By RON FANFAIR
Expansion into Toronto and other Canadian markets has transformed Major League Soccer (MLS), says Commissioner Don Garber.
Toronto FC was the first Canadian team to participate in MLS in 2007. Franchises have since been awarded to Vancouver and Montreal which will begin play in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
“I don’t think we’d be the league we are today without the success of Toronto FC and without the emergence of that club and its supporters’ culture which I believe is helping to drive our focus on being more and more authentic and catering to the soccer fan,” Garber said while in Toronto for the MLS Cup championship game last Sunday night at BMO Field.
“Toronto helped establish that foundation for us and it will be taken to an even higher level with Vancouver and Montreal in the years to come.”
Garber said MLS is engaged in TV renewal discussions in Canada that will have a broader footprint for league and Canadian broadcasts.
“It will allow us to continue to tap into the passion that exists up in Canada for the sport,” he said. “I said when I was up in Toronto last month that I believe that Toronto FC fans and the support overall in that country is helping in many ways to guide the connection that many American soccer fans have with their local clubs. And that’s something that I think has been a positive development for our league.
“We are certainly excited about being in Toronto. I have said many times before, the city, the ownership group, the team and fans have earned the right to host our championship game.”
All 30 of Toronto FC’s regular season games were broadcast this year for the fourth straight season. The games were broadcast in high definition for the first time.
National broadcaster CBC showed 13 games while Rogers Sportsnet and GOLTV aired 10 and seven matches respectively.
Garber said that having three Canadian teams in MLS by 2012 will boost Canada’s hopes of qualifying for soccer’s World Cup.
Canada last participated in the game’s quadrennial showpiece in 1986. The U.S., on the other hand, has appeared in the last six World Cups after failing to qualify from 1954 to 1986.
MLS was established in 1993 as part of the U.S. bid to host the 1994 finals. The inaugural season kicked off in 1996 with 10 American teams.
“There’s no question that part of the success of the U.S. national team can be attributed to the growth and increased quality of play in Major League Soccer,” said Garber. “And we hope, and I know that the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and our Canadian teams hope, that with three first division professional teams, we will be able to drive the increased quality and ultimately the success of the Canadian national team.
“I don’t want to make a prediction, but I do believe that in time, Canada will regularly compete for one of those World Cup qualification spots for our region. And it will be because of the success of the three teams in Canada and the growth and increased quality of competition in Major League Soccer.”
The league has modified its Designated Player rule allowing each club to add up to three designated players. In addition, MLS has launched a Reserve Division 10-game regular season followed by play-offs for the top eight teams.
Clubs will be split into three six-team regions and teams will play the other five times in their region twice. The games will take place the day after the first team match or possibly mid-week.
Only players who are on their club’s roster or are on trial with the club or a member of the club’s academy are eligible to participate in the Reserve Division.
As a result, teams can now sign an unlimited number of home grown players while roster sizes will expand to 30 beginning next season. Six roster spots will be reserved for players 24 and under and they will not count against a team’s salary budget which, for 2011, will be $2.67 million per team.
With the addition of the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers next year, the MLS season will comprise 34 regular season games. The season starts in mid-March.