When Italian soccer titan AS Roma locks horns with Toronto FC on Wednesday night at BMO Field, those in attendance could be forgiven for thinking the exhibition contest is merely its final act on this year’s preseason sortie to these shores.
In fact, fresh off last week’s one-sided 3-1 victory over the Major League Soccer all-stars in Kansas City, the three-time Serie A winner is just getting started on this continent.
Owned by the Boston-based Raptor Group, which bought a majority shareholding (67 per cent) in the club for $89-million (U.S.) in 2011, Roma is trying to broaden its footprint across North America.
While the marketing and merchandising branches of its operation are served by these preseason tours, the ultimate soccer currency – developing quality players – is a longer-term project, but one that can bear considerable fruit considering the multimillion-dollar sums being bandied around Europe this summer for the likes of Radamel Falcao, Neymar and Mario Goetze.
With that in mind, Roma has teamed up with a Southern Ontario-based academy, Pro Calcio Canada FC, to help nurture the next generation of players, and potentially unearth a hidden gem from one of soccer’s hinterlands.
“I haven’t seen one yet,” former Roma player Marco Arcese said, through a translator, “but there’s the potential of having one phenom in Canada. But the rest of them, there’s not much you can do with them because they get lost and the coaching level is not there to bring them up.”
Arcese, president of ASD Pro Calcio academy in Rome, works closely with his old club and the Canadian academy – one of four official affiliates outside of Italy – to raise the standard of coaching and playing by holding summer camps across the region. He also helps bring over established coaches, such as former Canadian women’s national team boss Carolina Morace and Roma youth team coach Mirko Manfre, to apply the exacting technical standards a storied club such as Roma is built upon.
“We’re bringing our mindset here to Canada and we’re knocking on the door slowly, but I’m hoping we can get our word out there,” Arcese said. “The idea is to change the mindset, train the trainer, and create a generation [of coaches] for the next generation to be taught.”
Two players from last year’s camp, forward Ovonte Mullings and defender Dumari Ewart, showed Arcese enough that he and Pro Calcio Canada president Michael Meleca took the pair on a trip to Italy to train with the youth setup at Roma.
“They presented themselves very, very well and the words from Bruno Conti, the former World Cup winner who’s the technical director for the Roma academy, were ‘I would sign these players in a heartbeat,’” Meleca said.
“But … they’re not Italian citizens right off the bat, and there are laws in Italy about signing players, they have to be at a certain age. But in the future, if they were to maintain this level and show continued improvement, he would consider bringing them back to Roma.”
The blueprint for that was established last year by another of Roma’s affiliate clubs, ASR Pro Football Academy in Australia, which placed a 16-year-old into the Italian club’s youth academy, and his head coach had no qualms about packing his charge off to Italy to pursue his soccer-playing dreams.
“The youth system at AS Roma has a long and successful history of producing all-round quality players like Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, who both developed into top-flight Italian internationals,” Anthony Ucchino said in a statement.
Another coach equally impressed with the Roma way is former Canadian youth international Dominic Willock, who played alongside the likes of former TFC captain Jim Brennan and English Premier League stalwart Paul Stalteri at the world under-17 championship.
Willock, Pro Calcio Canada’s technical director for the Toronto district, has been over to Italy to learn the Roma methodology, and he was surprised by just how different it is to what he had been exposed to in Canada.
“I don’t know how to characterize Canadian soccer culture, but defensively we struggle and attacking we struggle, so trying to bring how Roma approaches the game, I think it’s very appealing to me,” Willock said.
“I grew up in the school of score more than the other team and you’ll never lose a game, but the whole 4-2-4 is not the modern game any more, so you have to know how to defend. But at the same time, you have to score goals. I’m trying to bring that into my coaching.”
As others who have been on the scene a little longer than Pro Calcio Canada can attest, coaching is key to everything.
“We have a lot to do in terms of education, be it providing education opportunities, giving coaches an opportunity to better themselves … but it’s tough – we don’t have enough [coaches],” said Constantine Smyrniotis, managing director for Sigma Sports Solutions.
Founded in 2005, Sigma has grown into a leading development centre in the Southern Ontario region, developing both of Toronto FC’s first-round MLS draft picks this year (Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman), as well as helping 17 graduating players earn themselves soccer scholarships with U.S. NCAA schools for the coming semester.
And while Smyrniotis applauds all efforts to better the quality of coaching and, ultimately, players in this country, he adds a note of caution.
“We’ve been around now for a long time, and from the time we started ’til now, we’ve probably seen every pro team come through this city in terms of starting something up, Man United to Juventus, the Italian clubs, the English clubs, we’ve seen everything,” he said.
“We’ve seen them come and go to be honest with you, and I think, sometimes, it’s easy to get somebody through the door with the pizzazz of ‘Hey, you’re going to show up and it’s going to be Manchester United.’ The problem is how do you get them to come back? You get them to come back by the quality and the sustainability of the program. It’s not just a one-off.”
But Pro Calcio Canada FC is determined to build on its early momentum. After a single week’s camp in 2012, the organization held three camps this year, in Sarnia, Ont., Toronto and St. Catharines, Ont., and is looking to expand to month-long courses in 2013, with the ultimate aim of setting up a full-time academy. However, the cost of that can be prohibitive, ranging from $150,000 to $200,000 in start-up costs alone.
Still, the organization is confident there is enough talent at the minor levels in this country to justify the investment.
“I believe that from what I see in Canadian talent at the grassroots level, going up to about 12 years of age, they’re really good,” Arcese said. “Athletically, they’re good kids, they’re good players, but taking them to the next level after 12 years old, there’s a lack of technical, tactical, the cognitive, the motor skills, they start lacking the fundamentals to become an actual pro football player.”