Parents and Players: Time to embrace the new Ontario Player Development League

It's just a ball so why does it spark such debate over how best to teach kids to kick it? With the new OPDL replacing the OYSL in 2014, the debates are just starting

Over the weekend, we took the kids to the park. It's partly exercise for them and partly a physiological experiment for me. My hope is that if they vent enough energy, they'll eventually match my own level which seems to need more naps the older I get. I was watching my youngest struggle with the monkey bars and I recalled a quote from CS Lewis who said you have to let go in order to move forward.

Watching our Women capture Bronze at the Olympics and the Men in the World Cup qualifiers, I get the sense that we are a nation on its own monkey bars. We have a vision of what could be and we know that we have to let go of our current development model in order to move forward. Yet, there are those that are afraid to let go.

Humans resist change as much as possible. That said, with any new initiative there are those that embrace it, those that question it and those that will try to sabotage your efforts every step of the way. But make no mistake, soccer, as we know it is changing for the youth in Ontario. My hope is that you will lend your support for change and support this new direction. I write this without any vested interest in its success other than my most important job, being a father to 3 wonderful kids who enjoy the game. This is why it is important.

In 2014, a new competitive stream will be introduced to the Ontario Soccer Association's Long Term Player Development (LTPD) vision. The principles of LTPD are modeled after successful programs worldwide and guide all aspects of soccer in this Province. The emphasis is on development, fun and helping each child reach their full potential. The elimination of published standings, emphasis on coaching qualifications, and more time on the ball are all hallmarks of this program, particularly at the younger ages.

In support of LTPD, older, competitive players will have the opportunity to compete in a high performance, standards based environment. This new league will be called the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL) and will replace the current Ontario Youth Soccer League (OYSL). At its core is an aspiration that it will ultimately help the OSA realize its vision of supplying 70% of the players to National Teams Programs and for kids to develop to their true potential. While it begins in 2014 for the U13 cohort, it will add an age group each year. For example, in 2015, the OPDL will cover the U13 and U14 cohorts. This phase in process will continue for every year until 2020 when it will encompass the U13-U23 brackets. It will not oversee or have jurisdiction on less competitive/house league programs.

What's different about the OPDL and why was it necessary to replace the OYSL?

The OPDL sets forth a number of criteria that Clubs and Academies must meet in order to qualify. Yes, clubs and academies will participate together which is a remarkable development in and of itself. Amongst the more notable standards that Jason de Vos, a member of the OSA's Technical Advisory Council, outlined include:

  • Paid coaches that hold a National B license
  • A minimum training to games ratio of 3:1
  • Provide a minimum of 3 individual player assessments per year
  • Training that runs from January to November with scheduled breaks
  • Centralizing games to be played on a Saturday at a designated host. Allowing scouts a more convenient forum to identify players for future opportunities
  • No promotion or relegation
  • Player movement policy which includes both a single transfer window and a panel that will oversee the movement between clubs/academies

It should be clear as to why this is an improvement from a development perspective. Successful models worldwide share these principles. All aboard?

Not quite.

Whispers are emerging from various circles about the potential impact of the OPDL on smaller clubs and/or clubs that won't be able to meet the criteria. While Waking the Red contacted a number of clubs for their views on the OPDL, those that did respond were not comfortable in putting their comments on record.

From a general perspective, concerned clubs cite the cost implications for parents and their ability to retain quality players and coaches. Underlying all of this appears to be a concern over the potential loss of revenue. Are these valid issues? Should they stand in the way of needed change?

Let's be clear, hiring and retaining licensed coaches could present some parents with some hesitation when they open their pocketbooks. However, the impact of fees on parents needs to be taken in the context of what high performance programs cost across a variety of sports. Even competitive swimming can set you back $3,000-$4,000 per season. Further, if parents added up all the fees from offseason training to uniforms to tournament travel that they currently pay, you'd be surprised at how the numbers add up.

The issue of retaining players is perhaps a valid one but then again, if a player is able to progress to a program with a higher standard and competion level, isn't that a good thing?

In my view, perhaps the issue of player retention is more closely linked to the fear of lost revenue. Remember the introduction of a transfer window and panel that will oversee transfer requests? Put the two of them together and you'll see one of the biggest reasons to endorse this model.

In the past, some but certainly not all clubs relied heavily on the idea of poaching players from other programs. If a club could put together a winning team in one season, it would have no trouble attracting players from neighbouring clubs as parents tended to equate trophies with a good program. Winning was the emphasis and winning fueled player recruitment and player recruitment translates into revenue. Win it and they will come could have been the motto. It's a nice tidy equation.

Of course, if you are spending time at a young age focusing on tactics to win, you don't have as much time to focus on how to receive a pass or other basics. Your progression in the game can only go so far. Without an emphasis on development this year's new recruit may be next year's cut, to be replaced by a better player. If an organization truly had a great development program, the turnover would be minimal. Players would progress and perhaps improvements in the results would be found but that wouldn't be the driving factor.

The real risk here is that some clubs that are concerned about their ability to qualify for the OPDL, are starting to lobby the OSA to reduce the standards. Considering all that is at stake, this would be a huge step backwards. It would be wise for all stakeholders to step back and focus on why a change is necessary. Our kids deserve better.

With that frame of reference we can look at what steps a club can take if they aren't able to qualify for the new league.

When considering what might be the options for a club that doesn't qualify for the OPDL, one positive route might be to seek affiliation with clubs/academies that do. Gary Miller, President of Bryst International, a founding Academy with the Soccer Academy Alliance of Canada and a member of the OSA's Technical Advisory Council argues that there is a significant place for clubs that cannot meet the OPDL criteria.

According to Miller, there are many potential benefits to affiliation such as "an opportunity to benefit from sharing in coaching resources that could be poured into helping a club with all of its programs." He added, "maybe it is development opportunities for its players, maybe it is a financial relationship. In the end, we have to remember it's about the player's development."

This movement towards affiliation is already happening with more progressive clubs making inquiries about how a relationship with a qualifying club/academy can benefit them. It is worth remembering that the OPDL is meant for the competitive player. Clubs still oversee thousands of recreational and aspiring competitive players every day. There is a massive developmental need that they can fulfill even if they aren't able to participate in the top league. While it might come as an ego blow to some, the net benefit to kids in this Province is huge.

Make no mistake that change is absolutely necessary. From a competitive standpoint, I firmly believe that the only time numbers in the 70's, 80's and 90's should be mentioned is in the context of weather forecasts, not as FIFA rankings next to Canada's name.

More importantly, our kids, be they competitive or recreational, deserve a better environment from which to learn this beautiful game. On behalf of all of them, I truly hope you embrace this initiative and give it a chance. They are worth it.


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