mariner-paul110106cp

Paul Mariner, far left, was named Toronto FC's director of player development in January. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

When it happened, it appeared to be a case of Toronto FC cutting off its nose to spite its face.

The Reds drew headlines earlier this month when they released Keven Aleman, Dino Gardiner and Jonathan Lao from their youth academy over the players' refusal to sign a letter of commitment that would tie them to the Major League Soccer club for two years.

The club said Gardiner and Lao wanted to go on trial with clubs overseas, while Aleman didn't sign the amateur contract because he wanted to wait until returning home from this summer's FIFA World Cup in Mexico, which runs from June 18 to July 10, before making a decision about his future.

The loss of Aleman was a bit of a blow for Toronto because of his potential, with many comparing him to former team captain Dwayne De Rosario. But according to Paul Mariner, TFC's director of player development, the club doesn't regret the hard line stance in took with the Canadian prospect.

"It's a policy decision. What we are doing, we're investing in the academy. It should be an honour to play for Toronto FC, and if people want to ply their trade elsewhere, then that's fine. We have a lot of experience in our coaching and administrative ranks. We advise players to sign the letter of commitment, but all that does is it protects everybody's interests," Mariner told CBCSports.ca.

"When you are spending per year in excess of $18,000 on an academy player like we are, then we think it's only right that the player give two years to Toronto FC, and then from there hopefully sign a professional contract."

Wants to showcase talent?

Mariner interpreted Aleman's decision not to sign the letter as a clear indication the teenager wanted to use the upcoming World Cup to showcase his talent to European clubs who might be intersted in him.

The TFC official explained the club refused to compromise by waiting until after Aleman returned home from Mexico to see if he signed the letter before releasing him.

"Why is Keven Aleman so special? He's not. Every single player at the club is as important to us as the designated player, as the captain, as the super star, as whoever. It doesn't matter. It's the principle of the matter," Mariner stated.

Mariner has been working closely with coach and technical director Aron Winter to change the culture of the MLS club ever since they were hired in January by introducing a more professional and European-like atmosphere.

"We have to make a stand because if one of the players from Manchester United or Barcelona said 'I'm just going to hold off, I'm going to go to the World Cup first and see what my options are,' what would happen? Those clubs wouldn't accept that. So why should it be different for Toronto FC?" Mariner asked.

But isn't it a lot to ask of a teenager to sign an amateur contract and dedicate the next two years of their life to TFC? Not according to Mariner.

He understands that Aleman might be anxious to try landing with a European club now, but he points to Maurice Edu, Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride as examples of players who cut their teeth in MLS before making the move and enjoying successful careers abroad. 

"This is the first rung of the ladder. It's a tradition in soccer. It doesn't matter where you start — it matters where you end up," Mariner stated.

"The path to stardom is right there. Get into the youth team, get into the reserve team, get into the senior team and then move abroad. There's the path. You don't need to go to Europe to get stardom right away when often what happens is you could have such a bad experience that you pack it in."

In April, Toronto FC unveiled plans for its new academy and training facility at Downsview Park. The 14 acre state-of-the-art complex will serve as the primary practice, training and development facility for TFC and its junior and senior academy teams.

Mariner believes the completion of the facility is a very important step, because the academy is the "life blood" of the organization going forward. He argues TFC needs to develop more of its own players as the league looks poised to expand from 18 to 20 teams over the next few years.

"I feel with the expansion of MLS going so quickly, and with the talent pool out there being thin, that home grown players will be even more important to surviving and being competitive in this league," Mariner opined.