Surely Toronto FC is the very definition of insanity.
For five years now, they’ve done the same things over and over again, always in the expectant hope that things will turn out differently. In 2007, to little or no effect, they imported three players who had played in England’s top leagues. Two years later, they brought home some of the best Canadian talent of this generation, including one who was plying his trade in Spain’s La Liga, and still the playoffs remained nothing more than a mirage. And while last season brought a fresh wave of optimism once former Dutch international Aron Winter was tasked with cleaning up the mess, the postseason was where it’s always been – agonizingly out of reach.
The fans have come in droves, initially labelled crazy for their behaviour in the stands, but more recently for their willingness to throw good money after bad in the hope that this will be “the year.” Today’s home opener at BMO Field is no exception – the stadium is verging on a sellout for the first home match of TFC’s 2012 Major League Soccer season.
The front office has fared little better in the half-baked stakes, burning through five different coaches in those first five seasons while slinging players together like so much mud on the wall in the hope that some camaraderie will stick.
But somewhere amidst the madness, the club may have stumbled across a solution that could turn the tide, and surprisingly it still involves doing the same things over and over again, only this time in the shape of passing, shooting and dribbling with the ball.
The Toronto FC Academy, a player development program designed to recognize, cultivate and nurture the best soccer talent in this country, has nearly tripled in size since its formation in 2008, churning out players who move from youth leagues to Major League Soccer teams, university squads and international clubs such as AC Milan and FC Zurich. Six current players on the TFC roster came through the academy from GTA youth leagues; by 2015 or 2016, Thomas Rongen, the academy director, expects to see the academy delivering two first-team-calibre players to the team every year. Come June, the program will get a huge boost when TFC’s new $22-million training facility opens at Downsview Park. With four natural and artificial training fields alongside a 50,000-square-foot training centre, the 16-acre (6.5-hectare) facility is set to be the envy of every club in the MLS, helping first-team players maximize their potential while grooming the next wave of stars alongside them.
While it may be a stretch at this point to see the academy churning out the kinds of world-class, homegrown talent produced by the likes of Barcelona and Ajax, two European clubs with a similar feeder system, it is a huge advantage when it comes to isolating the best and brightest young talent that the GTA has to offer, and then giving them a means to ride their skills to the very top.
The benefits of grooming homegrown talent
“Today’s players must have perfect technique,” says Thomas Rongen, the newly appointed director of the TFC Academy. “That’s one thing that we stress with our organization. It’s essential for players to receive high-quality, free training between the ages of 8 and 12, and that’s really skills training and that’s the ideal time to improve the array of technical skills.”
Mr. Rongen, who spent 10 years in charge of the United States’ under-20 program, joined fellow Dutchmen Aron Winter and Bob de Klerk, respectively TFC’s head coach and first assistant, back in January, just in time to reap the benefits of the club’s soon-to-open Downsview training facility.
“It’s more or less proven that, percentage-wise, if you get two [players]a year out of your academy, you’re doing really well,” says director of player development Paul Mariner, a former England international. “We’re under no illusions because a lot of things happen in kids’ lives [between]being a fantastic player at 11 or 12 to becoming a fully grown professional at 18, 19, 20.”
The benefits of grooming your own talent at the MLS level are fourfold, meaning Toronto FC’s sizable investment is a well-founded outlay. Homegrown players are not subject to entry drafts, do not count against the league’s salary cap (set this season at $2.81-million U.S. per team), don't have to be protected during expansion drafts and, perhaps most importantly, teams are allowed to keep 75 per cent of any transfer fee those players may elicit from overseas clubs. TFC owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, whose sporting portfolio also includes the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA’s Toronto Raptors, is in no doubt the academy system is the logical way to set the foundation for future success.
“In both hockey and basketball, we’re in the biggest leagues in the world; the world of soccer is an international world and we’re operating in a very small bandwidth of the overall economy of soccer with regards to player costs, so we have to get into development and develop homegrown talent, we just have to,” says MLSE chief operating officer Tom Anselmi. “The league can afford the odd [former German international and current TFC midfielder]Torsten Frings, but it can’t afford 25 Torsten Frings, so we’ve got to grow judiciously, and I think that’s one of the great things MLS has done.”
Mr. Frings, the club captain, earned $1.1-million last season for barely three months work. By comparison, Ashtone Morgan, the team’s left-back, took home just $32,604 for his first full season in the league. But for TFC, Mr. Morgan represents the future. Just 21, the Toronto native is in many ways a trailblazer for the academy system, establishing himself not only as a regular in the first team last season, but also becoming the first TFC academy graduate to suit up for the Canadian men’s national team when he took the pitch last October in St. Lucia, in a World Cup qualifier.
Though Mr. Rongen admits Mr. Morgan isn’t a true graduate of the academy, having barely been in it two years, the youngster is in no doubt as to the importance it played in getting him to the top.
“I was with [Team Canada’s National Training Centre]but after that there wasn’t really anything,” he explains. “Usually you just go to school after that but I felt I could do more and when the academy came around it was like I’d seen a shining star and [I felt]I’ve got to do it.”
Mining for diamonds in the youth clubs
Certainly the hope is that others will follow Mr. Morgan’s example. The enormous scope of the Downsview facility represents a chance to find others like him, allowing Mr. Rongen and his staff to cast an eye over as many youngsters as possible. Just last week, the club opened up its summer academy programs to the public, with a couple of them fully booked already.
But with thousands of kids playing soccer in this province, to say nothing of the country as a whole, unearthing that one gem is in many ways like finding a needle in a haystack. To that end, TFC has attempted to cast its net even wider with the introduction of its Club Academy Program, a network of 50 or so junior clubs predominantly in Ontario. The network affords Toronto FC the opportunity to have a hand in the development of the next generation, assisting with coaching methods and clinics to ensure that grassroots players are getting the very best instruction, or, as Mr. Rongen calls it, “Total Football in Canada, baby.”
It all sounds good, but before fans start trying to remember which route the victory parade takes through Toronto – hey, it’s been a while – they may want to put the cart back behind the horse. Former Canadian international Jason de Vos has certainly seen it from both sides, having foraged his way through a decidedly more haphazard era of Canadian soccer in the 1970s and 80s before finally finding his way to England as a 19-year-old, returning home four years ago to work in TV and take up his current position as technical director at Oakville Soccer Club. And though he applauds TFC’s recent efforts to nurture the grassroots of the sport, he also preaches patience.
“There is no magic formula, it is very much a slow-cooker for success,” he says. “Put the right ingredients in and you let it bake, you let it cook and if it’s meant to happen – and there’s also a very large element of luck involved in all of that. … There’s a whole bunch of different ingredients that go into making a player and it’s important that professional clubs, the Major League Soccer clubs, develop those relationships with youth clubs because they can’t do it all themselves.”