Canada will face Haiti on Saturday night in the Round of 16 at the Concacaf U-17 Championship in Guatemala.
A pair of opening wins – 3-2 over Trinidad and Tobago and 2-0 against Barbados – set up the group finale against the USA, which Canada lost 1-0, setting their path through the knockout bracket.
Along with the potential trophy to the winners, the prize on offer is one of the four spots at the 2023 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru this November.
Canada’s quadrant includes Haiti, who they play at Estadio Pensativo – broadcast live on OneSoccer at 8 pm ET – on Saturday, as well as Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, who will meet the following day. The winner of that quarterfinal will secure the World Cup berth.
“We've got a good group in the Under-17s,” said Bob Bradley on Tuesday. “Generally speaking, we feel like we've seen some positives out of our academy in all age groups. We've challenged our academy coaches with some slightly different ideas.”
“I've watched bits and pieces of the two games,” he detailed. “Canada took the lead against Trinidad and then even though they were up a man, they had a couple of slip-ups – the line was way off, allowing the guy to get in behind to make the score 2-1 – and then were able to get back to 3-1 before the free-kick. But it's great to see so many of our academy players as part of that team.”
From back-to-front, Nathaniel Abraham, Alexander O’Brien, Richard Chukwu, Chimere Omeze, Lazar Stefanovic, Theo Rigopoulos, Andrei Dumitru, Matteo, Lucas Ozimec as well as Matteo Landicho-Correia, are representing TFC with Canada at the youth international level.
With nine players in a squad of 24 coming from the TFC Academy, the staff group chat was buzzing.
“It's a big moment for the club,” said U-17 Head Coach Terry Dunfield on Wednesday. “Our group chat had never been so lively as ahead of that game against Trinidad. We're all so proud of the guys pulling on the Canadian jersey for the first time.”
“Everyone played a role in it, whether it was helping identify the players or working with them from our pre-academy, into the academy, right up until the Under-17,” he continued. “To have nine players there was so cool and just a nice moment for the club.”
Whatever one wants to call the changes at the first team since Bob Bradley took the helm ahead of the 2022 season, be it evolution, revolution, rebuild, retool, those same changes have filtered into the academy.
“Bob has come in with a new philosophy,” explained Dunfield. “It starts with the first team, comes right down to the academy. Mike Sorber, his assistant, is the bridge to help the information get to the academy and we regularly see Bob at academy games.”
It begins with the game model.
“It's so much fun,” said Dunfield. “It's total football. The kids are playing lots of medium-to-large-sided games and we're teaching within the game. They’re loving it.”
“It's really quick and it's really challenging our players,” he continued. “What we're looking for is moments of fluidity, in particular through those central channels. If we lose it, we're trying to get that ball back as quick as we can.”
That is reinforced in training, whether it’s five-v-five or 11-v-11, and with examples in the form of clips from around the world.
"We look at what Liverpool are doing or Bayern Munich, finding the right moment to progress up the field, so a little bit more Man City or Barcelona, taking the best practices from the first team,” Dunfield explained. “Each team in the academy is a little bit different, but we're looking at those high level clips and when there's a moment to stop training to help the team or the individual, as coaches that's where we go to work during the session and then before and after there's lots of video as well.”
Bob Bradley has regularly mentioned the circulation of such clips in his press conferences and scrums.
“Our Academy Director, Anthony Capotosto’s hard drive is blowing up. It's awesome,” joked Dunfield. “We don’t stop talking soccer and if we see something that's cool, we'll unpack that clip and use it when possible with the kids. We share clips with the kids through Hudl, a really cool online platform, and there's lots of communication back and forth.”
It’s not hard and fast rules, but there are core principles.
Dunfield called it “living in the grey.”
“It’s not there's a black-and-white right answer,” he unpacked. “There could be different ways of solving the problem, but we always go back to our philosophy of being connected and looking for fluidity and playing with intensity.”
There is flexibility to account for the skill sets of the individual players in each group.
“Some teams might be a little bit more like Dortmund, play a little bit more vertical, where other teams are a little bit more like Man City, connect a couple more passes before progressing and penetrating the midfield,” outlined Dunfield. “As coaches it's really cool, we've got a little bit of rope.”
“The players at each team drive how the team are going to play and our job as coaches is to help them,” he continued. “But as long as we're getting good football actions, the teams are connected, we’re playing quickly, and there's those nice moments of fluidity, particularly in midfield, we're winning.”
With Capotosto at the helm, the TFC Academy pathway begins with the TFC Selects Program at U-10 to U-13, where kids stay with their respective club teams, but come to the BMO Training Ground at least once a week for training, depending on age and club schedules. The program is overseen by Yianni Michelis, with the support of Nikola Stakic as well as the rest of the Academy staff.
From there it leads into the various age groups: Nemanja Jovanovic helms the U-14 Training Group, Arman Mohammadi the U-15s, Marcus Laquie the U-16s, Terry Dunfield with the U-17s, and Dino Lopez the U-19s, all supported by Academy Asssistant Coaches Dejan Jakovic, Taylor Lord and Gabriella Trichilo, and Academy Goalkeeper Coaches Paolo Ceccarelli, David Ennis and Lauren Kadet, as well as Mendel Murray, Manager of Academy Player Care and Engagement, and Diana Sciacchitano, Manager of Academy Operations.
All those age groups play in MLS NEXT, which returns from a winter break later this month, while Toronto FC II, the upper expression of the academy, plays in MLS NEXT Pro.
The Academy support structure only widens from there: Tania Pedron, Director of Administration and Operations, Kevin Murphy, Manager of Administration and Operations, Monika Cule, Head Athletic Therapist, Esteban Clavijo, Athletic Therapist, Francesco Vescio, Strength and Conditioning Coach, McKenzie Jaglowitz, Academy Equipment Manager, Sue McMillan, Manager of Education, and Chris Pozniak, Manager of Academy Scouting.
It takes a village.
The recent transfer of Jayden Nelson to Rosenborg BK in Norway was a touchstone for the TFC Academy.
“It's pretty cool to see a kid from Toronto who has been with the academy since day one go to a Champions League club,” said Dunfield. “And now he's in the fight with Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies to keep this positive momentum going around Canadian soccer.”
Nelson wasn’t the first, but his profile with the first team sharpens the example.
“It hits you when you're following games around the world and there's a connection back to TFC,” noted Dunfield. “It's an amazing feeling that we've helped these guys realize their dreams.”
Long considered a hotbed for Canadian soccer, Ontario is fertile ground for player development. The TFC Academy aims to be the catalyst for more of it.
“We have this incredible demographic in Toronto, quite often 80% plus of the men's national team is from Ontario,” said Dunfield. "Jason Hernandez, Jack Dodd, and Bob Bradley, it's a nice problem for them to have: how do we roadmap these guys careers? How do we accelerate their development?”
Representing Canada in Concacaf and potentially the U-17 World Cup is one way to do just that.
“Experiencing the next level at international football,” highlighted Dunfield. “We're challenging our guys so that when they do come back that they're getting after it. They've had a taste of it.”
It broadens the individual player’s horizons, but it also lays the foundations to strengthen John Herdman’s senior side when the time comes.
“Andrew Olivieri does a great job, whether it's on a team spirit side, the tactical side, and building relationships with players in the Canadian youth teams,” added Dunfield. “[So] that when they do come to John that Canada ID, both on and off the field, is already in the working memory, so John's not starting from scratch.”
“The players are getting a more holistic development,” he continued. “Where they're getting a taste of breaking down a low block against Trinidad or Barbados and you're going to play against a completely different style of play – and storyline too, a derby – against the US.”
And then the experience of a knockout clash against Haiti, a quest to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, and on.
For Dunfield, for everyone at the TFC Academy and the club itself, it all comes down to one thing: “unlock potential.”