Wheeler: De Rosario an underappreciated athlete

Gareth Wheeler
12/15/2011 1:14:04 PM
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Personal accolades continue to roll in for Dwayne De Rosario, the latest being recognized as Canada's best male soccer player.  But even as his resume grows and mantle runs out of room, De Rosario is waging a battle against the label of most underappreciated Canadian athlete.
The Scarborough, Ontario native was named winner of the 2011 BMO Canadian Soccer Player of the Year Award Wednesday for the fourth time - his first such honour since 2007.  The choice was rather straight forward, with De Rosario named Major League Soccer MVP for the first time in his career last month. He also tied Dale Mitchell's all-time scoring record for the Canadian National team during World Cup qualifying in November.
The recognition is deserved. His blue-collar play continues to inspire. And the resume speaks for itself: four-time MLS Cup winner, two-time MLS Cup MVP, six-time MLS Best XI, and a Golden Boot winner in 2011.  Off the field, his commitment to healthy living and conditioning is that of an exemplary footballer.  Dwayne De Rosario should be considered a Canadian soccer hero.
But the recognition stops there. 
De Rosario didn't make the cut when it comes to a Canadian sports hero. Widespread appeal and adoration for the country's best soccer player is nowhere consistent with the overall popularity of the sport.  While figure skater Patrick Chan won the Lou Marsh Award this week as Canada's top athlete, De Rosario barely registered as an honourable mention.
Not to diminish Chan's efforts or take a shot at the world of figure skating, but being named Most Valuable Player of North America's best soccer league, featuring names like Donovan, Beckham, and Henry is a massive accomplishment.
Prevailing sentiment suggests De Rosario is grossly underappreciated. That's not to say he isn't appreciated. But certainly he isn't viewed through the lens as the best Canadian soccer player of all-time.  Or MLS superstar.  Or even as one of the most important athletes on the Canadian sporting spectrum.
Apathy towards Canadian soccer is an old story, but not one that's relevant any more.  Soccer has never been more popular in Canada, from a professional or international perspective.  And it boggles why De Rosario's profile hasn't grown in line with that of the sport.
De Rosario's profile has been limited by the Canadian Men's National teams' lack of success, a long-standing malaise towards MLS and North American domestic leagues, and perceived 'character issues'.
The result: De Rosario isn't even currently the most well known name in Canadian soccer. That title goes to Christine Sinclair, the perennial winner of the Canadian Women's Player of the Year Award. 
Sinclair is an outstanding women's player, but she is also a product of team success, leading the Canadian Women to the FIFA Women's World Cup.  Despite their epic failure last summer in the tournament, Sinclair and the Women's team remain front and centre with Canada set to host the Women's World Cup in 2015. 
Before Sinclair, it was Owen Hargreaves (a player who chose to represent England instead of Canada) stealing the spotlight.  Even after chronic injury derailed his once promising career, Hargreaves was still recognized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the meantime, De Rosario stayed on the periphery.
De Rosario starring for his hometown Toronto FC was supposed to be a public relations boom for the player.  Instead, he was often portrayed a villain.  De Rosario lost public favour in 2010 during a contractual spat with the club.  Emotions extended to the field, which many Toronto FC supporters viewed as an act of defiance. 
Hard feelings from supporters over the incident always seemed rather reactionary, considering organizational dysfunction was at an all-time high, and De Rosario's commitment never waned during the uncomfortable stretch. 
Hard feelings extended into the off-season, with De Rosario unbelievably overlooked as Toronto FC Player of the Year, despite 17 goals in all competitions and superior play throughout. Shortly thereafter, Toronto FC did not acknowledge De Rosario was given permission to go on trial with Scottish giant Celtic, after reports emerged the player was training in Scotland. Thus, De Rosario was portrayed by the fans and media as a rogue player, abandoning his team without requisite permission, when in fact he was given permission to leave.
The result was a spoiled relationship beyond reconciliation.  And the writing was on the wall for a messy break-up between player and club.
The De Rosario/Toronto FC relationship was never supposed to work this way. The best player in MLS is Canadian and should be playing for his hometown club.  Both Toronto FC and De Rosario are worse off because of the falling out.
MLS hasn't helped matters either. De Rosario is unquestionably a top five player in MLS history. Yet the league has refused him Designated Player status – a more lucrative contract for De Rosario.  The pressure is back on MLS to reward their MVP.  It seems they are out of excuses after recently granting New England Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph DP status.
Last month, New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry called De Rosario the face of MLS. The two were teammates for a brief time before De Rosario was traded to DC United mid-season. "In this league I haven't seen anybody better than Dwayne De Rosario," said Henry. 
A bold statement, but it's hard to disagree. American soccer fans may see Landon Donovan as that face of the league. De Rosario is Canada's Landon Donovan.
De Rosario and Donovan have similar qualities.  They have the ability to score and create through talent or industry.  Both are flexible in and around the midfield and attacking positions, playing outside or moving back or forward as required.  And both are rough enough around the edges, making them more relatable than the average star player.
That's where the comparison stops. As Donovan's stock has risen over the years, De Rosario's stays static.
Donovan has been given DP status and has a significant public profile. And Donovan has been 'legitimized' as a credible player on the global stage, having performed on the grandest of footballing stages: in the English Premier League and the FIFA World Cup.
Donovan's loan-move to Everton in 2010 and the success that followed, proved to the naysayer he was more than an average player finding success in a mediocre league. At the same time, the United States has proven itself to be a true international soccer power.  And popularity has followed. 
The US national soccer teams, both men's and women's, have become mainstream fixtures in living rooms and stadia across America.  More American supporters travelled to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa than any other nation.  Donovan has been the benefactor. 
De Rosario hasn't been so fortunate.  He's had to work his way through a less advantageous Canadian soccer development system while competing for a country lacking profile.  Times are changing, and doors are opening for younger players.  But the clock is ticking for the 33-year old.
This off-season is another opportunity for De Rosario to pursue a short-term loan with a European side.  De Rosario is saying all the right things about staying with DC United.  But the allure of Europe is an opportunity he will not let pass by again.
De Rosario told TSN 1050 Radio in Toronto leading Canada to the FIFA World Cup in 2014 is his top priority.  If De Rosario can change the widespread Canadian soccer narrative from one of a farce to one national pride, he will be underappreciated no longer.
The year 2011 may have been De Rosario's best yet as a footballer. And 2012 looks to be the most important.

Gareth Wheeler can be heard on TSN Radio 1050's Cybulski and Company each week and can be followed on Twitter at @gareth_wheeler.


Dwayne De Rosario (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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