The TFC Academy will welcome sides from Houston, Dallas, Columbus, Colorado and Chicago to the first two qualifying events that determine placement in next year's GA Cup, which will be held in Dallas next April.
The qualification is split into three regions - East, Central and West - and is comprised of a round-robin tournament over two weekends. The second is next February.
At those finals, as Tim Bezbatchenko explained on Thursday, “there is a championship division and a premier division”.
“Toronto FC, the last few years, has made the championship division. That's our goal - it gives the best test against the best international teams invited,” continued Bezbatchenko.
“[We want to] be a leader in player development; one of the most important aspects is the level of competition. We want to measure ourselves at an international level, so we need to find the games to do that, whether that is taking a group down to Mexico, which is what we did about a month ago, or competing in our domestic competitions. This is one of them.”
TFC's U-16 group took part in the Liga MX International tournament in August. The U-13s were in Mexico City for the 2017 U-13 CONCACAF Champions League in July.
The calendar year has been packed with such events for the various academy teams. TFC III, the upper tier of the academy structure, began their season in January with a trip to the prestigious Viareggio Cup in Italy ahead of an appearance at the Dallas Cup.
Such opportunities, as well as extending the training window, are a prime focus for the academy.
“It's one of the biggest changes in player development in North America over the last 10 years,” said Bezbatchenko of the near year-round play. “When MLS academies started in 2007, it allowed players to envision being professionals, but it also set up a training environment which includes training four to five days a week, plus a game on the weekend.”
Players now are engaged for 10-plus months of the year.
“Those benchmarks are key for player development. That's how players are training around the world,” continued Bezbatchenko. “If we want to compete we have to make sure we're leading the way and playing at a high level.
“We start in January, we sent our TFC III team, the top of the pyramid, the academy, to the Viareggio tournament and the Dallas Cup. They started in January, right when the first team started. If you want players to be ready for the first team or TFC II, they have to act like it. That starts with the training environment and the number of training sessions.
“More to that, they're young. They can train twice a day; they're craving more, they want more. If we don't give them that, they ask to go train other places because they want to play more. There's no reason we can't provide that.”
This is the second time in three years that TFC has hosted the event.
“It's an honour to host,” said the TFC general manager. “They select it, review all the submissions for hosting. It's a testament to the facility and the staff we have, that we dedicate to this tournament.
“From the planning stage to execution, the league was happy with the way things ran. It's also an interesting time at TFC. For the league to collaborate and hosting other MLS teams, they can see what one of the top environments looks like.”
While the GA Cup is a U-17 event, Toronto are fielding their U-16 side as they will age into the proper grouping for next season's final. The U-14 side is also playing a round of friendly matches against Colorado, Chicago and Columbus this weekend.
“It's a great event, you should come out,” invited Bezbatchenko. Admission is free and some of the action will be streamed.
“Our academy director, Laurent Guyot, and our entire staff – Anthony Capotosto (U-16 head coach), Gianni Cimini (U-17 head coach) – are treating it [as] one of the most important events of the year for us,” said Bezbatchenko. “We can showcase our talent and we get really good competitive games.”
“There is not a player in the GTA that shouldn't want to play in this tournament,” added Bezbatchenko. “There are few games that are going to reach this level in the entire year for our academy. If you want to see the top talent in this region of MLS you should come out and watch these boys play. They're quality.”