The route to a professional career for Canadian university soccer players has never been easy. In fact, it's been downright impossible. At 23-years-old, they're either deemed too old to be a project or too young to hold down a veteran spot.
They can always try their luck in Europe, or attempt to claw their way up to the professional level from the lower ranks of the North American leagues. But, for most on their graduating perch, looking out on the large expanse that is the soccer landscape, they'll only see pathways with stop signs ahead.
Major League Soccer and Canadian Interuniversity Sport are looking at ways to change that.
One of those people is Todd Durban, MLS executive vice president of player relations. He sees greater CIS inclusion in the MLS SuperDraft as an option in the near future, but says there are plenty of other emerging routes for young Canadians seeking a professional soccer career.
"SuperDraft entrance is not exclusive to the NCAA. We have begun bringing in players from other countries as well, and certainly as we grow and expand that program, clearly one of the markets we'll be looking at for inclusion is Canada," Durban said.
"We've gone from one Canadian team to three Canadian teams in a very short time frame and developing and identifying young Canadian players is an absolutely critical and important strategic imperative to our league."
Academy system the new scouting tool
But in addition to the draft, Durban also points to what he sees as an advanced scouting system in Canada that is creating opportunities.
"Are we scouting the Canadian player to the same extent that we're scouting the American domestic player? It's my belief we are scouting the Canadian player better. Given their academy systems and given the lack of regulation that surrounds Canadian university athletics, it actually makes it a lot easier for teams to scout or interact with college age players than in the States," Durban said.
Pat Nearing, the head of the CIS Canadian Coaches Association, would like to see that scouting go a step further still.
"Our recent inclusion in the USL draft was step one. And it was a huge step forward for CIS soccer, in terms of getting recognition in the second tier of professional soccer in North America," Nearing said. "But now that we have a presence in the U.S. soccer system, in the next year, we will look to approach the MLS about advancing our players into the SuperDraft."
For Canadian schools like Simon Fraser University, who have made the jump to play in the NCAA ranks over the past few years, they still see the present advantages the U.S. setup offers as a way forward for their kids.
"We made the move to the NCAA because of the competitive advantages it offers. The overall quality of play is higher and the spotlight on us from North American soccer - whether it's the draft or scouting - is greater," said Simon Fraser's men's soccer head coach Alan Koch.
Koch doesn't discount the quality of some of the players in CIS, but does say that overall level of play isn't as complete as in the NCAA and perhaps why Canadian university soccer doesn't get the same level of exposure.
"There are players within the CIS who could certainly make it in the MLS Draft. The top two or three in Canada are consistently on that level. But we've played some of the top teams in CIS and handled them easily."
Getting Canadian talent to next level
Meanwhile, Nearing and the CIS are continuing to look at a number of ways to help graduating players advance into the professional ranks.
"We're trying to determine what's in the best interest of our players. And we don't necessarily need to be in the SuperDraft because I don't see it as one of the keys to getting good players through into the MLS," he said.
"It would make plenty of sense to see our players into the ranks of the academies or Toronto FC reserves, or the Vancouver reserves, and then making their way into their first teams as they round out their games."
That's an approach that seems more in line with the thinking of at least one Canadian MLS team.
Stuart Neely, the new head of player management for the Vancouver Whitecaps and previously the man credited with building Toronto FC's academy into the success it has become, says there will be less emphasis on the draft in the years to come.
"There is still some value to the draft, but certainly the more the academies grow, the more it is going to be a massive challenge for the NCAA programs to remain relevant," Neely said. "To get a real top player coming out of there is a real find to do so. ... A lot of clubs are going to look at where they put their money."
And in a financially tight league like MLS, cheap options - like players graduating from CIS - just might be the solution for teams looking to fill out their roster.
"CIS will be looking at formalizing a number of different paths over the next year but for us, Canadian schools and Canadian teams make sense," Nearing said.
For CIS players looking to make dollars, that can add up to a few less stop signs along the way.
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