Most stories that recognize a soccer player’s first professional contract focus on obstacles overcome, like conquering an injury, breaking into a crowded lineup or excelling in front of the right scout.
For Ottawa Fury FC goalie Waleed Cassis, the questions lie in what’s to come, as the path to his first pro gig was surprisingly straightforward. He played in Brazil as a youngster, led California State University Los Angeles to the NCAA Division II National Tournament, trained alongside star MLS keeper Dan Kennedy, started for NPSL side FC Buffalo and concluded his collegiate career backstopping the University at Buffalo (NCAA DI).
Bright, articulate and, as the Ottawa Citizen reported, often grinning, Cassis looks back and sees success. Perhaps his past isn’t as rosy as he lets on, a product of his positivity. But, he’s quick to note the opportunity to play in Canada, Brazil, California and New York before graduating college, blessings to explore the world and embrace cultures; the son of a French-Canadian father and Lebanese mother, Cassis speaks five languages — English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese – and earned a bachelor’s in exercise science, wrapping his last semester with another 4.0. In other words, if soccer doesn’t work out, he will be fine.
Why has Cassis’ climb up the U.S. soccer ladder been so smooth? University at Buffalo goalie coach Cody Camp points to a trait central to Cassis’ career, one that’s propelled him from Division II to Division I, from the NPSL to the NASL: He always wants more.
“That’s his best trait,” Camp says, unequivocally. “He’s always wanted more. He wants to excel, not settle. You could tell he wanted to be a pro.”
With the help of his agent, Fabio Oliveira, the 23-year-old Cassis earned a trial with the Fury in his native city, coincidental since Ottawa didn’t have a pro team when the young Canadian keeper was starring for the Nepean City Storm, just 15 minutes away from what’s now TD Stadium.
After a month and a half of training in front of head coach Marc dos Santos and goalkeeper coach Bruce Grobbelaar, the Fury officially inked Cassis as the club’s third-string goalie, a solid professional starting point for a goalie with bigger aspirations.
Positive, well-travelled and possessing the tools – terrific shot-stopping, superior distribution, “constructive communication,” a good-enough frame (6’2, 190) and an improved ability to defend crosses – necessary to play at the highest level, what could possibly impede Cassis from reaching the top of the U.S. soccer pyramid? His Canadian nationality.
MLS roster regulations dictate that Canadian players count among the eight international roster spots for U.S.-based clubs, not as domestic players. Given recent acquisitions of high-profile foreigners like Kaka, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Giovanni dos Santos and Sebastian Giovinco, MLS clubs place great value on these slots, not only to fill seats but compete on the pitch. These international spots double as attractive trade chips, too.
Add in Major League Soccer’s Designated Player rule, where each club can sign three players to contracts over the salary ceiling ($436,250), increasing the appeal to foreign stars in the twilight of their careers. MLSSoccer.com has a nice graphic of the 47 Designated Players at the beginning of 2015, split by team and position. Only 12 of the 47 Designated Players come from the U.S., and none from Canada. If Designated Players are foreign, they occupy international spots, too.
Of the 13 MLS players with more than six goals scored this season, seven of them are internationals (Giovinco, Kaka, Adi, Rivero, Martins, Castillo and Nemeth). Of the 17 ‘keepers with 10 or more starts, only three occupy international spots (Kwarasey, Ousted and Penedo). It’s logical, then, that international scouts for MLS clubs crave offensive-minded players, but part of the reason is the goalies’ longer lifespan – they hit their prime in their 30s, at the time when elite field players start to lose a step.
Success stories like David Beckham and Thierry Henry linger, and the influx of international stars elevates the league’s prestige and make international spots more precious. Teams that whiff on their imports – like Montreal Impact, Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes – tend to get left behind in the standings.
“Being a Canadian goalkeeper is very difficult since we’re considered foreigners in the MLS and NASL,” says Cassis, frustrated by his own prospects. “Teams would rather spend those spots on strikers or high-profile midfielders.”
Maybe it’s hopeless for a Canadian player like Cassis, as U.S.-based MLS clubs will almost always choose a domestic ‘keeper to groom rather than occupy a prized international slot. It’s not like the NASL grooms young Canadian talent, either; the last Canadian selected to the league’s Best XIcame in 2013, and he has since retired.
As Jason deVos’ impassioned TSN article argued after Canada failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, maybe the country’s general indifference toward cultivating a soccer-friendly environment is to blame.
The professional Canadian Soccer League (CSL) calls itself third-tier soccer, below MLS and NASL, despite not being affiliated with either. League1 Ontario began semi-professional play in 2014 but, if anything, seems to have splintered rather than centralized talent, as it also considers itself third-tier.
The prospect of a full Canadian professional league remains – buoyed by some participation from Canadian Football League ownerships — with 2017 as the target. Regardless, Canada’s men’s national team ranks 109th in FIFA, slotted snugly between Sudan and Benin, and the country is a long way from soccer relevance. Unfortunately, MLS’ current structure seems eager to keep it that way.
Despite the MLS’s planned expansion to 23 teams by 2018, just three Canadian MLS clubs exist – Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps – and no cities north of the border seem in contention for the 24th slot. This trio must roster at least three Canadian citizens each, but U.S.-born players count as domestic for them, which is the part that frustrates Canadians like Cassis the most.
“My [opportunity] is really narrowed to Canadian clubs,” Cassis admits. And for that matter, Toronto FC – which draws fans because of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Giovinco — only has two regulars who are Canadian, in Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Orsorio.
The easiest solution to benefit Cassis, of course, is to count Canadian players – and also Mexican players – as domestic. This isn’t a novel problem – Toronto FC blog Walking the Red hit on this in February – but it’s an existing issue nonetheless.
Would a rule change to put Canadians on an even playing field spark an identity crisis for MLS? What is its identity, anyhow? If it’s solely to grow the American game, hasn’t the glamor of luring aging European stars already stunted the progress of homegrown U.S. players? If Canada is still a largely inferior soccer nation, perhaps this rule change would only benefit the select few, like Cassis, with the potential to blossom with the right coaching.
It might be premature to make this big of a stink about Canadian soccer for Cassis alone; he’s still a third-string keeper in a minor league. In Ottawa, he has his work cut out for him in trying to succeed 35-year-old Fury goalie Romuald Peiser, who just won NASL Player of the Week honors. 24-year-old Marcel DeBellis is the second-string goalie, and he boasts professional experience in Italy.
In the meantime, Cassis has taken a temporary leave from the Fury to represent Canada in the Gwanju World University Games in South Korea. He was the backup in the opening 1-0 loss to Chinese Taipei, then surrendered three goals to the host nation on Tuesday in a 3-1 loss. He may have earned his first pro contract relatively early compared to his peers – especially goalies — but that doesn’t mean Cassis is a finished product knocking on Toronto FC’s door.
Although the U.S. is heralded as the land of opportunity, Cassis sees his future clouded by a curious roster rule in the States’ top league. He’s penalized, wrongfully, he believes, for being born in Canada – a soccer-backwater lacking serious pro league. All he wants is a level playing field. Is that too much to ask?