A strong performer in the pan-North American Premier Development League (PDL) since their inception in 2008 - the club won the championship in 2012 - FC London's move to League1 Ontario in 2016 represents a change of course, one that is firmly focused on home.
Instead of bringing in some of the best U23 talent available in North America for a PDL team to operate May-July, FC London will now put teams of primarily locally produced players on the pitch for their men's and women's teams to compete in League1 from May-October. As general manager Dave DeBenedictis explains, it's a "first team first" model with implications for the whole community.
"We did phenomenally well in and around the PDL, but we have changed up the philosophy a little bit to focus more on the local content and build up from there as opposed to being an organization that tries to build a new winning team every season," he said.
"With the PDL there is very little time to build or groom a group, as the season is so short - players arrive in May and are gone in July. We want to focus more now on longer term development, and building from the youth as well. Phase two for us is building in the youth, and that is where I came into the play this year as I have more of a background in the youth sector."
DeBenedictis' background in the youth sector has already led to partnership with local organization AG London. The hope is that within three years the first team could see an initial wave of players enter their ranks from the prep ground of AG.
"AG London will be partnering with FC London as the official high-performance youth club," confirmed DeBenedictis. "The whole idea for us would be to truly focus on local talent in London."
"London has always been a real hot-bed for soccer. A lot of talent has come through the system here and they've won a lot of things in the youth sector, but they've missed that component of next phase development," he added.
"We've been a bit handcuffed on developing players beyond 15 or 16 years of age, and that's where FC London comes into play, where we will focus on the next phase of maturity and growth. Our focus would ultimately be to develop high quality 18-21 players to meet higher-level aspirations of national level, MLS, possibly Europe, or full scholarships is of course always a goal. We look at this as second phase development of the player, and it this stepping stone of development that we are focused on."
Taking cues from professional club-driven models of development - mandating a club-wide curriculum over coaches operating independently at different age groups - FC London ultimately intends to produce a pipeline of players that fit the club's ethos.
"Far too often you see youth clubs be clubs within clubs, where the U15s are doing something totally different than the U16s," said DeBenedictis. "They are playing a different formation, using a different coaching philosophy, they don't call up from each other, they don't even like each other - we're trying to change that mentality."
"In order to do a club-driven system, you need to assemble the best coaching staff available, and the hardest thing about that is you need to find the right type of coach," explains DeBendictis. "Coaches that buy into the way your club plays, and are willing to prepare players for a particular stage of development and then pass them on to another club coach that has developmental targets and goals for the players from there."
"Coaches need to work as part of a team, rather than independently teaching one or another personal style."
FC London announced their League1 head coaches in January, naming the UEFA Pro qualified, ex-Dynamo Zagreb coach Mario Despotovic as men's head coach, and local ex-professional player Michael Marcoccia as the women's head coach.
An area well-known for producing top youth talent, London is also highly-regarded for the accomplishments of its various men's teams. At the amateur level, London Marconi are current two time defending national champions, while fellow local club AEK London were recent three-time Ontario champs (2008, 2010, 2012). DeBendictis seeks to harness the local support that a winning culture creates.
"We want to really build up the support among the youth here, so a nine or 10 year-old can see this team and have a sense of where they can play - and how they should play - as they get older," said DeBenedictis.
"In many cases it is the older players from a large number of London teams that have done very well over the years that will be bringing their kids out to watch a game, and this of course strengthens the culture of support that extends back to these clubs," he explained.
"Perhaps when primarily U23 players are done in League1, they go on to play for London Marconi or AEK or one of the other top senior men's teams here that compete at the highest amateur levels. I think it will be a good thing for everybody."
"Finally, with the winning culture that our supporters in London tend to have, it will now be easier to follow FC London," he concluded.
"League1 is obviously provincial, and with 14 home matches and then away dates in Windsor, Mississauga, Toronto - it will be much easier to follow the team than going to, for example, Pittsburgh to follow the previous PDL team.