TORONTO - The chances of a Canadian kid making it as a world class soccer player are a lot like winning the lottery; a million to one.
At the grass roots level the sport now has more than a million devotees trying not to kick each other in the shins. But at the upper level, Canada’s national team ranks 75th in the world - and that’s on a good month. A Canadian men’s club in the Olympics is just a rumour.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment hopes to change all that, unveiling plans Monday for a vast soccer complex to be built at Downsview Park. It is designed to do for Toronto FC, and Canadian soccer, what the major junior leagues do for Canadian pro hockey.
It will include soccer fields, a field house and training facilities to act as a magnet for the best soccer players in Canada, from 10 and 11 years old to 21. “Our vision is (to create) a world-class facility serving our soccer team and making an immeasurable difference in soccer in this country,” said Bob Hunter, executive vice-president of venues for MLSE. “To create what we believe will become the epicentre of soccer dcevelopment in Canada.”
Jim Brennan, the former TFC star and currently coach of the Academy’s junior club, sees it as “the only place where (players with dreams of becoming) professional footballers in Canada can go.”
Toronto FC launched its academy in 2008 and six current members of the MLS club graduated from the program. But until now its facilities were spartan; training sites moving on a daily basis. This $17.4 million facility, said Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter, will rival the best in Europe, where he learned the trade.
“It’s very important not only for TFC but also for Canadian soccer,” said Winter. “Now the kids have an aim. Until now it was difficult to develop them because the facilites just weren’t there.”
Winter’s goal is to bring in prospects from across Canada and mould them in his 4-3-3 system from the time they’re kids. It’s a process used by many clubs in Europe. “I wanted to establish an identity for this team,” said Winter. “You have to start young. It takes a long time ... (but) it’s easier now that we will have a place.”
Construction is expected to be completed by May 2012. “I don’t think we should under-estimate how monumental this day is going to be,” said Earl Cochrane, who as director has seen the academy grow from two teams in 2008 to what he believes next year could be five TFC elite age-group clubs plus another 30 affiliated teams teaching the TFC system. “This day is going to change the face of the game in Canada, change the way players are developed. This is going to lead us to developing players to play on the world stage.”
Until now Canadians with professional aspirations had to go overseas. “The young Jim Brennans or Julian DeGuzmans now have a home-grown solution where they can learn their craft,” said MLSE CEO Tom Anselmi. Brennan and De Guzman were 16 when they left for Europe. They came back stars. Many others can’t afford to go. Others go and, said De Guzman, come back with broken dreams and bank accounts.
“I prepared myself to go but there’s all kinds of stuff you can’t prepare for ... like a culture you have no clue about; languages you don’t understand. The football was one thing; the hardest thing is actually learning the culture and dealing with life.”
Now those players have an option to stay in Canada and still work out at a world-class facility said Winter.
“It’s important to have an academy where you can train six days a week,” said Brennan. “It’s going to give Canadian kids access to the game they love.”
“I went to the academy in Bristol. It was a professional (organization) and you learned your trade right from the beginning (because) you have senior players around who tell you how to act.”
De Guzman became a solid performer in Germany and Spain before returning to join Toronto FC. But he wonders what might’ve been for many of his friends whose love for the game went unrequited. “I played with a lot of young Canadian kids who were probably better than me talent wise. Maybe 80% of the guys I played with in Toronto never got a chance to develop. A lot of those kid’s dreams would’ve been saved if this facility had been here.”