Every week, Luke Wileman and I ask our Twitter followers to send us any questions that they would like to have us discuss on the TSN FC podcast. On last week's podcast, @ThikuBC asked what the CSA's top priority should be – coach development, youth development or a national U23 league.
I quickly answered, "All three", but said that I would expand on that answer in my next blog. So here are my recommendations.
The single biggest thing we can do to improve the development of Canadian soccer players is to improve the quality (and quantity) of coaches working with young players.
For too long, we have relied on untrained, unqualified volunteer coaches to oversee the development of young players through their formative years – not just in 'recreational' soccer, but also in 'competitive' soccer. The result has been a pool of players who are underdeveloped, who lack the basic fundamental skills required to succeed as they move to higher levels of the game.
Those volunteer coaches will never get any better unless they are educated and developed. To do that, the CSA needs to remove as many barriers to coach education as possible, such as cost, availability and delivery method of courses.
The CSA needs to move heaven and earth to find a corporate partner to offset the costs of coach education. And I mean completely offset the costs, so that the cost to the coach to participate in the course is $0.
More courses need to be made available to coaches – especially higher level licensing courses like the provincial 'B', national 'B' and national 'A'. Holding courses once or twice a year just isn't good enough, and the only way we are going to have more trained and qualified coaches is if they have access to courses that they can fit into their schedule.
That might require altering the delivery method of some of the course content. While there must remain a practical component to any course, online learning can and should be used to deliver some of the content. This would make courses more accessible to more coaches, especially those in outlying areas.
Additionally, the CSA absolutely must create a national curriculum. That this hasn't been done at any point over the last decade is a travesty.
A national curriculum is an invaluable resource for coaches who are working with young players, as it provides a blueprint that is age and ability specific. It provides coaches – many of whom do not have the time to create periodized training calendars or individual session plans – with the guidance and support they so desperately deserve.
Tony Fonseca, Technical Director of the CSA, recently told me, "Developing the coaches will develop the players."
He is absolutely correct.
It is imperative that we create a network of standards-based, high-performance youth development leagues for our best players across the country.
As a nation, our high-performance training has primarily been the responsibility of our governing bodies – the CSA and provincial associations. The problem with this approach – one that is not taken by any successful football nation – is that it affects far too few players.
The end result is an extremely shallow pool of talented players from which to select our national teams. While the training and development for the select few in these programs might be sufficient, the size and scale of the program is not. Creating a network of standards-based, high-performance youth leagues (in BC, Ontario and Quebec to start with) will dramatically increase the number of players receiving this training, leading to a larger pool of talented players from which our national youth teams can be selected.
The importance of this step cannot be understated, so I will say it again - it will exponentially increase the number of players and coaches in professional development environments. The result will be more players (with better skills) and coaches being developed. We cannot rely solely on the three MLS club academies to develop young players; we need 30 such academies, not three.
National U23 League
This is an important step for the development of soccer in Canada – but we mustn't try to run before we can walk.
In order for a national U23 league to be self-sufficient, there must be a demand for it – and not just from fans willing to pay to watch the games. There must be a demand from the players to play in such a league.
If players become accustomed to training four or five days per week from the ages of 12 or 13 in the high-performance leagues mentioned earlier, they will demand a similar standard of training and competition to continue their development in and beyond their teenage years. If that demand is not met, all of the good work that will have been done in their formative years will have been lost.
If those high-performance leagues are allowed to grow and develop, they will, over time, produce a far higher calibre of player than the current muddled mess that is youth soccer in Canada. When that happens, player development in Canada will be by design, rather than by chance.
The resulting pool of players will be far more skilled than what is currently being produced, and will require a vehicle to continue their development. And this is where the national U23 league comes into play.
"Right now, there is a big gap between what we have at the pro level and what we have at the community level, and we really need to bridge that gap," said Fonseca.