Biggest steps yet made to build men's team

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Over the years the conductors have changed, so have the dance partners.

Unfortunately, they've always had the same music.

Until that music changes, Canada will continue to be an also-ran nation when it comes to men's soccer and every four years when other nations meet at the world's most recognizable dance, Canada will remain the perennial wallflower, asking what it has to do to get better.

The 2006 World Cup in Germany will mark the 20th year since Canada last participated in the event. The Canadian team played in Mexico City in 1986, losing all three games without scoring a goal.

Simply making the World Cup was supposed to be a turning point for the men's game in Canada. But it didn't take long before Canada was again wandering in the soccer wilderness, occasionally showing flashes of being competitive on the world stage, only to stagger back into oblivion.

But there appears to be some genuinely positive things beginning to happen for soccer in the country. Soccer fans have heard this before, of course. But even though these steps aren't huge, they're bigger than any that have been taken before.

Frank Yallop is Canada's national men's coach. He's played in the national team program and understands full well why soccer hasn't taken off at the men's national level in this country -- lack of a domestic soccer league, not enough time to develop young players, no soccer facilities and no money.

But he also sees movement in a good direction.

"We're moving in a positive direction," said Yallop. "Now that we're getting all the things in place to move the game forward, we have to get funding for it. That's going to be the issue. Can we keep up with the rest of the region on the competitive format and generate more money to compete against teams we have to be competitive against to make it to the World Cup?"

Those teams include the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and many other nations that sink big money into their soccer programs.

And it isn't all money spent at the national senior team level. It's money that's spent on national youth teams, teams that develop players who eventually play on the national senior team.

"You have to double the days when you can get together," said Yallop. "Our under-17s have two or three projects a year. The United States have a residential group that's together all the time, who live together, play together. A residential program would be great, just so we can keep the best talent in Canada."

It's a point that's been beaten to death over the years. Canada may produce 50 to 100 top-quality players, while other nations produce five times that many. The Canadian player often has to look to another country in which to play to make a living. Even young players head overseas to play on youth squads.

"Don't get me wrong, we produce good players, but there's no depth," said Yallop.

Yallop believes that if more money were available to train, keep players together and play in regular competitive events, Canada might keep more players in this country.

The biggest changes are the addition of Toronto FC to the MSL, the construction of a soccer stadium in downtown Toronto and the staging of FIFA's under-20 tournament in Canada in 2007

"Those will be the focus for young players in the country," said Yallop. "The MSL team is a huge point. You look at our players -- not everyone wants to live in Norway. Not all of them have the passports to play in Europe. They should be able to play here. We need to keep them here to have a chance to develop a program."

The goal clearly has to be the young player, providing a place to play for as many of those players as possible.

"If a player doesn't get selected to the under-17 program, where does he go? You might lose him," said Yallop. "We do need to do an academy-type thing, one in the east and one in the west, where we have an actual team rather than just get them together every once in a while to qualify.

"The big issue with us is: how are we prepared? Our kids go to these competitions and haven't been together very long and they're going against players who have been together a long time and are very competitive. That's where the money comes in. You need to keep them together and have them play competitively on a regular basis."

Like everything involved with soccer in Canada, the good news is always tempered by wariness.

"I'd like to think (we're moving in the right direction)," said Yallop. "We have the U-20 tournament, the new stadium in Toronto. We have some good ownership in the country. There's talk of a new stadium in Vancouver. I see some positives, but what I don't want to see is everyone looking at each other and waiting for someone else to do it. We need to all get together and do something."


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