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Montreal has invested a lot of money into its academy setup, and by creating five new teams this winter, it's now ready to develop local players from the ground up.

While the Montreal Impact has been all quiet on the transfer front so far this offseason, there’s been plenty of activity going on at the Impact’s academy, which is currently undergoing its biggest expansion since the program’s inception in the winter of 2010. 

This year, the academy will have five new teams (U8, U9, U10, U11 and U12) for local players below the age of 12, which means the Impact will be developing players from as early as the age of seven, just like some of the biggest academies in the world (Barcelona, Ajax, etc.) have already been doing for some time.

Though it might take a decade or more before we really begin to see the tangible benefits of this expansive academy system, club president Joey Saputo, who has always made the development of local players a priority, insisted that it’s well worth the wait.

"The arrival of these new teams will have fantastic repercussions on soccer in Quebec," Saputo said in a statement in December. "This means that a player with potential could start wearing Impact colours as early as the age of seven. He will be able to develop and grow under our supervision over a number of years, in order to one day join the academy, and have the chance to graduate to the professional ranks after having spent nearly a dozen years with the club."

There’s a lot that goes into running the academy. First, it requires significant financial support, and much of the academy’s financing comes from the Saputo family. Then there’s developing a training curriculum for each age group and putting the right people in place so that the players can best develop. There’s also significant organization required: making sure the players are completing school and arranging travel and accomodation for road games and tournaments are only some of the many things that need to be thought of.

Now that there are five new teams in the academy, the Impact are holding many different open tryouts this winter in order to fill these teams’ rosters, but selecting players as young as seven or eight can be quite a challenge. How can one know how a young player will turn out 10 years from now? Philippe Eullaffroy, the Impact's academy director, said that what he looks for the most is the right personality.

“At that age we look at the effort the kid puts in, whether he listens or not; his passion for the game,” Eullaffroy told Goal. “It’s hard to look 10 years ahead, but we’re looking for kids that are active, that want to progress, that have a spirit of wanting to learn and grow.”

The Impact’s academy will now have a total of 11 teams and 210 players in its ranks training year-round. Teams from U8 to U14 won’t be registered in a league but will play in friendly matches and tournaments, both in Canada and in the U.S.

The U16 and U-18 teams will remain in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league (USSDA), which they joined last year for the first time. Matching up against more established academies was a little intimidating at first and there was concern that perhaps the Impact would be a little behind and would struggle to complete, but in their inaugural season, the Impact’s teams gave a very respectable account of themselves. The U16s (9-11-5) finished seventh and the 18s (8-9-8) finished sixth in the Northeast Division.

The Impact’s U21 team will join the Premier Development League (PDL) next year as a U23 team. The U21s pulled out of the Canadian Soccer League (CSL) last year after the Canadian Soccer Association decided to no longer sanction the league following myriad match fixing scandals. Though the PDL offers better quality opposition than the CSL, Eullaffroy explained that joining the PDL is only a temporary solution, as the league's 14-game season is far too short.

"In general, the PDL is a better league than the CSL, the level is higher, but the problem is that it’s just not long enough,” Eullaffroy said. “We’re looking at different options, like the USL or playing more friendly games, but we absolutely need to have more quality games throughout the year.”

Aside from having to find a suitable league for its U23 team, the Impact, with respect to its academy, have little left to erect. As Eullaffroy explained, the Impact now have a complete academy setup and won't need to expand any further.

“This is it; we won’t be adding any more teams,” Eullaffroy concluded. “Now we just have to work on developing the players.”

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