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Saturday 27 October 2012

So You've Graduated; Now What?

    With the end of season roster cull due and yet another rebuilding project on the cards, the next month will be an important time for several of the Toronto FC Academy Graduates waiting to discover their fate.

    Highlighted by the pre-season departure of last season’s CSL top-scorer, Stefan Vukovic – eighteen goals, TFC has a problem when it comes to bridging those years between the academy and the first-team.

    Technically, the Academy side is designed to be U-18 and Vukovic at nineteen was too old; the argument was put forth that to keep him would stifle the development of others in the system, particularly Jordan Hamilton, a sixteen-year-old that the club ranks highly.

    The jump from homegrown developmental player to full first-team member is a difficult one, a step that very few have been able to successfully navigate in MLS. There are a handful of graduates who’ve earned minutes sprinkled throughout the league – Andy Najar and Bill Hamid in DC, Connor Lade in New York, Diego Fagundez in New England, Jose Villareal in LA, Juan Agudelo of Chivas USA, formerly with New York, amongst others – and Toronto has two players that can be considered to have crossed that divide – Ashtone Morgan and Doneil Henry.

    This season, in an effort to combat stagnation, many MLS clubs loaned promising prospects to USL and NASL sides at various points this season, and several took that opportunity to prove their worth.

    Bright Dike, along with Portland Timbers teammate Andrew Jean-Baptiste, spent time with USL PRO side, the LA Blues and returned to the first-team in form, providing a measure of hope to a lost season. After finding success (six goals in ten matches) in USL PRO, Dike carried that form into MLS, going on to score four goals in eleven appearances, displacing designated player Kris Boyd, in the starting lineup – prior to Boyd’s season-ending injury – and adding a more direct, physical spear-head to the stumbling attack.

    Corey Hertzog, New York’s twenty-two-year-old striker spent the entire season on loan with the Wilmington Hammerheads of USL PRO, contributed nine goals and five assists in seventeen appearances en route to a spot on the All-League First Team.

    DC United took advantage of their location on the Eastern Seaboard to send out three players on loan to clubs in the area: Conor Shanosky – Fort Lauderdale (NASL), Ethan White – Richmond (USL PRO), and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra – Charleston (USL PRO), while Houston similarly sent Josue Soto and Tyler Deric on stints to nearby San Antonio (NASL).

    FC Dallas also sent Ruben Luna to San Antonio, but took a different route for another of their homegrown players, sending Moises Hernandez to CSD Communicaciones in Guatemala for the season; Hernandez is of Guatemalan descent and former Dallas striker Jeff Cunningham just happened to be at the club at the time. The idea was to test the young man, get him some proper playing time in a competitive environment and see if a more matured player returns.

    Philadelphia has taken a slightly different approach by fostering a partnership with the nearby clubs as affiliates - Harrisburg City Islanders (USL PRO) as well as Reading United (USL PDL).

    Four Union players – Chandler Hoffman, Antoine Hoppenot, Greg Jordan, and Jimmy McLaughlin - saw time with Harrisburg this season and Lucky Mkosana, former unsigned Chicago Fire draft pick, is currently on trial with the Union after a season spent with the Islanders.    

    Toronto has already made use of this idea; Milos Kocic enjoyed a solid 2010 season in the CSL having been signed following his release from DC with the Serbian White Eagles. He was voted the CSL Goalkeeper of the Year that season and was more than ready, excelled even, when called upon at the end of 2011 and the start of 2012 following the injury to Stefan Frei.

    TFC could and should have loaned out players this season - Keith Makubuya, Oscar Cordon, Nicholas Lindsay, and perhaps even Matt Stinson, who saw his playing time in 2012 hampered by injury after proving useful in 2011.

    There are many more, several at each club, not to mention all the lower draft picks, that are facing the same lack of playing time, languishing at the bottom of rosters.

    The program is still new and the fruits of it will only truly be realized with time, but too often players processed through the system find themselves with limited playing time and eventually leave the club unceremoniously – think Matt Kassel in New York or the Agudelo-Hans Backe-Lack of Playing Time Saga, also in New York - to the despair of fans hopeful of one day supporting home-town lads produced locally.

    They could have gone the local route and positioned the players in CSL sides – which are spread across Southern Ontario - this would have the added benefit of them being close enough to the first-team that when not on the pitch with their adopted clubs, they could return to TFC for further training.

    Or they could have reached out to their Canadian brethren in Edmonton, and in the future, Ottawa.

    With three first-team keepers currently on the books in front of him, expect Quillan Roberts to be loaned out next season, lest his promising development be stagnated.

    Taking it a step further, Joey Saputo, owner of the Montreal Impact, has made talk of acquiring and operating a lower level team, be it in the USL, PDL, a satellite club in the NASL, or a side in a Canadian Second Division – the feasibility study commissioned by the Canadian Soccer Association has yet to be revealed to the public.

    It would keep more players on the pitch and in the club’s system, the movement between clubs - depending on necessity - could be manageable, while also helping to establish more of a soccer-culture in the country with more professional outlets in towns within the proximity of the main club with the added benefit of minimizing the prohibitive costs of player contracts by spreading the resources of the biggest clubs down the chain.

    The MLS Reserve Division has struggled to gain a relevant foothold in the landscape – for what it’s worth, were it treated more professionally, and perhaps rosters expanded to cushion the eventuality of a lack of numbers that seems to be an issue wreaking havoc on scheduling and hence promotion – and widening the pool of available youth talent, while having them find playing time between the reserves and the satellite club, would only serve to give these players the playing time and level of competition required to become professionals.

    The reserve division is really for full professionals building fitness as they return from injury and for established substitutes and role players to get a run out and stay match-fit; it is not really the place for development – though, a few years didn’t do Chris Wondolowski any harm. But were the occasional appearance in those matches used in conjunction with other, more meaningful matches in a regular club season on loan it would only be a good thing for the homegrown player as they continue their development.

    While many would have you believe that several of the young men on the TFC first team who have yet to find minutes will be out the door this off-season, it would be a little rash to jettison projects that have been invested in without considering a few things.

    Firstly, that the investment has already been made without really allowing them the room to grow; second, is there anybody ready to fill those roster spots from twenty-six to thirty that would necessitate releasing those already in the fold?

    Morgan and Henry will be considered full-fledged members of the first team after signing improved contract extensions midseason; Stinson and Lindsay could easily be considered to fall within the parameters of spots twenty-one to twenty-five on the roster, if necessary, leaving two homegrown spots open without further releases.

    Unless there are players ready to make that jump without falling into a similar stasis, there is little point in rushing to condemn one project and move onto another.

    TFC has demonstrated with the Vukovic and Keven Aleman affairs – Aleman was allowed to leave after not being able to commit fully to the club’s ideals – that it is not afraid to let go of talent if they no longer suit the club – be it ideology or age - but something was seen in these youngsters that precipitated their promotion to the first-team and to give it up on that investment prematurely and without someone ready to make the jump is unnecessary.

    FC Edmonton’s reported financial difficulties should be seen as an opportunity for TFC – and the other Canadian clubs – to stock their national cousin with their players in need of playing time. Montreal’s Bryan Arguez spent much of the 2012 season there; it would be safe to expect a few more loanees to the Prairies next season.

    Imagine, for a moment, if Toronto’s Roberts, Cordon, and Makubuya were joined by Montreal’s Evan James and Karl Ouimette, and Russell Teibert, Bryce Alderson, and Caleb Clarke of Vancouver in Edmonton colours. Sure, the Voyageur’s Cup would be a very interesting event, but the rest of the country would have even more reason to tune into Edmonton matches to follow the progress of their young, local products.

    Beyond that, what benefit would those eight players – or any future group of young, Canadian talent -  playing and training together week in and week out have for the future of the National Team, help stabilize and provide financial relief to the fourth Canadian professional side, while getting players those crucial on-field, in-game situational minutes that they desperately require.

    Reports of an impending partnership between MLS and the NASL have recently been making the rounds; whether that takes the shape of loose affiliations, club farm systems, or simply expanded homegrown roster spots and more loans, has yet to be announced.

    Toronto FC has done their youngsters a disservice by bringing them to the show and not giving them their chance to shine. Roberts, Cordon, and Lindsay* have seen exactly zero minutes of league action in a wasted season. Makubuya has seen ten and Stinson eighty-nine.

    This would have been the perfect chance to either let them see the field or spend some time out on loan; neither decision was made in the turmoil that was the TFC front office.

    Hopefully, next year will be different.

* Lindsay was recovering from serious injury concerns that left his candidacy as a professional in doubt, but he made his first appearance for the club in the midweek Champions League match in Mexico after bursting onto the scene with such promise in 2010.

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