By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (April 15, 2021) US soccer players – A little over two years ago, the New York Times featured Dutch club Ajax and the particularly talented group of local talent that took first place in the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League had occupied. The club’s productive academy is well known. Members of this season’s group would be joining some of the biggest teams in the world for substantial transfer fees. A quote from the former goalkeeper who became club manager Edwin van der Sar aptly summed up his ethos of why such a turnover was not only acceptable but also necessary.
“We have to give the way to the next,” he told the Times’ Rory Smith. “If the players stay too long, the next one won’t be able to play. The whole thing chokes. “
I was reminded of these words while watching the first round of the Concacaf Champions League 2021 for the past two weeks.
An injured Toronto FC upset reigning League MX champions Club Leon 3-2, overall with intoxicating performances from a mix of veterans and local teenagers. Then the Philadelphia Union made their first CCL experience a breeze, beating perennial Costa Rican rivals Saprissa 5-0. Two performances showed few signs of the usual pre-season rust.
As different as Toronto and Philly are, they both share a special focus on their respective academy systems. By now, the Union’s approach, which has been compared more than a few times to Ajax’s, is familiar to most readers. The club’s executives decided a long time ago to build a player development pipeline that could eventually allow them to surpass their financial clout in MLS and strengthen the US national teams in the process. That company bore fruit by capturing last year’s supporter ‘Shield. Selling outstanding products by Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie to European clubs for seven-figure transfer fees over the winter was another breakthrough and a new phase in the project.
Toronto has now been one of the league’s biggest donors for more than half a decade. They brought along a long list of Designated Players and reaped the rewards of three trips to the MLS Cup Final and a triple in 2017. At the same time, the Canadians built an ambitious academy and their own second team. As the big ticket signings continue, they now want to refresh their seasoned roster with their biggest and brightest crop of talent to date.
The usual reservations about sample size apply here. These are just four games in a campaign that could run well over 40 for each of these teams by the end of the year. Still, the rigors of the Champions League provide valuable data points regarding these teams’ prospects of proving that an Ajax model could actually work here.
Philadelphia looked like the usual well-oiled self against Saprissa. Jim Curtin’s squad worked on his 4-4-2 diamond formation, executing game patterns and position responsibilities with a level of fluidity few MLS teams have at this time of year. Aaronson’s nominal successor Anthony Fontana scored a goal in the second leg. New right-back Olivier Mbaizo was the game’s assistant in the first leg, suggesting they are ready to pick up where their former team-mates left off.
Toronto faced stronger opposition, and their victory had a more imaginative character. DPs Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Pozuelo were among several injured during most of the show. Coach Chris Armas entrusted several newly promoted candidates such as Noble Okello, Luke Singh, who signed two short-term contracts just to attend, and Ralph Priso. He asked Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez to take care of the young group. All have repaid that belief with bold, resilient displays that provide an invaluable boost at the start of Armas’ tenure.
It’s pretty obvious conventional wisdom that losing players weakens teams. While the bigger picture in world football is more complicated, this assumption also holds true for most of the league’s existence in MLS. Even Commissioner Don Garber, who publicly proclaimed the need for a “sales league” a few years ago, admitted that he had not understood or accepted the idea of selling talented players in his early career.
Philly sold McKenzie and Aaronson and filled their slots with local produce from the inside. Toronto promoted its own youth instead of getting splashy signatures from overseas. This would usually create a natural tendency to downgrade their championship credentials. Whether this is still the case or not is certainly worth asking after the Champions League round of 16.
“The players and this club do what they always do – they believe in ourselves in all situations to really get into the game and push for wins every night regardless of the circumstances,” said Patrick Mullins of Toronto after the Game. “It’s something that this club was about and we’re showing how we’ve reinvigorated that mentality by moving through to the start of this season and the Champions League campaign.”
The methodical path these clubs have now is to prepare the players for opportunities. It suggests a North American riff over this powerful Ajax concept from increasingly advanced substitutes. That would be a paradigm shift for Major League Soccer.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/cboehm.
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Photo by Bruno Fahy – Belga via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com