Canada’s Men’s U23 team lost 3-1 to Mexico in the semi-finals of Concacaf Olympic qualifying this weekend. While our players battled gamely, they were simply outclassed by a very strong Mexican team. There is no shame in being beaten by a better team, and while our players failed in their ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympics, they nevertheless did their country proud.
Plenty of people have since commented that this could be the dawn of a ‘new era’ for Canadian soccer – that we may have somehow ‘turned a corner’ and are primed to see a steady improvement in our results at the international level.
They point to the fact that our U17 Men’s National Team performed admirably at last year’s World Cup, and our U23s – with virtually no preparation whatsoever – came within one game of qualifying for the Olympics.
They also point to the fact that we now have three MLS teams in Canada, and that the existence of their respective youth academies will soon pay dividends in the production of international calibre players for our National Teams.
While I think that the MLS academies – and the training environment that they will be able to provide for young players – will certainly aid in the development of future Canadian National Team players, it is too simplistic to expect them to achieve this on their own.
Just look at the numbers. If the three MLS clubs “graduate” players from their academy to their first team, how many do you realistically expect will make the grade as professionals each year? (Hint: any more than 1 per year is considered excellent)
So, for argument’s sake, let’s assume that all three MLS clubs add at least one young Canadian to their professional ranks every year. Hey, while we’re at it, let’s be ambitious and say that they add two each.
That is six new professional Canadian soccer players each year. Do you know how many of them will still be in the game past the age of 21? One, maybe two.
Surprised? Don’t be. According to the PFA, England’s Professional Footballers Association, 75 percent of all footballers are out of the professional game by the age of 21. It isn’t easy to parlay your first professional contract into a lengthy professional career. In fact, it’s a helluva lot easier to get your first professional contract than your second.
Most clubs give a young player his first contract because he has shown promise at the academy level and done well against more senior players in reserve team games. Some youngsters might even get a few first team games before putting pen to paper.
But here is where the difficulty lies – while the first contract is given based on potential, the second one is given based on performance.
When you turn pro, you are expected to push for a place in the first team. Some players, like TFC’s Ashtone Morgan, make that step look relatively simple. Most other young players hit a wall at some point during their first year and struggle to come to grips with having to compete with older, more experienced players for playing time.
The ones who stay in the game don’t let the pitfalls of professional football – loss of form, loss of confidence, injuries, criticism from fans or the media – knock them off their track. They get over it, and continue to make incremental improvements in their game. But they are most definitely in the minority.
Which brings me back to our National Teams.
Just because we have three MLS academies in Canada, doesn’t mean we are going to be on par with the United States or Mexico any time soon. We’ve got an awfully long way to go before we can consistently compete against the stronger teams in our region, and change must happen at a level much lower than the MLS academies.
Until we revamp our youth development structure from U8 and up – so that non-profit youth clubs and for-profit academies are meeting minimum standards with respect to coaching, training curriculum, training-to-game ratios and periodization – our National Teams will continue to rely on players who make their way to that level in spite of the system, not because of it.