The Winstars Soccer Consulting and Academy focuses on professionally-centered soccer development, preparing elite players for U.S.- Collegiate and worldwide pro-league competitions. Academy Director Bobby Graham is one of the more knowledgeable coaches on the North American soccer scene and he was gracious enough to take the time to chat with us about coaching, the development options available to young Canadian players and the general state of youth player development in Canada today.
Winstars Soccer Academy Mission Statement:
To offer an academy program for elite youth soccer players that is recognized for excellence in academic achievement and athletic success. To promote each member player of our program with effective leadership and guidance towards the fulfillment of personal goals and the realization of reaching one's highest potential as a student-athlete, soccer player and as a person.
RedNation Online: Bobby, you are well known in Ontario soccer circles due to your academy, Winstars Soccer Academy. For the readers in othe parts of Canada who might not be as familiar with you, can you give us some background info on where you started and how you got to where you are today?
Bobby Graham: I got started in 1968 when I came to Canada from Scotland. My father was one of the founders of the Oakville Soccer Club, where I played and I later coached at. And then as I got into coaching I ended up coaching with a few of the best clubs in Ontario, with one being Oakville and the others Wexford, the Toronto Jets and then further on with Woodbridge. I was the Technical Director for the Woodbridge Soccer Club for six years and we became number one in the country.
Winstars started in 1993. I went back to Oakville to coach and I started the Oakville Winstars with the past President of the Oakville Soccer Club, Charlie Sciberras. We formed a team to get the best players, to develop them and to be the best program in Canada and within a five year period, we ended up doing that. And the whole idea was to send players to either either college soccer (NCAA Division I) or professional soccer. And we managed to achieve both with our program.
By doing that, the main place that we were recognized was at the presitigious Dallas Cup, which is one of the best tournaments in North America, if not the world, for youth soccer. And another tournament was the Captial Cup, where our Academy won twice. In our time with the Academy at the Dallas Cup, we played in the Super Division and we played against teams like AC Milan, Boca Juniors, Tottenham Hotspur, EC Victoria - quite a lot of the best youth programs in the world - and we managed to compete well with them.
So that's how we got our name. And later on, after I finished with the club business, I decided that I wanted to start my own Academy, because I felt that it was the time for private academies and I felt that we needed to get the coaches in place first before we brought in the players. Whereas in the club structure, the clubs take in many players and then going looking for coaches and I felt that wasn't the appropriate way to do things.
So now I have a small private Academy. It has been going for five years and we've been very successful. We've sent sixty players to America on athletic scholarships and my total since I started coaching soccer is now over three hundred players sent to Division I soccer in America, plus I have had forty-five players go on to play professional soccer around the world. So I think that it is substantial and more than anybody else in Canada.
RNO: You have coached a multitude of players who have gone on to professional careers and who have earned University scholarships. One name that will be especially familiar to Canadian soccer fans is Adrian Cann, who seems very much to serve as a prime example of what you are trying to achieve in that he not only earned a full college scholarship in the United States with the University of Louisville, but has also had a successful playing career both in Europe and here in North America. It seems that your program is very much geared towards providing players with a multitude of options in terms of both their education and their professional soccer careers. How much do you keep in touch with former players once they have moved on from Winstars Soccer Academy?
Bobby Graham: I keep in touch quite a bit. And I keep in touch with Adrian more than anyone. You are 100% right. Adrian went on to the University of Louisville, where he won the top awards as one of the top defenders to ever play in Conference USA. There are a lot of other players.
Dejan Jakovic, who is now with D.C. United. He was with me. He actually got cut by the Provincial program and I could see that he was a player, so I called one of my friends, Mike Getman at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he saw Dejan with me at the Dallas Cup. And Dejan got a full athletic scholarhsip with Mike Getman at UAB. And then he went on to play at Red Star Belgrade and now he is a starter with D.C. United.
There are so many other players. Atiba Hutchinson played for me at Woodbridge and now he is obviously doing very, very well over with PSV. And Junior Hoillet was actually a Winstar player with our younger Winstars team with Charlie Sciberras, with Oakville, when he was 12 and 13 years of age and was an exceptional player. We have had quite a lot of the best kids in the country go through my coaching programs.
RNO: Those are some of the biggest names in terms of Canadians playing at the highest levels and with our Senior National Team. You did hit on something interesting there with the story that Dejan was cut, but that you recognized that there was something special about the player. Is that one of your main focuses in terms of uncovering hidden talent?
Bobby Graham: That's one of my best attributes - to be able to spot talent. And that is what I think is really lacking in our country, because a lot of the players that are selected for Provincial and National Team duty are physical players in that they want those big, rough players that play like hockey players. Whereas, Dejan and Adrian were more finesse players. Of course, now both have built themselves up to be tougher. And it was the same with guys like Atiba.
At our Academy, the players have to have a good touch on the ball, they have to have control of the ball, and we look for a true soccer player - what his first touch is like, what he does with the ball and his intelligence. Because being able to run without the proper technique, it may win games when the players are at a younger age, but when the kids get older, it certainly is not going to help. So what we do is, we look at a player that is going to be a player for the future. Not for today, but for tomorrow. I believe that those players were players you could spot as talents that needed to be developed. And I believe that in our country what we do is we judge players too quickly and that a lot of things change in the years 12 to 14. Whereas what they do right now is they take a player at 12 or 13 and they keep them all the way through. Well, players can become better and players can become weaker. It's all got to do with how they develop, who they are with and who is coaching them. So I really believe that we are often too early to judge players.
RNO: The philosophy of your Academy is primarily focused on developing players to the best of their ability. How do you go about bringing out the best in players?
Bobby Graham: As I have said, we look at the players in terms of the qualifications of how they play the game. We also look very much to the player's discipline and respect. When we select players we look at how their attitude is, what they are like and they also have to be ambitious in terms of what they want to do. Our main goal for our players is for them to go to get an education through the NCAA Division I. And what that does is that it allows them to earn a scholarship that actually pays for them to get an education. Because, quite frankly, in Canada right now, the only way that I would recognize something different is if the player did not have the grades. But if the players have the grades, then I really believe that all of our players should get an education, because then they have a backup plan.
If you go into a program like an MLS Academy and you are one of best sixteen year old prospects and you don't have that backup plan of an education, then we all know that your career is short as a soccer player, especially in this country due to there not being many options. What I really would like to see with those programs is for them to pay for a player's education. For example, if the program is Toronto FC, then maybe they would do a program with the University of Toronto or York University, where their players go and get an education and it is paid for the soccer program.
As a parent and as a player, I would make sure that it would be mandatory to be put into the system. Because for a player to go on in this country and have a long lasting career, it's rare and not many do it. You can mention a few, like Paul Stalteri or Dwayne De Rosario and a few others. But quite franky, for most of the others, they are not going to get that far and they really need to have an occupation to fall back on when they are finished.
In our program, we work on the academics also and we make sure we have an SAT tutor that works with the players. Our tutor is Danny Sanko, who was a former player and an All American with Dartmouth College in the Ivy League. He works with our players on a regular basis. And I really believe think that is the way to go. At the end of the day, an average player in our program will do better than a provincial or national player will do, because the latter too often end up with no outlet. A lot of people end up high and dry when they are eighteen and there is nowhere to go, and then they get rejected by all these program like TFC or the National Teams, because at the end of the day they can only have so many players.
RNO: It's pretty apparent that a focus on an education outside of soccer is a big part of the Winstars mandate. Obviously, education is vital for a career after a player's playing days are over. However, I'm curious if you think a strong education also contributes to a player becoming a better player on the pitch and later a better professional, if they go that far?
Bobby Graham: Yes, 100%. This game is a game of intelligence. I look for that in a player right away. Is he intelligent? And do I only have to tell him something once? Very good players are low maintenance and they pick up on things right away. So we are looking for that and, when they have it, they will definitely become a better player. Because when they step up into college soccer they are going to pick up really fast because they will have professional coaches coaching them there. And if they have the opportunity to go into the MLS or to go professional elsewhere, they will pick things up right away.
Because when you go pro, it is all about winning. And if you get told to do something, they are only going to tell you once. So you have to be pretty fast at picking those things up. So intelligence is key and I think it is key for any program to look for intelligent players. And the players that I just mentioned - Dejan, Adrian, and Atiba - those kids picked things up very, very fast and they were just a pleasure to coach.
RNO: For young players, opportunities for development have improved across Canada over the years with opportunies to develop via professional academies such as your's and via provincial soccer teams and programs. And, of course, the professional teams in Canada like Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps are now moving heavily into the development of their Academy Programs. What advice would you give to young players and parents who are trying to decide upon the best youth training setup for them?
Bobby Graham: I would suggest to keep in mind what I have already said about the academic side and education, because first and foremost, every parent must concerned with their son getting an education. As a parent, that is one of the most important things that you have to do in your life.
I really wish and hope that Toronto FC, Montreal and Vancouver get it right and I think they will. In Toronto they are setting up this whole new training facility at Downsview, which I think is great and which I think is going to be great for soccer in Canada. I also think that our Provincial Programs do a good job at developing the kids. It's just where do these kids go when they are 17-18 - there isn't a place to go. I really believe that parents have to look at that and I believe they should be very careful about signing any professional documents with a team that gives them ownership rights and anything that could exclude their kids from receiving an athletic scholarship south of the border or that reduces their ability to go over to Europe.
Quite frankly, I think if a kid is good enough and he doesn't have the grades, then he really should try Europe and have a go over there. Because the MLS is really a stepping stone to Europe any way. So don't give up your rights as a player. And if a player is under eighteen, then the parents have to be very wise about this whole issue, because becoming a professional player is, number one, short lived and, number two, there isn't much money involved. Most of the players are making under $50,000 a year and a lot of the young players that are starting up, are from my understanding, making $30-40,000. And quite frankly, you can make as much money at McDonald's.
RNO: As you have mentioned, one of main drawbacks that Canada has experienced in past years is the one in which Canadian players reach a certain age and then do not really have a place to continue to playing at a highly competitive level. How do WinStars and other independent academies contribute to overcoming this?
Bobby Graham: What we try to do with our players is to get them to go and play up. In our structure, we get them to play with OSL teams. In our academy, any of our players can play for any club teams. We don't hold our kids back from playing with clubs. We are a development academy. The only kids that would stay with us on a full-time basis are our older kids, because they realize that they don't want to go anywhere else. When I say older kids, I'm saying 17-18 year olds. But we encourage our younger players because it is important that they get a lot of competition and that they get to play some club soccer. But at the end, some of our players have gone down to the States on academic scholarships and then they come back and they are looking for teams and, quite frankly, it's hard out there, because there aren't a lot of options.
Our guys don't want to get involved with the politics of a lot of the leagues and the Ontario Soccer League was, in my opinion, the best place to play amateur soccer. They can play in that league in a Men's League and be challenged. A good player has to be challenged, so I would recommend a really good 16-17 year old player to play in the OSL, because to play against the older players will make them smarter, more intelligent and make them faster. Whereas playing against players their own age, for a lot of them it is just a walk in the park.
One of things that happens in Canada is that the stronger teams get stronger and the weaker teams get weaker in the Ontario youth soccer leagues. So what you end up having in all the age groups is you have two good teams and eight bad teams, so you only get maybe three or four challenging games in the whole year. And as you go to eighteen years of age, it's reduced to maybe one good team left. So the idea is really to get as much development as possible by playing against older players. The CSL is good for that, with the Toronto FC youth players playing in the CSL. The only thing I would be very wary with in terms of advice to parents and players would be to make sure that you check your eligibility status before signing a CSL contract with any of the teams, because it could give you an eligibility problems with the NCAA, if you want to pursue playing college soccer in the States.
RNO: It becoming apparent that Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps are aiming to use their academy models to develop their own homegrown players versus getting them from the college system, which has very much been the main model that Major League Soccer was built upon. Which system do you think will develop better players?
Bobby Graham: I really believe that the homegrown system will do a better job if it is run properly and if they set up the development path properly. The only question is around how you can keep the players in the program for so long and what they will do with the educational side. Because right now in Canada, there are two things the players will say if you ask them what they want. The first is that they want to become a professional soccer player. The second is that if they can't do that then they would like to get an education via an athletic scholarship. Those are the two options and it is very limited in terms of making these MLS squads. I think Russell Tiebert was the only Canadian to play for Vancouver last season and Toronto had three or four, with only two that played on a really regular basis. Hopefully down the road a lot more will come through.
However, in saying that, the exposure is also there in playing college soccer in America, as the college games are on TV a lot on Fox and ESPN. And those games are seen not only by the people watching the college games, but also by a lot of scouts from Europe, South America and the MLS. So there is quite a lot of exposure.
Arsene Wenger who has Brek Shea from FC Dallas training with Arsenal, he has been saying that the future is going to be North America and that a lot of players are going to come from North America or Asia. So I think the experience for a younger player of going that route is very good, as they are getting experience, they are getting an education and they are getting proper development, as all the coaches they will be dealing with are professionals. Furthermore, they are getting a degree and the experience of living in another city or another part of the world that they are not used to, which helps them to grow up as a person. So I think there are positives and negatives to both.
RNO: It really sounds like the best type of model would be some kind of hybrid model where they can maybe train with one particular academy program, but also go to a U.S. College?
Bobby Graham: I agree with you 100%. And we are like a hybrid model along those lines, because that is what we do at Winstars. So for anybody that is looking to go to the U.S. from an academic point of view, our academy is set up along those lines. We have an excellent reputation and I can pick up the phone to any college coach in America. A lot of schools have a had a number of our players. Mike Getman has had seventeen of our players and nine went on to be captains of his program, which is a top 20 program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. So what I am saying is, for parents I think they need to think about life after soccer and that soccer can be a good way to earn your son an education via something he loves doing.
And the sports world can be cruel and you really do see a lot of kids who when they turn eighteen, they have nowhere to go. And because they have committed themselves so much to a provincial or national program, their marks have gone down the drain and then those programs often throw them under the bus, because they move on to different players.
RNO: One of the ongoing debates in terms of youth development in Canadian soccer centres on playing for fun vs. playing to win. Do you coach your players with an emphasis on fun or on winning?
Bobby Graham: I think winning is fun. You do have to enjoy playing the game, but fun does come with teaching the players how to play the right way. At the end of day, everybody wants to win. However, we don't emphasize winning at the younger age groups. We have a saying that you have to learn to play before you go and play. And what I mean by that, is often there is so much emphasis in House League programs and even Rep teams on just kicking the ball down the field so they can beat their opponents. We like to win, but we want to win the right way. And if you teach the kids the right way, then you will win.
In our program, all our kids must have a smile on their faces and a smile on their face comes from learning and it also comes from winning. Because as soon as you put a kid on the field, even 1v1 in practice drill, they want to beat the other kid. I know now they are saying that they are trying to do away with keeping score, but the kids know the score and they want to beat the other team and I don't think that is ever going to change. Some think that winning is a bad word but the reason for competitive sports is to win. But win the right way and remember that fun is learning and winning.
RNO: It seems that one of main benefits of your program is your vast network and lists of contacts with professional clubs and universities in both the U.S. and Canada. How important is it for your organization to have a varied reach in terms of further opportunities for the players in your Academy?
Bobby Graham: A lot of players come to us and think we are just for a U.S. University or College, but they want to go to University here in Canada or they want to become a professional player. We do the right things in order to make a player a better player and we have some of the best coaches in the country coaching in our program. And we really focus on player development and also put a lot into sportsmanship. I'm really big on the manner in which you play the game and respect is something that is really important.
We do have options for our players. We have AS Roma coming over for our Showcase Tournament next month and we have one of their scouts coming over to look at players. Also one of my best friends is Barry Gorman, who is the Technical Director with FC Dallas. I have many connections throughout the MLS, so if anybody wants to go that route, we are here to help them. But if they are good at school, we do try to encourage them to get their education first and then we can lead them to our professional contacts after they have finished school.
RNO: In reviewing your website, with its list of comprehensive players that have gone on to U.S. Colleges and the fact that you offer an SAT Preparation course, it's clear that you are quite tied into the U.S. College system. How do you compare the NCAA and the CIS systems and do you inherently prefer one over the other?
Bobby Graham: I have to say that really it comes down to money. The NCAA has a lot more money behind it. Right now the CIS system is becoming better and you can see it with the University of Toronto. Anthony Capotosto was a Winstars player and now he is an excellent coach with the University of Toronto. You have Carmine Isacco, who is an excellent coach at York University. It looks like they are the two main guns that are doing a lot of recruiting and getting a lot of the players. But it also looks like it is an individual effort. I believe this year was the first time that the University of Toronto has had a full-time coach. And what you are faced with is that there is a lot more money in America and there are a lot more full-time coaches.
When you go to a game in the States there is anywhere from 200 to 15,000 people in the crowd, so I would I would say that on average you would have 1000 people watching at the average game in the U.S. Whereas if you go to watch a CIS game, you are lucky if you get 25 people and a dog watching the game, and most of those are parents and girlfriends. So I think we have a long way to go and we really don't put enough money into sports. I would say that the top five teams in our country could be in the top twenty-five in America. We have good coaching, but I don't think the Universities provide enough financial support for the coaches and players via their programs. So I would say that the NCAA is far better than the CIS.
RNO: A major and ongoing intiative for Winstars is to go on tours in the United States. Where do you go and why do you do that?
Bobby Graham: We take the players down to the States and we go away for a week to ten days. And we usually do that in preseason for the college teams and what we do is we play against different schools. We would play a Division I school, a Division II school and Division III school. A lot of people don't understand that, as they think that a Division III team would be a lesser opponent. But it all goes according to the size of the school. Some of the best schools in the world are Division III - schools like MIT, Tufts, Amherst - these kinds of schools are very good schools. We play against all those different levels so we can see where we are at.
Every year we will go down and play an Ivy League school. In the past few years one of our favourites has been the University of Pennsylvania. And the reason we do that is because it is one of the best schools in the world and we do have a lot of academic kids in our program. We also play them because they also play a good style of soccer. And when we are down there, we take the kids for tours and let them see the program. So when we were at UPenn, we had a chance to go to the Wharton School of Business, which is the number one school in the world for business. And one of our boys - Neil Kowali - has applied to the University Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business and we will be so honoured if he gets in there. Because are not just looking at the kids as soccer players, but also at the full picture and, at the end of day, if he comes out with a degree from the Wharton School of Business, where Donald Trump went to University, then it will be something great for our Academy. Many people overlook that and just look at the soccer aspects.
And then we also go down and play at schools like James Madison that is in the Colonial Conference. Dr. Tom Martin was actually Coach of the Year and he is one of our guest speakers at our Showcase and it is a fine academic institution. We look to get our kids to the best academic institutions in America, academically as well as soccer-wise. Because as a lot of people will say, the detractors will say that there are a lot of schools in America and a lot of them aren't very good academically. Of course, they are right about that, but we don't look at those schools.
We look at the schools that are equal to our schools and where the boys can get financial assistance and athletic assistance. For example, when a boy goes to a college in the States, they get private tutors when they go away to a weekend game in another city. They have tutors on the bus or on plane with them, whereas here in Canada we lack that. The CSA or the OSA will say that they have tutors, but the truth is they don't. And that effects a kid.
Right now I'm reading that we have a U-17 team going down to Costa Rica for ten days. Well, the boys are seventeen and that is the most important time in their education, as they are now in grade 11 or 12. Why do they choose these times to take development teams away? So what I am saying in terms of parents, is that it often isn't well thought out by the association and isn't well thought out by the parents. As I parent I would saying that I think it is more important that my son is going to be here writing his exams and finishing high school with a good Grade Point Average rather than missing a lot of school. We're not Germany, England or Brazil - we have to look at the big picture.
RNO: Players must try out for Winstars Soccer Academy. How do you assess the players and what characteristics are you looking for?
Bobby Graham: First of all, we don't take anybody with a cheque. They have to try out. And the reason for that is that we want to keep the quality there. A lot of other academies and clubs, they do the opposite - whoever comes along, they will take their money. We are not like that. We will first make sure that they meet our standards.
Soccer-wise, as I mentioned earlier, they have to have a good first touch on the ball. All the kids that come into our program have to have a good first touch and they have to be intelligent players. And the reason that we look for that is, if they don't have a good touch on the ball when they are twelve or thirteen, they are never going to have it. So we really need those fundamentals to be established and we look closely at that.
And because we have an academic portion to our Academy, we also look at their academics, what their goals are and what their future is. We interview their parents and also interview the student athlete, because it is important in that you are not only bringing in an athlete, but also recruiting a Mum and Dad. You need to make sure the athlete, the parents and us as the Academy, that we are all on the same page and have the same goals for the child.
RNO: What are your thoughts on the general state of youth soccer development in Canada and the direction it is heading in?
Bobby Graham: My opinion is that it is poor. I hope that it gets better. I really want it to get better, but when you look at the long term player development, it's obvious that compared to anywhere else in the world our little kids can compete. Our boys and girls can compete with anybody. What we need to do is fill the gap between ages fourteen and up. So I think there has to be more priority on that.
I want the game to become better, but right now I don't see too many positives with the Ontario Soccer Association and their development. I think people wear too many hats and there are too many conflicts of interest. We have got provincial coaches running their own academies. They are also working for club programs and doing part-time jobs for everything out there. And quite frankly, that's not good enough. If they have a job, they need to stay with the one job and leave everything else alone. And it's a big conflict, because if they are picking players, they could be picking a player because they go to his own training sessions. It has to be that you give a person a job and you pay him well enough that he will only focus on that job. We need to hire the proper people and enable them.
We don't have a solid structure. We've got different teams playing different styles. Whereas if you go to any other soccer country in the world, all the national teams are playing the same style all the way through from the bottom up. Here everybody does what they want and they talk a good game on their websites. But when it comes down to it, everybody is going in their own direction, so I don't really see things as bright. But I do hope it will be bright because I really want to see the game grow here and I want to see TFC be one of the best teams in the MLS. I want to see the game grow with both our provincial and national teams. But frankly, what we have to get is the provincial associations coaching coaches and leaving the player development up to clubs. We have to get the clubs developing the kids and the better players can go to the private academies or to the academies of Toronto FC, Vancouver or Montreal.