Imagine if the Toronto Maple Leafs' lineup included the likes of Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Rick Nash, Alex Pietrangelo, Jeff Carter, Matt Duchene, Corey Perry, Mike Smith and John Tavares. Do you think the Leafs would be perennial Stanley Cup contenders?
Now imagine if that team also contained the likes of Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Mike Richards, Bobby Ryan, Marc Staal, James Neal, Jordan Staal, Logan Couture, Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Galchenyuk. How do you like their chances now?
Before anyone jumps in and shouts, "But they'd never get those guys under the salary cap!" let me explain. Every single one of those players is a product of the Ontario Hockey League.
What if the Toronto Maple Leafs had actually created the Ontario Hockey League. What if they had started the league from scratch and picked up the cost through its early years of development? And what if, because they created the OHL, they now have the first option on every player in the league? You see where I'm going with this?
What if Toronto FC did the same thing for youth soccer in Ontario. What if they created a high performance development league that harnessed the bottomless pit of potential that currently exists among the 300,000-plus soccer players in the province? Even better: What if they created an entire development system for kids as young as eight, ensuring that they got the best football education imaginable? What do you think that would do for their long-term success as a professional club?
What if Toronto FC turned its Club Affiliate Program into such a development system? Its goal would be to produce a continual stream of talented young players for its academy, and ultimately, for its first team. Do you think they would be perennial MLS Cup contenders?
Here is how I would set it up:
• Expand the Club Affiliate Program to 20 clubs, ensuring that there is geographical representation across the major areas of the province.
• Hire qualified, professional coaches to work with players between the ages of eight to 16, implementing a periodized training curriculum to ensure that the focus is on mastering technical skills. Allow players to come into the program at any age, focusing resources on the most promising young players (20 per age group per club).
• Remove the 20 clubs from the current competitive system in Ontario, ensuring that they play regularly scheduled games against other CAP organizations.
• At the top of the development system, create the equivalent of the OHL - a high performance league for players between the ages of 15-20 - where the best players from the 20 clubs would compete against each other on a weekly basis.
• Pick up the entire cost for every player at every club.
The last point is especially important. One of the major challenges that is faced when developing young soccer players in Canada is that our system of player development is pay-for-play. What that means is that the end user (the player) carries the full cost of their development. This system often sees players participating in sub-optimal development programs, and also restricts talented players whose parents cannot afford the cost of the best development programs - which can cost anywhere from $2,000-$5,000 per year.
So what would it actually cost Toronto FC to make soccer free for every participant in its CAP program?
If TFC had 20 clubs in its Club Affiliate Program, with 20 players per club, that would be 400 players per age group. If such a program ran from U8 - U15 (with the OHL-equivalent league sitting on top of those age groups), there would be nine age categories. That is 3,600 players, from the age of eight onwards.
Conservatively, a program such as this one could be run for as little as $3,000 per player, annually. That is just over $10 million per year.
Not very much for a club that just spent close to $100 million to sign two players, is it?
I'm not arguing against the signings that TFC just made - in fact, I think that the club needed to sign Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, not least of which to give the fans a reason to care again.
But while the club will be hoping that their off-season moves will quickly turn them into an MLS contender, their long-term success can come through developing the countless talented youngsters currently playing the game across the province, rather than through hiring expensive foreign professionals.