Canadian Soccer Association unveils program meant to connect youth to national team development

Tony Fonseca and Stephen Hart

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For a long time, Canadian soccer has lacked the crucial “missing link” between the hundreds of thousands of kids who play the game and the professional ranks. With its latest technical development plan, the Canadian Soccer Association hopes to have finally found it.

On Tuesday, the CSA unveiled its Canada Soccer Pathway, a new “unified technical development vision for soccer in the country” aimed at further connecting the more than 865,000 youth players with Canada’s national and professional teams. As a show of solidarity, representatives from all five men’s professional clubs – Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Edmonton, Toronto FC, Ottawa Fury and the Montreal Impact – joined CSA officials at the official unveiling at BMO Field in Toronto.

“It’s been 28 years since we made the last [men’s senior] World Cup,” CSA technical director Tony Fonseca told the audience. “If we aspire to be in a World Cup in the next four to eight years, I would say we need to change a lot of things that we’ve done not so well.”

Fonseca identified training at the grassroots level as one of the key areas for improvement, and said that cooperation and collaboration with professional clubs is a key component of improving Canada’s situation.

“We have, today, five pro clubs investing a lot of money in youth development. They’re giving us, on the men’s side, an outlet for players to excel,” said Fonseca. “That’s very, very important for us.”

All three Canadian MLS teams featured Homegrown players in important victories over the weekend – and as far as Toronto FC’s general manager is concerned, that’s no accident.

“Between the Impact, TFC and the Whitecaps, I think we have some of the strongest academies in MLS,” Tim Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com. “And we’re locking arms with the CSA, as we’ve always done, but even more so now with Tony Fonseca and his technical vision.”

A big part of driving the CSA’s youth development strategies, says Bezbatchenko, is giving youngsters a chance to see local players succeed with their local clubs – such as Saturday, when TFC Academy product Doneil Henry scored a dramatic stoppage-time winner against the Columbus Crew.

“It’s about having heroes, and that’s what motivates players to push it, to excel,” he said. “We want to be a team that represents and reflects the city, the demographics, the diversity of culture and frankly the love, the passion for soccer that this country and city have.”

Bezbatchenko called the new League 1 Ontario – a Division III league that began play last Friday night and features TFC Academy as one of its 10 teams – an “integral” part of the plans, as it provides youth players a chance to showcase their skills in a competitive environment week after week.

And when it comes to the long-term goal as it relates to the first team, the TFC boss offered up a hypothetical situation that will be music to the ears of Canadian soccer officials and fans alike.

“We’re committed, wholly committed, to the youth development player landscape and the platform so that some day, who knows, we could field 11 Canadian, [Toronto area]-born players,” he said.