Toronto F.C. Academy (TFCA) needs very little introduction, as most will know the academy as the development end of a MLS entity Toronto F.C. As such, the academy typically houses the best young prospects the professional club can locate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and further afield.
In the 2014 League1 Ontario season, TFCA showed tremendous class under the stewardship of head coach Michael Stefano, winning the inaugural season and also claiming the Inter-Provincial Cup championship in a two-leg battle with CS Longeuil of the Quebec PLSQ.
For 2015, the club has made considerable changes to the senior end of their academy, which is reflected in a more gradual stage of advancement opportunities for players through the club's involvement in League1 Ontario, USL PDL, and USL Pro levels – a structure that is meant to allow the club greater flexibility, and options to tailor their individual player development.
Stuart Neely – the 2015 head coach for the League1 Ontario team, a senior academy coach throughout the junior section, and an assistant coach for the USL Pro team – will be returning to the club after previously serving as the club's Academy Director in 2011.
"For the program itself, there is a change in coaching staff with myself taking over the League1 side. Michael Stefano, who was in charge of the team last year, is taking the younger bracket and starting to build a good foundation for years to come through our U13s, 14s and 15s program. From a coaching perspective that has been the biggest change," said head coach Stuart Neely. "I don't think there have been any major changes with respect to the approach and how the team will play and portray itself throughout the season."
"The movement of Greg Vanney up to the first team has opened the doors for a number of moves in coaching structure, and now the senior end of the program between League1, PDL, and USL Pro will be encompassed by myself being involved in all three teams. So the consistency of information being spread across the three teams is very important, and getting them ready for each of those levels is as well. The movement of players is such that they are able to participate in each of those levels, and staying with the top players getting as many minutes as humanly possible across the levels is the main challenge. It's certainly a bit more in-depth, a bit more complex, but the opportunities for players have grown significantly."
"The PDL is a new development this year, though it may only be for a year as we navigate through the Ontario pyramid of play, but it is good opportunity for us as we put a program in place that allows us to move players and get them better prepared to go to university in Canada or States, and of course we have another pool of players coming back from those levels and have an opportunity to play. League1 offers us a great level of play for our senior academy boys to step in there and be really tested."
"It will be a very robust physical challenge in the league, and we are expecting the level to be even better this year as each of the teams have had more time to settle in, and we feel that this league will continue to get better and key for us is that we have a homegrown league that can produce homegrown players."
With Greg Vanney moving from the academy section through to become head coach of the TFC first team in 2015, a new philosophy of player development has been put in place for the academy section.
The return of Stuart Neely, and the addition of both PDL and USL Pro to the Toronto F.C. structure of competition, indicates that the Reds are clearly subscribing to the philosophy that players must be developed in-house, rather than buying finished products for the first team.
Expect a 2015 League1 Ontario season full of new, exciting talents – the best of which will be regularly be moved into cameo roles with PDL and USL Pro. The Toronto F.C. supporter will have more opportunities than ever before to monitor the development of the junior ranks.
"Yes, Greg Vanney, obviously being the technical director, has a vision of how the game should be played, how he wants it taught to the players, and how we conduct training and put various principles in play," explained Neely.
"It still allows coaches to do their own thing within developing training sessions, but the key is that there is a great deal of thought put into the creation of each training session and it's consistent throughout all the age brackets, with varying targets. It's quite well oiled when it comes to the consistency of message."
"The communication of who is performing well, and who the key players are, is discussed at weekly meetings, as well as when and why they should be moved between ranks. It's not just a discussion of 'yeah, he needs to come up' but rather why and what would be the exact schedule."
"There is quite the process there, as for example we might bring a player up for two training sessions, see how he competes, and then the following week bring him up for another two. Maybe we'll try and get him into a scrimmage match at the next level up. We call them up to test them, and not sit on the bench, so if we make the decision to call them up then they should be getting playing minutes. It's a very thoughtful approach, as there needs to be the probability of rewards for the player in the new environment, and we need to make sure they are getting the right amount of recovery time too. With the amount of teams we have, there needs to be constant communication, movement of players, and gathering of information on each player - that is a major part of my job."
"Information on top performers is always relayed to the first team, particularly USL Pro performers. The first team staff attend USL Pro training and matches, as well as the Senior Academy, and there is a clear vested interest in what we are trying to do. I'm happy that this structure exists, and I'm looking forward to building within it and pushing players through, and pushing them through in a system where all the staff is on the same page."
"Part of our responsibility of course is to take note of the opposition [in League1], and report back as to who is a quality player and who has been consistent throughout the league, and how we can move those players into our environment. If that means that they move into our environment ahead of players that are already there, well that's the nature of football."
"We constantly have to have an open door policy, as not everyone moves up and not everyone moves on to professional, and we have to continually evolve our pool of players."
A complete turnover of last year's squad is certain, with the high-profile first team signing of Captain Chris Mannella aptly representing the upwards trajectory that TFC supporters will hope much of the exciting 2014 crop is headed. While much of last year's group will move into the PDL environment for now, a number have already featured for the USL Pro side.
Incoming for the League1 side is a younger group, almost entirely a U17 side, but one with huge pedigree. Various Canada U17 players are in the fold, and Neely is clearly excited to showcase a number of bright sparks.
"The average age of the player in the League1 side this year will be slightly lower than last year. It will basically be a U17 team, and you will be looking at some of those players that participated in the U17 World Cup with Canada. The players that are coming back from university and are a little older – for example, there are some away with Canada's U18 team, and some that are hopefully going to be getting looked at for U20 – will likely be registered between PDL and USL, with some exceptions. There will be a lot of movement of players, and so how we register them is also a big part of it. We think League1 is going to be a challenge for our younger players, and the quality of games for them will be exceptional – that is what we are looking forward to."
"We've got a young side, I think all of them are born in 1998. There are young players there such as Nikola Stakic, a cool, calm and collected at the back, a great personality and a good playing centre-back, who is the quiet leader on the pitch due to steady performances on an ongoing basis. He has caught on to some of the principles that we are trying to abide by in playing attacking structured football, and being very specific about how we tie that in with all three teams – League1, PDL, and USL Pro – and obviously leading into the system of the first team.
"It's the best structure I've seen in Toronto F.C., for myself from behind-the-scenes, since I was last here. I'm excited by that, and it certainly provides a pathway for talented players, such as Nikola."
"In the midfield, there are a number of players to speak about, but there is one more centre-back to discuss as well, and that is Klaidi Cela. He is actually a year younger, a '99. Along with Nikola, he is a decently technical centre-back that will do a good job. We know they will be fairly tested in the league, so we are under no illusions, but we believe that this will be great for their development. Both are quite decent centre-backs, both look to play, and we need to get them into quality minutes in quality games. This will be a good challenge."
"One of the players already getting chances is attack-minded right full-back Gabriel Boakye, who was captain for the U17 Canada team and he is one of our captains as well. He will, as the season goes on, he will be called into USL Pro training, and I suspect PDL games. He will be a player that the first team continues to keep an eye on."
"Malik Johnson is an attack-minded player, who often plays as a right striker or an attacking, creative #10, and he has the ability to be dangerous in the attacking third. He combines well with players around him, and is quick on and off the ball. He is a player all three teams (League1, PDL, USL) will benefit from right away. All of these players will benefit from the physicality of all three leagues."
"Liam Fraser is a holding midfielder with great passing skills and vision for the game, who is quite a competitor. We will certainly learn more about him in League1, with regard to the speed-of-play and execution, but we think he will eventually develop. Once he adjusts to the quickness and speed, I think he could be one of those names that we'll be reading about. He's adjusted his game, and he's trying to do things that are outside his comfort zone, which is key to developing the player. In some players that is always a challenge, whereas with others you need to curb the confidence and enthusiasm at times to understand when to use their skill set."
"Then there is Tristan Borges, a crafty player that is always up to something. He's just a fun person, shifty on the ball, and has a great work rate off the ball. He can unlock midfields and backlines, but again all of these skills will be tested in League1."
"With the age group that we have, to say that winning is not important would be a wrong statement. While it's not the major focus, these players need to learn how to win and every training match needs to be competitive. We have to ensure that they are ready to compete in League1 because winning is contagious, and if we can teach them how to do that it will give them the best opportunity to do that at a higher level. They will have to do that in different ways, from grinding it out, to out-passing teams, to dealing with counters, and then creating their own. We have to make sure the style is attractive and effective and is in the style of play that the club is looking for. The last thing of course is that we focus on is how many players we competently advance between the levels, and obviously into the first team. These are keys in our version of an ideal outcome."
"We will be out to earn points in the league, and earn respect. We don't expect that respect to be given based on the badge we wear. We expect that to come from the quality of our play, while how we act, and how we portray ourselves will be trademark of Toronto F.C. These areas, combined with how successful we are at moving players through the system, will be the three main areas to judge success for ourselves. Everything is results related, and we need to have consistent performances in the league as well. We want to get as many points as possible as we will be teaching them how to win in any environment – it's all part and parcel of being a future pro."
"All the teams are capable of doing different things on the day, and without sounding too coach-ish, I think it's all a matter of who is best prepared on the day both individually and collectively. Managing the game itself, and their own emotions, will be a challenge for our players, but we have always impressed upon them that when playing against other MLS academies etc. - every match is a cup final. That is something the players have to be prepared for throughout the summer in League1, and they will be all the better for that experience."