Despite a disappointing end to the tournament, Canada can take a lot of positives out of their second-place finish at the CONCACAF U-17 Championships.
Before last week’s tough 1-0 victory over Panama in the quarterfinals, Canada had not qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup since 1995. It was a frustrating 16-year absence for the Canucks, more so when considering that Canada’s U-20 side is a regular participant in the World Cup.
Curiously, the younger age group had trouble competing while many of those same players would later perform well enough to qualify from what is arguably a tougher regional tournament.
One big possible reason for the struggles at the U-17 age group may be attributed to the lack of opportunities for young, elite players in Canada. While many of them move on to NCAA programs after high school, the crucial years before reaching college age are spent by most Canadian youth players with local club sides without much in the way of developmental options.
Private academies and CSA-run national training centers looked to fill the void, but the pay-to-play model of most private academies and the relative lack of funding for the NTCs meant that only a small number of players had access to high-level training on a regular basis.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, then still part of second division United Soccer Leagues, looked to change that by establishing the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency – a by-invitation, free-of-charge academy program that gave the best kids in British Columbia a place to develop in a professional environment on a day-to-day basis.
[inline_node:329308]The benefits were obvious. As Vancouver were the first organization in the country to establish such a program, they actually had their pick of an entire country’s worth of players.
Through former Residency head coach Thomas Niendorf’s connections, Vancouver sent their best young prospects to German clubs for further training, and the first Residency product to be sold – 20-year-old defender Adam Straith – now plays for Energie Cottbus and has won six caps for the Canadian men’s national team.
A year after Toronto FC joined MLS, they also created a free-of-charge academy, this one serving the talent-rich Greater Toronto Area. A bare-bones operation at first, the TFC Academy has quickly flourished into arguably the best youth club in Ontario, with the Senior (U-18) team competing and holding their own against grown men in the Canadian Soccer League.
MLS club-to-be Montreal Impact created their own academy last year, which also plays in the third division CSL. Although Montreal’s academy was mostly a reserve side for the USSF-D2 squad last year, there are plans to expand operations to match that of its Canadian rival clubs.
While it’s easy to see how the pro clubs benefit from recruiting and training their own youth players, what fans of Canada’s national teams are now beginning to see is the side effect of such a set-up. Dozens of young players are now being exposed to top-level, professional training on a daily basis, and many of them are now popping up on youth national team rosters.
The U-17 side boasted 14 players from the academies of the three biggest Canadian pro clubs, including standouts Keven Aleman (TFC Academy) and Bryce Alderson of the Whitecaps Residency. Both players joined their respective clubs in 2010, and both looked poised to take full advantage of the training and opportunities now available to them through the MLS academies.
Aleman’s superb attacking play turned heads in the CONCACAF tourney, perhaps the most important being that of TFC head coach and technical director Aron Winter, who has invited the 16-year-old midfielder to the first team’s pre-season training camp.
Alderson also earned high praise as a steady, calming influence in Canada’s central midfield, with the U-17 national captain having already been named as the Canadian under-17 player of the year.
Players like Alderson and Aleman – along with recent MLS home grown signees Nicholas Lindsay, Doneil Henry (both of TFC) and Phillippe Davies (Vancouver’s first home grown signing) – look to form the nucleus of a rejuvenated Canadian youth program that can only grow stronger as the professional game continues to mature in the Great White North.