Why do some Canadian soccer teams join MLS?

Why do some Canadian soccer teams join MLS?

August 1, 2023 Griffin Callahan

Drifting over Geographic Boundaries

While sipping my coffee in my garage-turned-office in Newcastle, Australia, miles away from both Canada and the United States, a thought crossed my mind. Ever wonder why some Canadian soccer teams decide to play in the Major League Soccer (MLS), a presumably 'American' league? What prompted them to migrate, like a flock of birds seeking warmer climates when their home starts to frost? Well, let me tell you, it is not just about the weather.

Picture this. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and you’ve decided to enjoy some beer and nachos at the local pub while watching soccer. You see the Toronto FC players in their red, white, and grey hues charging across the screen. But, juxtapose the team’s Canadian identity with the 'MLS' on the right corner of your TV screen. Iconically American. Ever wondered why? Well, I had this same question that led me to dig for answers, which transformed into this article. So buckle up, as we dive into the fascinating world of soccer, exploring the unique decisions that Canadian teams made to join the MLS.

A Quick History Leap

Remember those history sessions at school, where you would either sleep or daydream? Or was it just me? Anyway, let's have a wee glance at some historical facts to illuminate us. The MLS, established in 1993, was part of a larger mandate by the United States to foster soccer culture in the country following the 1994 World Cup. With ten founding teams, the MLS quickly grew, attracting not only national but international attention as well. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact (now known as Club de Foot Montréal), ventured into this field as the first Canadian teams in the MLS.

No, they didn't cross the border due to an impending Canadian apocalypse or a mystical prophecy. So why exactly did they join the MLS? Well, the reasons are as varied and diverse as the multifaceted tactical approaches in a soccer match itself. Buckle up, as I slide tackle into the specifics.

Football Obsession - the MLS seduction

"Follow the crowd" might as well be the tagline for these Canadian teams choosing to join the MLS. Around the time when the MLS was beginning to take off, soccer was simultaneously becoming a hot button issue in Canada. Coincidence? I think not! It was this common "footy" obsession that made the two inseparable.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Canada experienced a significant surge in its soccer fandom. From kids in schoolyards to adults in local parks - there was a shift towards the sport. This trend did not escape the notice of the Canadian teams, and thus began their courtship with the MLS. Attracted by the sheer popularity, broad viewer base, and potential broadcasting opportunities, these teams saw the MLS as an inviting platform to ride the soccer wave.

Beyond a Soccer Pitch: Broadening Horizons

Just like a tour guide who shows you the scenic views first, leading Canadian teams across the border allowed MLS to flaunt its increasing diversity. Irrespective of why the teams initially decided to join, becoming a part of the MLS definitely helped them broaden their horizons. Don’t trust me? Examples you demand, and examples you shall receive. Ok, got a bit dramatized there, bear with me.

The Toronto FC, for instance, used its MLS entry as a springboard to global recognition. The Miami Vice-styled Montreal Impact made headlines overseas, testifying to the international reach of the MLS. Not only that, signing big-name players helped these teams tap into international audiences. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to see football luminaries like David Beckham and Thierry Henry? The MLS quickly became a pathway to global fame, and the Canadian teams wanted a piece of that pie too.

Financial Feasibility - the Wallet Calling

We all have bills to pay, right? Even soccer teams. Any decision related to business, and yes soccer is business too, always boils an eventual part down to good ol' money. The economic benefits were crucial in catalyzing the Canadian teams' decision to join the MLS.

When you compare the financial landscape of the MLS with other leagues like the CPL (Canadian Premier League), the contrast is quite striking. The MLS garnered significantly higher broadcasting revenues and sponsorships. In this constellation of soccer, the MLS was the black hole attracting all the monetary light. And just like astronomers (or anyone for that matter) can't ignore black holes, Canadian teams couldn’t ignore the allure of the MLS.

A League of their Own?

Now, a common argument I've heard is about the existence of the Canadian Premier League (CPL). "Why didn't the Canadian teams just play in their own league instead of joining the MLS?" is a question that pops up in these discussions with the frequency of a catchy pop song on the radio. Yes, I've been there too.

Well, the CPL is a relatively newer league, officially kicking off in 2019. This time difference is crucial. At the time when Canadian teams were eyeing the MLS, all they had was the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), which clearly wasn't as attractive on various fronts. Globally recognized celebrities like Drake associate themselves with the MLS. I mean, come on, who wouldn't like a taste of that stardom and global identity? So, the decision to join the MLS seemed more appealing than staying in the domestic league at the time.

The journey Ahead: Staying or Leaving?

Having embraced their decision to join the MLS, what does the future hold for these Canadian teams? Should they stay, departing would be a better move? This is a burning question in the soccer realm today, to which the answer isn't straightforward.

Considering the financial stability and broader exposure that MLS offers, the Canadian teams might prefer to continue. But on the other hand, with the emergence of the CPL, there might be a switch of focus towards promoting and investing in the domestic league to strengthen national football. This is one of those "wait and watch" situations as both paths have their shares of pros and cons.

As the sun dips below the horizon, I find myself contemplating this intricate relationship between Canadian soccer and the MLS. Whether driven by popularity, economics, or the pursuit of broader horizons, one thing is for sure - soccer, be it Canadian or American, has taken all of us on a rollercoaster ride worth remembering.