Friday’s announcement of a Montreal expansion franchise will join MLS in 2012 brought much news about how its positive impact on the city. But for Montreal native and Houston Dynamo defender Andrew Hainault, the benefits stretch well beyond Quebec.
A third Canadian franchise—after Vancouver’s arrival in 2011—now gives the country’s youngsters even more opportunity to hone their skills at a professional level once only available to their American counterparts.
“The big problem with soccer in Canada is that when a kid turns 12 or 13 years old, you start to see that he might be a real talent,” Hainault said. “But even then, there’s nowhere for him to go.”
Hainault, developed by the Canadian youth system, predictably jumped ship before he hit 20. He flirted briefly with the Montreal Impact and played three games with the club in 2004, but by 2005 he was playing in the Czech Republic’s second division, leaving Canada’s limited possibilities behind for European soccer. This helped him eventually land a four-year deal with the Dynamo.
“If there’s nowhere to go for a player, he just sticks with his club team in Canada,” Hainault said. “There’s no chance for him to play against the best players in the country and improve. You look at the system in the U.S., they can get all their best players down to Florida and have them training together, staying together. They actually have a place to go.”
The only option when Hainault was a teen was to train with the Montreal Impact, a franchise beloved by the city’s soccer faithful but limited in its scope. The club called in Canadian national team players to mentor the country’s fledgling talent, but it was largely up to the players themselves to steer their own careers—domestically or beyond.
“It was always a challenge if you weren’t putting yourself out there,” Hainault said. “If you didn’t get the right opportunities by the time you were 15, you were left out to dry.”
But all that was before MLS crossed the border.
The league’s 2007 expansion into Toronto set a new precedent in Canada, starting the wheels in motion for what could be a renaissance for the sport. Now, like their American brethren, the Reds boast a club academy for promising young Canadian talent, piloted by former TFC favorite Danny Dichio. The Vancouver Whitecaps, before they’ve even played a minute of MLS ball, already have an academy up and running.
“You’re already starting to see the system working with the academy at Toronto FC,” Hainult said. “You’ll be able to start rounding up the best young players in Vancouver, and Toronto and Montreal. You can be spotted out when you’re 14 or 15 years old, and they can bring you in to play with the best.”
And suddenly, Canada’s not the soccer backwater it once was.
“I think it’s a great move for the league, for the city and for the players there,” Hainult said. “I know the country is going to embrace it.”