TORONTO – The Kia Training Ground is a hive of activity.
Not only is it the base for the Toronto FC first team as they strive for the Supporters Shield, the MLS Cup, and history, but everywhere one turns, soccer is afoot.
On this pitch, Greg Vanney and the first team train, over there Jason Bent and TFC II were getting in their reps earlier. Danny Dichio has his TFC III side on another later in the day, while Terry Dunfield's U-14s are being run through their paces on yet another.
The first team may garner the headlines, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to the first team, TFC II, and TFC III, Toronto FC runs seven other Academy sides, from U-17 to U-11.
One of those sides, the Toronto FC Academy U-13s, got a taste of international competition this month, traveling to Mexico City for the 2017 U-13 CONCACAF Champions League, where they finished fourth.
“It's a great competition to expose our younger athletes to the game internationally, specifically CONCACAF,” said Greg Vanney. “There are challenges [in] going down to Mexico City: to learn how to compete and see what the opposition looks like from these different countries. A lot of these kids are going to play for the national team, in addition to playing for our first team and playing in Champions League. For them to be aware of what's out there, some of the nuances of competing in different places is an important lesson.”
In Group B, Toronto FC squared off against Universidad Cantera Norte of Mexico, Santa Ana of El Salvador, and Real Esteli of Nicaragua.
Head Coach of the U-13 TFC Academy and POD 3 Technical Administrator Jonathon Mondino recounts the action: “We start off [against] what was meant to be one of the top sides: Pumas [Universidad Cantera Norte]. We play, it's very competitive; we end up dropping the game 1-0. That catapulted us in the right direction. To say, 'we're here, we can play at this level', but a lot of details need to come in place to progress.”
“Next game, against Real Esteli. We win 3-1, start to find our groove in terms of football, connecting passes, start to click,” continued Mondino. “We go into the last round robin game versus Santa Ana and we win 2-1. That ties us for first in the group, one goal-differential, so we finish second.”
“We rode the lessons from the first three games, as a coach kept reiterating similar things, what worked, through the next. We knew what was at stake going into the quarters, if you win that game you get two more games,” added Coach Jon. “Our goal was to play as much football as possible.”
Toronto would do just that, advancing from the quarterfinals with a penalty kick shootout over another Mexican side, L.M. Boca del Rio, after a 1-1 draw, but were beaten by Costa Rican giants L.D. Alajuelense 1-0 in the semis.
Another such result in the third-place match against Mexican side Fuerza Naranja saw TFC finish fourth, the highest ever by an MLS side in the competition.
Tim Bezbatchenko has set the academy the goal of being 'internationally recognized as a leader in player development'.
Less than ten years old, they are on their way.
“When I look at the quarterfinal bracket and see teams from Costa Rica, Mexico, and one Canadian flag, representing MLS as well... there's something to be said about that. It was a good image for me as coach,” said Mondino. “It's an achievement from the players. If we keep building on the lessons they learn from these tournaments and events, then we're on the way to achieving that goal.”
Added Vanney: “For them to go down and get to the quarterfinals is a great feat in and of itself. I look forward to the day that we win it. That's what we've all been pushing for, striving for.”
To have the full backing of the entire club means 'everything' to Mondino and the rest of the academy coaches.
“When you work from the top down,” explained Mondino. “First team manager, technical director, general manager, president, academy director [aligned]. It means the world to us as coaches to have that cohesion. Not just technical and tactical; about the core value of what it takes to be a TFC footballer. That is a tremendous experience.”
Tournaments such as the U-13 CONCACAF Champions League provide coaches the opportunity to test their player while imparting valuable lessons.
“The competitiveness of this tournament gives insight of what the player's capabilities are,” explained Mondino. “The overall mission is to promote players, as they advance through the academy, to sign for the first team.”
“It's events like these where you find more out, who is up and coming, who is doing their best at this current moment, U13, which is still early in their career,” continued Mondino. “Going in we had the mindset to be competitive, work hard. We know we have a good talent level, so we've got to make sure our hard work is always more.”
Experience like this “gives [the players] good insight – if they were to play for Canada at U15, U17, World Cup Qualifiers – a good feel of what is the expectation of CONCACAF,” said Mondino. “What it takes to grind out a win, keep a lead, maintain a tie. All these nuances we don't get here because it's a different platform of football.”
Along with the variation in styles, “it's more toe-to-toe, there is less disparity amongst opposition,” noted Mondino. “Whoever performs on the day gets that result. A lot of lessons to learn.”
Asked what the set up in Toronto means for both the future of the club and Canadian soccer, Mondino was certain: “It gives us the best chance to produce players. These experiences, as they compile and players graduate from year to year, we give ourselves the best chance to succeed.”
“For our players to be able to look up to first team,” began Mondino, in response to what it means for the players to be based alongside the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore, as well as the rest of the first team at the KTG. “We watched two first team games on the projector [in Mexico]. To hear the passion when they scored, to see [the U-13s] so focused on watching their big brothers play, it's an incredible recipe for success.”
TORONTO – The Kia Training Ground is a hive of activity.