When Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman were called to the dais as first-round picks of Toronto FC in Thursday’s Major League Soccer SuperDraft, it pointed to brighter days to come, not just for Canada’s original MLS club, but more crucially for the development of soccer in this country, for the academy that produced them.
In fact, if it weren’t for Sigma FC’s involvement with the two Canadian youngsters, they might merely have been watching the event on TV at home instead of being stars of the show.
“Around 14, 15 I wasn’t really having any fun with [soccer],” Bekker, 22, said after being taken third overall. “I was in [my hometown of] Oakville, playing with the Bluestars at the time, and was sort of in and out of the provincial system and I wasn’t really having any fun and I hated going to practice and it was definitely a tough time.
“I kind of wanted to step away from it all and put things on hold for a bit, but I went to Sigma to see how all that went and things started to pick up.”
The Mississauga-based academy had an almost identical role in rejuvenating Welshman’s love for the sport after he, too, had been dropped from the provincial system, although he now credits that disappointment for giving him the edge that helped make him the 16th overall pick in the draft.
“A lot of people say that I talk and play with a chip on my shoulder,” Welshman, 21, a Mississauga native. “There definitely is a chip on my shoulder. I feel like for a long time I’ve not been given the credit I deserve and now that things are kind of panning out for me I hope that people can see the talent that I have and appreciate it.”
Bobby Smyrniotis, the technical director at Sigma, started out in 2005 by taking groups of boys to summer camps in the Netherlands to receive coaching with Amsterdam’s famed Ajax team, the four-time European champions. That later grew to a fully fledged academy, with the first full season in 2006-07, the year both Bekker and Welshman enrolled with the club.
“I always say, our biggest success, as Sigma, will be the production of players,” Smyrniotis said. “Our biggest success today is the fact that two of our players are going into the MLS, not that these two players helped us win trophies, helped us win games. As coaches, this shows that we’ve done something good as a technical staff.”
While Toronto FC is hoping to get similar results from its own academy, which started in 2008, results have been mixed, producing players long on ego but short on talent, with some of the coaches from top European sides, who travel over every year to observe players at Sigma’s annual camp, left bemused by the coaching methods employed by the MLS club.
Bekker was recently on trial with Crystal Palace of the English Championship – the second tier of English soccer – after being spotted by one of the team’s scouts at the Sigma camp last summer, but though it wanted to sign him to a contract, it was unable to secure a work permit because of his lack of senior appearances for the Canadian national team. That should change starting Friday, when he is expected to be called up to the Canadian squad for exhibition games against Denmark and the United States later this month.
But moving abroad can wait. Bekker is excited for his new challenge in MLS, and equally so for being a trailblazer for what he expects to be a pipeline of Canadian talent from Sigma. “What they’re doing right now is amazing,” Bekker said. “You can see, even the kids coming through the academy right now, they’re better than us right now.
“They’re doing great things and there’s more to come but there’s a lot of things that Canada as a whole has to do for soccer and whether it the first step in making Canadians and not foreign players in MLS, that’s one thing, but those guys are amazing and I owe a whole lot to them.”