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To hear Bob Lenarduzzi explain it, one of the biggest obstacles Toronto FC faces as a struggling Major League Soccer franchise is a problem it shouldn't even have.While Toronto's MLS club has largely ignored grassroots programs across the city, the president of the Vancouver Whitecaps explained to VICE why maintaining strong ties to British Columbia's soccer communities is so important."There are 120,000 registered players in British Columbia," Lenarduzzi said. "We can't just assume that because they play soccer that they're interested in us or attending our games or attending our clinics."
Lenarduzzi was part of the 1986 national men's team that participated in Canada's only World Cup. He also coached the country during the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, the closest Canada's been to returning to the global stage since.
But the Whitecaps aren't some not-for-profit club doling out boots and kits to every aspiring soccer player in the province. They have the most playoff appearances among Canada's three MLS franchises.Thousands of kilometers away, the story of Toronto FC could not be more different.In their ninth season at the $120-million upgraded BMO Field, the frustrations of Toronto's youth soccer community over the lack of partnerships between its clubs and the Reds is evident."In my 3 years with the TSA we have found it impossible to build any kind of relationship with Toronto FC, unfortunately," says Alan Gould, the executive director of the Toronto Soccer Association and its 2,500 players.And as Canada's national men's team, currently ranked 115th in the world by FIFA, begins its qualifying run at the 2018 World Cup, the parallels between the struggles of Canada's longest standing MLS club and the national men's team are too overwhelming to ignore."The greatest challenge for our national team right now is field minutes," says Michael Findlay, assistant coach of the national men's team. Findlay stops short of outright criticism of Toronto FC's methods but does believe it's essential the team follows the steps taken by the Whitecaps in order to create vertical integration between the youth and professional clubs.
"We have the quality of players in Canada right now that are capable of delivering success in the short and the long term. But the challenge is that these players do not get the playing minutes week in and week out. Until you raise those minutes you're going to be challenged," he said.No sport in Canada is more represented than soccer for those under 17 years of age. So what's stopping Toronto FC from building healthy partnerships with the local youth soccer community?
The way 33-year old Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko tells the story represents a marked difference to Lenarduzzi's style. Bezbatchenko quickly diffuses questions regarding Toronto FC's reputedly poor relationships with local youth soccer clubs, promising greener pastures somewhere on the horizon.The wait-and-see approach has become the Toronto FC's calling card, especially after big-ticket acquisition in English strikerJermain Defoe failed to pan out."We've made mistakes, but there's an opportunity to grow soccer in conjunction with the (Ontario Soccer Association)," Bezbatchenko said. "We want to do it the right way this time."He details the leaps and bounds made within the Toronto FC Academy, a six-team operation that allows players as young as 12 years old to graduate through the club's ranks.But Bezbatchenko won't skirt around one of the most glaring issues surrounding the club, an unnerving paradox for many: In Toronto FC's relentless pursuit to field a winning team, they've been unable to develop relationships with those who've been growing soccer in Toronto for much longer than the club has been in existence.
"For a number of reasons, including some of the turnover we've had… some of those relationships are not as strong as they used to be over the last two years," he said."What we're looking to do over the next year is strengthen that program or start a new program where it's based on us working with the OSA and their new OPDL league."Still, the challenges that plague the club continue to arise. "What happens is when we reach out to one club, another club gets upset. We want to reach out but do it in a way that's transparent and open."John Hyland, technical director of the 5200-player North Toronto Soccer Club, continues to be baffled at how poor the links are between a club like his and Toronto FC.The NTSC is one of 16 high-performance clubs in Ontario and, according to Hyland, is the only one in Toronto within the Ontario Player Development League—the very league Bezbatchenko said Toronto FC is trying to forge ties with over the next year."In the four and a half years I've been here I've received one email about one of my players going to Toronto FC," Hyland says."When they were involved with Ontario Player Development a few years back, TFC would send people who would sit at the back or wouldn't be soccer people at all. It would be a waste of everyone's time. If you're going to be in, get in. Otherwise get out."Hyland calls Toronto FC's business approach "myopic" and routinely cites the Whitecaps as the model that the club should be striving toward. But he said the OSA and Toronto FC don't really talk.
Without any outreach or collaboration, Hyland insists that elite youth players in Toronto don't maintain the same desire to play for their local club as is ingrained in young players in Europe.It is systematic of a larger problem—despite incredible youth participation and success from the national women's team, Canada's men's team seems to get worse."We need to work in tandem," Lenarduzzi said of Canada's MLS teams and Canada's national men's team. "(Canada's MLS teams) are reliant on them having success."Toronto FC's band-aid fixes on the field may sell tickets but do not provide a strong link between grassroots soccer organizations and the national men's club. Flashy foreign-born players purchased by Toronto FC, such as the recently acquired Italian-born Sebastian Giovinco, are the cog in the system that has seen Canada's national team drop to all-time lows.Yet Toronto FC forges on, continuing to dream big. Minutes before speaking to Bezbatchenko, a May 27 friendly match against 2014 Barclays Premier League champions Manchester City was announced.In what will be an opportunity for the team to show off its newly-renovated stadium to a larger, worldwide audience, the club is walking a very thin tightrope. Still without an MLS playoff berth, many wonder if the team is overestimating itself as a club and if maintaining a grassroots focus would develop more home-grown players and a sense of trust in the community.
In a sport where sexiness is one of the most traded currencies, practicing patience and staying the course is difficult. Toronto FC have had nine coaches in their nine seasons—with that kind of turnover, any vision has had no time to develop.Aside from playoff success, the club has proven that when it wants to do something there's little anyone can do to stop it—like obtaining foreign stars to fill the seats or building more of those seats, even if the federal and provincial governments balk at the prospect of investing.Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has the resources and manpower to create relationships and act as a vehicle for Canada's youth to achieve goals on a truly global stage. Contributing to Canada's second berth in the World Cup is the most immediate way for one of the continent's most beleaguered major league franchises to get back in the good graces of those it should be fighting hardest to impress.Just ask Lenarduzzi."I don't think you can do it half-heartedly," he said. "You have to do it with a purpose and you have to give back."