Toronto FC is down in Florida for the most important stage of their preseason exercise. Along with taking part in the Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic the club will be using the time to evaluate draft picks that have not signed yet, some likely trialists, and perhaps more surprisingly some players from the academy.
At the end of the 2012 season when the club decided to cut ties with Oscar Cordon, Nicholas Lindsey, and Keith Makubuya it was the first time that any academy players had been released by the team. It was not a good sign for fans who were relying on the academy to provide the future of the club to see so many of the early signings not panning out.
Academy kids failing to last at the club which signed them is nothing new and has really been a common problem during the early phases of the league's Home Grown Player policy coming into effect. At the start of 2011 Toronto FC needed some warm bodies to fill out the squad and that led them to turn to the academy to look for players that might be a good fit. It also led them to bring players into the first team who probably were not ready to be at that level. Add to that the fact that some of them barely played over the past two seasons leading to their development stalling and there is little wonder why it didn't work out for Makubuya or Cordon.
It was a different story for Lindsey who did impress early in his career but then suffered a major injury that will certainly leave a lot of TFC fans wondering just what could have been had he stayed fit and built on his early career performances. Instead, he is now gone from the club having just returned to fitness near the end of the season, but not really showing the kind of talent that landed him a professional contract before his injury.
For each success story out of the TFC academy (Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry, Matt Stinson) you can find an example of a player who raises the question about how best to bring players for the academy into the first team. It may end up repeating itself with Quilan Roberts who was signed in what seemed like a bit of a panic when TFC was lacking in fit goaltenders following Stefan Frei's early season injury in 2012.
Now though, the talk has begun that the club might once again look to the academy to bolster its first team. They are once again in need of bodies to fill out the roster so looking to the academy might seem like a favourable option considering that home grown player signings do not count against the club's budget. Hopefully, for the player's sake, any signings that the club does make are motivated solely on the ability of the player in question and what's best for his career long term, not just by the desire to fill out the squad.
If a player were to sign out of the academy this year the good news is that the club will have help in finding competitive minutes for them. Canada is looking at a fairly busy youth international schedule in 2013 with both the U17 and U20 squads taking part in CONCACAF Championships this spring and hopefully their respective World Cups come the summer. That should give any potential signing the chance to take on a starring role for the national program which would certainly help further their development. It also makes for a busy training camp season as any player that Toronto FC might be considering signing will be off to join the Canadian U20 side in the coming days to prepare for the CONCACAF Championships that kick off on the 16th. The U17 players are already off with the National team for a training camp, which includes six players from TFC's academy.
Toronto took 9 different academy players with them down to Orlando last year but that was mainly with the intention of having them work with the first team and expose them to a professional training camp. Of the nine the only one that ended up signing was Roberts but that deal did not take place until weeks into the 2012 season due to Frei's injury.
Some of the players who went down to Orlando last year, like Stefan Vukovic, have moved on from the club since then but others could possibly be invited in to camp again in 2013. Names like Tyler Pasher and Sergio Camargo jump off the page as being players who are at least worth giving a look should the club be serious about signing any academy players. There is also Jordan Hamilton who does not turn 17 until later this year who has been on the radar for TFC and the national program since he was 14 and was invited to camp last year. He will be off with the U17 team for most of the time that the club is down in Orlando but is one of the more exciting prospects in the academy program should he continue to develop over the coming years.
So why would TFC change their minds about bringing in new players from the academy team in 2013? Is it due to them having seen some impressive things from different players over the past year? The academy teams did have a fairly successful final season in the CSL with a few players, namely Camargo, really catching the attention of some observers but would that be enough to change the club's plans?
The other option, which is far worse, is that the club is looking for cheap depth players and sees the academy as a good resource for filling out the squad and any players signed would likely end up stuck in the reserves this year which could be bad for their development. Or even worse than that could the club be looking to sign more local players, having drafted Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshman, merely as a pr exercise to try and win even more fans back on side before what will likely be a rough 2013 season.
Hopefully in this case any players that are signed are brought in because it is what is best for the club and the player and that it works out better in the long run than the rushed signings did in 2011 for Cordon and Makabuya. There is some hope to be found in looking at the track record that D.C. United has had with the home grown player program under Kevin Payne. The club signed Bill Hamid, Andy Najar, Ethan White, and Conor Shanosky during Payne's time in charge which is about as impressive of a group as anyone around MLS has managed. They also showed a willingness to secure loan deals to help develop their young players as both White and Shanosky have spent time playing at lower division clubs over the past two seasons.
There is some reason to hope that TFC will not be repeating mistakes of the past if they do sign any academy players this season. It will be interesting to see which players are invited to camp and how the club works around a number of players being off on international duty. The future of how the academy will look is very much up in the air in terms of what league they will play in given the CSL's troubles, and how the partnership with USL Pro will affect the club but for now the focus is on putting together a squad for 2013 and one part of the puzzle might just take the shape of a player or two out of the academy.
If TFC does sign anyone from the academy who do you think would be the best suited to make the jump?