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Development Week: How do we close the distance on Canada's geographic challenge?

This year, Vancouver Whitecaps FC celebrate 10 years of the Residency program, which began in 2007. In conjunction with the announcements of new players entering the program this year, whitecapsfc.com are diving deeper into the state of development in Canada as part of Development Week.

How do we fix Canadian Soccer?

It’s a question that many ask. But not often do we discuss the very real obstacles that we face.

One of the biggest challenges is simply a matter of geography.

“I’m from England, where it’s easier to operate off of a framework that’s country-wide,” tells Soccer Nova Scotia technical director Mike Whyatt. “Whereas Canada is more like a continent. You’ve got provinces bigger than the size of countries.”

While no one is making this out to be an excuse, it's a common struggle I've heard from technical directors across the country.

Here are some stats.

We are a nation of 36 million people, which puts us roughly 39th in terms of the world's most populous countries. But we’re also a land that covers a great distance – approximately 9.985 million km² (second largest).

It takes an estimated nine to 10 days to drive from Victoria, BC to St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. It takes roughly six hours to get across England from Brighton to Newcastle.

But why does that matter when it comes to developing soccer talent?

The theory, and numbers, suggest that if you have a more condensed population, it’s easier to foster more competitive environments, to scout and evaluate players, and to exchange best practices among coaches.

Here’s a look at Canada compared to the seven countries that have won the past 16 World Cups dating back to 1954. You’ll notice an obvious contrast (yes, you have some England jokes, I know). 

Country

Population

Size

Population / km²

England

53 million

130,279 km²

406.82

Germany

81 million

357,376 km²

226.65

Italy

61 million

301,338 km²

202.43

France

67 million

643,801 km²

104.06

Spain

47 million

505,990 km²

92.89

Brazil

208 million

8,520,000 km²

24.41

Argentina

44 million

2,780,000 km²

15.83

Canada

36 million

9,990,000 km²

3.6

Even if you look at our neighbours to the south, take just California as an example. That state alone has a larger population than all of Canada (39 million) in an area (423,970 km²) that is nearly half the size of only British Columbia (944,735 km²).

That's not to say that every kilometre of Canada is populated – much of it isn't – however there is greater separation between populations, which makes it more difficult to bring people together. Travel is costly, communication often crosses time zones, and face-to-face time is limited.

"One of the challenges of our geography and being as spread out as we are is that you don’t get concentrations of player pools in centralized areas," noted Jason de Vos, Canada Soccer's director of development. "You can get pockets of really good players spread out across the country, but getting that concentration of players coming together as one can be really difficult."

It's more than just a theory for de Vos, who mentions his own experience growing up, driving two hours each way from London, Ontario to Toronto, four times per week. It’s a sacrifice he knew he needed to make in order to achieve his dreams.

We’re privileged to live in a beautiful, spacious country. However, as far as the global game goes, our geography is no doubt a big challenge.

Becoming competitive on the international stage can certainly be achieved though. Take Iceland, who are small in population (334,252) and size (103,000 km²), which actually makes them comparable to Canada (3.3 people / km²), albeit with far less distance to travel to bring people together.

The little nation made waves last year at EURO 2016, and are now continuing that run in World Cup qualifying, but it was an accomplishment earned through years of strategic planning and focus on coaching education.

A NUMBERS GAME

As is often stated, the development curve for athletes is a pyramid. The higher the level you move up, the fewer players who will make it. Take hockey, for example. A book published in 2013 showed that of 30,000 kids playing hockey in Ontario in 1991, only 0.16 per cent ended up being drafted to the NHL.

The same holds true for soccer. Few will make it pro, and even fewer will have a lasting career – in any country.

But in order to increase the odds of finding quality at the top of the pyramid, it's important to start with a strong base.

“It’s always a numbers game,” tells Whitecaps FC Residency technical director Craig Dalrymple. “Quantity of players, yes, but the quality needs to be there. A high standard for training environments, pushing each other and challenging each other regularly.”

In Iceland, nearly 70 per cent of coaches have at least a UEFA B License, which is the most, per capita, in the world.

"The analogy that I tend to use when I'm explaining the importance of coach education to people is, our education system in school," explains de Vos. "You can send your child to an education system in school that's run by well-intentioned volunteer parents, or you can send your child to a school that's staffed by trained professional teachers."

As Canada Soccer's director of development, de Vos is working to better understand what environments are already in place across Canada, to implement higher standards, and to foster a smoother pathway for young players.

"Geography is not something we can alter. We’ve got to create better training environments on a daily basis at the community level, because that’s where kids are playing soccer. If we can improve those environments by training and developing better coaches, and by empowering those coaches to then deliver better training environments for players, and we can get more kids to fall in love with playing the game, then we can start tackling the challenge of where do we get that competitive outlet."

It’s a vision that Whitecaps FC share.

COMING TOGETHER

So just what is the plan to overcome Canada's enormity? And how do we create higher standards and better training environments in every pocket of the country?

If you ask many, the answer is better collaboration.

"It's the key," states de Vos. "The only way we're going to overcome those challenges is by working together."

“I think it’s the duty of everyone in the country to recognize the pathway,” added Dalrymple. “From the schools, to the community clubs, to the amateur clubs, to the professional ranks, and then hopefully into our national team programs. All of us need to be pushing in the same direction.”

Canada Soccer have been working to make that pathway more clear, and more and more that direction seems to be pointing up.

For Whitecaps FC, collaboration has been the driving force for the club’s youth development programs. That that has meant partnering with eight provincial or territorial associations (BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Yukon), as well as a number of regional associations and clubs throughout the country.

With those partnerships, the 'Caps have invested in hiring qualified professional and licensed coaches in communities from coast to coast – coaches who have worked in top English academies such as Southampton, or at the university level in Canada. All coaches are trained to meet high standards, whether in Williams Lake, BC or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

“It’s not just about their certifications though,” says Dan Lenarduzzi, director of soccer development, about hiring regional coaches. “We want them to be a part of the communities. They have to want to make the community better.”

It's one way to "close the distance" for those who wouldn't have previously had access to professional coaching.

As the old saying goes, give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for life. Rather than recruit one player, build a foundation for more kids to train at a higher level, and increase their chances to push on.

Canada Soccer are leading the charge to future success, but there needs to be buy-in at every level. Everyone needs to play their part.

As de Vos tells, what we can't do is say "you must go here, or you must do this." However, in uniting together, the 'Caps and their partners are beginning to build a pathway that has opened up eyes for many across the country.

“It’s huge,” surmises Whyatt. “Obviously in Nova Scotia the hockey pathway is very clear. Every parent can tell you the journey to the NHL. But it was very difficult before this partnership to identify the road or the map to becoming a professional soccer player or play for your national team. Now it’s clearer. The clubs mandate is to develop players, and just as important good people. When they reach their ceiling, they come into REX and the Whitecaps [Nova Scotia] Academy, and when we reach our ceiling with the players then we move them on to the professional establishment. It’s simple, it’s very transparent now, and it just makes selling the game a little bit easier.”

By creating a network, the realities of our enormous land are mitigated.

“We actually take a big country, and we minimize it,” noted Whitecaps FC 2 head coach Rich Fagan, who has seen a number of young players rise through the 'Caps youth ranks, and now under him at the professional level. “We’re making the most of the size of the country.”

Long-term success is the goal, and all involved recognize that it's an ongoing process. With Canada Soccer's development strategy growing steadily, and with the 'Caps Academy Centres still in their infancy, it would be foolish to expect a big shift in the short term.

But through collaboration, the distance between us doesn’t quite feel so daunting.

DEVELOPMENT WEEK