Sarnia FC boosting development with Vancouver Whitecaps

Representing of the Vancouver Whitecaps, from left, academy director Marianos Papageorgopoulos and director of soccer development Dan Lenarduzzi, hold up banners with Sarnia FC club president Tom Lacroix and head coach Paul Burke.
Troy ShantzRepresenting of the Vancouver Whitecaps, from left, academy director Marianos Papageorgopoulos and director of soccer development Dan Lenarduzzi, hold up banners with Sarnia FC club president Tom Lacroix and head coach Paul Burke. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

A new collaboration between Sarnia FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer could have local soccer fans screaming, “GOOOOOOOOOOAL!”

The partnership will soon allow Sarnia FC players and coaches to access Whitecaps’ coaching and development through a virtual academy centre in Sarnia.

“This is a sea-change for soccer in Sarnia. It just puts us at a whole different level,” said head coach Paul Burke.

The academy — one of 21 in Canada and only the second in Ontario — will be accessible to all Sarnia FC grassroots and development players.

It will offer players of all levels benefits that include an introduction to the Whitecaps curriculum, coaching and development, and a clearly defined pathway to professional and international opportunities for elite men and women players.

“We’ve had a few players come through that have had some major success,” said Burke. “But generally what happens is they get to that higher level and they have to leave Sarnia, because I just can’t offer the training or competition they require for that high-end level.”

Nothing is changing within Sarnia FC, including the FC Academy. But the program enhancement enables players aged eight to 12 to locally access resources and coaching straight from the Major League Soccer team.

“If I’m a parent and I get a chance to send my son or daughter to go and train with a professional coach, I’m taking it,” said Burke.

Thirteen-year-olds could train at the London Whitecaps academy, and depending on skill level play on a Whitecaps provincial club or land a residency in Vancouver, where they would live, attend school and train year-round.

“I think the potential in Southern Ontario is huge; I think it’s massive,” said London Whitecaps head coach Mike Ayyash and the man overseeing the Whitecaps academy in Sarnia.

Ayyash, originally from the East coast, is himself a product of Whitecaps’ coaching development. The “process-driven” approach involves little lecturing and lots of field play, he said.

“We don’t care about the end results in youth soccer, we don’t care about that at all. We care about developing each individual player within our philosophy.”

The Vancouver Whitecaps decided early on as an MLS organization it wanted to be “Canada’s team,” said Dan Lenarduzzi, director of soccer development for the Whitecaps.

As such, it began creating academy centres to share its curriculum, methodology and coaching approach.

“We only want to expand if we find a like-minded organization,” he said, noting Sarnia FC is exactly the kind of relationship it was looking for.

“It’s the biggest sport in Canada right now and I think it’s got an opportunity to grow even bigger,” he said.

The local academy is scheduled to begin offering training in late April or early May.