League1 Ontario prides itself with providing a stage for elite players to showcase their development, and as a vehicle to potentially advance players' careers, but it is the member clubs that must do the heavy lifting - developing players in-house is a long process and has unique challenges.
In the case of clubs outside of the major catchment areas around the GTA, for instance, they have to deal with a smaller player pool compared to some teams in the more populous Toronto, Mississauga and Scarborough area.
However, rather than an impediment, these clubs have been able to use the unique attributes of their region to develop some very impressive local talents that are currently plying their trade in League1 Ontario.
League1 spoke to the technical staff at four clubs - Darby FC, FC London, Aurora United and Kingston Clippers - about how they feel about the project of localized player development.
Sarah Stratigakis (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
"I think it's very important for the organization to invest in their own players, train them all year round and bring them to this league. Otherwise you always have to recruit players from here and there to compete," said Aurora United women's coach Ramin Mohammadi.
Technical staff at all clubs also agreed that League1 Ontario offers a necessary step for players to continue past the grassroots and elite youth levels, and indicated that the league can be a finishing school for players emerging from development programs and pursuing a career, be it university or professional contracts.
Kingston Clippers' technical director Chris Eveleigh cited a statement from Queen's University professor and Director of School of Kinesiology, Dr. Jean Cote, from the February Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) conference: "The smaller area you live in, the easier it is to become a top athlete in North America."
"Because at every street corner there is a playing field, whether it's basketball, soccer or hockey."
Where space and pitch bookings can be a premium in the heavily populated urban areas, and teammates and families separated by distance, smaller cities like Kingston et al. can have ready access to facilities, and offer a viable free-play and personal training culture.
Eveleigh further explained that since League1 Ontario has now given those players in small regions a chance to play against teams from larger areas on a regular basis, which includes an elite set of players working hard for university and professional contracts, athletes in regions are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"There has never been an opportunity for players in Kingston… and this is giving players an opportunity to compete at that [high] level," he said.
Kingston, an original member of League1 Ontario, has a good relationship with local university Queen's, as well as St. Lawrence College, and have developed players like Oliver Koren, Eric Koskins, Brittany Almeida, captain Andrew Martin, and Meghan Edwards. They also helped develop Toronto FC homegrown talent Jay Chapman.
For FC London and Aurora United FC - new teams in both the men's and women's divisions - one of the main reasons why they choose to join League1 Ontario was because they could compete at a high level and bring up more players with their pathway model.
"The reason why we choose to compete in League1, and to make FC London a women's team as well, was to showcase our local talent. And before we showcase them, we have to develop them," said FC London women’s head coach Michael Marcoccia.
"League1 bridges that gap between an elite level 17/18 year old and senior for those wanting to continue to play at the highest levels," said FC London’s technical director Ian Campbell.
Both Marcoccia and Campbell offered impressive stats; 99 per cent of the women's team and 83 per cent of the men’s teams are from the London area. Players like Jade Kovacevic (Canada U20 and Louisiana State University), Jenna Hong (Farris State), Cierra Thomas (University of New Brunswick), Nicole Nielson (Cape Breton University), Sean Fawsitt (Ryerson), Borna Juracic (Niagara University), Daniel Amaya (Fanshawe) and Elvir Gigolaj (FC Edmonton) have all been through the London pathway, and are locally developed players.
Elvir Gigolaj (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
At Aurora United FC, men's head coach and former Team Canada and Toronto FC player Jim Brennan mentioned that they have one of the largest memberships in Ontario, with over 4000 members. Aurora United pride themselves in developing local talents, and with the help of League1 Ontario, have done so with players like Alex Needs (Seneca College), Sarah Stratigakis (Canada U20 and Canada U17 MVP runner-up), Patricia Koutoulas (Canada U20), Sierra Henderson-Muchett (U17 camp) and Selena Magoni (Memphis University).
"These are young kids that are coming through and we are giving them an opportunity to fulfill their dreams, whether it be university, professional or the national team. We can give them a platform to move on to that next level. We want to help these kids as much as we can," said Brennan
Not only has Aurora United developed local talents, but they have been working with Swedish football management group, Lank Experience. Brennan said this partnership, "provides their players with an opportunity to get a different experience in another country."
The Swedish group have sent striker Simon Adjei and midfielder Zakariae Mahrady to Aurora so they can learn from new experiences, and the experiment appears to be paying off - Adjei is leading the team in scoring with seven goals, with Mahrady right behind him on two goals.
Simon Adjei (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
Another new League1 Ontario women's team, Darby FC, has also come to the league with a predominantly local focus. The team from Whitby has at least eight players on their roster that are locally developed and have caught the eye of some post-secondary schools, including Shannon Lucas (UOIT), Rachel Armstrong (Durham College) and Ally Fracz (Trent University). They even have some talented younger players in Toria Chia and Selah Hopkins, who the technical staff tout as names to watch in League1.
Darby FC has a simple motto, "Excellence is a habit," and their goal is simple as well.
"We are trying to establish a complete pathway for the complete player," said women's head coach Mirco Schroff.
"We want to build future talent that is dominant on the ball, game intelligent, physically competitive and able to transfer their skill into a winning mentality under high performance standards."
However, Schroff knows that this process can take a long time.
"We are well aware that this process takes an enormous amount of effort and time, hence our priority is to check on specific performance measures with each individual to ensure that the player can have a positive impact on the competition in L1O moving forward," said Schroff.
All four of these clubs may be outside or on the outskirts of the GTA, but they have all developed local talents that have gone on to university or professional clubs.
Investing in the senior end of the pathway is a crucial step, providing an on-field example all the way down to an organization's youth prospects, and is a must in the overall development of League1 Ontario athletes, similar senior end provincial tiers across the country, and in furthering Canada's ambitions on the international stage.
Selah Hopkins (Photo: Martin Bazyl)
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