I recently looked at the Toronto FC player roster to discover that this season has almost an entirely new team. How can this be? Surely there would be some returning players but the entire starting eleven is new. OK so I’ll give these guys a chance and hope to rally behind them but what is going to happen next year? How many more new players will there be?
Like any new franchise building a solid foundation takes time. Toronto FC is only in their fourth season while Major League Soccer was only founded in 1993. Compare this to the other major professional sports in North America.
All professional leagues take time become established. Some critics of soccer in North American will look at the league overall and compare it to other sports in North America only failing to notice the NBA (founded 1946), NFL (founded 1920), NHL (founded 1917), and NBL (founded 1869) have been around for much longer. Each of those leagues were not what they are today in their first two decades of existence. The popularity in soccer is North America is growing each year but the MLS must implement a number of changes/rules in order to help stop the league from further running up a deficit, truly become profitable and then be amongst one of the top professional leagues in North America.
Need home grown players: soccer clubs need players that become a household name. Once fans see some stability and less turnover in the player roster they will support the club even more. In order for a player to give himself an identity and place to shine he needs the support of the club itself. The more often a player cycles through different teams (and leagues) the more disconnected they become from any club in particular and local fans. This also hurts the marketing department as they look to promote the team through certain players.
Many players in the MLS are from North America but there needs to be a greater emphasis on this in order for the teams to create an image for themselves. Toronto FC currently has five Canadian players from a roster of thirty-five.
Find local talent: perhaps the soccer scouts in Toronto haven’t found the talent they are seeking here in Toronto but they definitely should look to use local talent. The Toronto fans will still support their team as the city has been hungry for a professional soccer team for some time but it would do the club some good to recruit local talent. If a player from Toronto or the surrounding area makes the team, that in itself will spill over into the communities that he grew up in creating even more fan support not to mention being proud to represent your city. Sure the club can give back to the community but if every season there is an entirely new team representing the club then the fans won’t be able to connect as well.
Have little turn over: there cannot be such large turnover of players within rosters. Not only does this help the image of the club and bring a larger fan base where the fans connect and players can become household names but it is good for the team itself. The best teams I have played on were teams that had a strong core of players that returned year after year. We could identify areas of weakness and build on previous year’s success. There will always be a number of players coming and going for a variety of reasons but once the core is established and a bond is built the team becomes stronger than ever. Conversely, the worst teams I was part of had some of the most talented players but there were so many divisions within the team that the team was essentially broken. Throughout that season there were rare moments of good soccer yet much discontent and individualism on the team inevitably hurting our results.
You cannot simply build a team by adding all new faces each season. For example, look at Real Madrid. A club that is totally lost in their identity. They have a great history where they became the most decorated club in European football winning nine titles. However, remember that six of those nine titles were won between the years 1955-1966, a long time ago. Real Madrid is a club that is most unstable from top to bottom. In the last ten years they have had seven club presidents and four managers in addition to assistant managers taking over midway through the season. The player turnover has been even greater. Who knows how many more presidents, managers and players they will go through in the next few years alone. Year after year, Real Madrid look to purchase star power but fail to create a balanced team which ultimately wins games.
Minimum Salary: finally, the players need a minimum and respectable salary to survive. What is happening all too often is great local talent is giving up on the game at a young age because there are not enough of options available to continue their careers. A soccer player begins to reach his prime by their late twenties and what is happening in North America is players are joining local men’s leagues by their early twenties. There needs to be more leagues and players need to be compensated appropriately otherwise, and what is happening, is they will pursue other career opportunities.
Another sport I grew-up playing was hockey and like other professional sports you do not have to the biggest name in the league to make a decent living. Hockey players can play several years in the American Hockey League while making a good living and prolonging their playing days in front of NHL scouts. Soccer in North America needs a similar system.
The ideas shared above will help the overall game in North America. Once there is greater demand from the fans then more teams can be built with larger stadiums. To further that, larger sponsorship deals can follow which can allow the league to grow in multiple areas. On a positive note, Toronto FC won their home opener 2-1 to a sold out crowd at BMO stadium. Hopefully the passion for Toronto FC in this city can spread to other parts of the country.