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The academy. A great MLSE initiative?

Sergio Camargo.  One of the bright prospects coming through the academy system.
Sergio Camargo. One of the bright prospects coming through the academy system.

It all sounded too good to be true.

"Our vision for the Toronto FC Academy is to create a world-class venue and program unlike anything this country has seen before," said Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president & chief operating officer, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), back in 2011 when plans were revealed. "We envision our Academy and Training Facility as not only serving the needs of our soccer team, but also making a measureable difference in supporting soccer development in Canada."

Lauded as a sign that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is willing to invest in our Club and to build a Championship organization, many cling to this as a sign that the team is serious about football. As a parent of 3 young soccer players, I can applaud any investment in facilities and any movement to endorse a better ratio of training to games, focus on development, shut the parents up on the touchlines and develop quality coaching. As a fan of Toronto FC, I'm extremely skeptical of their intention and ability to make a difference for the first team and for soccer in Canada. Here's why.

Let's first start with motive. One would think that if a championship was important, this investment in training and developing players would have been made in lock step with the announcement of the franchise award. Not some 4 years later. Further, the investment in training facilities to be used by the first team shouldn't have to come years after forcing the team off the pitch due to the installation of natural grass. It should have been a function of the decision. Most importantly, when it comes to motive, if this was truly an investment in the future, one would hope that they weren't forced into it. Though it appears that the league did indeed provide such direction.

In August 2010, the league made an announcement that it was going to revive its reserve-league program as a result of an expanded $200M partnership with Adidas that runs through 2018. In that announcement, the league "mandated that all teams stock academy squads at the U-16 and U-18 levels."

Said commissioner Don Garber "The part of our strategy that resonated most with Adidas is our commitment to youth and player development. It's their commitment to that with us that we're most excited about"

From their end, Adidas was most interested in having access to an expanding network of youth players.

"We want to get kids in the United States to potentially choose MLS teams over Champions League," said Ernesto Bruce, MLS category manager for Adidas.

Given that MLS is a single entity owner, which essentially means that it owns the teams, it is clear that it has dictated to each of its franchise owner-operators that they must have an Academy and they must expand their network of youth affiliated teams. As that network expands, so to do the business and sponsorship opportunities.

When did Toronto FC get on board and make their official Academy investment announcement? About 5 months after the mandate and Adidas deal was finalized, in January of 2011. Sort of takes the wind out of the sails, doesn't it? But when you realize that Toronto FC was born as a result of a business opportunity and not that of an owner seeking to fulfill a championship vision, it all makes sense. And since every MLS team has one, it really isn't the holy grail it is being hyped to be.

While they may have been forced into it, surely good can come of it? Like a spouse getting Valentine's Day chocolates, the motive isn't romantic but are the chocolates any good? In Anselmi's words, is this a program that is unlike anything the country has seen before?

As highlighted above, the Academy model has a driving business motive. Like a web site counts hits, the Academies count youth players, regardless of the program they are in. Kids at camps, affiliation with youth leagues, one day clinics and of course teams programs all serve to bolster Adidas' potential reach and as a result enhance the value of the deal.

Not surprisingly, Toronto FC has introduced a Club Academy Program , which is the start of affiliation with Club teams. Speaking from my own personal experience within a CAP program, the net benefits of this outside of swag and a press release have yet to be realized. They are overseeing "Club Days" for U11-12 tryouts for the Danone Nations Cup. And they run a series of one week camps and one day clinics . None of these options will have any measureable impact on soccer development in this province or this country. Camps and one day clinics are a dime a dozen. They produce needed smiles and memories and friendships but on their own, they don't produce a Messi.

Of course, there is a Teams program that offers U12 and U13 players once a week supplemental training while they still play with their respective clubs. U14+ Players enter into a more "full time" commitment. Here is where it gets exciting. Ten month training programs with paid, qualified coaches on great pitches can do nothing but help the game. But that idea isn't unique. For example, in Ontario, founding members of the Soccer Academy Alliance of Canada (SAAC) have been offering this model since 2005. They too focus on a higher ratio of training to games and provide an emphasis on skill and technical development over results and a Football first mentality. These pillars have also been adopted by the Ontario Soccer Association, as part of its Long Term Player Development pathway.

From a coaching perspective, SAAC members have some really good coaches. In fact, Bryst International, a founding SAAC member, serves as the Irish FA's UEFA licensing assessment body and has overseen the initial assessment of coaches like Marc de Santos of the Montreal Impact and he who needs no introduction, Jason de Vos. Quite a few members of Bryst's staff coaches have their UEFA licensing. With all due respect to Jim Brennan, he had just completed his coaching credentials when he was appointed to lead the U17 Academy team. It leaves the notion of whether the Academy has the most qualified coaches available somewhat open to discussion.

Even with the best coaches and the best intentions, it's also hard to think that TFC Academy can fundamentally overcome one of its inherent fatal flaws. Geography. For TFC Academy to truly reach beyond the players in the GTA and influence those in Canada, it needs to solve this issue. Experts the world over agree that the ages of U8 to U12 are the most important in a child's development. For players in these age cohorts living in London or in Peterborough, what is going to entice his parents to drive into the city once a week? For the older kids, who is going to send their 14 year old to live in a residence in Toronto for the shot at a starting job paying $30k a year? It is a flaw that is hard to imagine being overcome without partnership with local associations and their reliance on volunteer coaches.

Perhaps the biggest flaw that TFC Academy faces is one that may be beyond its' control. While we celebrate Ashtone Morgan's development, we are left wondering about players like Kevan Aleman who ultimately did not sign with Toronto FC and Stefan Vukovic who was released by the team. Why couldn't we keep these promising players?

If Toronto FC (and Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact) truly want to create professional opportunities for players in Canada, let's start lobbying the MLS to classify Canadian players as US Domestic players under their quota system. Right now, Americans count as Domestic players in Canada but not vice versa. Canadians count as Internationals in the US. As a result, only 9 Canadians in total are employed by the 16 US based MLS teams.

So, in writing this, I'm not trying to burst your bubble of hope. There are some good people doing some great things with Toronto FC Academy. The very nature of the free cost model is welcomed, and it isn't necessarily bad to have a profit motive being the driving force

However, don't fool yourself. Had MLS not mandated investment in an Academy to enhance its business, it isn't clear whether TFC would have invested in one. They hadn't since 2007 and it wasn't as if Academies were some unheard of concept. The hype regarding influence and reach has an inherent interest in expansion not necessarily quality. Further, the offerings of TFC Academy are not unique to Ontario nor to soccer in Canada. Be an informed consumer if your child has the option to play there and certainly be a critical thinker when it comes to front office press releases regarding the future of YOUR team.

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