It was 2008, and Russell Teibert wanted to play.
The Niagara Falls, Ontario, native had one final tournament as part of his high school team, St. Paul’s, and he wasn’t going to miss it.
The only problem was, as a new member of the Toronto FC Academy, he was barred from playing for his high school, and academy director Stuart Neely was having none of it.
“I really wanted to play – it was one of my last games with my high school,” Teibert told MLSsoccer.com after a training session this week. “But [Neely] was saying, ‘You have to commit to this professional team,’ and he really put me under pressure between choosing whether or not to go, and really tried to show me that I needed to be loyal to the club.
“I ended up going to the tournament, but it was one of the first times I felt like I was a part of a club – that I was their player.”
With the MLS Youth Cup just weeks away, and Toronto’s star prospect wanting to play in a high school tournament, Neely was in an awkward position. Especially since he was relatively new to his role as academy director.
During a long conversation, Neely laid down his points. The standard of play at the high school level was poor and there was a risk of injury. Teibert was impressing first-team coaches and was clearly in their plans – if he missed the MLS Youth Cup due to a knock, that could slow his progress.
The young winger agreed with everything Neely said, but stated he’d be letting too many people down if he didn’t finish what he started with his high school team – after all, he began his high school soccer program before linking up with Toronto’s academy.
“He told me it was important to him, his teammates, his school,” Neely said. “I walked away and I drove home that night, cursing him up and down – I hate when kids are right!”
As it turned out, Teibert got through that tournament just fine and went on to play for Toronto in the Youth Cup. And then, in the words of Neely, “He broke my heart and went to Vancouver!”
The East Kilbride, Scotland, native laughs when recalling the story now, and says he got the feeling during that conversation he was talking to “someone who would go on to become a young professional.”
Ultimately, it was an issue of principle that led the talented left-footer to play in that tournament.
Four years later, the pair are together again with Vancouver Whitecaps FC, as earlier this month Neely was named head of player management and advancement for the residency program.
It seems the two share similar ideals – while Neely wouldn’t get into details, he said it was an issue of principle that caused him to move on from Toronto. Now, the Scot, who has called Canada home for three decades, is looking forward to continuing to develop some of the country’s brightest prospects.
“It was important for me to find something within the Canadian ranks,” Neely said. “I’m a staunch advocate of supporting the Canadian game, and within that the teams, coaches and players. Vancouver seemed like a fantastic fit.”
Neely is an "A" licensed Canadian coach and helped guide six players from the academy through to the MLS squad during his time in Toronto. The club says he will act as a bridge between the residency program and the first team, and his former player says they picked the right man for the job.
“He was one of the first people to show me what it’s like to be in a professional team,” Teibert said. “He sets restrictions, rules and is a presence in the change room – he’s a great guy to have around.
“He’s a very professional man, and that’s huge in a professional team. He’ll provide great guidance and I’m looking forward to having him here.”
Martin MacMahon covers Vancouver Whitecaps FC for MLSsoccer.com