Earlier in September, another Canadian journey to the world's biggest sporting event, the men's soccer World Cup, came to an end. Canada failed to progress to the final qualifying round trailing behind Mexico and Honduras. Being placed in an embarrassing 104th position in FIFA's national teams' ranking, Canada needs to analyze the reasons for failure. This is the fourth episode of a series based on a year-long investigation trying to answer one question: Why is Canada doing so bad at men's soccer?
Episode 4: Youth Journeys and the Efficiency of the LTPD Program
"If the talent of the century happens to be born in a tiny village behind the mountains, from now on, we will find him." Those were the words of Jörg Daniel, the director of the German talent program when it was first implemented more than 10 years ago, according to sports writer Uli Hesse in his article, "Year Zero: How Germany restructured itself - and why it couldn't work elsewhere," published in Four Four Two magazine in the summer of 2014.
In Canada, ambitious talented Canadian players must travel vast distances to get a tryout with one of the three MLS teams in the country. The teams cover neither travel fees nor accommodations, which can be a challenge for players who come from low-income families. Taking on this adventure could mean taking long plane trips and living away from home at a young age.
Two young players, Chris Serban and Marco Bustos, are examples of that.
At age 18, Serban travelled an hour and a half by plane from Calgary to Vancouver, the nearest top division soccer academy city, to get a tryout with the Whitecaps. Meanwhile, Bustos travelled three hours by plane from Winnipeg to Vancouver to join the Vancouver Whitecaps' youth program at age 15.
While travelling and starting a career at a young age can be difficult, amateur soccer club FC London's president Ian Campbell thinks that it is an undeniable natural part of professional sports.
"At a young age, I grew up with Wayne Gretzky. I played hockey with him when I was 11 years old. I remember going into grade 9. Wayne never showed up. Why? Because at the age of 14, he moved to Toronto because Brantford, Ontario, couldn't give him the kind of competitive environment he needed in order to succeed as a professional player, and that was just the reality of it in order for him to grow and learn. So if you transcend that into soccer, it is really no difference. The best of the best have to play against each other," suggested Campbell.
A New Canadian Plan and Reasons to be Hopeful
In 2014, the Canadian Soccer Association took a huge step by initiating the Long Term Player Development (LTPD) program. The program aimed to eliminate previous gaps in the player development system by following scientific principles and coaching experiences.
"There was a day when I was playing, where you had 8 to 9 year-olds running around 11 on 11 on a massive field. It was like bees buzzing over the ball," said Campbell.
Campbell said that the LTPD program changed that. Eight-year-old kids play on smaller fields in smaller numbers.
"The idea is really to identify the appropriate environment to learn at, when they should learn where to head a ball, when to tackle, when should fitness be a focus, when they should focus on game skill and position. There's now a mandate that every club that is registered with the province runs their program based on these specifications," adds Campbell.
While this ambitious plan looks very promising on paper, the process might be slow in application.
"This thing [LTPD], I believe in it. It probably has had most legs out of anything that occurred over the past 20 years. I like it. The problem is, the leadership that is steering it doesn't have enough ability to implement and make people comply with it. It's happening, but it's happening very slowly... We can come up with lots of ideas. We can come up with papers and papers on how this should be run. The problem is that it just doesn't get properly implemented, and nobody stands on the top of it," said Colin Elmes, president of TSS, a youth development soccer academy in Richmond, B.C.
Paul Stalteri, the ex-Canadian national team captain and the current coach of the Under-17 national men's team, thinks people need to be patient to see results.
"These things are relatively young in the world of football. These things need time and need a decade to show production before you can say that if they're working or not," said Stalteri.
Failing to reach the World Cup in all the age groups, and failing to show signs of a new quality generation means we are yet to see the results of the LTPD program on the men's side.
The plan does take time and patience like Stalteri pointed out, but there is no guarantee that the LTPD program is being applied everywhere like it should.