While a number of Canadian players had fantastic individual seasons in 2011, in many ways, this has been something of an off year for Canadian soccer in terms of the on-the-pitch performances of the most prominent teams in the country.
With both Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps missing the MLS playoffs, the Montreal Impact struggling in their last season in the North American second division, Canada being unable to get out of their group at the Gold Cup and the Women’s team struggling on their biggest stage at the World Cup, the year that is coming to a close was one in which the majority of the prominent teams in Canada struggled to reach the goals they had set for themselves.
However, with all due to respect to an exciting FC Edmonton squad, there was one team that overachieved in 2011 and provided genuine hope for the future of Canadian soccer and that was Sean Fleming’s Canadian men’s U-17 side. After bringing home a silver medal at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship and qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time in 16 years, the Canadian boys went on to Mexico and tied both England and Rwanda in the group phase, earning Canada its first ever points at the world championship and ending a 13-game losing streak that started all the way back in 1987. The team was genuinely exciting and the players won raves for both the quality of their play and for the potential they showed.
Apart from the fact that this incarnation of the U-17 team had talented players at every position on the pitch, one thing that was also quite exciting about it was that it was almost entirely made up of products from the academies of the three Canadian professional teams that will compete against each other in the MLS in 2012.
If the success of the Fleming’s team wasn’t enough to prove that probably the biggest and most important story of the year was the rise to prominence of the MLS academies, you only need to look at the Canadian Soccer Association’s nominees in their player of the year awards in the U-20 and U-17 categories. The latter group was highlighted by three players (Bryce Alderson, Keven Aleman and Maxime Crepeau) who were part of the Whitecaps, TFC and Impact academies respectively and the eventual winner (Alderson) recently signed an MLS contract with Vancouver at the ripe old age of 17.
The former group was dominated by Toronto and Vancouver academy graduates who have already shown that they more than belong at the MLS level. And the winner of the U-20 award was announced to be none other than Toronto FC’s Ashtone Morgan, who also recently became the first graduate of one the MLS academies to be capped by Canada at senior level.
As Sportsnet’s Jamie Doyle pointed out in his excellent article on Morgan in the November issue of Sportsnet magazine, Toronto FC’s talented young left back has become something of a calling card for a youth development system that is starting to revolutionize Canadian soccer.
According to Jim Brennan, head coach of TFC’s junior academy team, the success of players such as Morgan, Matt Stinson and Doneil Henry has been vital in terms of their becoming the symbols needed to entice the next generation of talent to become part of the TFC academy. Thus, many prognosticators see Morgan et al. not just as a few rare talents who have become successful, but as the genuine tip of the iceberg of something that has the potential to one day transform Canada into a country that makes regular appearances at the FIFA World Cup.
“When we first started the academy there weren’t any players coming though. So local people would look at the academy and ask ‘what’s the point? You are just going to go out and buy players or trade for MLS players.’ But now that Stinson, Henry, Morgan and all these players have come through and are playing with TFC, the local community is looking at it and thinking that the academy is the best option for their kids, because TFC is now working to put local players into the first team. It’s opened up a lot of doors and we have a lot more talent because of it,” Brennan told sportsnet.ca.
Whitecaps FC residency technical director and head coach Richard Grootscholten expresses similar sentiments.
“(Alderson) is only 17 and he has signed a full-time MLS contract with the first team. And it’s important that we now have examples for other players to show them that it is possible to go through our system and get into the first team at a young age. It also motivates our staff and pushes us on because our main goal and only goal is to develop players,” Grootscholten said.
As for the La belle province, Philippe Eullaffroy, director of the Montreal Impact academy, admits that MLS’s arrival in Montreal has given rise to an increase in interest in his club’s youth development programs and he is confident that it is only a matter of time before his organization produces its own breakthrough players.
“We are seeing more and more interest from everywhere across the province in terms of people inquiring about the procedure by which players can enter our academy. We were already seeing it to an extent last winter when there was a lot of talk about the possibility of having the Montreal Impact in the MLS. And right now the interest is even more so and we are working to respond to it,” Eullaffroy said
“The (coaching) staff has a few young players from the academy on their radar, so I’m hoping we will have some good news there early next year. And if it is not next year, it will be for the following year. Our academy is pretty new, as we started less than two years ago.”
It’s far too soon to tell if the Impact’s Maxime Crepeau will become a national team goalkeeper on par with Craig Forrest. One thing that is clear is that he won’t have to take his chances in Europe in order to develop as a player and earn a spot in the professional ranks.
It’s often been stated that Canada’s lone appearance at the World Cup back in 1986 was the direct result of Canadian players having the opportunity to play and develop via the North American Soccer League.
However, once that league collapsed, Canadians really only had the choice of moving to Europe to pursue their soccer dreams via a system in which Canadian players often had to be twice as good as native Europeans in order to earn playing time. While that type of competitive environment probably helped top class players such as Forrest, Paul Stalteri and Paul Peschisolido to reach their full potential, it also likely resulted in a decent number of talented Canadians giving up before they could fulfil their potential.
With MLS coming to Canada in 2007 with the arrival of Toronto FC, a new paradigm in Canadian soccer has arisen. And it has essentially come in two phases.
The first phase was simply the manner in which it provided opportunities for Canadian players to return home from European clubs that were not providing them playing time. Will Johnson, Dejan Jakovic and Adrian Cann are prime examples of players who were essentially developed via U.S. collegiate soccer as opposed to professional teams, but who used the opportunity to play in the MLS as a means to fulfil their potential and win spots on the Canadian national team.
The second phase is the one that Canadian soccer has now entered. Players are now developed at the youth level by the professional clubs for the express purpose of stocking the senior team. While some will undoubtedly move on to play in Europe, they will often do so in a manner in which their transfer fees will then be reinvested back into the clubs towards developing the next generation of Canadian talent.
Ask spokespeople from any club in the world whether they are dedicated to youth player development and the answer will invariably be “of course.” But, as the saying goes, talk is cheap and, just as exciting as the success of players such as Morgan and Alderson has been, it is equally exciting to see the Canadian MLS clubs making significant financial investments in their academies.
Vancouver is expanding their program so that it can train and develop more players and will be able to work with most talented kids in even younger age groups.
“You have to bring the best players together to train. When you have the best players playing together, the level will improve. We try to recruit the best players from across Canada. Not only the best players from British Columbia, but also from outside of B.C.,” Grootscholten said.
Interestingly, two of the Whitecaps residency program’s most successful graduates are not from Western Canada. Both Bryce Alderson and Russell Teibert are from Ontario and they joined with Whitecaps organization due to it having the reputation as being the best youth development setup in Canada.
While some will undoubtedly point to the idea that all of the professional academies should work together in a holistic fashion towards the betterment of youth player development in Canada, it is exactly that type of competition and capitalistic attitude that will force all three of the Canadian MLS academies to up their games if they want to attract the best players from across the country.
In fact, Toronto FC have already risen to challenge, as the organization threw down the gauntlet in an emphatic fashion when they announced earlier this year that it was investing $17.5 million to build a world class academy and training facility at Downsview park in Toronto.
Brennan sees the new facility as a fundamental advancement for a franchise that is striving to be the Canadian leader in player development.
“The money that the organization is spending on this facility goes to show you how much interest Toronto FC has in the academy and what it means in terms of building this football club. These kids will have absolutely everything that they could have imagined right at their fingertips. And they have opportunity to become a professional,” Brennan said.
With Vancouver having a stated goal of wanting to be one of the top 25 football clubs in the world, Montreal aiming to become the focal point of soccer in Quebec and Toronto modeling itself in many ways on world class European organizations like Ajax, the fact of the matter is that if these three clubs can come anywhere close to achieving their goals, it is going to radically improve youth player development in Canada and the trickle down effect will be that other youth clubs and academies in Canada will have to get better as well if they want to remain competitive.
“We want to be the Manchester United of MLS. It’s hard work and it takes time to get there, but all the resources that we have are going into the club to make it bigger and better. We want to be at the forefront of Canadian football,” Brennan said.
Steve Bottjer is a Toronto-based writer, podcaster and editor for RedNation Online, on online magazine covering all aspects of Canadian soccer. Follow RedNation Online on Twitter.