Toronto FC launches mentorship program to connect academy players with pros

·5 min read

TORONTO — General manager Ali Curtis calls Toronto FC a big club that operates as a small family.

"We're just trying to take care of our family members," he said, referencing the team's efforts to help players, staff and their loved ones, from delivering meals, to flying in family members and even helping with pet care, during the pandemic.

That includes the TFC academy, which has seen most normal business essentially grind to a halt because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Families stick together and learn from each other. And to that end, the MLS club announced a new mentorship program Tuesday designed to connect academy players with the club’s pros.

"I'm really excited about it," said Curtis. "I'm as excited about this mentorship program as I would be (for) any other result that would happen on the field. I think it will help and improve not just our young players on the field but I really think we're also in the business of developing young men in terms of their character and how they are off the field and things like that."

Former Canadian international Jason Bent, an assistant coach with the first team, and former TFC player Jason Hernandez, the club’s manager for player engagement, will serve as program heads.

Jeremy Hall, another former first-team player who now serves as the academy's under-14 head coach, and Arthur Casupanan, executive assistant to the general manager, will serve as program advisers.

First team and TFC II players who participate in the program will be placed in mentorship groups with three to four academy players. The program, which will also feature guest speakers, is expected to launch after the 2020 playoffs.

The program is voluntary and initially will focus on players from under-14 up. The goal is to eventually incorporate younger academy members as well as TFC alumni.

The program will include one-on-one work as well as group meetings, which will likely start out as virtual until progress is made in battling the pandemic. The startup will include meetings with first-team and TFC 2 players as well as academy members and their parents.

The club already looks after its own. Twelve of the 32 players listed on the first-team roster are aged 22 or younger — all the way down to 16-year-old midfielder Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty. The youngsters say veterans like Jozy Altidore, captain Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow are eager to share their experience or advice.

"I think it's an environment, a culture that has to be fostered," said Curtis. "And it's impressive, I think, that it's not just the players. I give a lot of credit to the staff. There is a culture that has been nurtured about how you treat people and how you interact with people. And how everyone matters."

"I think a lot of these things happen organically, in that they happen on the training ground, within the training facility. But I also think that we can do more," he added.

Teri Dennis-Davies, the newly hired senior vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, helped with the program. Morrow, who doubles as executive director of Black Players for Change, has also been involved.

"One of the ingredients to having a successful football club is that every year you need to layer in some programming that's new or improved … that is designed to address a lot of the off-field challenges and opportunities," said Curtis.

"It's super-important. Why wouldn't we take advantage of the experiences, the character of our first-team players, of our first-team staff?" he added. "And it's really important that we make sure that we transfer all of that information in an organic way as well as in a scientific way to our young talent … so that we can prepare them for the professional world.

"We hope that means at the MLS level, but if not on our MLS team then we hope that we've prepared them for whatever challenges that they will meet moving forward as they grow older in their lives, whether that's on the field or whether that's off the field."

The academy is also dear to TFC head coach Greg Vanney.

His first job with the franchise, in 2013, was as assistant general manager and academy director. Plus his three sons are part of it -- his twins in the academy proper and the youngest in the TFC Juniors program.

He has seen the impact his players can have on the youngsters, with some having already jumped on Zoom calls to connect this year.

"All of these young players want to be where these guys are at," said Vanney, "There's a lot of learning that can come when the first-team players are willing to share their experiences. And the things that they've learned along the way can really help these younger players to understand the pitfalls, the good or the bad, the different things they're going to encounter and how they should approach it.

"I really think it's a fantastic initiative by Ali and his team."

There are roughly 100 athletes in the TFC academy, whose youngest group currently is under-14 (2007 birthdates). The TFC Juniors program covers ages six through 13.

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press