There remains plenty of work to be done, on a local level, before boys youth competitive soccer in Sudbury can lay claim to providing a steady stream of potential post-secondary prospects.
That said, the developmental landscape has not been completely barren. The Cambrian trio of captain Aaron Dent, Shawn Wilcox and Nicholas Walker all spent much of their younger years as teammates on a squad that originally burgeoned as the Panhellenic Spitfire.
The 2016 Golden Shield grouping has welcomed a handful of highly productive newcomers to the mix this year, a pair of whom completed their run in youth soccer this past summer, long-time partners on the pitch as members of Nick Mancini’s GSSC (Greater Sudbury Soccer Club) Impact 1998 boys team.
Given his scoring exploits over the years, speedster Brandon Moxam likely arrived with more fanfare, and greater name recognition, though coach Giuseppe Politi notes that midfielder Eric Sampson has matched the on-field presence of his offensively talented brethren.
“For such a soft spoken young man, he is certainly a big reason why we are on a good path to a playoff spot, and perhaps even a home qualifying game,” noted Politi. “Eric makes it very difficult for opponents to break us down in central midfield.”
“He often reads the play well and becomes our first pass in transition to attack. You may not see his name on the scoresheet often, but he's a core player and pillar on this year's squad." It was this kind of ability that allowed Sampson to enjoy success as a 10 year-old star with his Croatia Adria squad, tapped for the Regional program by coach Brian Ashton a few years later.
By the time his teenage years rolled around, the future graduate of Collège Notre-Dame would become entrenched as a cornerstone of an Impact team that maintained its spot within a tough Central Soccer League division for every single year but one.
“I didn’t quite know what to expect, especially since we were the only team from Northern Ontario,” Sampson recalled of his first foray opposite CSL adversaries. “When we started, it was a big wake up call, but I think we adapted pretty well over the years.”
Originally introduced to the beautiful game via a number of summers spent as a member of the Walden Minor Soccer Association, Moxam did not begin to test the waters of the more competitive ranks until it was suggested that he might want to attend Regional tryouts.
He and Sampson quickly became fixtures, both under Ashton’s watch, but also within the Impact family, sticking through the tough stretch that would see their team relegated from the CSL ranks, forced to seek out a proper level of competition as a tournament only team for one summer.
“It was different, not being in a league and actually having standings and everything like that,” admitted Moxam. “But it was interesting, because we played a lot more teams than we would have. We got to see a whole different variety of skill gaps, from very, very challenging teams, to some that were not so good.”
By the age of 15 or 16, Moxam had begun to ponder the possibility of playing beyond his high school years, a mindset that would lead him to spend some 18 months or so travelling regularly to a soccer academy in Vaughan. It was a choice he would repeat in a heartbeat.
“We’re seen as a hockey town, so soccer isn’t focused on too much,” noted Moxam, a key forward with the St Benedict Bears teams that recently made it an annual tradition to attend OFSAA soccer tournaments in early June.
“We are always trying to promote soccer and get ourselves noticed. We don’t have all of the different options that they have in Toronto, so many academies, so many skill schools that can help the athletes down there.”
In fact, athletes like Sampson and Moxam are the exception, all too often, in Sudbury. Countless of their earliest teammates will try and balance an abbreviated summer of competitive soccer with their much lengthier season of competitive hockey, typically cracking the soccer lineup on the basis of some very natural athleticism, developed at an early age.
“When I was playing, the main issue was losing players to winter sports during our off-season, mostly hockey,” said Sampson. “I think it’s important that teams train for the entire year, and I know that is difficult with the facilities we have here.”
Both young men acknowledge the obvious hurdles – lack of a soccer-first focus, lack of proper year-round facilities, etc… - that stand in the way of Sudbury youth soccer creating a healthy annual pipeline of talent to post-secondary institutions across the province. There is something of a catch-22 at play, typically at the very genesis of rep soccer teams in this area.
“You have to go with the person who has the drive for the game, who has the passion,” explained Moxam. “Yes, there are “AAA” players that are gifted at a certain time. If these “AAA” players are more focused on hockey, they might start as phenomenal soccer players, but they won’t be working on soccer.”
“An athlete who loves soccer, and is not as gifted at the time, he or she will keep working on their sport, so they will eventually be better than those that were better initially.” Eventually, these are the young athletes that become the nucleous that coach Politi can build a team around.
“Although not on the scoresheet as much as he's used to, Brandon has contributed significantly to this year's success to date,” said Politi. “His versatility and fitness are unmatched on this year's squad. Brandon's speed and one vs one ability has led to a lot of attacking opportunities this season.”
Perhaps there is something to home grown talent after all.