Oh, what a difference two years can make. In 2014, Karl Ouimette was released by l'Impact de Montréal. He was a member of the Canadian National Team, and was forced to leave the country he represented for the New York Red Bulls because there was no club here that would - or could - hire him. By comparison, in 2016, another academy graduate and national team member - Maxim Tissot - was cut from Montréal. Instead of buying a plane ticket, he found himself barely two hours away in Ottawa, with Canada's newest professional club; the Ottawa Fury. He would be starting in their game against Edmonton barely two weeks later, where he can hone his skills and continue to earn substantial minutes in a professional environment. Is the talent drain to other countries finally ending?
Well, maybe. However, the drain of talent to the United States and Europe is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is a domestic alternative to foreign competition. For decades, Canada's professional soccer talent looked elsewhere for a job if they wanted to continue plying their trade, due to the absence of domestic alternatives. Most of Canada's national team is still overseas, principally in Europe, where the pay cheques are better and the competition more arduous.
What is happening is that most Canadians are now out of the country by choice. There are now domestic options in an international market competing for Canadian talent and money- and they are proving quite successful at luring Canadian players back onto home soil.
By far the most successful at luring, marketing and promoting Canadian talent is the Ottawa Fury. This club is only three years old, and exists in the heart of the national capital, a fluently bilingual city with a centrally located stadium and a proud sporting pedigree. Ottawa has consistently increased their attendance by around 1,000 spectators year-over-year, from barely 4,000 per game in 2014, to more than 6,000 per game in 2016. Each year, Ottawa breaks an attendance record of some kind. Remarkably, this has been done largely on the back of Canadian talent.
Currently, thirteen Canadians are on the roster for the Ottawa Fury, including Julian de Guzman, Maxim Tissot, Kyle Porter and Jamar Dixon, whom all have experience playing with the national team. Throughout the city, it is Canadian players that dominate promotional material, and it is Canadian content that regularly draws fans to the stadium. This is a welcome break from the Canadian tradition of using big name international stars to sell tickets, and hoping the odd Canadian can squeak in some minutes on the pitch here and there.
Ottawa is not alone in their utilization of Canadian content to promote their product. Teams that have traditionally relied on international star power, like the Vancouver Whitecaps have had a watershed year in 2016, signing Marcel de Jong and David Edgar to their roster. The Whitecaps have also picked up Canadian international Fraser Aird on loan from Scotland, complementing an already deep roster of academy products that includes national team regulars like Russell Teibert and Kianz Froese. Vancouver has also experimented with fielding an almost exclusively Canadian roster in the Amway Canadian Championship in 2016. Despite losing the match, it was a sign that coaches are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of using and preferring Canadian talent.
In what can be construed as growing evidence of the growing popularity of Canadian content among fans, the Ottawa Fury sold more than 9,000 tickets to their home-game against Vancouver in the Amway Canadian Championship in 2016, in a match that featured two rosters dominated by Canadian players. It is so far the highest attended game for the Fury in 2016.
Comparatively, Montréal has always been a relatively good market for Canadian players. Montréal has largely focused on developing and retaining local Québécois talent since 2012, graduating several players to the senior team in short order. However, of those players, three have since been released. Two have been forced seek employment out of the country; Zakaria Messoudi and Karl Ouimette. That being said, Montréal is probably the only MLS team in Canada that has willingly promoted a local player to be the public "face" of the club. Patrice Bernier, the current captain of the Impact and proud Québécois, has spent much of his time with the club not on the pitch, but on television, radio and at public events trying to drum up support for the Impact. Indeed, while Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti lead the Impact in goals, Patrice Bernier has become the standard bearer for the Impact at events like the Grand Prix de Montréal.
The end result of this campaign to draft Canadians is two-fold. Firstly, by identifying their brand with local talent, Canadian soccer franchises can sell tickets to fans who want to see our own version of the hometown hero succeed. In linking their brand to a local face from the community, it allows fans to empathize with the players they see as "their own". When you see David Choinière step onto the pitch in le bleu-blanc-noir, you are not just cheering for your team, but an extension of yourself and the city in which you reside. Soccer therefore becomes less a product or commodity to be consumed, and instead manifests itself as an exaggeration of civic pride and a form of cultural expression. Secondly, developing an attachment to a player or team is much easier when you share an easily identifiable trait with that player. Montréal easily tunes in to see Patrice Bernier because it is easy to see ourselves in his persona.
For the five professional teams, at least economically, this is a beneficial relationship. Domestic players often cost less than foreign imports, and have the added bonus of counting as domestic players on team rosters. That allows for more money to be spent on international players of a significantly higher calibre, that can fulfill particular roster needs that Canadians alone cannot occupy. For Canadian players, the fact that there are domestic opportunities ensures that there will always be a cheque waiting back home if you cannot find work overseas.
One additional benefit of the influx of local content into the domestic marketplace is the increasing availability of domestic players that can be called upon by the national team. As of July 2016, the national team could theoretically field an entire roster of players from the five professional clubs in Canada and have each position of the starting eleven be filled with a player that has received significant minutes in a club environment this year. While that would decrease the quality of the roster substantially, the fact that there are so few members of the national team that are currently unattached or without a club is a breakthrough in Canadian soccer that is often unmentioned. Additionally, while many of the players on the national team are currently working outside of Canada, the pendulum appears to be shifting.
This year alone, two regular starters on the national team, Will Johnson and David Edgar, both were offered contracts with Canadian soccer clubs. Both have accepted. Furthermore, it would appear that Canadian clubs are actively seeking Canadian alternatives to fill holes in their roster. Toronto FC has signed Tosaint Ricketts as a forward to help their goal scoring deficit. FC Edmonton has added Nikolas Ledgerwood of the national team to their roster to bolster their shaky defence, and add offensive grit on set-pieces. So far, each appears ready to step-up and meet the specific needs of their clubs. If the active selection of Canadians is indeed true, it would mark a major turning point in Canadian soccer; where Canadians are considered for jobs that are usually dealt to foreign, and often more expensive players with a particular skill set. By extension, it implies that Canadian soccer has advanced enough to be considered competitive with foreign development programs.
What the future has in store for Canadian players is ultimately tied to their individual wants and expectations from a career in the beautiful game. For example, Canadian striker Cyle Larin is reportedly pursuing a career in Portugal with Benfica. All the power to him. He has naturally exceeded the limitations of competition that a club in Canada - and the United States - can provide. Larin, and those with ambitions greater than what we can currently offer, should be encouraged to go see the world. They can always come home and help us build on what we have created here.
However, for the hundreds of Canadian kids currently playing soccer, hoping simply to one day have a job in Montréal, or Ottawa playing the professional game, we have now created an environment where they have the opportunity to realize their ambitions. With five professional clubs, each operating competitive academies, Canada has finally created an environment where we can watch our own players succeed on our terms.
All we have to do now is buy tickets and show up to watch the fruits of their labour.