Toronto FC announced last night that their senior TFC Academy team in League1 Ontario will be branded Toronto FC III, with Danny Dichio named head coach.
What does this mean, if anything? The TFC youth ecosystem can be a complex beast from the outside looking in, but last season the top level of the academy structure was split like this:
- Two 'senior' teams (with player crossover), coached by Stuart Neely, playing in the USL's Premier Development League and League1 Ontario
- A 'junior' team, coached by Dichio, playing in the Ontario Soccer Under-21 League
The name 'TFC III' is illustrative of the club's attempts to build a European-style pathway through the ranks to the senior team at progressively more challenging levels. In that sense, the fact that that the League1 Ontario team is the one to be rebranded is interesting, because the PDL team has seen the more experienced, older players over the couple of years this setup has been in place.
“With TFC III we will expand the level of competition for our academy athletes in preparation for our USL team TFC II,” said Tim Bezbatchenko in a club statement. Academy director Laurent Guyot expanded: “Ontario has a wide range of talented soccer players and as we continue to build relationships with other clubs in the community, it will continue to make our player pathway stronger.”
From there you can speculate that TFC look to be aiming to strengthen their footprint in Canada - and then, of course, you naturally start to wonder about their involvement in the upcoming Canadian Premier League. “Could we get away with TFC III - which will be an under-20 team - playing in the CPL?” Bill Manning wondered to the Sun a few months ago.
In the early years of the division, a pathway of CPL to USL to MLS through TFC III, II and the first team sounds quite nice from the club's point of view. It would provide a fully professional home for the best young players in Ontario without sacrificing the higher standard of competition available - at least for a while - in the USL for 20-something academy and college graduates.
The small problem there, of course, is that many of the CPL's supporters are vehemently opposed to the prospect of 'B' teams playing any part in the league, so for TFC to waltz in with their 'C' side would create uproar. Those fans see the CPL's survival resting on legitimate professional teams with local fanbases and regional rivalries and, much in the same way as in which they have been a controversial idea in the English league system, reserve teams threaten that.
The league's administrators would probably like to stick to their guns in that regard too, but it's not that simple once the player quality and financial stability a TFC/MLSE team would provide is accounted for, especially in the league's early years. And when you consider precedents in countries such as Germany and Spain, would two or three reserve teams dedicated to the development of Canadian players be such a big deal in a 10 or 12-team division?
The big difference with those European leagues, of course, is that they tend to be second or third tiers. Therein lies the biggest challenge for the CPL: there is no textbook for them to follow thanks to the unique, twisted structure of North American soccer. The CPL is supposed to be a top division but at the same time it isn't, and that's going to involve a lot of projection and judgment calls on stuff like this that will upset some potential fans before a ball is even kicked.