If the 2011 Major League Soccer season was any indication, the future looks bright for Toronto FC’s heralded trio of youth academy graduates.
Doneil Henry (18), Matt Stinson (19) and Ashtone Morgan (20) hardly looked out of place as they saw considerable playing time during the second half of the campaign.
A native of Brampton, Ont., Henry made 10 appearances (six as a starter) and logged 503 minutes during his second season with the Reds, successfully building on an impressive rookie campaign.
Fellow defender Ashtone Morgan, a Toronto native, made his debut for the club last year before graduating from the youth academy to the senior side this past season (14 appearances, nine starts, 903 minutes).
Like Morgan, Stinson was invited to pre-season training camp in January and was quickly promoted to the senior team. The Toronto-born midfielder went on to make 13 appearances for TFC in 2011 (five starts, 675 minutes).
Looking back on the campaign, Morgan was surprised that he, Stinson and Henry saw so much playing time.
"I feel that all three of us fought for the minutes that we got. But it was also unexpected," Morgan said. "We all worked hard, the coaches saw that and that’s what happens when you work hard – you get playing time."
Stinson added: "Our first couple of games that we got in, we were obviously nervous but the aim was to focus and work hard. Throughout the year we’ve become more comfortable on the ball, playing the system and starting to add our own game."
Henry was happy with the progress he has made since his rookie year in 2010, believing he proved himself to coach Aron Winter and his assistant Bob de Klerk.
"I felt a lot more comfortable, and let my coaches know that if they need me, I can always be an option for them," Henry said.
Injuries and suspensions during the second half of the season forced Winter to deploy Stinson, normally a holding midfielder, at right fullback. Playing in defence posed a daunting challenge, but the youngster proved to be a bit of a revelation at the position.
"It was difficult, especially at the beginning with positioning because you are defending in a different way," Stinson explained. "But I think the coaches gave me the tools to play that position."
Morgan won plaudits for his poised and consistent performances at left fullback. His efforts did not go unnoticed by Canadian coach Stephen Hart, who called the TFC defender up for national team duty. Morgan made his debut in a World Cup qualifier earlier this month, setting up a goal in Canada’s 7-0 win over St. Lucia.
Morgan credits TFC teammate and fellow national team member Julian de Guzman for his steady progress.
"He helped me a lot, especially in the second half of the season with Toronto FC and the national team," Morgan admitted. "I looked up to him a lot and he took me under his wing."
Stinson also relied on de Guzman, as well as veterans Terry Dunfield and Torsten Frings for advice.
"They taught me a lot throughout the season; what to think when you get the ball, where to look first, playing the simple ball," Stinson said. "All three of them have shared a wealth of knowledge and I am grateful for that, and I think part of my success this season in getting into the lineup has been because of them."
And it works both ways, with Henry taking an active role in mentoring the current crop of youth academy players.
"If they perform well in the academy games, they can also get bumped up and be training with the first team. They know that it’s there for the taking," Henry said.
Even though Morgan, Stinson and Henry impressed their coaches in 2011, there is no guarantee that Winter will introduce other youth academy graduates to the senior team at a similar rate next year.
"It depends on each individual. Some players develop quicker than others. You have to be careful to bring them up so quickly," Winter warned. "This league is very physical, the (difference between) the youth academy to the first team, it’s much higher."
That being said, Winter believes the youth academy is "the foundation" of the club moving forward.
The league’s complicated rules and roster restrictions, combined with the reluctance of foreign stars wanting to play in Canada, means it’s imperative that Toronto FC develops its own players at a steady rate.
To that end Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, the team’s owners, have put their money where their mouth is. MLSE recently broke ground on a 14-acre training facility at Downsview Park in north Toronto at a cost of $21 million, that will serve as the permanent home of the youth academy.
The organization’s long-term investment is money well spent, especially in light of the coaching staff’s decision to rely more on local youth products than sign expensive foreigners to build the roster.
"The youth academy is very, very important," de Klerk offered.
The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact, the latter entering the league in 2012, also have strong and stable youth academy programs. The more MLS teams that can develop players, the more the Canadian national team will benefit, too.
"It’s a great thing to witness and you realize that Canadian (soccer) is actually taking a step forward," de Guzman said.
This is the fourth instalment of John Molinaro’s five-part, end-of-season series on Toronto FC.
Monday — Coach Aron Winter says the team made progress in 2011, but that there is still plenty of work to do. | Read here
Tuesday — Milos Kocic or Stefan Frei: who will be the Reds’ No. 1 goalkeeper next year. | Read here
Wednesday – A case for the defence: why did TFC’s back line struggle, and what needs to be done to address its defensive woes? | Read here
Thursday — Matt Stinson, Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry: what’s ahead for these promising youth academy graduates who saw a lot of playing time in 2011?
Friday — Julian de Guzman: Canadian superstar had his best campaign for the Reds and finally looked like a designated player.