" frame of mind. Which is why the MLS has slowly but surely taken an important step towards growing into a respected league worldwide.

What the MLS has basically done, is widened the talent pool that is available to every team in the league, and how can you argue against that? By adding one additional international roster spot, and taking away the distinction of a YI and SI, teams now have the ability to pick from more players to improve their team. You will no doubt see more quality players in MLS, which will in turn help bring more respectability to the league. This respectability will come from many different angles. Players will see the MLS as a more realistic option, when the quality rises. Every player wants to play against top competition, and the MLS just doesn't come to many peoples minds when they think of top level football. Fans who choose not to watch the league, because of this lack of quality, will see a rise and hopefully tune in, which brings more revenue. More interest brings more investment, which is always a good thing. This investment is absolutely essential to the leagues success long term.

This move was also a necessary step, when expansion is on the horizon for the league. No matter what, the league would have been in trouble, had they chosen to stick by the old rules. With plans to expand the league to 18 teams by 2011, you would have seen a severe reduction in the available talent to every team. Teams now need to open their doors to the rest of the world, just like other major leagues, and not rely on Americans to fill their rosters. In fact, for those who are complaining about more international spots being available, stating that the MLS is moving away from their original goal, they're not. More teams will mean more jobs for American born players, and a focus on producing players through youth systems may be the decision that makes the biggest impact long term. Major League Soccer is a business, that has the ability to take advantage of the largest sporting market in the world. They see the respect growing, but they also see that fact that this growth could have only gone so far under the old rules. Growth is only going to happen with the introduction of talent from overseas, but the MLS also has one major fence in their way when it comes to attracting talent from across the globe, salaries.

This is a whole other issue that MLS has to address in the near future. Unless salaries rise, they will never attract the best talent. The MLS needs to raise its salary cap. Period. But they also must be very careful. Also, a move that would see the salary cap abolished, would be terrible. The league has one thing going for it, and that is competitive balance, and they must not move away from this. It would destroy the league.

In the future, I would desperately like to see more money invested into the youth systems. I touched on this in another entry, but this also relates to this. If the MLS wants to strengthen the base of American players, then they need to pump money into the youth systems. This is where they should put restrictions. This is where the "America First" frame of mind should be focused, not at the first team level. A focus on improving the quality league wide, will bring more American players to MLS by choice, and these players are the players that will produce for the National teams. The MLS shouldn't force a team to field a mediocre American player who will never have an impact internationally. They should give these spots up to the best available talent, whether they be English, Argentinian, or Brazilian. An improved quality will see a rise in popularity and produce more interest at the grassroots level. And if the MLS is smart, and they pump money into the youth systems, they can catch this interest at a young age and nurture it. These players will then not be on teams because they are forced to, but because they are skilled. The level of competition will be higher, and this will be better for every young player when it comes to their development.

What the MLS is doing is good, but more leniency when it comes to allowing foreigners will improve the league in the future. Less of a focus at the first team level, and more focus at the youth level is where the MLS should move towards in the future. Giving jobs to local players is always good, but if the league want to improve, they must look overseas and welcome any player, regardless of their nationality.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Top Class - Julian De Guzman

When I think of Julian De Guzman, one thing comes to mind, top class. Now you may ask, what exactly do I mean by this... Well, look at him, watch him play, listen to him speak about his goals in life, or Canadian soccer in general. He truly will make you stop and think, no matter what he is doing. Growing up in Canada, it is hard to have a role model, if you are an aspiring soccer player or just a true fan of the beautiful game. But people around Canada now have a player, that in my mind should be considered a role model to children, or a highly skilled player to follow abroad with great interest.

Julian had always been on fans radars in Canada, after arriving onto the scene through the prestigious Olympic Marseille youth system, where he started his footballing career overseas. A move to B2 side FC Saarbr├╝cken, where he received his first first team minutes, was then followed by a move onto Hannover 96 in Germany's top league, the Bundesliga. However, I don't think he truly became a household name until the Gold Cup, his coming out party. Julian could not have picked a better time. With the Canadian Soccer Association in shambles, Julian turned in masterful performance after masterful performance. Scoring crucial goals for the Canucks, like his chip over the goalkeeper versus Costa Rica, and adding solid defensive play to his already high octane offensive style that he so often displays with the national side. His versatility and ability to perform at a high level won over many fans, and media alike. Julian was named Gold Cup MVP, a huge accomplishment for a Canadian soccer player. If it had not been for a, shall we say questionable call, this award may not have been so bitter sweet. However, missed call or not, Julian had asserted himself, in my mind, as Canada's top player, because who else has accomplished more and had a greater impact on the national side than Julian in the past couple years? No one. Julian is the best all around player that Canada can currently field. Let's not forget that he is a holding midfielder at the club level, he brings an amazing amount of defensive awareness to the table, and is one of the most exciting holding midfielders you will see. On the pitch, he is, top class.

The other thing I respect about Julian, is that he is not afraid to speak his mind. Playing in CONCACAF is not exactly a walk in the park for Julian, or for anyone. Yet most players and coaches seem to see criticism as taboo. Julian does not. He has compared La Liga to CONCACAF as "night and day", pointing out constant lapses in officiating. He has also spoken out against the CSA, pointing out that successful countries around the world are supported by strong associations, and that the CSA is in turmoil. This may sound like it is easy to say, for a Canadian soccer supporter, but very few Canadian players have come out in public and stated that there were problems. Julian stepped up, and I respect that.

Although there may be turmoil in Canadian soccer, Julian gives Canadians a glimmer of hope for the future. A player that can make an impact with his feet on the pitch, and his voice off the pitch. He does not allow the turmoil to hinder his play, and is a proud Canadian, who will suit up when ever he is called. He has always said that playing for Canada is an honour, and that he loves his country. He leaves everything on the pitch, game in and game out, and plays with a passion that is unmatched on the Canadian team. Going forward, Julian has the ability to make an impact on Canadian soccer in so many different ways, which very few players can do. And considering what Julian has been through with the CSA, from a young age, he will fight through adversity and do what is right. This is because Julian is truly, top class.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Toronto FC and the Youth Academy

Canadian soccer, at the international level, is very very important to me. It has been tough to see our national side struggle over the past 5 years. When MLSE announced Toronto FC would be MLS's newest franchise, I was overjoyed. First of all, I was ecstatic that I would finally have a hometown, good quality soccer team to cheer for in Toronto. No longer would I be seperated by an ocean from the team that I had supported, Liverpool.

However, the second thing that came to mind was the fact that this new team would drastically help Canada at the international level. Canadian players would have a club team based in the top North American league to play for. This thought was re enforced by MLSE and MLS, when they promised a focus on producing local, Canadian players with Toronto FC. There was optimism throughout the Canadian soccer community that we would see an impact much like the MLS' impact on American soccer. It was a win win situation for me, and every other Canadian soccer supporter. The team would do this by setting restrictions on the roster, forcing the team to field a squad that was primarily Canadian. The only doubt that I, along with many other supporters had about this system of producing Canadian players through roster restrictions, was that the Canadian talent pool was very shallow at the moment of the announcement, and it continues to be. It seemed that Mo Johnston, along with MLS and MLSE were over estimating the level of talent that was currently available in Canada. Toronto was not going to be a successful team if they were forced to fill out their roster with Canadians, unless they could attract the best Canadian players from overseas. Many people believed that this would indeed happen happen, they dreamed that Atiba Hutchinson and Julian De Guzman would be playing midfield for their local club. But it was clear to many people that this would not be the case, Toronto was going to have to fill out its roster with mediocre players like Adam Braz, Marco Reda, and Miguel Canizalez. It became clear that these roster restrictions were going to hinder Toronto's chances.

The reason why so many players did not want to come over and play in the MLS, was because of the fact that the level of play is not very high when compared to the top leagues throughout Europe. The MLS has only recently become a known, talked about league around the world, because of the arrival of Mr. David Beckham. The top drawer Canadian players just did not want to play for Toronto FC.

The only way to stop this frame of mind in the future, is to attract the best players from around the world, and raise the interest in the local community about soccer, with a successful Canadian club team. With the current roster restrictions, this was just not possible. Toronto was not going to be able to field a strong squad, if they were forced to play mediocre Canadian players. They need to be able to bring children to the soccer fields instead of the hockey rink, and build up a strong grassroots base for the next wave of Canadian talent. This grassroots level is where Toronto FC should focus right now. They should pour money into their academy, and help produce a strong base of Canadian players. This will help in the long run, in my opinion.

Look at it this way. Why would Toronto FC bring mediocre Canadian players, who have no shot at the national team (or have no impact), over to play for them? This is not helping out Canada at the international level whatsoever. What they need to do, along with the rest of MLS, is build the league up in whichever way builds the level of play and attracts the best talent from around the world, and not care whether the player is Canadian or not. Then, 5-10 years down the road, you will no longer have Canadian players not wanting to come over and play for Toronto FC. If done correctly, the level of play will increase and players like Atiba Hutchinson will not see the MLS as a step down. You will also have the next wave of Canadian talent heavily invested in, through the youth academy. These players (youth academy) will then think twice about leaving home, when they could instead stay and play in a very good league, in front of one of the greatest crowds int he world at BMO Field. The next wave after this youth academy will then have Canadian soccer stars playing for a CANADIAN team. Which will do nothing but help.

So Toronto does, in my mind, have to make a huge contribution to the Canadian game. But bringing in mediocre Canadian players from mediocre leagues around the world is not going to get this done. The youth academy, and the level of play in MLS, are the two best places to start from. And the new quota system does not hinder Toronto in any way, as it will only bring the level of attention up in Canada, through higher levels of skill on display throughout the league. But for the other half to be successful, the youth academy has to be the primary focus in terms of Canadian soccer for Toronto FC in the near future.