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The Throw-In: Is Canada MLS' biggest challenge?

VANCOUVER, B.C. – “Where will you be March 19?”

Those words challenge Vancouverites from billboards and bus-stop ads all over the city as Canada is just days away from welcoming its second Major League Soccer team into the fold. The message is a simple one: History is about to be made.

But there’s far more at stake here than just Vancouver going major in a sport it has supported so well since the NASL days. When the Whitecaps host Toronto FC at Empire Field on Saturday, it will mark the first matchup of two Canadian teams in MLS history – and the first time two Canadian teams will enjoy top-flight status of any kind since, again, the NASL days.

This is just the beginning, of course. In 12 months’ time, MLS will welcome the Montreal Impact as the league’s 19th team, a giant shift north of the border for the US-based league, and the biggest such commitment of any North American sporting league other than the NHL.

MLS’ Great Northern Experiment has begun. And it’s a development that is a fascinating strategy. Sure, Canada’s three biggest cities offer three markets that are ripe for MLS to set down roots and grow the league. But this new shift north also represents one of the biggest challenges the league has ever undertaken: becoming the caretaker for the growth of the game in not one, but two countries.

“I believe that just as the league has played a very positive and critical role in the development of soccer in the United States,” MLS president Mark Abbott told, “so, too, will the league – through the teams in Canada – play a role in the development of Canadian soccer.”

[inline_node:325452]The scope and audacity of this cannot be understated. Whereas MLS has undoubtedly improved the US national team and made it perennial contender at the international level, the challenge in Canada is greater.

The infrastructure here has been, to a large degree, in tatters and the talent pipeline has been harder to cultivate.

But that talent is there. Several Canadians are playing at high levels in Europe and many of the country’s best players already ply their trade in MLS. It cannot be ignored that the Canadian national team has been the biggest underachiever in CONCACAF. For a nation of more than 34 million – the third-biggest in North America, with the 11th-largest GDP in the world – there is little excuse for just a single World Cup appearance, and a quarter of a century ago at that.

The seeds of change are here now. It wouldn’t be impossible if Canada put it all together in time for a berth in Brazil 2014, though it would definitely be a shocker. Now, with MLS in the equation and with a clear vision and stable infrastructure in place, it might be an expectation for Canada to qualify by 2018, maybe even a requirement by 2022.

Toronto FC assistant GM Earl Cochrane, who worked for several years for the Canadian Soccer Association, says MLS is already directly responsible for Canada’s future. He remembers watching the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and having an “ah-ha” moment when he realized 13 of the 18 players on the US team were MLS-based.

“I sat there thinking, this is a big moment for US soccer,” the former TFC Academy director recalled to “This is an indication that this league works."

He had that same “ah-ha” moment last month when Canada qualified for this summer’s U-17 World Cup, the first time the Canucks will participate in that tournament in 16 years. And the reason is clear: 12 of the 20 members of that squad are products of the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal academies.

“This is a perfect example of where we can take this,” he says. “You watch some of these kids play, and you think, ‘Wow, in two or three years, these kids will step into the first team at some point [for their MLS clubs].”

The chances for young Canadian soccer players to break through into a top-level pro league are now very real – and for literally the first times in their lives, Cochrane notes, these kids have a domestic first division they can follow and aspire to join one day.

[inline_node:330926]It’s part of a paradigm shift in Canada where everyone involved – especially the Canadian Soccer Association, which sanctioned MLS as its official first division – hopes the game can grow to levels it’s never seen.

Frank Yallop has seen the transformation first-hand. The San Jose Earthquakes coach is English-born, but Vancouver-raised, and played for eight years for the Canadian national team at a time when few followed it. Little changed when he coached the Canucks from 2004 to ‘06 – in fact, Yallop resigned from his post when he felt not enough progress was being made by the CSA.

“When I was coach of the national team, it wasn’t same views from everybody in Canada,” he told “They didn’t care about the national team, much less MLS. Now we’ve got interest all over the country, and that’s changing everybody’s views on it.”

It is unusual, for sure, that a top-flight league has representatives from outside its home country – France's Ligue 1 and Australia's A-League are the other such leagues in the world, and now MLS becomes the only one with more than one team outside its own borders. But from the Canadian perspective, this is the only way forward and it is the future.

“Canada has been limited by its vastness, huge population numbers and lack of a long-term plan,” said Cochrane. “We’ve had a history of pro leagues that haven’t worked due to finances and infrastructure. In MLS, Canada has a partner that shares its vision and can do a lot for the growth of the game in this country. I think this is the right way to go.”

Abbott admits this set-up is unusual in world soccer (if not in North American sports), but the payoff can be exactly the same for Canada as it has been for the US.

“I think it’s less about how and where it’s administered and the fact that, with three teams in Canada [in 2012], all of them are going to help contribute players to the Canadian national team.”

When it’s all said and done, this weekend will be remembered not as just another milestone for MLS, but for a whole other country. Will you remember where you were March 19?

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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