Toronto FC centre-back Doneil Henry gestured toward the huge mounds of dirt being shoved around by heavy equipment at Downsview Athletic Park.
There was diesel smoke in the autumn air, the better to peer through to find the future.

“It’s going to be an amazing transformation,” said the Brampton native, a five-time starter this season.  “We are going from this to something meaningful.”

There will be 14 acres of meaningful space at the park taken up by the Toronto FC training and academy. The facility will include four new fields, one heated, a bubble for winter play and a 45,000-square foot fieldhouse that will house locker rooms, training facilities and administrative offices.  The complex is scheduled to open next Spring.

MLSE is contributing $20 million to the project and will pay an annual rent to use the land.

Henry, the first player to graduate from Toronto FC’s soccer academy to the first team can tell those who follow him that he was here when the place was a big pile of dirt. At 18, there aren’t too many facilities he predates.

Henry is the perfect representation of what the club sees as its future. Because of limits on designated players such as incumbents Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans, developing homegrown talent is paramount for Major League Soccer teams.

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But when Toronto FC midfielder Maurice Edu was sold to Glasgow Rangers for a reported $5 million in 2008, the economic imperative of developing young players struck MLSE and club officials.

Because proceeds from a transfer have to be channeled back into player development, graduating front-line players at home would not only stock the first team but finance the development of still more prospects.

“That was probably the spark that ignited the concept,” said Bob Hunter, MLSE’s executive vice-president of venues and entertainment. “There were a lot of good reasons for doing this but we realized the players we developed could become assets for more youth development later on.”
The new facility is in addition to the eight indoor and outdoor fields already located at Downsview. Once the existing is combined with the new, the complex will become one of the premier academy and soccer training facilities in North America.

“Certainly there is nothing like it in Canada,” said Hunter “and it should be in the forefront of North American facilities.”

Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter, long associated with Ajax, a Dutch franchise in the forefront of player development, said the new facility will be a pillar of the team’s future.

“From the beginning, what we wanted to do was develop players,” he said. “Now we are going to have the building, 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.”

Toronto FC officials also expect the facility help attract quality players to the city.

Now in its third year of operation, the Toronto FC Academy devotes intensive training and coaching for nearly 50 players. Graduates include Henry, Ashtone Morgan, Keith Makubuya, Matt Stinson, Oscar Cordon and Nicholas Lindsay.

“Kids will benefit from this kind of space,” Henry said. “They can learn the systems when they are young and carry that all through on those principles  all the way through.”