The homegrown player incentive program in Major League Soccer is still relatively new. As such, many of MLS’ 19 clubs are still creating their own paths towards developing their own young talent.
We all know what the ends are in the process. Homegrown players don’t count against the salary cap, and there’s real money to be made if those players are sold to bigger clubs.
But the means to those ends are as varied as the geography of MLS itself.
Some, such as the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, operate officially-labeled academy teams that compete within the U.S. Soccer Development Academy structure. Others, most notably the Union, contract with local youth clubs that operate as academy teams without an official label.
(The Union’s setup is explained in a very useful way by Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy here.)
Then there is a club like Vancouver, which not only has a deep-rooted academy program, but also runs a PDL team and a W-League women’s team as well.
But perhaps no team in MLS has made a more dramatic investment in youth player development than Toronto FC. The club has put down nearly $20 million to build a training facility for its senior team and academy teams in Downsview Park, about 10 miles north of the city center. The facility is expected to open this spring.
The money involved might be dwarfed some day by some other club, and no one knows for sure what results the setup will bring. But in the present tense, it’s very rare for MLS teams to have their own training facilities. So what Toronto has done is a pretty big deal.
Along with its investment in physical capital, Toronto has invested in human capital as well. Earlier this month, club manager Aron Winter hired fellow Dutchman Thomas Rongen to run TFC’s entire youth development structure.
I am sure that some of you have heard Rongen’s name before, whether because of his many years in MLS or his two stints in charge of the United States Under-20 national team.
If you have not heard of Rongen, his name is worth remembering. Although he failed to qualify the U.S. for last year’s FIFA Under-20 World Championship, his resume as a whole is one of the best in North American coaching.
The Amsterdam native was raised in Ajax’s famed youth system, then moved to the United States to play for the North American Soccer League’s Los Angeles Aztecs. He stayed in the U.S. after the NASL folded, and when Major League Soccer launched he signed on to coach the Tampa Bay Mutiny.
Rongen later succeeded Bruce Arena as coach of D.C. United when Arena was hired to coach the U.S. national team, and oversaw United’s 1999 MLS Cup triumph. He ran the U.S. Under-20s from 2001 to 2005 and again from 2006 to 2011, with a stint as Chivas USA manager in between.
Most recently, Rongen served a brief term as head coach of American Samoa's senior men's national team. That came about in part because the U.S. Soccer Federation fired Rongen after coming up short of expectations last year. But he returned to the headlines by coaching American Samoa to its first ever World Cup qualifying win last November.
Now Rongen stands on ground that is both familiar and new. He is back in MLS, but with a club and in a country where he has never worked before. And for as diverse a career as Rongen has had, the expectations upon him now are different from any of those that have come before.
I talked with Rongen for a few minutes at the MLS SuperDraft last week. He had a lot of interesting things to say about the state of youth soccer across North America, and where he wants to take Toronto FC.
Can you explain, from your perspective, what it is that Toronto is trying to do with its academy system?
It’s very simple: it’s the model that good teams around the world, such as Ajax and Barcelona.
Eventually, [the goal is] to go to residency, with a sound vision and philosophy based on technical, attacking, dominant football. And also, based on a vision that Aron Winter has set out for the first team. So there’s now a thread from the first team to eventually our youngest team, which hopefully will be eight and nine years old.
Finally, there’s developing talented players that can eventually play for our first team and represent Toronto FC, but also eventually can be players that can maybe be sold to Europe – like it’s done globally in the rest of the world.
You mentioned the residency program. How important is it for the club to have that physical facility? It is not a model that every MLS club is following, even though a lot of them are putting a lot of money into youth development.
Yeah, that was awesome. That was part of the puzzle for me. I spoke to a lot of clubs, quite frankly, about different positions - from head coach to technical director, and their academies, their approaches, their commitment to youth development.
And then on top of that, [Toronto has] one of the best facilities in North America. Maybe the best in Canada, and maybe the best in North America. To me, it became a no-brainer. A long-term commitment to youth development, with a great facility. That’s all an academy director could ask for. It’s there, and it’s now mine to move to the next level.
Given how much money Toronto FC has put into its academy system, what does the SuperDraft mean for the club?
What the draft still brings is a mechanism by which you can pick players and expand your roster. So I think that not only do we understand what the combine, the draft and college soccer are all about, it’s a twofold thing for us.
One is, it is what it is. We try to pick the best available players, and we’re very happy with what we’ve gotten with picks No. 4 and 12. We also understand that we need to push the envelope with our ownership group in regards to youth development. And we need to put more resources there, because I think that every year the draft will get less [important], for the reasons that we all know.
Players leave earlier, not necessarily to MLS but to abroad as well. High school players don’t even enter college anymore, but go to the pro ranks – also not just to MLS, but abroad.
So I think that the commitment from Toronto towards youth development is just incredible, and one of the things that encouraged me to go there. It is a total commitment towards something that I feel very strong about as well.
I gather that you have known Aron Winter for some time. As you have seen him evolve in MLS, getting settled in Toronto and coming to understand how the league works, have you seen changes in him?
I wouldn’t say that. Obviously over time, people get more comfortable with not only their club and their surroundings, but their staffing and with MLS – which is a very interesting league, and different from any league in the world.
But Aron is a very bright guy, and Aron is building for the future. Not only with the first team, but also setting an organization in place, from top to bottom, that can function properly according to a European model. So I’m very happy that as the head coach and technical director, he really sets out all the lines and is hiring people that he feels can do a job. From that standpoint, he’s a quality guy going in, and he’s learning the ins and outs of MLS’ rues.
I think Toronto has a gem there, quite frankly. A great leader and a great guy, who will make the franchise better now and in the future.
Along those lines, how important is it to have locked down Joao Plata, a young player who made a lot of headlines this year?
I just signed a week ago, so I wasn’t there last year, but I’ve seen MLS from afar and Toronto as well. I know that internally, when this happened – while we were at the combine, actually – that everyone was very pleased.
He’s a great young player, an exciting player, a player the fans love, and a player that I know they targeted very hard to re-sign. So he was a big piece to the puzzle. And also, it needed to get done so we knew going into the draft exactly what our needs were.