Young Canadians continue to pursue their playing careers in other countries despite the rise of the MLS academies. Is it a worrying sign that players like Cristian Cavallini, Lucas Scorzafave, Anthony Osorio and Jerome Smith would rather head to Uruguay than sign up for Toronto FC academy?
Many MLS fans view the Homegrown Player Rule as the future of the league and are counting on their clubs' academies to produce top-level talent for the first team in the years to come. That is certainly the case in Toronto where many fans look to the academy as the one positive thing to come from the club's first six years of existence. It is too soon to know for sure if the academy is going to continue to produce talent for the first team but it is not too soon to worry the program may well be missing out on some of the top talent that Ontario has to offer.
This past summer, Mississauga's Clarkson Comets won the Under 18 boys Ontario Cup and it was in large part due to the contributions of four key players. Those players were Cristian Cavallini, Lucas Scorzafave, Anthony Osorio and Jerome Smith who all converted penalties in the semi-final round before Cavallini scored the winner in the final.
Their story up until that point was a fairly standard one for a young Canadian player. They had spent much of their youth playing careers at the same club, winning a number of trophies and playing high school soccer along the way.
What is interesting is that at the start of November, all four players decided to pack their bags and head for Uruguay to try to make a career of playing soccer. In doing so, they opted for a route that was supposed to be a thing of the past. The group all took part in a month-long trial with Nacional in Uruguay, the same club where Cavallini's older brother Lucas is under contract despite currently being out on loan to Juventud. Their trial is now completed and they are still waiting on word from the club about potential permanent moves.
Unfortunately, the idea of teenaged Canadians heading off to another country in pursuit of a professional soccer career is nothing new and for many years it was the only option that the country's top talent had. Staying in Canada left you with very few choices to continue your development and try to impress scouts. So often times it was up to teens to try to secure a trial or a spot in an academy in any country that they felt would give them a chance to make it.
With all three of Canada's MLS clubs now setting up academies, lacking domestic options was no longer supposed to be an issue. Granted, all three of the academies are still developing and have a long ways to go before they are recruiting and developing all the top talent in the country, but having been around for several years fans of the teams should be expecting them to start paying off in the not so distant future. The introduction of these academies was supposed to help keep top Canadian talent at longer but we still see many players continuing to head off to other countries.
There is no doubt that the province of Ontario is at the forefront of developing soccer talent in Canada and that has a lot to do with the fact that the Greater Toronto Area has massive populations of immigrant families from countries where soccer is a part of everyday life.
For evidence, look at the recent Canadian Player of the Year awards: Both Atiba Hutchinson and U-20 winner Doneil Henry hail from Brampton, Ontario. The future success of Toronto FC will eventually come down to how well the club can find and secure the top talent the region has to offer to create a consistent flow of prospects for the first team. The concern is that thus far TFC has had some major issues in doing just that and it has shown in the numbers of players from the Toronto area that have either chosen to leave the academy and head overseas -- in some cases to Vancouver's pre-MLS residency program -- or just stayed away from the academy altogether.
Part of the issue is that the players in the academy are free to leave at any point without the club being owed any compensation. The players are all required to sign a letter of commitment when they join the academy, but that is not a contract and does not bind them to the club in the same way. Many fans will remember when Dylan Carreiro and Michael Petrasso did not sign letters of commitment to the academy and eventually left to join QPR in England or Kevin Aleman heading to Spain after not wanting to sign his commitment until after he returned from the Under-17 World Cup. Until the academy can actually bind young players into some form of contract that will allow the club to at least see compensation for that kind of move, they will always run the risk of losing players when international clubs come knocking. Losing them to clubs like QPR and Real Valladolid is even more worrying as neither club is exactly a powerhouse in European soccer these days.
Along with that trio of players, Toronto fans have had to watch two of the top young player from Ontario making a name for themselves in Vancouver. Bryce Alderson, a Kitchener native, joined the Whitecaps residency program in the fall of 2010 after having played for Portugal FC (now SC Toronto) in the CSL. It was the second time that Vancouver had added a top Toronto area player to their residency program as they had done the same in 2008 when Russell Teibert left TFC's academy after a short stint. Teibert, a native of Niagara Falls, signed with the Caps while they were still in the lower-divisions and has gone on to make 15 MLS appearances for the club. In both cases, the player elected to leave home and head out to the west coast because they felt that Whitecaps residency program offered them more than what was available with Toronto's academy.
That issue is one that is MLS-wide, though, and will have to be addressed at some point in the future if the league wants to be serious about developing the top young American and Canadian players rather than just losing them to Europe for nothing. It is not really a problem that TFC can fix for their own academy until the league takes some steps to help them.
TFC must do better than they have in terms of stocking its own academy from the stores of existing Ontario talent, though. For every Ashtone Morgan, Doneil Henry or Jordan Hamilton there is a handful of equally good players that never end up in the academy. The problem is that even now heading to another country is often still the best option for a young player in terms of developing their game as well as increasing their exposure to leagues more likely than MLS to offer a big payday. That was the case for Cavallini, Scorzafave, Osorio and Smith when they were considering chasing their playing future in a different country.
Their trial in Uruguay was set up by Jorge Armau who had coached the group at Clarkson Sheridan Soccer Club and when he gave them the chance it was too good for the players to pass up. It really is a simple case for why they would choose to take the route that they did and it all comes down to what they feel is going to give them the best chance to live out their dream of playing soccer at the highest levels. The players look at playing for a top club in South America as a springboard to hopefully play in Europe one day if they manage to impress. The players felt that Uruguay gave them a better chance to gain exposure than MLS or even other South American countries.
That history of producing and then selling top talent is something that is not there in MLS. For Scorzafave, the MLS did not represent a very good stepping stone to reaching the next level and his dream is to play for a top club in Europe not just make $50,000 a year playing for Toronto. The MLS has sold a number of players to prominent European clubs in recent years but they have a long way to go before they can even begin to rival a country like Uruguay in that regard. Their choice to head to South America also becomes less surprising when you consider that most of the group has South American backgrounds and are still connected to the region.
The players have nothing against Toronto FC, though, and feel that one day it might be the kind of program that can produce top talent and sell it on to the world's top leagues. For them it is just not at that level just yet though as it has no proven track record for producing talent that ends up moving on to a top league. Part of that is due to the fact that the academy is still in its infancy and does not give players that exposure unless they are signed to a MLS deal.
The question then is what can Toronto FC do to try and become more attractive to young players like these and get them interested in joining that academy. It is safe to say that there is no one solution and there will never be a time that they are able to hold on to all of the top talent as some is always going to slip through the cracks no matter how good your academy is and no matter how many scouts you employ to make sure it is stocked with the best talent. What needs to change though is young players seeing TFC and MLS as a good way to chase their dreams. Selling a player like Tim Ream, Brek Shea, or Geoff Cameron to clubs in England is a good start, and DC's Andy Najar becoming the first homegrown player to be sold to Europe is a very positive sign, but young players still dream of playing for top clubs and unless MLS can help launch more players to that level teens will continue to question whether it is the right move for them.
I am not saying that Toronto FC could fix this entire problem if only they could secure a big money move for one of their academy grads to a top European club. Sure, if they somehow sold Ashtone Morgan to Bayern Munich it would certainly help to show young players that it is possible to go from MLS and TFC to the top of Europe but if that is the solution we may be waiting for quite some time.
As MLS continues to grow and clubs like TFC have been around longer, some of these issues will actually take care of themselves as a generation of young players in Canada will grow up cheering for TFC and if the club ever finds a way to have some success those kids may spend their childhoods dreaming of playing for their local reds rather than the ones over in England. It is a start since if a kid dreams of playing for TFC one day they are a lot more likely to join the academy when they are a teen rather than heading overseas.
The second solution is all about the contracts and the money. It is an area that again TFC will not be able to address on their own but as academies throughout the league continue to grow, they will need to work with the league to allow for some sort of youth contracts to come into existence so they can compensate the top young players and hold onto them, or at least get compensation if they do move to a bigger club. It'd be nice to to think these academies are altruistic projects merely interested in what's best for the kids themselves, but there's necessarily and primarily a selfish component as well. If they can't provide a direct benefit to the club, either in transfer fees, or in players regularly graduating to the first team, then improvement and expansion of these programs is always going to be slow, meaning young players will continue to choose other opportunities.
Another step is to continue to raise the league's minimum salary. The dream is to turn professional and then make lots of money to be able to live that same lifestyle that young players see their heroes living. You are not even going to get a fraction of that life if you end up signing a deal in MLS for the leagues minimum, as in a city like Toronto 40k a year does not go that far. It would also help if the league allowed for expanded rosters and a place for young players to develop in a professional setting without having to be thrown right into the first team, or get stuck in that netherworld between academy and first team that saw Keith Makubuya and Oscar Cordon's development stagnate.
The biggest issue though is that Toronto is failing to work with the clubs around the province to ensure that they can at least try and bring in the top talent. A lack of scouting and networking means that unless something changes they will continue to miss out on good young players. For the most part the academy is currently stocked through open tryouts so the only players that are being brought in are the ones who have enough interest in playing for the club to actually come and tryout. The club needs to move towards pursuing the top talents and working to convince them that TFC Academy is the right place for them to play.
These four players are just one example of the many Canadians who are still choosing to try and chase their dream in a different country. Recently, another talent Toronto area teenager also decided to leave Canada and go play soccer elsewhere. Ajax native, Daniel Milton, a goalkeeper in Canada's U17 program signed a contract that will see him join the youth setup at Blackpool this summer. He is another player who could very well have joined TFC's academy but will instead end up playing in England.
There is clearly still a long way to go for the club if they want to even hold on to most of the top talent in Ontario. In the meantime though, for players like Cristian Cavallini, Lucas Scorzafave, Anthony Osorio and Jerome Smith it is hard to blame them for going elsewhere to chase their dreams and hopefully it works out well for all of them. The four players will likely hear back about the results of their trials in the coming weeks and will be hoping to make the move to Uruguay a permanent one.