In a recent blog, I floated the idea of creating two separate development programs in Canadian soccer - recreational (which would encompass the vast majority of registrants who play the game) and high performance (which would focus on providing a professional development environment for the small percentage of players and coaches who take the game seriously).
This blog will focus on how a national high performance league can be created in Canada at the club and academy level, and in which provinces it should first be implemented.
A genuine high performance program requires a number of things, including:
- Nationally certified coaches for every participating team within an organization
- Minimum training-to-game ratios of at least 3:1
- Quality facilities and equipment that contribute to providing the correct learning environment for players and coaches
- Ongoing professional development for coaches
- A 12-month, periodized calendar that integrates with our provincial and national team programs
These criteria have not been plucked out of a hat – they are best practices that are employed by professional youth academies around the world, including the three Canadian MLS academies in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
In order to have the maximum impact, these high performance programs must be separated from the current system of promotion and relegation in youth soccer through the creation of a national high performance league. This league should stand alone as the highest level of the youth soccer pyramid in Canada – just below the professional youth academies of the three Canadian MLS clubs.
This national high performance league would ideally begin at the U13 or U14 age group and progress through to U17. The league would then jump to U23, the final age category. This is to provide the best young players an opportunity to play against older, more developed players, while also providing a stepping-stone between youth soccer and the university or professional game. For an analogy that many Canadians will understand, think of this high performance league as the equivalent of ‘AAA' hockey, with the U23 league being the equivalent of junior ‘A' hockey.
The only entry point into this league should be through meeting the mandated technical criteria of a high performance program – creating the ‘classroom' for player and coach development at the club or academy level. Clubs and academies should not be promoted into this league based on results - and for good reason.
As a nation, we have shown an inability to be honest about our actions in youth soccer – player recruitment and poaching is rife across the country. Results cannot be used as the sole measurement of a program's effectiveness, as these results are often misleading. In many cases, winning is simply the result of player recruitment and poaching, where the true development has been done by another organization.
Opportunities to enter the national high performance league should be open to both non-profit community clubs and for-profit private academies.
Yes, you read that correctly.
There are numerous examples across the country of excellent programs being run under both non-profit and for-profit business models. Yet in most cases, the two organizations are forced to compete under parallel competitive streams.
Some critics suggest that private academies deliver a service that is too expensive for most parents. However, that argument doesn't hold true when considering the costs of many non-profit club programs. In reality, cost is used as an excuse to exclude for-profit academies from participating on an equal playing field with non-profit community clubs.
The ‘cost' argument is only valid if private academies are allowed to compete in the same market as their non-profit competitors. A national high performance league – with a comprehensive list of technical criteria as its foundation – is just such a market. Only when these two types of organizations are judged by the same technical criteria will parents be able to determine which the preferred option for their child's development is.
Escalating costs will always be an issue in a pay-for-play youth system such as ours. This is a reality that we must accept, and if we are to get serious about player development, then we must also accept that professional coaching, training and competition come at a cost.
That being said, both non-profit community clubs and for-profit private academies must do everything possible to minimize the cost to participate in high performance programs. Corporate partnerships, hardship funds and fundraising opportunities must all be maximized, so that high performance opportunities are based on merit, rather than on parents' disposable income.
The CSA and the provincial associations should also contribute to the ongoing costs of operating a national high performance league, as should the three Canadian MLS clubs. After all, it is they who will be the direct beneficiaries of a better youth development system.
A national high performance league should first be implemented in four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta. (Thankfully, this is already happening in some of these provinces.) The justification for this is really quite simple – these four provinces have traditionally contributed the vast majority of players to our national teams, and they have the largest player bases. Nationwide rollout can be determined based on realistic need, rather than on parochial entitlement.
Many involved in Canadian soccer are quick to trumpet the fact that there are nearly 900, 000 registered soccer players across the country, making the game far and away the largest participant sport in Canada.
However, what those people fail to mention is that the vast majority of those participants play recreational soccer – where players receive little more than a t-shirt and a field on which to run around and chase a ball. The inflated numbers are not an accurate reflection of our performance in developing the talents of our most promising athletes.
The creation of a national high performance league in those four provinces will separate those who are serious about player development from those who see soccer as nothing more than another appointment on the family calendar. This would do far more for player development in Canada than having millions of recreational participants across the country. While a national high performance league might directly impact less than 5, 000 players nationwide, it would be far more effective at developing the talents of those players than the current muddled system.
Tony Fonseca, the CSA's Technical Director, must be able to control the direction of this league through his relationships with the provincial technical directors. He must have the authority to mandate the technical standards that must be met within this league, and his decisions must not be overturned due to pressure from the recreational masses.
What happens to those outside the national high performance league, to the countless levels of “competitive” soccer that are being played across the country? They can, and should, continue to exist. But make no mistake about it – those programs are recreational in nature, and about as far away from genuine high performance programs as they can get.
If we are going to get serious about developing players in this country, then a national high performance league is long overdue.