Why Jesse Marsch’s job with Canada is sponsored by MLS

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When Jesse Marsch was announced as the new head coach of the Canadian men’s national soccer team on Monday, the press release contained a fact that raised eyebrows. March’s official formal title would not be simply “head coach of the Canadian men’s national team,” or even “Manager of the Canadian men’s national team.”

Rather, he will be on the books as the “MLS Canada Men’s National Team Head Coach.”

Why is MLS named specifically in the job title of a national team head coach? The answer is multifaceted and has more people up in arms than you might think. 

Why did Canada Soccer include MLS in the job title? 

In its hiring announcement, the Canadian federation notes that Marsch’s hire was made possible due to “major philanthropic contributions” from the country’s three MLS clubs – CF Montreal, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. It also says that similar naming conventions for official jobs are common in other areas, specifically citing that the head coach of the country’s women’s golf team is in fact known as the Stollery Family Women’s National Team Head Coach. 

It is also common for colleges, universities and hospitals to name positions after certain donors. However, it is all but unheard of in soccer. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the Bundesliga German national team head coach being an official title, or the “EFL Wales men’s national team head coach” thanks to donations from Cardiff City, Swansea, Wrexham and Newport County – all Welsh clubs that play in the English football league system. 

The fact that one of the country’s two active professional leagues is the one sponsoring the position has turned heads and raised numerous questions about conflict of interest (more on that later). 

However, the current dire financial situation of Canada Soccer necessitated new general secretary Kevin Blue having to think outside the box. Blue told The Canadian Press upon his hire that Canada Soccer’s budget for the fiscal year of 2024 reveals a $4-million operating deficit on total expenses of $30 million.

Blue called the deficit “not sustainable” on social media when he was hired.

This, in part, forced Blue to create this strategy in order to hire the organization’s desired coach in Marsch.

“The philanthropic generosity of the donors involved was certainly a helpful part of us being able to move forward with the appointment,” Blue told reporters in a Monday conference call.

Blue stressed that the donations to fund Marsch’s hire are the beginning of a larger gifts initiative that Canada Soccer recently unveiled and there will be more “significant emphasis” on philanthropic activities within the organization moving forward. Canada Soccer told The Athletic that Marsch’s formal job title is just the first of similar philanthropic initiatives throughout the program that will also benefit Canada’s women’s national team.

Who donated the money, and how much?

Canada Soccer’s official announcement says that donations came from “Vancouver Whitecaps, Joey Saputo, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.”

The official job title, though, was devised by Blue.

That fact, combined with precise wording of the list, raises questions. Only one MLS club is cited by name, with CF Montreal’s Joey Saputo named specifically and Toronto FC’s owners (MLSE) cited as a whole organization. 

In fact, multiple sources briefed on the hiring process tell The Athletic that Saputo donated through his charitable foundation, the Montreal Impact Foundation. The source of Toronto FC and the Whitecaps’ donation comes from their ownership.

The Athletic has learned that the total amount donated to Canada Soccer by Canada’s three MLS clubs as part of the major gifts initiative is approximately $1.5 million and will contribute to the entire Canadian soccer ecosystem.

How have Canadian soccer figures reacted?

Several figures throughout Canadian soccer who spoke to The Athletic have praised the hire of Marsch and believe that keeping an open mind regarding the hiring process and Marsch’s title is important. 

Many have praised Blue’s ability to lock down an established and in-demand coach of Marsch’s stature with limited financial resources – pointing out that, had Blue not recruited as aggressively as he did and convinced donors to help fund the hire, bringing Marsch on board likely would not have been possible. That’s why multiple established figures within Canadian soccer The Athletic spoke to suggested Blue deserves credit in the process.

Still, the publicized support of MLS apparent in the job title has ruffled some feathers around the country. In particular, figures at the country’s domestic league (the Canadian Premier League) who also jointly own the federation’s commercial and marketing arm (Canadian Soccer Business), have felt cut out from the process of hiring Marsch. Some question why MLS clubs were brought in to contribute funds when fundraising is the explicit goal of Canadian Soccer Business (CSB). Philanthropy, however, falls outside of the CSB’s deal with Canada Soccer.

Others brought up a possible conflict of interest in having a country’s head coach funded publicly by representatives of only one of the two primary leagues in operation in the country. 

The academy teams of Canada’s three MLS clubs have long heavily populated Canada’s youth national teams. However since the creation of the CPL in 2019 – a league that mandates a significant portion of total playing time be allocated to players aged 21 and under – more players from the domestic league have begun being called into youth national teams.

What has Marsch said about the job title? 

Speaking with The Athletic on Tuesday, Marsch said he appreciated the support of MLS clubs. 

“I knew about it,” Marsch said of the job title before he accepted the position.

Marsch believes his official title is a “statement of unity.”

“I expressed from the beginning that the most important thing for Canada soccer moving forward was that we could unify the nation and inspire the nation to really believe in this team and to work together,” Marsch said. “Because I do believe that there’s a lot of expertise and talent. And I’m not just talking about players, I’m talking about football people in this country. And I think the more that I can be a representative of the possibility of uniting them and the more that I can be a listener and the more that I can engage in the community, I think that we can achieve a lot together. So for me, when Kevin brought up to me the idea of the title, I was totally supportive.”

(Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

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