Saturday, January 19, 2002

An overseas eye-opener for a young soccer squad

January 19, 2002
By MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

The goal was simple enough. Take as many talented soccer players as possible, insert them in an intensive, competitive level of training and games in England and see what happens. What happened proved that London is capable of producing some top-notch young players who, with proper training and immersion in the culture of soccer, might one day make it big. Before Christmas, 16 local players of various ages from London Soccer Academy headed to Grimsby as part of a working relationship the Academy has with the First Division soccer side. Ian Knight, Grimsby's director of youth development who has been to London several times, oversaw the 16 players overseas. He was impressed enough to take note of seven of the group. Knight will continue to monitor their progress. He hopes the seven will return to England at a later date. Seven is a surprising number. Before the trip, organizers were hoping two or three of the players would turn heads overseas. They were also hoping the trip would impress the players with the level of dedication and commitment needed to succeed. Mission accomplished. Michael Pereira was considered the "baby" of the group, which travelled to Grimsby. He turned out to be one of the most successful. Pereira, who turns 13 in March, is the player to whom the overseas trip will prove most beneficial. He's young, talented and has an enormous capacity to learn. He also attended training session with the under-14 provincial team and has been asked to continue to train with it, quite an accomplishment for a 12-year-old. For Pereira, who will play this summer with North London, the trip was an eye-opener. "It was unbelievable, a really positive experience," he says. "It overexceeded my expectations. The training was unbelievable. "We were well fed. We all got to stay together, so it was really good atmosphere. It was really intense. There was no goofing around, especially with the kids from England. They show up every day, ready to play soccer. It's quite the thing to see." The others who impressed Knight include Arnold Kostkowski, David Kwiek. Fidel Villaneuva, Anthony Vassallo, Brian Yanful and Ryan Mendoca. It's pretty much a given that in the younger ages Canadian kids are as good as anyone. But many lack the intricate knowledge of the game, which comes from living it on a daily basis and having the game pervade every corner of one's life. That's why the trip proved beneficial in more ways than just what was learned on the soccer pitch. "I think, physically, we're ahead of them in strength," said Pereira. "Mentally, they are way ahead. I bet we can play with most teams there at 12 or 13, but when you get to 15 and 16, you don't have much of a chance because they play soccer every day. "At a of the practices, one of the defenders said, 'Michael, take two steps to the left.' I took two steps to the left and the ball landed right on my feet. They anticipate well." Yanful, who is 16, sees that development of players in the older age group. "The level is pretty high," he said. "It's more intense than over here. But it was a great experience. There were a lot of training techniques we can use here." Pereira wants to play professionally. That's a sentiment spoken by many would-be professionals, but when they are thrown into the madhouse that is professional soccer in Europe, that goal seems unattainable. The trip to Grimsby taught Pereira how hard he has to work to attain that goal. "You have to show up every day, have to perform every practice and every game," he said. He was one of eight players selected to play with the Grimsby youth team in some of the games. He called it the "most memorable part of the trip." And he wants more. "Just watching them, I can improve myself. They work so hard. When they go to school, they have a soccer ball at their feet. They are so smart with the game. "I'd do it again without a doubt. I'm sort of missing it now. I'm working really hard because I want to go back." And that's what the trip was all about.