Are we on the train to success, or waving from the station?
A Mount Pearl/That Pro Look/Molson player (left) competes against a member of the St. Lawrence Labatt Laurentians in Challenge Cup playoff action last fall in St. Lawrence. — Telegram file photo
Part 2: The future —
Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association (NLSA) technical director Dragan Mirkovic has seen the future, and it involves giving our best players a shot at a higher level of competition.
“In my opinion, if there is no senior team from the Atlantic region involved with Canadian Soccer League (CSL) over the next three or four years, competitive soccer in the Atlantic will be dead and probably will never recover,” said Mirkovic.
“If the best young and old Atlantic players are not competing in this environment, how can you expect any 18, 19 or 20–year old to be considered for professional teams, their academies or national age-group teams?” asks Mirkovic.
The CSL is comprised of 14 teams from Ontario and Quebec and Mirkovic believes an Atlantic team, probably based out of Halifax, would be tremendous incentive for our most skilled players to develop their game and move on to a higher level in the sport.
“Next year, there will be three teams from Canada (Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) playing in Major League Soccer (MLS). These teams can’t afford to buy players from Europe or South America. They have to look at the Canadian talent and that talent initially could be as much in St. John’s or St. Lawrence as in any other place in Canada,” Mirkovic said.
The three MLS teams will also need a steady stream of players for their academy programs.
Mirkovic also pointed out there are several semi-pro leagues in just about every part of the country, and these leagues and teams are always looking for home-grown talent.
“Only in the Atlantic Canada,” he said, “there is no movement which means that there will be no professionalization for coaches, administrators and referees and no chance for our local talent to develop.
“Now if you want to keep everything at the amateur level, that’s fine,” said Mirkovic. “But then amateur soccer and the way it is set up can be expensive as hell.
“So these are choices for the future,” he said, “and this process is not reversible. Soccer will become a huge sport in North America and who is going to be on the train and who is going to be waving from the station will be interesting to see.”
On the local amateur level, despite the province’s less than stellar performance at the national level of the game in recent years and questions about how the provincial minor system should be operated, there is some reason for optimism, according to Mirkovic and NLSA senior men’s vice-president Gord Dunphy.
“At the moment, or at least judging by the results the past few years, we are better than Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and almost equal to Nova Scotia. It’s a little unrealistic for us to catch up with the bigger provinces,” said Mirkovic.
“We’ve been finishing just behind the big four (Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta) in recent years at certain levels. While you always want to push for more, one has to say, under the circumstances, these are tremendous achievements.”
Holy Cross of St. John’s won the province’s only national soccer title in 1988. The Crusaders also won silver in 1989 and bronze in 1981.
St. Lawrence Laurentians have won three national silver medals and two bronze, the last coming in 2007.
“We’ve been able to reach those levels because we have managed to retain players and coaches in the system which is a very important building block for long term success,” Mirkovic added.
“In my opinion, if there is no senior team from the Atlantic region involved with Canadian Soccer League (CSL) over the next three or four years, competitive soccer in the Atlantic will be dead and probably will never recover.” Dragan Mirkovic
While the province will soon boast four outdoor FieldTurf facilities and has one indoor artificial turf surface, Mirkovic says it will take time to reap the rewards you might expect from such infrastructure.
“We’ve only had the indoor soccer centre for a year, so we need wait at least two or three years to see results from having that facility,” he said.
Mirkovic sees the switch to a Team Atlantic at the under-15 and under-16 national all-star levels of youth soccer as a step forward in terms of elite athletes in the region.
There will be an Atlantic tournament this summer and the best players from the four provinces will combine to compete at the Canadian championships as an Atlantic all-star team.
However, are we prepared to handle the obligations of developing the game to produce Atlantic all-stars and possibly higher-level talent?
“I would be the first to admit that the NLSA has assembled a great technical team and we are certainly continuing to increase our technical knowledge of the game,” says Dunphy.
“However, while I do see more knowledgeable players and coaches, players are becoming too robotic in nature and as a result they are not developing their individual talent or skill level to their full potential.”
Dunphy sees Holy Cross men’s team, despite its 10th place finish at the nationals last year, competing for the gold medal in two or three years.
“Their record last year (0-3-1) was not indicative of how well they played,” said Dunphy, who also pointed out the Cup winners from Prince Edward Island included five players from New Brunswick.
Dunphy would like to see some changes in how we operate our minor system this province.
“I feel as a province, we need to loosen up our with our own in-house rules. We shouldn’t create one single provincial rule that will hurt or impede our chances when competing at a national level,” said Dunphy.
“We need to carry on with our development and put more focus at the grass-roots level of the game. I feel we are paying too big of a price in trying to accommodate national and regional elite and all star programs.
“Nowadays, if a kid is not from a fairly well-to-do family, financially he could be out the door. I know for a fact if this was the case when I was growing up, a lot of great players would have never kicked a soccer ball.”
While Dunphy says it’s great to have and develop new soccer facilities, the financial burden of these facilities should fall on the backs of the elected municipal and provincial and federal officials, “not on the backs of the kids.”
In summing up, Dunphy said the bottom line is, “We need to get back to the club level of soccer and the rest will take care of itself.”
As Mirkovic sees it, “At the end of the day, it’s all about guts. You need guts to make some tough decisions and guts to carry it through.
“I think the lack of guts should never be associated with Newfoundland and Labrador in any shape or form or under any circumstances,” said Mirkovic, “that’s why I am optimistic about soccer future in our province.”