Huge gap remains in Canadian men's soccer | Soccer | CBC Sports

SoccerHuge gap remains in Canadian men's soccer

Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 | 12:00 AM

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Canada's U-17 head coach Sean Fleming continues to speak to his players about learning to deal with pressure. (Photo courtesy Canada Soccer) Canada's U-17 head coach Sean Fleming continues to speak to his players about learning to deal with pressure. (Photo courtesy Canada Soccer)

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In the week leading up to Canada's U-17 match-up against Panama, head coach Sean Fleming spoke a lot about his players learning to deal with pressure. 
In the week leading up to Canada's U-17 match-up against Panama, head coach Sean Fleming spoke a lot about his players learning to deal with pressure.

He highlighted the pressures that come from playing in hostile environments like their game Tuesday night in Panama. Fleming talked about the pressures youth players face in trying to one day make the senior team. And the coach, who has now led this squad to two consecutive World Cup berths, explained how the pressures of next year's U-17 World Cup are going to shape his players for years to come.

"I don't think there is any secret around the world, this is how those players evolve and develop. The best diamonds are the ones that can handle the most pressure. These kids are some great diamonds. But they need to get pushed further after the World Cup so they can hopefully evolve to have long careers in football," Fleming said.

Canada succumbed to some of those pressures Tuesday night when they fell to the Panama 2-1. Despite scoring early, Canada eventually was washed out to sea as it tried to absorb wave after wave of the Panamanian attack.

The loss, though respectable, reinforces that while Canadian soccer continues to grow across a number of platforms - from private academies, to the provincial bodies, to MLS clubs pouring money into development - there remains a huge gap in where Canada is and where it wants to be.

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Fleming's message

Fleming has been clear about what Canadians need to do to see the players of today turn into the successful professionals of tomorrow - the kind, that one day will shoulder the load of the senior team.

"This program is about planting the seed to go and play for the senior men's team. That's what the goal for each of these players should be," Flemming said.

But a goal is one thing, doing it is another.

Panama's youth teams train together nearly year round. Similar assessments can be made about other successful programs throughout the region. Their player's progression through the club ranks is planned carefully and tracked closely. For Canada, outside of the national team environment, getting their stars on to a pro team where they can be in the staring lineup and get experience is what continues to separate us from the rest of the confederation.

"We have to get opportunities for these younger players. The 18-19-year-old age is still a difficult age for these kids to find spots. MLS clubs are great, with their academies and such. The NASL club in Edmonton, and with the team in Ottawa coming in, are going to give opportunities for the kids," he said.

 "I still think we have to somehow better prepare them so they can go play in MLS. We have to find those good competitive environments for the kids so they can continue to develop. They need to be pushed all the time so they continue to get developed to the best of their potential."

Professional environments

To do that, as Fleming said, they need to find their ways into full-time professional environments. Something that, outside of playing in the NASL and a few other fledgling leagues, isn't really happening for young Canadians right now.

MLS roster rules are largely weighted towards ensuring the best possible development for young American players. Each team must have a minimum number of domestic players and there are limited international spots available for all others who don't have American citizenship. For aspiring Canadians, whose domestic status only applies to Canadian clubs, the route into the pros isn't easy.

The Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) recognized this reality back in 2011 and commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of creating their own development league - one where Canadian players would get the proper training they needed to become successful pros and where their passports wouldn't limit their progression.

The Easton Report, which concluded that several regionally based development leagues would assist Canada in growing their game, was released earlier this year and was met to great fanfare. Since then though, despite a number of the recommendations within the Easton Report being adopted by the CSA board, there has been very little movement to kick-start this movement.

Lots of discussion? Sure. People talking up a good game? Absolutely. But any action? Nope. 

"I look at where our kids are now and the environment they're in. It could be comparable to what a lot of these other kids will have. We just may not have the daily contact with our players that these other countries have."

And that's the difference. In this age group - with several, as Fleming called them, "diamonds" - Canada looks to be pretty much on par with the rest of the region. But between now, in the youth ranks, and five years down the road, on the senior team, something is clearly getting lost.

That something is opportunity at a high level. Canadian players need it. The CSA can provide it.

If Canadian soccer doesn't want to continue squandering crop after crop of talented, young players, then perhaps it is time for the CSA to feel some of that player pressure and get down to creating its own league.

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