My latest piece is up on sportsnet.ca and at the risk of sounding vain, I will say it is a must read for any TFC fan. I had the pleasure of chatting with Matt Stinson about all kinds of things last week but the focus of the interview was Toronto FC's academy and trying to make the case that all of the money that the club has invested in that area is more than worth it. The article was actually made even more timely by the departure of Stuart Neely since it was to him that Stinson gives a lot of credit for the academy being so well run.
So why do I think that this article is so important? Well, there is a number of different reasons. The first is that I have been and always will be a strong proponent of the fact that the academy is the best way for TFC to develop a strong side since the home grown player rule can provide much needed relief from the hard cap in the MLS. The second reason is that I am also a fan of Canada so the better the talent that TFC is developing, the better the talent pool becomes for Canada, and that is something we can all get excited about. The third reason, and really the most important one of the bunch, is that there needs to be a change in youth soccer in Canada if we want to close in on the game's elite countries. The kind of major investment that TFC is making in their academy is an essential step in improving overall development in this country but even with TFC leading the way talented young players may still slip through the cracks so it is an essential that other clubs follow this lead.
Stinson and Ashtone Morgan have both shown kids across this country that you can stay in Canada and follow a similar development path to theirs to reach the professional level as well as play for the National Team. By calling up Stinson and Morgan, Canadian coach Stephen Hart showed everyone paying attention that doing what they did is an option, and a good one at that. The idea that young Canadians have to make the difficult choice to head over to Europe if they want to develop their game and eventually become pros is a thing of the past now. Instead there is the option to join an academy and maybe go pro, and if that does not work at least they will help you get a scholarship and go play at the university level.
So for all those reasons I hope you read the article and after you do that you can read the full interview after the jump!
David: What year did you join the academy? Were you part of the original group in 2008?
Matt: Yep, they basically took the team Ontario team and brought them over to the academy and then they made selection and cuts from there.
David: When you started out in the academy for you how was that compared to your club level before that?
Matt: Well, the club level, kind of at least while I was playing was pretty lax. Practices are not on time, kids showing up late and stuff so the academy kind of gave me more of a professional atmosphere with being on time and getting treated like a pro or semi-professional player. I think the difference was that you knew that there was a first team, there was something direct that you were working towards. At the club level most of the guys who were on TFC were probably the best players on their team and then it wasn't really much of a challenge so the academy kind of gave players that motivation to excel and make the first team, get a scholarship, or go overseas.
David: When you came into the academy were they playing in the CSL?
Matt: That was the first year so I was on the junior academy so we played in the CSL reserve league. The senior academy team played in the CSL.
David: This was your first year with a pro contract, how was the transition for you from reserve to the first team?
Matt: I think it was good that I got to play a couple of reserve games before stepping in on the first team. I think it was more just the pressure of having to perform. There wasn't a tonne of fans but the coaches watching you. I think it got me used to kind of the pressures to playing on the first team with big crowds. We didn't get much playing time or even in practice so there wasn't a lot of game experience so that helped a lot going in to my first game against Real Salt Lake. In terms of the Reserve League I only played maybe 2 or 3 games but it was good. There were a lot of players, you are not just playing against young players, there are experienced guys who are just coming back from injuries and are getting some games under their belt so it's still a high level and it was good not just for me but some other guys who have not played as often in games so they stay sharp and focused on making the A team.
David: Would you say that the system that Toronto has now with the youth academy levels, then the reserve team, and then the first team grooms players really well for making an easy transition?
Matt: For sure, I think the academy is really well run by Stuart Neely and they treat you like you are almost a professional. There is still the same pressure as you are going from level to level and I think players really want to excel and make that first team. Obviously it would be better if the academy went younger and younger and younger because you can only get so prepared in only two or three years. That is what they are doing with the new facility and hopefully that will happen and maybe the under 12's will start now.
David: Have you seen all the designs for the new facility? Is it going to be state of the art?
Matt: It is for sure, they have a lot of fields and its good that we are kind of out of BMO Field. I think its better that your home field is kind of where it should be special and you go on game days and you're working towards playing on that field. In terms of the facility, I have seen some blue prints and its going to be really well run with kind of two wings, one for the first team and one for the academy with separate fields. I'm not exactly sure how it will turn out but from what I have seen its going to be pretty nice.
David: I have heard a lot of fans be kind of critical of the way that Toronto has spent so much money developing the academy but in your eyes is that something that is already paying off and will continue to pay off in the future?
Matt: Well I guess all academies are different and there are different types of academies and how they run it. I would assume that with 5 or 6 players now graduated from the academy to the first team and getting some quality minutes it is right what they are doing because they realize that, especially in this league, the draft isn't always necessarily where you are going to get all the players from. Especially with the Dutch system that's being played in Toronto now that is something that you have to grow up with to really know how to play it. I think they are right in spending this much money on the youth.
David: You mentioned the 5 or 6 guys who are academy grads, do you guys still play any role in helping out with the academy like talking to the other young guys that are now coming through?
Matt: Well were are not that old, I could have been playing last year with the academy, but we see them from time to time but since the academy started training out of Downsview we haven't seen them as much. Earlier in the year you would talk to them, go in the green room or work out with them a little bit. I know a few of them, we're not friends off the field but I know them from my time when I was with the academy there and they were juniors so I think its good that in the new facility they will kind of see the first team players and kind of aspire to want to be them.
David: You got called up for Canada at the end of this season but missed it and there was a lot of talk, first when Ashtone Morgan got called up and then with you about you two being the first real examples of a clear pathway to make the Canadian National Team for kids growing up. How do you feel about that example you are setting now?
Matt: Well obviously I think its great. It is something that I don't think me or Ashtone (Morgan) really expected so soon at least but I think that Canadian soccer they are trying to prove a point, not that we don't deserve to be there, but they are trying to prove a point that you can stay in Canada and you can excel with Toronto FC, Vancouver and now Montreal. These are clear pathways to making it so hopefully more kids will grow up with aspirations of playing in North American, in Canadian clubs, and grow the game so just to be a part of that is great. I have gotten a lot of feedback from fans and they think its great that I grew up in Toronto, made Toronto, and now getting called up for the national team so its great.
David: You mentioned it being a new pathway. For you when you picked the academy route was it a debate for you because it was still unproven when you did it or was this the best option for you?
Matt: I think that before the academy or Toronto FC was around my goal was to get a scholarship, be seen by someone, get a scholarship, get my degree, and then from there on maybe try and go overseas. I wasn't really sure, there was not many options as a Canadian player back then. I guess Toronto FC, they came along and even if you are trying to make the first team it is great to make the first team like on Toronto FC but you enter that platform to go to the US and go to school and then maybe join the MLS four years later if you're not ready right away. Then in terms of making the national team I have honestly always wanted to play for Canada but I never knew that it would come so fast. I knew that playing in Toronto would give me a lot of exposure to the national program and the coaches seeing as we play in Canada but never expected the call this early so I think its a testament to Canadian soccer and also Toronto FC who have brought a game to Toronto and Canada.