Pyramid power plan

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:09 AM ET

John Carver, Toronto FC's new coach, didn't come all the way from Britain merely to make the playoffs or, perhaps some day, to win a Major League Soccer championship.

All Carver wants to do is change the face of the game in Toronto, and by extension, this country.

"I'm not here for the short term. I'm here to build something," Carver said yesterday after a training session in preparation for this weekend's season opener in Columbus.

Carver, hired as the team's second head coach in February, is building more than just a competitive MLS team. He wants to take the sport from the grassroots up and reshape it after the English model. Premier teams with reserve, youth and feeder clubs as young as nine.

"That's why we're setting up the Toronto football club academy. We want to build a system like they've got in England where we take the best kids from nine to 16 years old and develop them. We'd like to work with the local clubs so that kids get training, and we get more developed players. That way they can move up from our youth teams, to the reserves and the (MLS) club."

In other words, the second-year club wants to do what the Canadian Soccer Association has been unable to do -- provide quality players who can make the country competitive at an international level after they have graduated beyond the Peach Fuzz Division. The ultimate dream would be to see MLS teams in Montreal and Vancouver with similar regional academies. The plan is similar to the old NHL system when teams operated their own junior teams. Just more ambitious.

"We want to develop a two-way relationship with the community like the teams have in Britain. It's something I'm big on," Carver said.

Tryouts already have been held for under-18 and under-16 teams, but Carver says there are plans to include players as young as nine in the academy. It would give promising players here a chance to train year-round at an elite level as well as give Toronto FC a chance to indoctrinate players in the MLS team's system.

"Building a successful soccer club is like building a pyramid. Before you can get to the top you've got to build the foundation first," Carver said.

He comes to Toronto after coaching stints with Luton Town, Leeds United and Newcastle United and says the MLS is comparable to the Champions League in Britain, "or the top of League One, and improving. It's a decent standard. I think people in Europe under-estimate it. The difference in Europe is that there's more depth and the players develop much quicker because they're practising there every day from the time they're nine years old," Carver said. "Here, I see lads out of U.S. colleges and they're still developing. In England by the time those same players are 23 or 24 years old, you already know if they're going to be elite players."

Whether Carver's Toronto FC team can play with the elite in the MLS this season remains questionable. Last year the club finished last in the MLS and scored fewer goals than any other team while allowing the most. Carver has been impressed with draft picks Julius Jones and Pat Phelan and if the club can avoid the constant stream of injuries that sidelined nearly every player in the starting lineup last year, it has a chance to make the playoffs. Just don't talk to Carver about "ifs"

"Whether I'm playing cards, football or tiddly winks I want to win and I'll never go into anything like this just being happy to be here. I'm not going to settle for being second from the bottom of the league. I've got high standards."

Last season the fans, not the team, were the feel-good story of the league. And, with a dozen buses headed to Columbus on Saturday, Carver already is getting a taste of the passion this team has stirred locally.

"For anyone involved in football this is the most exciting time, leading up to the first game. Unfortunately we're away from home but we have a fantastic following with 3,000 people coming along to watch us. That's quite incredible in the MLS ... and I want to give those (fans) something to shout about"


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