The time of year where football managers most readily lament fixture congestion is again upon us.  The 2016/2017 Premier League season saw 40 Premier League games over the festive period, with each club playing four fixtures between Saturday 17 December 2016 and Wednesday 4 January 2017.  Those fixtures were played on twelve separate match-days, with at least one Premier League fixture played on every day bar one between 26 December and 4 January.  While this extravaganza of football may be welcomed by the football fan, managers tend to be less enamoured with the fixture pile-up.  That displeasure is only likely to increase in the coming year, with the Premier League’s confirmation that its draft fixture schedule for the 2017/2018 season could see six rounds of matches over the festive period.  That would mean clubs playing six games in 17 days from 16 December 2017 to 1 January 2018.

Yet while many Premier League managers seek to juggle their squads in order to avoid player fatigue, there are a number of leagues across the world that are in the middle of their off-season, with their players resting up.  One such league is Major League Soccer (“MLS”), the highest professional football league in the United States.  The 22nd league of the competition is not due to kick-off until 3 March 2017 and, with the conclusion of the MLS Cup in December 2016, fans of MLS football are presently enduring the fallow period between seasons.

This lack of action does not mean that talking points have disappeared.  Many fans will be excited to see the expansion of MLS, in particular by reference to the performances of the league’s two new franchises (Atlanta United and Minnesota United).  Other fans, particularly those that live north of the U.S. border, are less focused on the expansion of the league. They are instead concerned by the existing structure of the league and the rules and regulations in place, which they feel treat Canadian footballers unfairly.

MLS is a primarily U.S.-centric league.  Yet, much as the English league system admits the participation of Welsh clubs, MLS participants also include three Canadian teams: Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Montreal Impact.  With Toronto FC reaching the final of the 2016 MLS Cup (which was held in Toronto) there is ever more interest in Canadian football.   However, while the interest in Canadian football increases, the Canadian men’s national team is ranked 117th in the FIFA rankings.  By contrast, the U.S. men’s national team is presently ranked 28th.

A national team’s poor performance may be a result of a number of inter-related factors: generational strength; quality of opponents faced; quality of coaching and facilities; culture – the list is long.  These criteria are not specific to the Canadian national team.  There is however one factor that likely plays its part and is specific to Canada: the MLS’s Player Roster Rules and Regulations (the “Regulations”).

The Regulations govern the composition of MLS clubs’ player squads (or ‘rosters’, as they are known in North America).  As well as setting out the rules that govern the number of players that are allowed in each franchise’s squad and the relevant salary cap restrictions, the Regulations also set out specific rules regarding the nationality of the players allowed in each squad.  Part II of the Regulations states as follows:

“In 2016, a total of 160 international roster spots are divided among the 20 clubs.  In 2008, each MLS Club was given the right to have eight international players on their roster and expansion Clubs were given the right to have eight international sports for their inaugural season.  These spots are tradable, in full season increments, such that some clubs may have more than eight and some clubs may have fewer than eight.  There is no limit on the number of international roster spots on each club’s roster.”

This then raises the question of what constitutes a domestic player and, conversely, what constitutes an international player.  In this respect, the Regulations draw a distinction between U.S.-based clubs and Canadian-based clubs:

  • For U.S. clubs, a domestic player is defined as “either a U.S. Citizen, a permanent resident (Green Card holder) or the holder of certain other special status (e.g., has been granted refugee or asylum status). There is no limit as to the number of U.S. Domestic Players on a U.S. Club’s Roster.”
  • By contrast, for Canadian clubs, a domestic player is defined as “either a Canadian Citizen or the holder of certain other special status (e.g. has been granted refugee or asylum status) (“Canadian Domestic Player”) or a U.S. Domestic Player. There is no limit as to the number of Canadian Domestic Players on a Canadian club’s roster.”

The Regulations specify that there is no limit to the number of U.S. Domestic Players or Canadian Domestic Players in a Canadian club’s squad, subject to the caveat that a Canadian club is required to have a minimum of three Canadian Domestic Players in its squad at all times.

Any player who does not qualify as a U.S. Domestic Player in a U.S. club shall be considered an “International Player”.  However, for Canadian clubs, any player who does not qualify as a U.S. Domestic Player or a Canadian Domestic Player shall be considered an International Player.

The practical effect of this distinction is that American players are counted as domestic players for both Canadian and U.S. sides, whereas Canadian players are counted as domestic players for Canadian sides but as International Players for U.S. sides.  As there are in principle only eight available International Player spots available for each franchise, there is huge competition for the Canadian nationals seeking to play for U.S. sides, as they have to compete against every other nationality of player.  However, the American players are treated as equal to the Canadian players when representing Canadian sides, making life comparatively easier for the American players to get ahead.

This inequality of position has caused significant controversy, with many arguing that it holds back the growth of Canadian players and, in turn, the development of Canadian football.  Victor Montagliani, the President of Soccer Canada and the head of CONCACAF, is reported to have stated that:

“It is always going to create a glass ceiling when a Canadian passport makes you a second-class citizen in a league where three of your teams play.  We have been trying to address this issue but it has been frustratingly slow.  Until that is dealt with, it is always going to be a challenge to put the Canadian flag equal to the American flag in MLS.”

What is the rationale for this difference in treatment?  The MLS President, Mark Abbott, has been reported to have stated that “immigration laws in the United States don’t allow us to treat Canadian players as domestic in the U.S.” 

In response, Bob Foos, the Executive Director of the MLS Players Union, has been reported as saying that: “In essence, [if MLS claimed that Canadian players were domestic] you would be discriminating against non-Canadian people in the U.S. in favour of Canadians.  It is one thing to say you need to be a U.S. citizen or a green card holder to be considered domestic.  It is another thing to say if you’re Canadian you have these rights and if you’re not Canadian you have different rights.”

Whatever the rationale for the distinction, it is fair to say that the present position does not support the Canadian national player: at present, there are only 16 players that play in MLS who have been capped by the Canadian national team.  In response to these difficulties, there has been talk about removing the Canadian franchises from MLS and setting up a rival Canadian professional league (something which has not formerly existed).  This may avoid any legal niceties that arise out of the cross-border distinction but may equally prove detrimental to the Canadian game, at least in the short-term, losing as it would the commercial clout and existing infrastructure of the MLS.

In the short-term, U.S. and Canadian football administrators have sought to address the issues with Canadian football in tandem, in particular through the announcement in November 2016 of a new joint task force that will focus on youth development in Canada.  This may not resolve the issue regarding the composition of MLS franchise squads but shows that the development of Canadian football remains at the forefront of MLS’ strategy, something that was started with the expansion of the league into Canada in 2007.