London AEK excels 'almost by accident'

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Accidents aren't supposed to turn out to be a good thing.

For London AEK, its "accident" will turn out to be a blueprint on how soccer teams should be built.

AEK is leading the Western Ontario Soccer League. It plays Sunday in the Ontario Cup quarter-finals and on Labour Day weekend plays in the Canadian Soccer League Open Canada Cup tourney.

Its success is due in large part to how its team has been put together. Like European club models, groups of players have moved through the minor soccer ranks to eventually play for the senior club. Young players play against older players in a competitive environment. They play a lot of games, be it league, tournament or cup competition. Since these players are already highly skilled, they develop at a significant rate with the level and amount of competition.

It's a model that isn't used enough in Canada.

London AEK has a core of four young players who played with the London Dynamite, a team AEK player-coach Martin Painter coached. Several others played with Forest United and then there was the core of players already with AEK.

"Bringing up all these players wasn't in the plans. It was almost by accident," Painter said. "I coached three or four of them since they were nine and they wanted to play together. We picked up three young guys separately and it all came together.

"But it's the way it should be done. You get a bunch of guys that come up together and stay together. The only issue you have then is making sure when they start to deteriorate, they don't hang on. They have to make room for the younger players."

It's the direction soccer needs to go in Canada. From eight to 16 years of age, Canadian soccer players are as good as any in the world. But after that age, the quality and quantity of players falls off.

If more teams developed feeder systems that eventually lead to a higher level of competition and truly competitive men's teams, then not only would the young player decide to stay in the game but it would benefit the development of players for national-level teams.

AEK has developed a strong team, a team that probably should be playing on a regular basis in stronger competition than simply a local soccer league.

That's because it has a group of young players who, given their talent, do have a chance to play at an elite level. The fact AEK is playing so many games, some of them against better teams, means good things for 17-, 18- and 19-year-old players such as Todd Rutledge, Ryan Avola, Jovan Ivanovich and Michael Pereira.

Pereira has just returned from a stint with Portuguese elite team Porto's youth squad.

The other advantage of London teams developing into elite provincial teams is the visibility local players will get. When one looks down the list of provincial and national team players, it's rare to see someone from London. The standing joke is that those who select those teams believe Ontario ends at Milton.

But as teams like AEK, London City and London Benfica, which will play in the Ontario Cup quarter-final as well on Sunday, move on in tournaments and play all over the province, it will be difficult for national team selectors to ignore.

"Our players have shown a level of commitment I've never seen in a (senior) team," Painter said. "We train hard and they come out to every practice. That's because in the past, the older players take their position for granted because they think it will always be there. But when you have the younger players pushing them, the older players know they have to take training seriously. That's the way it should be."

The key to all this is building a team that's strong enough to create waves at an elite level and convincing players and their coaches that a young, talented player should be playing at a higher level if he can handle it.

"The worse thing that can happen with good players is to be held back for whatever reasons," Painter said.

"It's not always the right answer (to put them at a higher level) but it's a different challenge, in a different environment. If you stay at an age level when they know they are better they think they can get away with bad habits."

AEK is developing the type of model that will make not only teams but also individuals successful.


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