Thursday, February 23, 2012

Playing Differences from Country to Country - Part One: Soccer in Canada

People often ask me what the differences are in playing from one country to another and the answer is there are many differences, but also many similarities. Having growing up playing in Canada and now having played for professional clubs in 3 different countries in Europe, I believe I have a unique view on soccer in many different places. In this two-part blog post, I’m going to compare and contrast the differences in playing in the countries I’ve played in. I’m going to talk about topics such as the football culture, facilities, youth development and some of the experiences I’ve had. I’m also going to discuss soccer in Canada and how Canadian Soccer could benefit from following in the footsteps of how some European countries operate their professional football.

In Part One, I’m going to start from the beginning where it all started for me, at home in Canada. Growing up I played many different sports, but soccer was always my number one love. As I got older I began to excel as a player and always played at the highest youth levels possible. However around the age of 16, the elite opportunities began to disappear. Many of my good friends who I grew up playing with, started to quit soccer for various reasons. The main reason being that around that age, there isn’t anywhere for players to go with soccer in Canada. Some of the top players that continued to play at the highest levels would pursue Soccer Scholarships, which can be a great option. However for players looking to advance their careers to the professional ranks, the opportunities are slim to none. Basically if you wanted to become a pro, you had to head overseas and try your luck. Luckily for me, I was aware of this fact from an early age and I began pursuing opportunities with clubs in Europe around the age of 14, which allowed me to develop my game with good players, make many contacts and is part of the reason I’m playing here today.

In the past five years soccer has begun to grow immensely in North America and Canada. We now have three teams competing in the MLS, and one, but soon to be two clubs participating in the NASL (North American 2nd Division), however this is not nearly enough. It is fantastic that we have started to get some professional clubs on the map in our home country, but on these teams how many players are actually Canadian players? The answer is very few; in fact, two of the MLS clubs play with the bare minimum of three domestic players on their roster. I don’t understand why Canadian MLS clubs so often overlook local talent. There are plenty of talented players across Canada, yet so often we see journeyman American players or inexperienced college draft picks, taking up the places that should be occupied by young developing Canadian players. NASL club FC Edmonton is a great example of a club looking to develop Canadian talent. I spent some time training with them last season and it became obvious to me, that we need to have more clubs like this across Canada. It’s great that all of the Canadian pro teams are now starting to have full youth systems and time will tell how effective these academies are, with the results showing in how many players start to make the step up into the club’s first teams. But what about the players that don’t make the step up? There is no domestic place for players to continue their development.

People in Europe quite often ask me why I don’t play professionally in Canada. When I continue to tell them about the situation and that we don’t have a fully Canadian Professional league, they look at me like I’m crazy. Before asking me “How does a country the size of Canada not have a professional league?” Of course that is part of the problem, Canada is such a huge country and it makes it very difficult to create a nationwide league from scratch, with no professional teams to fill the league with because the only current pro teams all play in the American leagues. I don’t believe that the top teams should make a change and why should they? They’ve worked years to get into the top level of soccer in North America and should stay there. Professional soccer is a business and at the end of the day, the clubs are in it to make money, but that doesn’t mean they should neglect developing Canadian talent. The bottom line is we need a fully functioning professional league in Canada, where players can develop their game. I believe this has to become a top priority and that people at the top need to continue to look at ways to make this work somehow. Soccer is the most played sport across Canada for kids. It’s continuing to grow more and more, yet the professional opportunities are still so limited. If we want to become a better soccer nation, there has to be a way to improve the amount of these opportunities. I’ve always wondered why we don’t have a regional league system in Canada. Create a Division 2 league and split the league into 4 or 5 regions across the country. There has to be enough interest in the major cities to field a team in a league like this. Find 8-10 cities in each region that are willing to host a club in the league and before you know it you have between 30 and 40 new professional environments. Imagine all the big cities in the country creating a solid professional club, with youth clubs feeding into them. It would be fantastic to see one day and I believe that it’s what is needed for Canada to take soccer to the next level. It would give kids a level to aim towards after youth soccer and a realistic chance at playing professionally one day in their own country.

Look at hockey for example; Canada has developed many of the best players in the world. Of course, it would be very difficult to match the popularity of hockey in a place where it has always been the most popular. That would be like trying to make hockey more popular than soccer somewhere in Europe, where soccer is tradition. But the reason we develop so many great hockey players is because the proper development systems are in place. Can you imagine hockey players in Canada trying to make it the NHL without ever having played any levels of Junior Hockey? It would be next to impossible, but that is essentially what soccer players in Canada are currently facing in their efforts to make it to the professional ranks. In hockey, players have a place in different levels of Junior Hockey to advance their game each season and continue to make steps towards the big time. We need to follow this model with soccer in order to be successful. One soccer model in North America that is heading in the right direction is the PDL (Premier Development League), which is mostly an U-23 league in North America (again mostly American clubs, with a few Canadian teams) that college players play in during the summer months. America faces many of the same problems as Canada with developing the professional game, such as sport popularity, country size, etc. But they are certainly doing many of the right things and are developing many top players. Their youth systems feed into the college system and from there some players make the step up to the pros, but that’s a whole other topic on it’s own. Now the reason I bring up the PDL, is that it’s a good regional model to follow. There are many clubs spread across the country divided into separate regional divisions. I believe the season is way too short for developing players, but it would be a great model for Canada to follow. If a league like that can be set up for players to play in during the summer months in America, why can’t a similar league be set up in Canada with much longer seasons and professional clubs?

I hope I’ve made it clear that I believe young players need a place to play and develop, in order for soccer in Canada to make it to the next level. We need to find a way to create a professional league system in Canada, with fully functioning youth academies in place for players to develop in. Otherwise, I think people in Canada will continue to ask the same questions over and over, on why we don’t have success Internationally. It’s not that we don’t have the quality of players, because we definitely do produce some very good talent. But we need to continue to find ways to make the sport grow in the country, in order to improve and be able to compete with other top football nations. In Part Two, I’m going to discuss the differences I’ve seen from country to country in the places I’ve played in Europe. And again, possibly discuss how Canada could benefit from following these models.

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