Toronto FC hires Hawks’ coach as K-W scout

Ask any greybeard soccer-enthusiast about the halcyon days of soccer in Canada and they might get poetic about the Whitecaps and Blizzard, Beckenbauer and Pele, and the 1986 World Cup.

Ask a young soccer player in Canada and they will tell you the glory days are still on the horizon while perhaps letting their imaginations run wild with possibilities.

It was with that look to the future and a potential for possibility that Toronto FC has hired Wilfrid Laurier University men’s soccer coach Mario Halapir to scout the tri-city area for potential academy players for TFC’s new U-13 and U-15 programs.

The TFC Academy, made possible by virtue of a 20-million dollar investment at Downsview Park for the team’s future training facilities and expansion of the club’s current academy structure, will focus on more grassroots development aimed at graduating young players to the older U-17 and U-19 teams.

“That’s the one area that’s lacking here in Canada. We need to put more resources into the youth level. We have lots of players with potential but our climate is different than other parts of the world. The passion or desire or hunger to get to the next level is not there,” surveyed Halapir.

Halapir, who began coaching at just 13 years of age, recognized how formative the early teen years are for developing talent but also how demoralizing it can be.

“We are too overwhelmed in Canada … to be able to have enough proper coaching at that level for all the kids that have potential. Some kids who have the potential will leave the system because the coaching isn’t there or the environment isn’t there that keeps them.”

Losing top, young talent is a common theme for the Canadian Soccer Association.

Names like Owen Hargreaves, Jonathan de Guzman and Daniel Fernandez all left Canada for Europe at a young age to train with academy teams in England, the Netherlands and Portugal respectively which is where, not surprisingly, they have all been capped as national team players.

The inability to keep these budding stars is a systemic issue, Halapir cites, and one that can be assuaged with a greater focus on creating a pathway to the highest level. “Without it, it is very difficult to become a professional athlete. It’s not about just the score-keeping, it’s about driving them to play at an intense level, at the highest level, it has to do with their training habits and their technical habits, you shouldn’t have to tell these kids when to get motivated but that’s what happens here.”

While names like Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Cruyff may bring to life images of the glory days of soccer in North America, an age that Major League Soccer desperately wants to and needs to re-establish, Halapir notes that the legends of old were not legends of our making.

“What was missing in the [North American Soccer League] days was the connection to the community. The Blizzard and the Cosmos had strong followings, but they were bringing in players from all over the place at the ends of their careers to get people in the stands,” said Halapir.

While butts in the seats meant money in the pockets, it was an unsustainable cycle and the North American Soccer League buckled, shortly after the brilliance of those stars had waned. The key, Halapir notes, is to have home-grown stars that motivate young people to take up the sport.

“Young players everywhere else in the world have players they look up to, teams they look up to; it’s sorely missing here and it’s very important we develop local talent and have those players in our leagues, two or three is better than zero.”

While those kids will one day hopefully love seeing their favourite athletes on a pitch, for Halapir, it’s about something else entirely.

“I love being around kids, I love seeing the improvement,” he said.