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Major League Soccer and Canada: The Odd Couple, Part Deux

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If expansion and stadium construction is an indication of a sport or league’s popularity, then one would have to say that MLS and soccer are as beloved as Santa Claus in the USA … Bizarro USA, maybe.

Still, in case you hadn’t noticed, MLS has been expanding like a middle-aged waistline for a few years now.

In 2007, that expansion moved across the border from the USA to Canada as Toronto added a club.  Vancouver is set to join next year, and Montreal in 2012.

This is not unprecedented, as the USA and Canada have shared the NBA since 1995, Major League Baseball for nearly 40 years, and the National Hockey League for what is fast-approaching a full century.

On first blush it would seem a natural marriage for two nations separated by the mere width of Niagara Falls to share interests in sports and in the professional leagues of those sports. But those co-habitations have never really been as amicable or 50-50 as it might first appear.

The expansions of both the NBA and MLB into Canada have been only semi-successful, the residual of each being a lone remaining franchise in Toronto.

Neither has the NHL been a smooth coupling between USA and Canada. The most obvious conflict right now is the constant wrangling over broadcast rights; the result of which is fans having to chase coverage from cable company to television network to satellite radio, sometimes all within the two-week span of a single Stanley Cup Finals series.

Similarly, though Canada and the USA are home to the two most–some might say, “only”–commercially successful leagues of “American football,” the proximity of the two and the reality that the collegiate system in the USA is the only real training ground for future professional talent have made “turf wars” between the CFL and NFL seem unavoidable.

Given such a rocky history, why would anyone think that the same two countries could share MLS, much less make a go of it?

Here’s why. Neither country really cares too much for the game. (Or, as sitcom folk would say: It’s so crazy, it just might work!)

Unless you count Mexico as part of the continent–which, despite satellite evidence to the contrary, no one seems to do–soccer in North America is strictly a “niche-sport”, as former MLS commissioner Don Garber called his game. In this case, that’s probably a good thing.

First, with low ratings–marketers would say, “a highly-defined target audience”–come low expectations. Thus, there should be less squabbling over broadcast rights. The amount of advertising revenue will probably be very predictable for a long time to come, and any club that is joining the league now is probably not going to experience a lot of financial surprises–good or bad–in the near future.

Second, unlike with basketball, baseball, and American football, soccer players in the USA and Canada will generally have to be trained somewhere else (such as Mexico, South America, or even Europe).

When the CFL and the NFL rush to sign the same Heisman Trophy winner, the result is bad for both. But when MLS brings outstanding players like Guillermo Schelotto to Columbus, or loans out Landon Donovan to hone his game in Bundesliga, it should be (and is) looked upon as a good thing for the whole league.

Lastly, since FIFA is the final word in all matters of rules and regulations of the game, and UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) and the European leagues are the final word in commercial exploitation of the game, and South America is the unquestioned final word in talent, absolutely none of the responsibility for anything soccer-related rests in either Canada or the USA. This allows fans of MLS in both countries to join in condemning any facet of the game as they see fit.

So everybody say, “I do”, and let’s get on with it. If it doesn’t work out, you can always get divorced.

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