Pathway to the National Team..A Historical Journey of Two Current Players

This past thanksgiving weekend, besides getting work done around the house, I spent a large amount of my time watching the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers on TV. I couldn’t wait to see how some of the so-called underdog countries would fair in their final hurdle to qualify and at the same time wondering if some of the powerhouse countries would eventually make it through.

Well I got my money’s worth.

I watched the joys of Egypt making the finals for the first time in 20+ years, the agony of Scotland STILL not making the finals since the nineties’ (that was a real tough one….), the elation of Iceland and Panama making the finals for the first time (the latter instead of the USA….WOW), the certainty of Spain, Brasil and yes…England prevailing and finally ….the battle between Ireland and Wales …….certainly Wales would continue their recent form from the Euros 2016…..???.

The results got me thinking… has the world of International Soccer changed so much in the last 4-8 years that traditional countries like Holland, Ghana, Chile are not qualifying; countries like Argentina and Italy are struggling to qualify and the likes of Serbia, Belgium and …England (yes England again) are getting through comfortably.

Why is this happening?

Well …im sure each country has their own reason why this has happened but all I could think of was “collectively” it must be down to the PLAYERS!….they win the games…Right! At the end of the day, the quality of players in a squad/playing pool has allot to do with the team’s chances of success over an period of time (albeit on any given day..…lady luck, weather conditions, size of pitch, refs, etc ….can influence a match).

But how have countries like Iceland, Panama, England & Serbia progressed over the past 4-8 years developing their talent pools respectively while so many others have not?….is it the talent ID and selection process of those countries, is it infrastructure, is it the coaching and/or specific training curriculums of those countries, could it be the social-economic background of these countries, is it financial?..... well, I don’t pretend to know what the exact answer is but certainly there must be some commonalties and trends that we can learn from.

This led me to immediately turn to Canada and on the back of our recent performances ask…. have we progressed along the same trajectory as some of these other countries, taking into account the relatively different starting points and many challenges we face in Canada or are we still in a state of finding ourself?

Truth be told, I had no real way to objectively answer this question without “true” inside knowledge from the senior officials in Canada but then I started watching the Canada vs El Salvador game. Besides the fact we have integrated more players (U23 age and under) than ever before in the starting line-up, we seem to playing a better brand of soccer…more technical, more organized ….with greater confidence.

While watching the game….I suddenly realized that I had a very significant influence on the development of 2 of the starting 11 players and while very happy about that, realized (having intimate knowledge of each player since they were 8 years old) both had taken drastically different paths to get to the National Team and faced many challenges along the way.

So ..curiosity got the better of me….if they both made the CMNT in their early 20s….the top end in our country and the ultimate ambition of many players (and parents)….seemingly there must be some common steps they both took that allowed for this to happen….and if so, what were they?

At the same time, knowing both of these players developed in Ontario…Pre-LTPD …I was curious to determine if any of the new realities (i.e. LTPD Development Matrices, Sport Sampling as opposed to Sport Specialization at early ages, Revised Talent Identification Processes, the OPDL, advanced Coaching Standards, League 1, etc) implemented over the past 4 years in Ontario would have affected their development (should they have been subjected to them) and if so, what impact would these initiatives have had on each player’s development path to the CMNT. For instance:

  • Did either player compete for Clubs that followed the recommendations for training to game ratios (i.e. 2:1, 3:1, 4:1) during their respective fundamentals, LTT, Train to Train periods of development?

  • How many competitive games did these players participate in during their key development years?

  • What was the level of coaching both players received during their various stages of development? Did it differ over time? Were the coaches certified? What level?

  • Did either player supplement their respective club training with additional training? If so, at what age? how often?

  • Did either player experience travel beyond their local communities and if so, did it effect their development or their family, school life?

  • Did either player participate in any other organized sports? If so what sport? how often?

  • Was either player identified through the Talent Identification Process? In Ontario? Canada?

  • Was either player challenged from a financial resources perspective to participate in the game during their development…and if so, how did they cope?

  • At what age did either player enter an Elite Performance Program?

By undertaking a historical review of these two specific player’s pathways (yes …it’s a small sample size) to the CMNT and answering some key development questions, I hoped, in some small way, to better understand how these two players progressed as they did…was it because of the system in place or despite the system.

At the very least, uncover some player development pathway trends, events, experiences, that may lead to further discussions on what variables are important (at this moment) in developing National Team players for Canada.

The Players

So who are the players? Well for sake of this piece I’ll call them Player A and Player B. Here are the details:

  • Both players grew up living and playing in the GTA.

  • Both players come from single parent households.

  • Both players participated in school and pick-up sports but neither played any other organized sport during their grassroots and /or high-school years.

  • Parental support for both players was vastly different. Player A had little support with regards to finances or travel whereas Player B had financial support, and at least 1 parent always at all training and games, etc.

  • Player A ‘s family had no history in supporting soccer whereas Player B came from a deeply rooted soccer supporting background.

  • Player A was born in 4th quarter (Dec 94), Player B was born in 1st quarter (Feb 95) approx. 50 Days apart from each other

Key Findings:

In order to give some structure to this review, I have utilized our current LTPD Stages of Player Development as a framework from which to compare and contrast both players. For instance, their key development ages from U4 – U12 (Grassroots) through to the Train to Train/Compete (U13 – U18) and the Train to Win (U19 and up) stage.

Now we all accept that players develop at different ages and stages but if you were to surmise, based on the information above, what player was in the better development pathway at Grassroots back then..…who would you select? My guess is Player B.

Simple reasoning …despite both playing in same league against each other….Player B started playing earlier, trained more often, played more games, had more resources and support from family and was fast tracked to play with older boys… fact, the only difference was that Player A had a higher certified coach during his grassroots development phase than Player B.

If you were to apply todays LTPD principals to the Grassroots Development phases of each player back then…who would you select now? My guess is Player A. But I would suggest…..not so simple reasoning this time.

There would be less stress on player / family due to lower amount of training and games being played = more time to do other sports or family outings (even though neither player played other organized sports and both family’s rarely did holidays) , less travel covered for games and tournaments = more time training, age appropriate coach certification (don’t need Provincial level coaching for grassroots..rather age appropriate training), not Fast Tracked despite excelling above other players both technically and tactically but less so socially and emotionally.

So …essentially we have two players – one more privileged than the other, but neither following the current LTPD principals to the letter, both specialized early in organized soccer….and nonetheless …both achieved selection eventually to the CMNT. WHY?

If you strip away the details, at its core, I believe both players had 3 commonalities during their grassroots education that I like to call the 3 “C”s of Player Development:

a) Coaching - they had committed and consistent coaching – yes one coach was slightly more certified than the other but at these ages, it’s really more about keeping players engaged and helping them develop a love of the game…while teaching age appropriate skills….this was evident for both players. Further, both players stayed with 1 club during their grassroots development. They didn’t jump ship, they didn’t move to the top team, they didn’t test the waters every year during Tryouts…they stayed loyal and committed to their respective Club .....which may have been because they developed a connection to the coach.

b) Competition - healthy, meaningful competition – both players played against each other in an inter-district league where neither of their respective teams were considered the top team. In fact, both may have been 2 and 3rd respectively and because the level of weekly competition was so HI…especially at the U9 thru U12 age groups, each player was constantly being tested to execute their technique in every game. Each played in excess of 20+ games every year and in some years 30+ games in a summer. (Side Note: the top team during this time -U9-U12 - was dominant throughout grassroots winning everything and 2 of their players are currently playing professionally outside of Canada with 1 on the fridges of the CMNT).

c) Challenging Environments - despite neither team having access to nice manicured grass fields or a turf facility (exception in winter) ….the quality of the training environments was very good simply because a) they were organized and FUN; b) they were stage appropriate and c) the quality of the players within the squads created a natural (high level) of competition amongst the players ….every session. This last element is pivotal….but seemingly gets overlooked in today’s grassroots environment.

So now the question is, had both players been exposed to the current system of grassroots development, would they have been able to progress as they did?

From a purely financial point of view, I believe both players would have struggled to meet the commitments of todays grassroots development fees. Both players utilized the Canadian Tire fund (small amount but essential) and Player A needed to rely on team subsidies. I would go as far as to say that it is possible Player A would have simply been priced out of the system...simply because of the lack of support available to him. In other words, there is no way Player A could have afforded $1300+ annually between the ages U9 to U12 (as most clubs now charge) as his family had difficulties covering $250 annually for a number of reasons.

Developmentally, if we overlay the current grassroots model with the system both players came through it is easy to spot the differences. Whats more difficult is determining whether or not these differences would have fundamentally altered their development. For starters, the players would have have both developed the same technically as both were in environments strictly focused on developing core technical skills...which I suspect is very evident in todays grassroots curriculums. However, each trained within a separate "Team" environment rather than a "Combined" one and presumably would have received more 1 on 1 coaching smaller player to coach ratio. While this can be duplicated in todays most cases its not.

This leads into the quality of their week to week training, amongst teammates. Now Im not suggesting every session needs to filled with high intensity but it seems logical that if a group of similarly skilled players are constantly involved with each other...week in week out......they will in turn challenge each other...week in week out. Whether thats in the strictest soccer sense or in fun filled games. The bottom line is the environment is devised from the level of player within it. The fact both players were in these environments, with very little change over, for 4-5 years consistently says allot about their interest and motivation.

Competition wise there is no comparison. Despite both players teams being registered in separate Districts, they competed against each other in an Inter-District league. In todays reality, both players would have been restricted to playing in their own Districts (of which neither would have had the breath of competitive teams they had) and only a few chances to compete (annually) against similar skilled teams. Hence, the number of meaningful competitive games would have been much lower than what they experienced.

So at the end of the grassroots development phase, despite Player A not training/playing as much or having the same financial/family support as Player B …and despite Player B playing/training/traveling/specializing more than the recommended amount for this stage in his development (according to today’s thinking)..neither player quit playing the game, neither player suffered any season long injuries, neither player experienced drops in their development and in fact, both players remained loyal to their clubs and ultimately progressed within the age group into their respective District and OSA Regional Talented Pathway Programs.

Train to Train/Compete (U13 – U18)

To accurately assess this period in each players development, it is worthwhile to separate into 2 distinct periods: the Train to Train Stage (U13-U16) and the Train to Compete Stage (U17 to U18).

In their Train to Train years, the commonalities between both players are rather consistent: both represented their Regions (U13), played at the highest level of competition available in Ontario (OYSL), represented their Province at U14 and U15 and had access to National level Coaching at their Club. Only meaningful difference was that Player B was selected for the CMNT U15 and Player A was not. This had more to do with the National Team Age Cycles (Player A was one year older and didn’t qualify) than anything else.

Let’s again overlay the currently High-Performance Pathway League – the OPDL - during the Train to Train stage and see if …had both players participated in the current system … would they have progressed the same way.

Right off the bat...again.... I would suggest that financially both players would struggle. While currently financial subsidies available for the OPDL would help, the remaining costs of $3000 plus plus would be a non-starter for Player A would have been a difficult for Player B (although I suspect a few families would have helped him).

In terms of on-the-field, I will apply the 3 “C”s again to their development,

a) Coaching Certification - would be a saw off….while OPDL requires higher standards than the old OYSL…the fact is both players were in Clubs during this stage that already had Nat’l B level coaching and both players trained at a frequency of approx. 3 times per week. In fact, you could argue that if both players were in OPDL at U13 today - the current coaching standards (Ontario B) would have been lower than what they received participating in the old CSL (Note: which had promotion and relegation to the OYSL).

b) Competition - I believe the strength of the OYSL was superior than the current level being displayed in the OPDL. How do I know, few reasons: i) all the best players are not competing in the current OPDL system…top 18- 20 players are with TFC Academy on boys side, others with private academies, even more with non-OPDL franchise clubs (can’t afford OPDL fees) and as a result the OPDL clubs are filled with a core group of talented players that are considered “High Performance” and a second group of roster fillers that are required to fulfill financial commitments; ii) the old OYSL had 10-12 teams in total, every game was a battle consisting of the best players at that age group whereas the OPDL has 18 Teams (more to come) with gaps in players abilities; iii) the number of OPDL games is limited to approx.. 20 games compared to the 30+ games during OYSL, Ontario Cup, Tournaments. While more games is not necessarily a benefit, the meaningfulness of those games are. In the OYSL, teams also competed in the OYSL Playoffs, Ontario Cup, Nationals and Tournaments…so they played higher quality games, more often with meaning. In the current OPDL, I would suggest meaningful games don’t commence till the U14 age group and at that, maybe 50% of those games are competitive (based on the quality of the teams from personal observation).

c) Competitive Environment – I would concede that this may be a slightly skewed in favour of the OPDL as the training facilities are certainly better, the training more inclusive, structured and year-round and Club support is much better than in the old OYSL days. However, if we look simply at the individual player….are the top players in an OPDL franchise consistently pushed/challenged in training with their respective teammates? if….a) they all get playing time (not equal but mandated ¼) regardless of development level and b) there are players NOT at the OPDL talent level consistently in training. In other words, had Player A or B been exposed to this training environment, would they have progressed the same way?

Moving into their Train to Compete stage …this is where one could argue that gaps between each players development begin. However, I believe this is solely down to privilege.

Player B had access to a European Passport and was able to secure a Club in Europe and sign full-time as a professional at 16 years old whereas Player A did not qualify for a European Passport and had to wait till the age of 18 to sign on with an academy in MLS. That is 2 full years where Player B received access to higher level coaching and competition and was in an environment where results mattered ….. as opposed to Player A who was in an environment initially at U16 and U17 that required him to pay to play and only at U18 was he able to get equitable coaching and competition, at no cost.

These 2 years (16-18) were essential in Player B’s development being fast tracked over Player A’s and resulted in being selected for an International U19 Team and playing first team soccer in front of 40,000 fans. Player A’s development during this period plateaued and resulted in him not even on the radar for any of our National Teams (i.e. U17s or U20s).

Again, if we were to apply the current High Performance Pathway, I think there would have been some concerns for both players. Player A was not able to pay much in the way of fees at this time and was heavily subsidized ....first from an OSA Member Club and second from a Private Academy. Had he been in the current system, I have no doubt he would have been identified for an OPDL Club but simply would not have been able to afford it. He would need to have had to find alternate playing arrangements (like he did) and hoped again that an opportunity to join an MLS academy at 18 was available. For Player B is a mute point.....had no financial costs at all and was in fact making $$ during this time and was already in a High-Performance environment in Europe during these years.

What is confusing is how each player progressed through the talented pathway. While both represented the OSA Provincial teams at U14 and U15 (Player B also Cdn U15 Team) and presumably were well ll known to both Provincial and Nat'l coaching staffs....neither was considered at U17 or later U20 (Player B only after repeated inquiries to CSA and fact he competed for another Country at U19). More so for Player B ...who at the time of U17 selection was the ONLY player in Canada that was signed to a professional contract in Europe. If he had been playing locally in the current OPDL, might he have been chosen?

The primary difference during this phase of their development, from what I can gather, was “opportunity”. Player B had the opportunity to get into an elite environment (in UK) between 16-18 whereas as Player A did not. Clearly, they were both elite athletes and the fact still remains, Player A eventually closed the gap due to his ability to get into the local MLS program at U18. Had this not happened, would he have progressed into a National Team player?..., what other options would have been available to him?

Well, League 1 Ontario was a viable competition for Player A at 18….once he entered an MLS Academy......however, I suspect it would have been too difficult when he was U16 and U17 to play at that level. Even with qualified coaching and structure, the physicality of the league, the lack of training (most League 1 teams train avg only 2 x week) and little investment and the varying degrees of the competition to date… does not rival the environments within Europe or even local MLS Academies. That being said, Player A did spend 1.5 years playing in League 1 and greatly benefited from this but he was also training 4-5 times a week in a professional MLS environment. Most League 1 teams cannot duplicate this training load or environment.

Train to Win (U19 and up)

As both players entered their Train to Win Stage, it is clear that Player B was ahead of Player A’s development having played 2 years of First Team Soccer (18-19), represented another Country at the U19 International level, made his debut for Canada as a Full National Team player at 20 and was consistently training and playing with full-time professional players in Europe. However, allot must be said for Player A during this time ….as within 2 years of training in an Academy (18-20) in MLS, was able to not only bridge the development gap but also sign professional terms and subsequently get selected for the Canada U23 team at 21 and the Full National Team at 22.

Considering Player B had consistently been exposed to the essential three (3) “C”s of Player Development …Coaching, Competition and Competitive Environments …all along his development pathway whereas Player A experienced a lull during his U16-U18 years, it is understandable that Player B made his CMNT debut two (2) years earlier than Player A.

Final Thoughts

While this review is simply a snap-shot in time and a small sample size, I would suggest it does expose a few realities:

1. A player’s pathway to the CMNT can take many different routes but at the minimum, several common denominators (i.e. the 3 “C”s) should exist in the majority of a player’s pathway. The importance of these elements certainly becomes magnified as players enter the Train to Compete stage.

2. It would be silly not to agree that the current system of development at the grassroots level (U4-U12) is more structured and player-centric than when Player A and B went through the system. There is better coaching all around, better facilities, better administration at the Club level, better progressions in playing format……but is it more advanced? Is it keeping players in the game? Is it growing the game? is it too expensive? and finally (from a high performance perspective) is it conducive to developing an elite level player compared to even 10 years ago. I suppose time will tell…

3. The fact both players participated solely in organized soccer during their grassroots stage of development …and are currently Full Professionals in their early 20’s …..would suggest that the concept of early specialization is not always a limiting factor in a players development. Exceptions to the rule exist and while too much focus on early specialization can lead to injury and burnout, it did not limit either of these players. In their case, both supplemented their soccer development with active school sports (which were free to them) and playing with friends/siblings in the park.

4. Is it possible the current groundswell against early “sport specialization” is often misinterpreted. Could it be taken to literally? I for one am not advocating for 1 sport only focus…but rather …suggesting that a 1 “organized” sport focus is not only acceptable but in many cases the only option for parents (financially). So what if a young boy focuses only on organized soccer or organized long as there is a healthy balance in the physical literary stages - via the school system and “Free Play” ...I don't see a compelling reason to downplay it. The majority of sports are now espousing the need for more "athletes" in their respective game....which to me has always been the case. Just because 1 kid decides to focus on organized soccer...doesnt mean they won't develop into a good all round athlete. IN fact, just this past Saturday...I took my 12 year old daughter (who currently is about to start OPDL next season and is only in organized soccer) to an organized Volleyball practice for the first time...(she has played in school for 3 years) and the coach said to me after training .... "Im not surprised she did very well....most soccer players we get in Volleyball do very well because they are athletic".

5. If both players were going through the current OPDL Talented Pathway System, only Player B would have been able to afford it and by extension….possibly have been identified for Provincial and National Youth Teams. Player A would have fallen through the gaps …without 100% financial aid. I couldn’t even say that the local MLS academy would have identified him (so he could play for free) because they did not do so when he was in fact 13, 14, 15, or 16 years old. The Pay-to-Play culture in our country is a major concern. While I like to think that most Canadians could afford sport for their child, many cannot…and traditionally (I suppose this goes for many countries in the world) soccer tends to be a sport that typically attracts (or not) those players with less means.

Conservatively, if I applied the current costs of development level soccer in Ontario from the grassroots through the train to train/compete/win stages….and assuming we are talking about a player progressing in the High Performance Pathway….the estimated costs (at a minimum) would be approx.. $35,000 dollars (per player) over the 11 years (u8 to U18). That may not seem like much compared to other sports but it would certainly price allot of potential players out of our sport.

6. The Train to Compete stage (U16-U18) is a vital step in the development of elite male players (wishing to reach National Team Level) and without the presence of high-level coaching, meaningful /robust competition and a weekly competitive environment to train in, players will be challenged to take the required steps forward to be able to withstand the Train to Win Stage (U19 and up) in their development.

7. For those with access to a “Euro Passport”, additional options exist during the Train to Compete Stage…given resources are available to them to showcase themselves to Clubs outside of Canada. However, those without a passport are restricted to only a few options: a) local MLS academy ..where only 18-20 players are selected; b) Private Academies ….which are costly and tend to focus more on scholarship opportunities as opposed to professional ones and c) the OPDL…which is now moving into a combined age group (U16/U17) for the first time and is also “Pay-to-Play” model.

8. The current League 1 Ontario competition has filled a needed gap for players within the Train to Win Stage (U19 and up) of Development and continues to improve each year. And it must grow……The challenge moving forward is how to ensure the sustainability of the league (presently subsidized heavily by youth programs and/or team owners) and grow its relevance within the Soccer community. The proposed Canadian Professional League will also help massively in growing the opportunities for players within the Train to Win Stage and should it become a reality, may further enhance the relevancy of League 1 Ontario as a feeder league to it….thereby completing a pathway within Canada for potential National Team Players.

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