Reds to compete with NCAA for players

Toronto FC's new academy director, Thomas Rongen. (GETTY IMAGES)

Toronto FC's new academy director, Thomas Rongen. (GETTY IMAGES)

KURTIS LARSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:59 PM ET

Major League Soccer’s first selection in this year’s MLS draft stymied his development by playing at a leading NCAA program, according to TFC’s newest academy director.

“Andrew Wenger went (three) years to Duke,” TFC’s Thomas Rongen told QMI Agency on Tuesday. “No disrespect ... but Wenger was as good or even a little better when he went into college. He has matured maybe mentally ... but technically and tactically, I don’t think he has gotten a lot better.”

After being named Toronto’s new academy director earlier this month, Rongen is looking to repair a system that he says holds back North America from producing elite players that would otherwise elevate Canada and the U.S. within FIFA.

“The college environment is just not a conducive environment in critical stages of your development,” Rongen said. “When you’re playing limited games during the year ... it hampers development.”

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

Despite a small minority of players like Ashtone Morgan foregoing university soccer, the path to MLS is clear — sign with a top-level school in hopes of getting discovered by MLS scouts during the NCAA’s three-month season.

But as Toronto continues to be a leader among MLS clubs in terms of academy development, Rongen says it’s a path he hopes to alter within Toronto and, eventually, the entire league.

“These players become more of students than players,” he said. “In order for (MLS teams) to compete at the highest level I think (we) need to produce your own players.”

Rongen’s appointment would appear to be another piece of the vision TFC head coach Aron Winter outlined a year ago when he promised to build a program capable of delivering long-term success both on and off the pitch.

As the club puts the finishing touches on a world-class training venue in Downsview this spring, the Reds are in the process of setting up a more traditional academy system that will see unification from top to bottom.

“We now have vertical integration in terms of our vision, how we play and our coaching staff from our first team all the way to our youngest team,” Rongen said. “It’s an attacking, dominant way of playing. It’s creative, high technical skills and a lot of speed.”

It’s a vision where TFC will soon be the leader in youth development across the city and beyond.

There are already whispers of the organization studying the viability of setting up a residency system that would see young players develop while earning an education — a detail that’s critical in persuading serious players and parents to move away from the college-first mentality.

“I don’t want a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old not to go to school anymore,” Rongen said. “I don’t think that’s good for personal development. We can provide both and let kids take classes in the afternoons. It might take six years for a player to get their four-year degree and still play. These are things we are talking about internally right now.”

But with the failure rate among homegrown MLS prospects so high, Rongen knows a path that doesn’t see a teenager enter the NCAA system might be a tough sell.

Why would a player, no matter how talented, pass up the opportunity at a free education?

“Maybe the reason (a player) gets drafted and doesn’t make the team is because he went to school for four years.”

AMERICAN ... SAMOA?

While under contract with the U.S. under-20 national team, Rongen was approached with a proposition that had him scrambling through world maps and Wikipedia.

“I was still under contract with U.S. Soccer and I had some down time,” he said. “I went (to American Samoa) from a professional standpoint to do something that no one else had been able to do.”

Win a soccer game after 30 consecutive defeats over two decades.

“I had a personal transformation,” he said. “I worked there with 20 guys who were amateurs that didn’t get paid. I kicked their (butts) twice a day and they never complained and it was all about the pureness of the game.”

After being out-scored by a combined 229-12 since beginning international play in the 90s, it was American Samoa’s 2-1 victory over Tonga that inspired Rongen to return to the youth side of things in accepting the academy position at TFC.

“I really feel that youth are innocent and pure — they play for the love of the game,” he said. “I had a connection again with the reason why I started playing the game. In American Samoa, that passion came back again.

According to Rongen, a documentary detailing the South Pacific island’s accomplishment is set for release in the coming months.

“I’m ready for a new challenge and a different phase in my career. I wanted to associate myself with a good club and to be part of their youth program. I’m doing something now that I really enjoy where I can coach coaches.”


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