As I stepped into TFC’s Kia Training Ground at Downsview Park, the first thing that caught my eye was the English Premier League game on the LED big screen. It was no surprise that the team is completely immersed in soccer. I was led through a maze of corridors to a small classroom, where I was introduced to TFC II’s first ever head coach, Jason Bent. Dressed comfortably in a tracksuit, Jason’s body language depicted a confident man who was simultaneously calm and alert. This is a man who has eaten, slept and breathed this game for his entire life, and is ready to make Vaughan, Toronto, Ontario and Canada proud of this new addition to the world of professional soccer.
On January 21st, 2015, MLSE (Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment), the USL (United Soccer League) and the City of Vaughan made the groundbreaking announcement that Vaughan would have its first professional sports team – TFC II, the USL minor league affiliate for Toronto FC, the MLSE-owned pro soccer team that plays in North America’s largest league, MLS (Major League Soccer). Since that day, the city has been abuzz with the excitement and anticipation of the team’s inaugural season. The team will play out of a new stadium at the Ontario Soccer Centre, located at Martingrove and Highway 7. The Ontario Soccer Association will be paying to build the stadium, which will eventually have seating capacity for 3,500 fans. The team’s first game will take place Saturday, March 21st against Charleston Battery in South Carolina. After 9 games on the road, the team will play it’s first “home” game at BMO field downtown against the Rochester Rhinos. Their true home opener at the new Vaughan stadium will take place against FC Montreal on Saturday, July 4th. The 28-game regular season will end on Saturday, September 19th against Wilmington Hammerheads FC. Behind the bench, the man entrusted with fielding and coaching the best team possible and providing Vaughan and MLSE with a winner is Brampton-raised 38-year-old Jason Bent.
As a child, Jason Bent played soccer in Malton. While his family moved to Brampton in the second grade, he continued to play in Malton, learning the fundamentals of the game he loved. By age nine, he was selected to play rep, a more competitive level than the more recreational house league young players typically participate in “My brother and my cousin were my biggest influences. My brother is three years older than me – I used to go to his practices and watch what his team was doing. “Throughout his high school years at St. Augustine, he continued to develop while pursuing track and field as well. “I was into the high jump, and the 800 metres,” Jason recalls. “I guess it made sense that I’d be into long distance running.” A number of his classmates were also local soccer players, including the captain of the U18 Canadian National Team. In 1997, Jason made the U20 Canadian team and traveled to Malaysia, where he competed in the U20 World Cup . The team was eliminated in the round of 16, but Jason fondly remembers his goal against Argentina on a free kick. “That goal was crucial to my future in this game.”
Jason signed and played with FSV Zwickau in Germany during 1997-1998, then came back to North America, where he played from 1998-2000 with the Colorado Rapids in MLS. As a massive Manchester United fan growing up, Jason aspired to play in England. His dream would come true. “From 2001-2004, I played for Plymouth Argyle in the 3rd division. After winning the 3rd division championship in 2002, we were promoted to the 2nd division and won the championship there in 2004.” Unfortunately, that’s where disaster struck. Jason injured his knee and spent 2 years in physiotherapy trying to rebuild his strength so he could compete at his best. Sadly, he was unable to, and in 2006, Jason Bent had to announce his retirement as a professional soccer player.
“Why is there only one ball for 22 players? If you gave a ball to each of them, they’d stop fighting for it.”
– Unknown Author
At this point, we took a break so Jason could head downstairs to practice with Toronto FC. In one of its first practices with newly acquired international superstar, former Juventus forward / midfielder Sebastien Giovinco, the team performed half-field drills on either side of the field. Jason played midfield for one squad, looking fluid and fast as he ran effortlessly towards the net, dribbling with precision and passion. After the practice, I asked if he was sure he should not be out there as a player. “Absolutely,” he said with a laugh,”I know exactly what I can and can not do out there.” What he was doing was displaying his love for the game, along with the skill that got him here.
After his retirement, Jason traveled back and forth between Canada, the US and Europe, earning his coach’s license. He was working with various clubs in Caledon and Mississauga, training, teaching and coaching players. “After all the time away, I wanted to focus my time and effort on local opportunities,” he explains. “At the same time, I got my A and B license, UEFA and USA licenses and soon through National team contacts, I was hired as coach of TFC Academy’s U18 squad, while my good friend Stuart Neely coached the U16 squad. “This job lasted between 2008 and 2011 until he was ‘called up.’ “TFC promoted me to assistant coach in 2011, and I’ve been there until now.” In this time, Jason planned strategies, ran training sessions, managed set pieces (returning the ball to play after stoppages) and analyzed video, becoming “quite proficient” in these intricate coaching aspects.
Tim Bezbatchenko, TFC General Manager since September of 2013, believes Jason Bent is a great choice to be TFC II’s inaugural coach. “Jason is a person who has many of the qualities that we were looking for in a coach. His calm and confident presence will enable him to help his players achieve their maximum potential and become leaders in the community,” says Bezbatchenko. “He is extremely organized and very meticulous in his preparation for both training sessions and matches. His vision of the game and style of play coincides with TFC’s philosophy. He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge that he has gathered over his soccer career both as a player and a coach.”
What do you listen to on your iPod?
Favourite International Player?
Sport other than soccer that you like to watch?
Basketball (Raptors fan)
What’s your favourite food?
Oxtail, Rice and Peas
If you could have dinner with anyone who ever existed, who would it be?
What’s the last book you read?
Alex Ferguson’s biography
City you visited that made the biggest impact on you?
New York City
What’s your favourite word/phrase?
What word/Phrase do you dislike the most?
Vaughan’s Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, who is also officially the team’s first official season ticket holder, agrees that Bent has already made a great impression on him. “All of my interactions with him tell me that he’s in it for the right reasons,” says a proud Bevilacqua. “He loves the sport, he’s very passionate about it. I think he also recognizes that the journey for the soccer player can have its ups and downs. That’s why I like that he’s coaching for the USL. He understands the journey.” Bevilacqua’s own interest in the team is extremely personal, for a few reasons. “Close to 10,000 kids play soccer right here in Vaughan. Soccer is very attached to the culture of our city. For me on a personal level, I’ve played soccer literally since I was born. I played in the National Soccer League with the Toronto Jets. During my term as Mayor, I really wanted to bring professional sports into the city, and so this is one of those wonderful moments in a Mayor’s life where he sees one of the dreams realized – but it’s not only my dream, it’s been, I think, the dream of tens of thousands of residents of the city.”
In 2014, Toronto’s minor league affiliate was the Wilmington Hammerheads in the USL. This arrangement was successful, but TFC, following the model of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies, decided to form TFC II, its own USL team in the same area to minimize travel and keep everything in-house. Tim Bezbatchenko said the new Vaughan team made sense from both an operational and community standpoint. “We did our homework and looked into different areas that were on the rise with respect to their interest in soccer as well as a location that fit our vision as a club,” Bezbatchenko explains. “Ultimately, proximity to the first team was a major factor in the consideration process.” With TFC II playing in the new Ontario Soccer Centre stadium, literally located less than 30 minutes from the Kia Training Ground, and under 40 minutes from BMO field, the commute for TFC and TFC II players is minimal – certainly closer than Wilmington, North Carolina Of course, with MLSE’s seemingly natural penchant for generating revenue, this franchise will also generate a number of business partnerships and opportunities that did not exist before.” A professional sports team playing in Vaughan will have a significant impact in the business community. The team and stadium will provide new jobs, increase tourism and growth for the community, as well as attracting events such as trade shows, concerts, festivals and other sporting competitions. More importantly, new fans will be attracted to the sport of soccer, supporting both Toronto FC II, the first team, and other soccer teams under the OSA umbrella,” says Bezbatchenko.
One area the new team is expected to make an impact on within the community is player development. Bent, Bezbatchenko and Bevilacqua all agree that there is potential for local players to advance through a system that previously did not exist in Vaughan, or throughout the entire GTA. “This is a great opportunity to connect with the community players and kids from the academy,” Bent explains enthusiastically. “We’re investing all of this money into youth development from 10 up – the whole point is for them to have a chance to work their way up and have a chance to play for TFC II and potentially the big club.” Tim Bezbatchenko sees the youth aspect as integral for a soccer-loving community like Vaughan. “Our vision is similar to that of (Ontario Soccer Association President) Ron Smale’s and Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua’s, who shared the sentiment that community sports programs provide youth with the chance to make new friends and work together as a team while developing the sport of soccer in Ontario,” says TFC’s GM. “This will help fill the gap between our academy level and our first team.” Vaughan’s Mayor believes this team brings an element of hope to the city and its young players. “We’re going to do our best to ensure that not only are the stands filled, but that people develop a real love and affection for the team. The theme of all of this is also to provide hope for young players. It’s very much in keeping with a hopeful spirit for the city. Toronto FC represents hope for the player who has been training for many, many years – looking to channel his energies towards achieving the ultimate goal, which is to play professional soccer at the MLS level.”
With Jason Bent at the helm of TFC II, the newly assembled team has already shown promise with a combination of home-grown and international talent. A pair of victories over the University of South Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University already has fans riding a wave of optimism. Bent reflected after the first game. “I thought their mentality and work rate was fantastic.” Working hard, being patient, being organized and knowing how to defend will be staples of Bent’s squad as he prepares them to play the same system as TFC. “Myself, Greg (Vanney, TFC Head Coach) and Tim have discussed ensuring that our teams play the same system so if there’s a call up, there’s no learning required. Everyone knows exactly what they need to do.”
As the excitement in Vaughan grows, Bent also knows the importance of connecting to the community on both a personal and professional level. “Canadians are blue collared – we like to work I want Vaughan, Ontario and Canada to see that we’re not. afraid to work and take pride in what we do. More importantly, you have to play this game with a smile on your face and passion – you can not play without it.” Passion and a willingness to fight for every possession will be key to this team’s success, and it will endear them to the city they now call home. And when TFC II wins their first regular season game, Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua will lead 315,000 Vaughan residents in cheering their efforts. None will feel more connected to those cheers than homegrown coach Jason Bent.
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