Despite what some will say, Toronto FC
did not make a statement Thursday with the third overall in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft,
By selecting Canadian midfielder Kyle Bekker
, the first Canadian player to go in the top three, they were neither declaring their commitment to picking local kids, nor reinforcing their belief of investing in Canadian soccer.
They were simply picking the best available player at that point.
What was telling, however, in the lead-up to this draft and throughout Bekker's amateur career, is just how difficult it can be for a talented Canadian player to get a fair shake. Troubles abroad
It's the night before the SuperDraft, and despite all the media talk of "rising stock" and "improved worth," Bekker, the kid from Oakville, Ont., is as calm as his presence on the ball -- which is to say absolutely breezy.
His family has flown into Indianapolis, where the draft is taking place, to share in his big moment. He's been fielding emails, tweets and Facebook messages all week from friends who have crawled out of the woodwork to congratulate the young man they once knew. He's bumping from one interview to the next with a certain professional ease, and even at 7 p.m. -- after a long week of media and scout scrutiny -- he's still showing no signs of losing composure.
"Calm before the storm, I guess," he said when asked about his nonchalant attitude. "I'm just enjoying the down time. Kicking it around the hotel and relaxing. Nothing big."
For Bekker, draft day, the biggest day of his professional life, is seemingly just another Thursday. And while he may be bucking at all the hype, his road to the MLS has been anything but ordinary.
He began his soccer life playing for his local club in Oakville, Ont. After a rough patch, where he didn't feel like he was getting enough out of his game, saw limited options and even struggled to maintain his passion, he connected with Sigma FC -- a small academy in Ontario, which is now starting to make big waves.
Bekker quickly rediscovered himself under their tutelage and it immediately started paying dividends. At 16 years old, after a tour through Europe with his Sigma team, he caught the eye of AFC Ajax, the legendary Dutch team. After scoring against the famed side in a friendly, they invited him on for a week, which turned into a month, which turned into six.
"I worked my way up to the Academy, was showing well, and expected that I could find a real place there," Bekker said.
But as it often is with Canadians trying to play abroad, a European work permit got in the way.
"My grandfather is from there and we were trying to arrange a passport through him," Bekker said. "But, because they'd given up their passports years ago, we couldn't make it work."
It was back to Canada, but not for long. U.S. colleges were beginning to knock on his door. He eventually settled on the ACC's Boston College, where he would find a starting role as a freshman and never relinquish it.
Again, in his senior year, he found the lure of playing soccer in Europe tempting.
Crystal Palace FC, a London, England-based club that plays in the Championship, had spotted him at an ID camp in 2011. They followed his progression closely, and when he graduated this year they offered him a trial. Bekker impressed, working his way up once again, this time to training with the first team. But as it was at Ajax, a work permit got in the way.
"We knew it was going to come up, but it's a long process to get work permits secured over there," Bekker said.
Despite expecting other offers from England and Spain -- where he would have longer to work out his paperwork -- he finally decided to sign with MLS.
His performances at this week's combine certainly helped cement his spot as a top prospect. But, according to Bekker, there has been a bit of a misconception among the soccer press, who would have MLS fans believe that as a Canadian player, the only place he could go would be a Canadian team. That's the furthest thing from the truth, said Bekker.
"I'm not really sure where this perception that I was flying under the radar was coming from," he said. "A number of the East Coast teams had spoken to me and knew what I was about. The West Coast teams too expressed how interested they were."Double standard
The co-founder and managing director of Sigma FC Academy, Constantine Smyrniotis, disagrees, however. He sees a different standard for Canadians playing in the largely U.S.-based league.
"Things are difficult down here for Canadians. Canadians are looked on as second-rate citizens. I don't have any problem saying it. We are foreigners in this league. I have had multiple teams down here say, 'I'd love to sign him but I just don't have an international spot to take Kyle,'" Smyrniotis said.
In MLS, each team has an average of eight international slots. For American teams, that means the remaining roster spots must be made up of American residents. Canadians count as internationals for those U.S. teams. For Canadian-based teams, domestic slots may be filled with either Canadian or U.S. domestic players, creating the double standard Smyrniotis is referring to.
"It's not just one club that has said it down here, so that's the issue. I understand this is an American league. But we do have three Canadian teams in this league now. And we have Canadian fans that support this league. It's time to look at changing these rules," Smyrniotis said.
His younger brother Bobby Smyrniotis, the man who co-founded Sigma and handles the on-field training duties, agrees.
"The first issue is we still have a problem with the mainstream press in the U.S., on the general quality of a Canadian player. They automatically assume that Canadians aren't as good," he said. "The second thing is back home in Canada, all of us, not just media, have an inferiority complex. We look at a Canadian and a U.S. player -- and maybe we haven't seen much of either -- but we automatically assume the U.S. player is better."
Emery Welshman, Bekker's teammate at Sigma, had been projected to go high in the first round and was another making waves at the draft. He saw his ticket drop though, largely due to the issues the Smyrniotis brothers outlined. In fact, Toronto FC was able to trade down several times, picking up allocation compensation along the way, and still secure the talented forward from Oregon State at 16th overall.
"Emery and Kyle represent the first group of boys coming out of our first Sigma Academy graduating class. We have about 30-plus players coming up behind them through the college system right now," Costa said. "And as guys like Kyle and Emery catch on, and the league begins to see these kids as talents instead of Canadians, then hopefully it will pave the way for the next generation. And force MLS to loosen its rules."
For Bekker, though, it doesn't matter. He gets to play for his hometown team and he knows that getting any kind of playing time will only help to clear work permit hurdles abroad.
"Ultimately that process gets easier when, as a player, you get professional experience under your belt, both on the club side and for my country Canada," Bekker said.
He'll get his shot at Toronto, who is now flush with an aging midfield, and again later this month when he sees his first call-up to the Canadian men's national team.
Perhaps fittingly, that match will see Bekker and Canada taking on the U.S.
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