London Soccer Academy gets down to basics
By STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press - July 7, 2001
The Canadian Soccer Association likes to point out 800,000 people play the game in Canada, but one of the knocks at the developmental levels is they're playing too much.
The theory is youngsters don't practise enough, leaving them short of basic skills when they reach the elite levels.
The London Soccer Academy is trying to change that.
Started in May 2000, the academy, based at Cove Road Field, already has a working arrangement with Grimsby Town of the English First Division. Grimsby's youth team coach, Ian Knight, is in London now to see the academy's players in action with their various club sides.
His last trip, in December, saw four academy players head to England for two-week trials in March.
While none stuck, just getting London and area players the chance at such opportunities -- even at the U.S. university level -- is what the academy is all about, said director Cam Vassallo.
"We're not promising them they'll be pros, we're just trying to open the door for them," he said, adding it takes a special player to adopt the practise-first mentality.
"It's not just about all-out ability. The ones who have the passion for soccer love to practise," he said. "We've got one kid who's missing games to be with us."
But Vassallo stressed the academy's intentions aren't to take players away from club teams. It's to give those club teams improved players. Academy players train every other week, geared as much as possible to their club teams' schedules.
"It's always a battle of changing people's attitude to just coming out to train instead of training for a trophy," he said. "The (minor) hockey system in London is far more advanced than soccer, and very few players in London will make it to the pros, yet everyone buys into the same system."
Vassallo said while some clubs resisted having players attend the academy, the results have eased that.
"One coach told me, 'This is a practice I don't have to have.' The thing is, we have to be here for the kids, not for ourselves and our own egos."
While Vassallo said he received some responses from bigger clubs such as Middlesbrough and Inter Milan when he set up the academy, but with them it was more a case of getting older youth players right away instead of developing them from a younger age, which Grimsby wants to do.
"It adds a lot of structure to the academy," Vassallo said of the affiliation with Grimsby. "It gives us insight to what the kids are up against over there. It's not easy to get there, even to get a trial, because obviously our kids will have to be better than what they have over there already.
"The thing is, a kid who signs with Grimsby is likely going to play. And mission accomplished would be getting a kid signed."
Technical and coaching aspects of the academy are handled by London City, with City player-coach Jurek Gebczynski the head intructor.
"It's taken a lot of the burden off me knowing someone like Harry (City general manager Gauss), who has a passion for soccer, is part of this," Vassallo said, "and I'm definitely happy with the technical aspects and City's coaching. The kids respond well to Jurek. He gets as much as he can out of them."
City benefits as well. One academy product, 16-year-old Tyler Hemming, is already acquitting himself well on City's back line in CPSL games.
"I really admire the fact someone else had the intestinal fortitude to do something like this," Gauss said, adding it was a "natural progression" for City and the academy to hook up.
"For us, in our open tryouts, we'll see some promising players but they aren't proficient in the basics. And at our (CPSL) level, we shouldn't be teaching the basics. Seeing the ball and passing the ball, for example, are two things (Canadian youth players) are not comfortable with."
That, Gauss said, is attributable to that "games over practice" train of thought. "We're too winning- oriented," he said, noting that those in Grimsby's youth program don't play a game until they're 16.
Such thinking may be heresy for youth sports organizers in Canada, but it may also be why players such as Jason deVos of Dundee United, Tomas Radzinski of Anderlecht and Owen Hargreaves of Bayern Munich are so much the exception to the rule.