By RON FANFAIR
Building from the ground up on solid foundation will more often than not result in a firm footing for success.
Toronto FC seems to get it as the city’s professional outfit moves forward with plans for an academy at Downsview Athletic Park.
At last week’s groundbreaking ceremony, officials and players salivated over the 15-acre complex that will be completed next summer. The facility, which will become the regular training site for the club’s junior and senior academy teams, will include a heated pitch and an artificial surface covered with a bubble during the winter.
In addition to four fields, there will be a 45,000-square foot field house for a state-of-the-art training room, lockers and administrative offices.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the team, is contributing $20 million to the project and will pay rent annually for the land.
Executive vice-president and chief operations officer, Tom Anselmi, is confident the investment will pay huge dividends.
“Player development is one of the pillars of what it is going to be about going forward,” he said. “It’s not only with our club but the whole league is changing from being a real draft and NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) kind of conventional North American league that’s fuelled by the college system to one of player development and then augmented with the draft or European free agents. Stu and the guys got us a good head start, but to have a facility now where we can drive it down into lower ages and really have state-of-the-art equipment to train with is going to be a real advantage for us.”
Stu Neely is the director of the academy which produced midfielder Doniel Henry, its first graduate who made his Toronto FC debut last year, and 18-year-old defender Ashtone Morgan who made his first appearance with Canada’s senior national team in a World Cup qualifier in St. Lucia two weeks ago.
Anselmi believes the ambitious project will set the standard for future academies and training facilities in North America.
“When you combine grassroots, high performance and the kind of training facility we are going to have along with a potential residency program, nutrition, fitness, physical therapy, change rooms for all our teams and the fact we intend to start training here at the Under-Nine level, I think this is going to be the best in North America,” he added.
The Americans have a residency program for their Under-16 and Under-17 men’s teams at the International Management Group academy in Bradenton, Florida. Graduates include midfielder Landon Donovan who is the highest scoring U.S. player in World Cup history, left winger DaMarcus Beasley and striker Freddy Adu who, at age 14, was the youngest athlete to sign a professional contract in the United States.
Toronto FC has failed to qualify for Major League Soccer (MLS) playoffs since joining the league in 2006 while Canada’s men senior team has not been to the World Cup since 1986.
Toronto FC coach, Aron Winter, was an assistant with the Ajax first academy team before signing on with the Canadian team last January. The Dutch club has one of the best academies in the world.
The 44-year-old Surinam-born coach believes the new facility will be a pillar of the team’s future.
“From the beginning, what we wanted to do was develop players,” said the former defensive midfielder who made 84 appearances for The Netherlands. “Now we are going to have the building and the facility to do it. We will have a home base. You don’t have to go all over Toronto to find a field to practice.”
The Toronto FC academy was launched three years ago to offer the most talented, dedicated and committed players an opportunity to receive advanced training instruction.
The academy’s Under-19 senior side compete in the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) while the Under-17 juniors participate in the CSL Reserve Division.