Birth of A Flagship: An Excursion Through Toronto FC’s KIA Academy and Training Ground

The Dawning….

James Grossi with a sensational read on the birth of the Toronto academy system. Great job James.

“In order to address a problem, one must first admit that it exists.”

Canadian soccer has come to such a realization in the past few years. The reintroduction of top-level professional clubs starting with Toronto FC in 2007 began what will be a long road back to relevance in CONCACAF and beyond.

MLS too has come to realize that the college system–which has served the league well in these first seventeen seasons–is not the optimal pathway to develop professional players ready to contribute at younger ages. Education is always good, but sometimes to reach the peak of one’s vocation sacrifices must be made.

To become a full-fledged professional in one’s early twenties is to leave the conversion and commitment too late.

Too many hours are spent away from the proper environs to harness the skills and focus required to transition to the highest level. There is simply not enough time on the pitch, in what is becoming a more and more competitive league schedule, to allow players of such advanced age the liberty to acclimatize slowly.

That is not to say that there will not still be excellent talent emerging from the Superdraft, late developers will always find a way to the top; but in order to make the next step, players will be brought into the professional structures at younger and younger ages.

The new who support the crest will come from within…

As such the future is in the academies; the goal: to produce truly home-grown players, refined in a professional environment with the best resources, training, and guidance. A proper football education; one that combines the accumulated knowledge of generations of expertise from home and abroad with the highest standards of technology, medicine, and nutrition to generate players ready to step into the league well before they would come of age in existing systems.

To that end, Toronto FC is set to open what will undoubtedly be the flagship of soccer-specific North American training facilities.

 It’s hot; humid; one of those nasty summer days in Southern Ontario.

I’m at Downsview Park’s The Hangar for the press conference and academy tour.

Downsview Park, a former Canadian Forces Base turned vast green space – a bastion of calm to contrast the continual sprawl that consumes more and more of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) – located about an hour away from the city centre by public transit, less so by car, should traffic be agreeable.

Close enough to downtown and the major arteries that service the city to be convenient, but far enough away from the concrete jungle to evoke a calm, if not entirely pastoral scene. Some serenity away from the bustle of the urban surroundings, the Downsview academy site – the Kia Toronto FC Academy and the KIA Training Ground, to give their official titles – will be a place to train, to learn, to work and to relax, but most importantly – a place from which to succeed and to win.

All the important folks are here: Winter, Brennan, de Klerk, Mariner, Rongen, Dichio; Anselmi, and a bunch of other folks I don’t recognize.

Envisage the finest training grounds one can think of: All are perfectly manicured retreats, where the players and staff can escape the whirlwind of media and fan pressure, to focus solely on the task at hand. Toronto FC directors scoured the globe, touring various facilities both in the Old World and the New, to discover what was necessary to achieve their goal.

It will be a home away from home. BMO Field, its red seats and marvelous skyline, is adequate, but to allow room for the growth of the club, this new facility is essential. Match-days should be special, the playing surface must be pristine; it should not feel like just another day at the office.

Throughout their six years of existence Toronto has struggled to find adequate facilities, relocating from various parks and complexes depending on availability and weather. Players would change into their training gear at BMO Field and ride a bus to wherever the day’s training would be taking place. This will end that nomadic existence, allowing the club to set roots and grow towards established goals.

What began as what Danny Dichio – club legend and head coach of the senior academy side (U-18/19) – called a “flat piece of clay” is now a bustling construction site attended to by some one hundred builders. Soon it will be much more than that.

Many of the academy graduates are here too. They look a little out-of-place amongst the suits, positioned near the front of the assembled crowd, on these awkward, tiered benches.

Conceptualized in May of 2010, ground broke on the site last October and is set to welcome the club in the coming weeks.

The fifteen and a half-acre site will feature some seven pitches – three natural grass, four artificial (two of which will be domed in winter for year-round use and one with a thousand seat stadium capacity) – and a two-story, thirty-six thousand square foot field house with amenities – dressing rooms, strength and conditioning, physiotherapy and rehabilitation areas – for both the first team, the existing academy sides (currently five), visiting teams and officials.

New meaning to the term: Professional workspace

Office space for the technical, administrative, academy, and scouting staffs, an on-site kitchen, dining space – a private room for the first team and cafeteria-style for the academy, a video presentation theatre, classrooms, and shortly after opening, a full-time dormitory-style residence for up to eighteen players.

The site will not only service the club, but also enhance Toronto FC’s commitment to the community, extending the public use agreements that the renovations of Lamport Stadium fulfilled adequately once BMO Field was converted to grass, limiting its availability to the city.

Mo’..Edu

A twenty-one million dollar (Canadian) investment; produce and sell four Maurice Edu’s over the lifespan of the project and the financial outlay will be returned, with the added benefit of stocking the first team with inexpensive – entry level deals in MLS are very helpful to the salary cap situation – players.

The young players quickly drift away from the media scrum towards a group of kids having a kick-around on one of the surfaces on the opposite side of the complex. It’s somehow fitting.

The academy system began in 2008 has expanded to five teams – senior, U-17, U-15, U-13, and U-12 – and will eventually reach down to the U-8 level.

Raw talent from the vast pool that is Southern Ontario – home to roughly one-third of Canada’s population – will be filtered with the help of the Club Affiliate Program (CAP), a structure which branches out from the Toronto base into the various regions that comprise the area, into TFC. A network of like-minded clubs with a similar commitment to elite standards of development; a widening of Toronto FC’s net with a myriad of benefits – both technical and informational; with additional support and rewards as well – to the satellites.

Already the youth programs have found success; several players polished in the ranks of the academy – their potential turned to promise – have been graduated to the first team: starting with Doneil Henry and Nicholas Lindsay in 2010; joined by Ashtone Morgan, Matt Stinson, Oscar Cordon and Keith Makubuya in 2011; and most recently Quillan Roberts just a few months ago.

Three players are regular contributors – Morgan, Henry and Stinson – while Lindsay, a very promising winger who almost single-handedly breathed fresh life into the club’s 2010 playoff and CONCACAF Champions League campaigns, was forced to miss all of last season and is currently still recovering from injuries to both knees suffered in the off-season after his breakout performances.

The club’s MLS reserve team is regularly packed with academy players on the cusp of hearing their name’s called to the big show – remember the names of current academy senior side captain, Chris Mannella and Jordan Hamilton, who made his debut for the first team as a fifteen year-old against Vancouver in the final match of the Disney Pro Soccer Classic in the preseason.

As too are the Canadian youth teams – Roberts, the keeper who scored against England in the U-17 World Cup is one example of a trend that now extends even the full national side – with left-back Morgan a part of the latest roster called for the next round of World Cup Qualification.

All this success in the first five years of existence and achieved without the resources that have been aggregated to form the Downsview site.

Luck and impatience serve me well, in my rush to exit the fanciness – now rocking a hard-hat and some silly knee-high rubber boots – I end up having my tour around the academy structure with Winter, Brennan, and a few other media folk.

To call any of these fellows complete academy products is a bit of a misnomer; much of their development was achieved at other clubs prior to being refined under the watchful eye of Toronto FC. But with them proving capable and even excelling as they mature, just imagine what players developed from younger and younger ages at this new complex can accomplish when their time comes.

The eldest two academy sides currently compete in the Canadian Soccer League (CSL), a semi-professional structure filled with opponents more mature and experienced; a challenge that has undoubtedly helped hone the youngsters into serviceable players when faced with the step-up to MLS.

I look pretty foolish in these boots.

It is not all rosy of course, as with most endeavours, there will be plenty of bumps along the road.

Highly-touted attacking midfielder, Keven Aleman was allowed to leave when his commitment to the club was deemed to be insufficient; the eighteen year-old is currently on the books at Real Valladolid in Spain, on one of their youth sides.

Then of course, there are the current struggles of the first team. A record-setting start to the 2012 season: nine straight losses to open the campaign, the new benchmark for futility in MLS. Perhaps this academy project is an unconsidered factor when evaluating the performance of Aron Winter as club manager.

The head coach and his assistant inspect everything with intense interest. At times you can almost see them break their steely demeanour and actually smile. Winter in particular has been stoic through his time in Toronto.

Too often in sport the quick fixes and short-termism, which more often than not ends up backfiring or costing much more than advertised, is the preset mode of action. TFC is playing the long-game, Jurgen Klinsmann was brought in as advisor to help MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the club’s parent company) establish a vision – something that was lacking over the initial years of existence – both on and off the field.

Transplanting the Dutch system, an attacking 4-3-3, will prove difficult, particularly given the deficiencies in the current standard of player, but with time, anything can happen.

Brennan too has seen this club’s manic progression from beginning to now, from all possible views within the organization.

Playing the long game can be difficult at times of crisis, but it is the wise man who sees the value that lays in wait at the end of the day; from hard work, rigorous planning, and sacrifice advances will be made. Patience, dinner will be served soon enough, when it is ready.

Excitement through structure…physically and professionally…

This is an exciting time for soccer in Canada; the TFC Academy and the investment in facilities at Downsview Park, as well as the connections being forged throughout the massive area that is Ontario, is something long needed in Canada: a solid development structure; a clear pathway from the amateur game to MLS. Vancouver and Montreal are also contributing to the elevation of the standard of the game across the nation and in due time will have similar facilities of their own.

We arrive at the balconies on the second floor, overlooking the three playing fields directly adjacent the main structure; the excitement is palpable. 

What was once unpurposed land is now a busy construction site, soon to become the heart of a club. What were once talented children, playing at the grassroots of the game, will come to this location and learn what it takes to become professionals.

That which was unrefined will gain definition. That which may have gone unnoticed and unused or shipped overseas and lost in the relative wasteland that had been elite player development, will be found and built into something tangible. Educated and prepared until the finished product is ready to emerge from the players’ tunnel at BMO Field, greeted by twenty-two thousand of their neighbours, now a symbol of civic and national pride; local boys come good for their local side.

Their offices, much closer to being ready than the last time they toured the site several weeks ago, you can feel the enthusiasm that this project will bring to the next.

The Busby Babes, the Lisbon Lions, Fergie’s Fledgling, and the current fruits of Barcelona’s now closed La Masia; isn’t that what football is all about? A representation of the club, the city, and ultimately, the nation.

With the sizeable investment Toronto FC and their partners have put their faith in the local and the national. For the good of the game in Canada and the United States, other clubs should and will follow suit to meet the raising demands of the professional game in MLS.

The first new pitch is in the process of being installed, a quick inspection, and a sturdy foot-test of the feel of the foundations. This is going to be nice.

James Grossi is a contributor to The Shin Guardian, SB Nation’s Waking the Red, and The Blizzard in addition to his regular site Partially Obstructed View.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/06/04 at 10:34 PM

    Some video:

    Reply

  2. Posted by dth on 2012/06/05 at 9:13 AM

    They’re doing some good stuff. It’s interesting to track the various MLS academies. As a general observation, it seems like the teams that are already doing well are deiciding to put lots of effort into doing much better. I’m thinking of, say, DC United hiring an entirely new academy director even though they’d already had the most success from their homegrown program of any MLS team.

    Meanwhile, a lot of the guys that aren’t doing well are just kind of half-assing it. An interesting inversion of the times where success breeds complacency.

    Anyway, I would expect Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry to be sold for quite a bit of money by MLS standards in the nearish-term future.

    Reply

    • The developments of the academies, as you say, will be a very interesting storyline to follow over the next decade.

      On Morgan and Henry – neither is anywhere near ready yet, Morgan looks more comfortably and consistent at the moment, which is normal. Centre-backs, like goalkeepers, require more familiarization time – more reps – than a wing-back such as Morgan does.

      Morgan has been guilty several times losing focus and being way out of position – the Eric Hassli last-minute screamer in the first leg of the Voyageur’s Cup is a perfect example of both Morgan – way up field, out of camera shot – and Henry – letting Hassli have space off his back shoulder – not having the tactical positioning and focus required for the full ninety.

      I do agree their current trajectory looks to take them beyond the limits of MLS.

      That being said it would be great to have the two hometown boys with the club for the next five years or so.

      Should mention, Morgan is fond of a hashtag #nastyleftback, which is a growing trademark of his, something more than a few opposing players would attest to and Henry is a beast on attacking corner kicks – scored against the US in Olympic Qualifying – sorry to mention it – and against Real Salt Lake in that dramatic 3-2 loss at the Rio Tinto this season.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Bode on 2012/06/05 at 11:30 AM

    Does anyone know what the rules are for receiving transfer fees on academy graduates? Does the club that produced the homegrown player get all of the money from selling a homegrown player? It seems to me a great way to incentivize clubs to invest in their academies would be to give them all of the transfer proceeds of players brought through their academies.

    It may be a long time (if ever) until MLS teams can compete with the resources of European clubs, so the growth in the quality of the league must necessarily come from producing better and better domestic players.

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2012/06/05 at 12:46 PM

      You receive a higher percentage than with regular players. The big incentive is that homegrown players are off-budget and don’t count on the cap.

      Reply

      • Sorry for the delay is responding, been a busy past few weeks.

        The league rules on such matters are very vague at the moment. MLS as a league is continually growing, often arriving at situations that have not yet been mapped and making decisions at the time.

        On one hand it’s a little shady, one the other it is better to have some flexibility than be stuck in a bad position.

        My understanding – after reaching out to some people – is that yes they will receive a higher percentage of any transfer, but hard numbers are, as yet, undecided.

        The off-budget aspect is indeed an advantage, but, my understanding, is that the cap-free expense only lasts as long as the initial contract. Once the player is resigned – makes the transition from roster spots 21-30 into the first 20 – that benefit is cancelled; similar to the Generation Adidas situation, whereby the usefulness wears off after a spell. I was pointed towards Andy Najar in DC, who was initially a homegrown, off-cap player, but having penned an improved deal, should now be considered in those top 20 roster spots and part of the cap budget.

        Domestic talent, will still be cheaper than foreign imports however.

        I heartily recommend any interest in more of the details of the homegrown rule applications as they stood at the beginning of the season read Kyle McCarthy’s piece from January at Goal.com

        http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/1110/major-league-soccer/2012/01/09/2838136/monday-mls-breakdown-application-of-the-home-grown-player

        Reply

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