By RON FANFAIR
Teenager Doneil Henry is on cloud nine nearly two years after failing to make an Ontario Soccer Association provincial team.
Last week, the 17-year-old defender became the first home grown player from the Toronto FC Academy youth development program to ink a professional contract with the city’s Major League Soccer (MLS) club.
The Brampton resident joined the academy eight months after it was established in early 2008.
“I am still shocked by everything, but I am very happy to be part of this team and to be in this environment,” said Henry at last week’s press conference to announce his signing. “Becoming the first home grown player for Toronto FC is great. It’s a great experience and a dream for me. I am still young and I want to push to make the first team and step up when I am called upon.”
The 6’2″ Henry has already made three appearances for Toronto FC. He played the entire match in the nil-all draw at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 2 in the Nutralite Canadian competition and was on the field for 77 minutes in the Carlsberg Cup friendly against English Premier League side Bolton Wanderers last July at BMO Field. He was named Man-of-the-Match in Toronto FC’s 1-0 loss on penalties. He also started in the vital Confederation of North, Central American & Caribbean Associations of Soccer (CONCACAF) second leg Champions League qualifying contest against Motagua in Honduras last month.
Toronto FC director Mo Johnston said Henry’s signing is significant for the only Canadian MLS club.
“This is a very big day for us,” he said. “When we started the academy, this is what we ultimately wanted to accomplish by bringing a young player on board and into the first team. Obviously, Doneil has worked very hard under both Stuart (Neely) and Jason (Bent) in the academy and he deserves this opportunity. We are excited to welcome him into the team.”
Academy director Earl Cochrane is also delighted with the historic signing.
“The goal of the academy is to provide the most talented, committed and dedicated young players a chance to flourish under our system and Doneil is a product of that,” he said. “We believe he will be the first of many players to come through this system. It’s also a credit to our academy staff who have not only coached him technically, but have prepared him mentally for this next step in his career.”
Bent, a former Canadian midfielder who is the Toronto FC Academy assistant coach, first spotted the youngest son of Jamaican immigrants four years ago.
“I was doing some work with North Mississauga and he was an up-and-coming player there,” said Bent, who made 32 appearances for the national senior team from 1997-2003. “He always had the height and size which was always a big advantage for him, but he was also a very good technical player at that age.
“Since he came to the academy, his attitude and work rate have been first class. He has slowly developed in his game and has always been very confident on the ball. He tries to initiate attacks and play out from the back. Now he’s starting to understand when he has to put his foot through the ball and that is very important for a centre back.”
Bent is confident that Henry will flourish in MLS.
“He has the right temperament and a very good family to support him,” Bent said. “His mentality is very good and now he’s going to be pushed on a daily basis with the first team players and coaching staff so, hopefully, his game will move to another level.”
The Grade 12 student will train with Toronto FC in the morning and attend classes at Vaughan Road Academy which offers a unique integrated program with timetables that accommodate athletes.
Henry began his career with the Brampton Bullets before moving to North Mississauga as a member of their Under-14 program. He has represented Canada at the Under-14, -17, -18 and -20 levels.
The former Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School student, who has been training regularly with the team over the past few weeks, will not count against Toronto FC’s 24-man roster. Instead, he will fill one of two spots available to academy players under MLS regulations.