University game 'hidden gem'

GARETH WHEELER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:03 AM ET

You're only as strong as your weakest link. That holds true when it comes to Canadian soccer, both at the MLS and national level.

And if you need another reason for the continuing struggle of Canadian teams, look no further than soccer on the Canadian university level.

It's not the quality of play in the CIS that is reason for concern, but neglect in coverage, focus and priority from Canadian soccer powers.

There's no question the CIS is the ignored branch of the Canadian soccer system. It is no coincidence the success of U.S. soccer coincides with the strength of the game at the NCAA level. Then why, in this country, don't we put more of an emphasis and focus on intercollegiate athletics?

One reason is the football traditionalists in this country who are set on the global way of development, pinpointing exceptional talent only at a young age.

You ask the British overseers of Toronto FC what they think of the university setup and they'd tell you it's something completely foreign to them. Across the rest of the world, 18- to 21-year-old players already are deemed too old and unworthy of consideration when it comes to taking the next step professionally.

That may be the case for the rest of the world, but North American sports are structured differently. Here, most professional sports rely on university programs for the nucleus of their players. But instead of taking advantage of a system that evaluates and defines players at an age when their true talents come to fruition, soccer here is willing to stick with a flawed system.

SCOOPED UP

The evaluation process for Canadian soccer goes as follows: Players who excel at the youth level become involved with the provincial and national programs. From there, players in their early teens either will be scooped up by academies overseas to pursue a pro career or continue with academies in North America to help the player get scholarships in the U.S.

Often, some very good players fall through the cracks. Granted, it's difficult to predict what kind of player a pre-pubescent teen will become during his or her developmental years, thus leading to mistakes during the selection process.

Manchester United's Owen Hargreaves is one of those players who was missed, and look where he is now.

Therefore, more emphasis should be put on the late-bloomers in our colleges and universities, as does the U.S.

GAP NARROWS

In the past, the NCAA may have been vastly superior to the CIS in terms of quality. But improvements in recruiting, facilities and coaching have narrowed the gap.

Rock Basacco has been the University of Western Ontario men's soccer coach for 12 years and has experienced the change first-hand.

"The NCAA is used to identifying and developing talent for the MLS and the national team," Basacco says. "Over the past two years, since the OUA allowed us to offer scholarships, we can now offer added incentive for players to choose staying home over going south."

York University's director of soccer, Paul James, also regards scholarships as a required step in the betterment of the CIS, to eventually becoming a legit feeder to the MLS. But James also insists it's what happens once they get into the intercollegiate system that aids development.

"It's important for players to know their playing career doesn't have to end at university," James says. "As Vancouver, Montreal, and now possibly Ottawa come into the MLS fold, the opportunity will be much greater for Canadian players to play beyond their university career."

The CIS also has a unique advantage over the NCAA in that it permits its players to compete professionally while maintaining their university eligibility. Both Andrea Lombardo, a former TFC development player, and current developmental player, Nana Attakora-Gyan are both enrolled at York and are able to play in the OUA.

The women's program, meanwhile, boasts three CIS players on its national under-20 team.

James calls the CIS a "hidden gem" for the MLS and CSA. Now it's time for our soccer hierarchy to take notice.


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