1751 Savage Road, Richmond, BC

What's Wrong with Canadian Soccer?

By Colin Elmes

ImageIn light of the recent turmoil at the Canadian Soccer Association and as the owner of BC’s largest private soccer academy, I feel it’s important to cast light on the deficiencies of our present youth soccer structure. Like many Canadians, I feel strongly about the game and want nothing more than for Canada to emerge as a strong soccer nation – but under the current conditions, I don’t see this happening.

Many of these issues are not new. They have been discussed and debated endlessly by my peer group over the last dozen years but with so many soccer fans now demanding better results, perhaps we’ve come to the tipping point, the point at which mediocrity is no longer applauded.

Bart Choufour, a long time friend and colleague, is currently running the Whitecaps boys academy. During one of our lengthy conversations on Canadian soccer, I remember him saying, “In this country we have a fanatical approach to recreational soccer rather than a relaxed approach to competitive soccer.” I couldn’t agree more. The infrastructure in place today is perhaps one of the best recreational soccer programs in the world. That’s no small achievement as we see more and more kids taking up the game. Soccer has even surpassed hockey as the number one participation sport in this country.

However, the point of failure is how we service the upper 15% of the players. While I am a great believer in the club development model, it’s obvious that we are not satisfying the most driven and passionate players. This is evident in the ever-increasing enrollment in private sector soccer programs around BC’s lower mainland. Many players from U7 all the way up to U18 now find themselves on waitlists for these programs. Clearly, a growing number of players and parents feel the current club system is failing to provide adequate training standards.

One just has to look across the border to see the advancements made in a short period of time. While it’s true, the US has more players and financial support than we could ever hope to match, the reality is that their soccer structure is geared towards developing and identifying talent, whereas our structure is geared towards participation.

As a start, Canada should consider adopting some of the directives embraced by US soccer since they qualified for the 1990 World Cup. In the late 1990s, a new association called US Club Soccer emerged as a result of similar frustrations over recreational vs competitive soccer. Take a look at the US Club Soccer website, mission statement, goals/objectives and you will see a structure that needs to be embraced in this country, one that takes the elite level of soccer in the proper direction.

In BC, we have too many youth teams and players in what we consider our premier leagues (Metro). There is no criteria for entry into these leagues. If a youth club feels they have a premier team, all you need to do is register. It’s that simple. Contrast that to the US system where every season begins with League Placement Tournaments. In other words, if you feel you have a premier team in the US, get out on the field and prove it.

Our youth soccer structure also has district boundaries that restrict freedom of movement among players from one geographic area to another. This restriction essentially prevents clubs and districts from being truly accountable for their programs because, for the most part, they are dealing with a captive audience. It should be no one’s business if a parent chooses to drive their son/daughter from one area to another to participate in a program they covet. This is the foundation of our senior amateur leagues and those environments thrive.

Our youth premier leagues should have a maximum of 8-10 teams, all of whom would be required to qualify for the league. Additionally, players who challenge themselves at this level should have a borderless environment, allowing them the choice of soccer club. A borderless environment ensures that clubs maintain a program standard or they run the risk of loosing players to other clubs.

With these simple changes, youth soccer clubs would be forced to examine their program and ultimately declare themselves “competitive” or “recreational”. As it stands, our youth structure is unworkable as it tries to be all things to all people. The reality, however, is that these two agendas have little in common.

These are not revolutionary ideas. It’s only a matter of looking beyond the confines of our own country to find workable solutions. Change is uncomfortable but inertia is unimaginable. If we fail to support competitive soccer in this country, we will find ourselves 10 years from now asking once again why so many play the game and yet so few develop talent. If we don’t have the will for such change then let’s end the hand wringing and simply declare ourselves a nation of recreational soccer players.