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Toronto FC to build facility at Downsview Park, search for young talent

TORONTO — On a day long on suits and speeches, assistant coach Bob deKlerk bucked the trend by going straight to a white board to show whata new $17.5-million academy and training facility means for Toronto FC.

TORONTO — On a day long on suits and speeches, assistant coach Bob de Klerk bucked the trend by going straight to a white board to show what a new $17.5-million academy and training facility means for Toronto FC.

Marking positions by number, the intense Dutch coach laid out the 11 players on the soccer team — each with specific responsibilities.

"With each number, with each position, they know what to do with the ball and without the ball," de Klerk told a news conference at BMO Field on Monday.

At TFC, it's one team, one playing style — whether it's the first team or the youth team.

Head coach Aron Winter and De Klerk, who are 1-2-3 in their first year at the TFC helm, hope to eventually imprint that soccer blueprint on players as young as six years old.

Winter, De Klerk and the MLS franchise will soon have a world-class training home to implement what they hope is a winning formula.

Located at Downsview Park in north Toronto, the 5.7-hectare site will include three grass fields, one artificial turf field under a bubble and a 3,715-square-metre fieldhouse which will house locker-rooms and offices. There will also be an area just for goalie training.

One of the grass pitches will be heated and mirror that at BMO Field.

The facility will serve as training base for the MLS team and its academy squads, which Toronto FC plans to increase from the current under-17 and under-19 teams.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is putting in $17.5 million to build the facility and will pay rent annually to Downsview Park for the land.

Construction on the TFC Academy and Training Facility is slated to start next month. The playing fields should be ready in April 2012 and the fieldhouse in May 2012.

"This will compare globally," said Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president and COO of MLSE. "We've looked at Ajax, we've looked at Chelsea, we've looked at Pachuca (in Mexico) ... We've looked at all the best and this will be right up there. It's going to be world-class, it's going to rival anything you'll see in Europe."

Earl Cochrane, former academy director and current director of team and player operations, said the planned facility will leave a lasting legacy.

"Having been involved in this game for 10, 12 years here in Canada, I don't think we can underestimate how monumental this day is going to be," he said. "This day is going to change the face of the game here in Canada, it's going to change the way players are developed in Canada — I think this is going to lead us to developing players who are capable of playing on the world stage."

TFC has already sent a half-dozen members of its academy to the first team squad, including Oscar Cordon and Doneil Henry. Cordon started Saturday in a 3-0 loss to D.C. United.

De Klerk, however, cautioned that a training facility is just part of the puzzle, albeit an important one. A soccer team needs the right coaches, medical staff and a good scouting system to succeed.

But all agreed that the younger the player, the better chance there is at identifying talent and molding it.

"The product on the field is very important, the first team. But we've got to grow it from the bottom and that's what we're going to do," said Paul Mariner, Toronto's director of player development.

Toronto plans to have three to five full-time academy teams, going down to under-11. But it will have access to even younger talent through a network of up to 30 affiliate clubs (up from the current 18).

"The training facility will certainly give us a much better environment to train the players than we currently have," said Stuart Neely, director of TFC's academy. "We're making do with what we have and so far we've done all right but there's certainly more to come. We can only think what these boys would be like if we were able to get them at a younger age. We're getting them at the age of 15 and that's just too old."

The Toronto first team has been practising on an artificial turf field at Cherry Beach while the academy sides have worked out on the turf at Lamport Stadium.

"it's not the best facility of course, but OK it's the best in this area at this moment for us to train," de Klerk said of Cherry Beach.

He was less complimentary about Lamport. "It's horrible."

Bob Hunter, MLSE's vice-president for venues and entertainment, said MLSE looked at 11 potential sites. That was cut down to a shortlist of five and finally Downsview Park, which is just south of York University.

"It was very clear from the beginning that to do this properly, it had to be a very significant investment," he said, citing a figure of "almost" $20 million.

The TFC facility will become "the epicentre of soccer development in Canada," Hunter added.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, Canada's other MLS franchise, currently train at their temporary home of Empire Stadium.

They have $17.5 million in guaranteed provincial funding for a training facility but have yet to find a home for it. The team is currently talking to Burnaby about a temporary training site.

"Our plan is to do what Toronto has done and have a permanent site, somewhere in the Lower Mainland," said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi.

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