CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. — Elias Bitar has set his sights on playing professional soccer someday and he’s found just the right path that may help lead him to that goal.
Bitar, 16, is playing on the under-17 P.E.I. F.C. high-performance soccer team this season, one of four high-performance squads P.E.I. F.C. will field — there’s also an under-17 girls’ team and under-15 boys’ and girls’ squads.
“We’re playing in the Nova Scotia (Soccer) League this year so I think it’s going to be way more competitive and we’re going to have a lot more chances to improve,’’ Bitar said in an interview Thursday as the team practised at the UPEI turf field. “We’ll probably play better at nationals and we’ve got a good team here. I’m predicting that we’re going to do pretty well.’’
The Canadian Soccer Association is pushing the idea of high-performance leagues across the country. Unfortunately, one doesn’t exist in the Maritimes yet so the P.E.I. Soccer Association decided to be proactive and form their own high-performance teams, the four P.E.I. F.C. squads.
“The idea being that if and when a Maritime high-performance league starts at those ages we already have our teams ready and up and running,’’ said Lewis Page, manager of performance for the P.E.I. Soccer Association.
“This year, we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to get them up and running, all four teams in the Nova Scotia Soccer League. That’s the highest youth level competition we could get in the Maritimes, at least we believe that. So, that’s been great for us.’’
Last year, they started with just the two under-15 boys’ and girls’ teams, playing out of the under-18 P.E.I. league. The two under-17 squads were added this year. Now, all four teams will play out of the Nova Scotia league. Each team will host five doubleheaders (Saturday and Sunday) at home at the UPEI turf during the summer along with a few games in Nova Scotia.
Page explained these teams are a step above the provincial team program. The hope is to send the top players from the high-performance teams to the Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC residency program.
“The top players get opportunities through our relationship with the Vancouver Whitecaps to go out to Vancouver and be seen by their coaches,’’ Page said. “The pathway is there; the rest is up to them. If they do the work now there’s no excuse for them not to get there.’’
It’s also equal opportunity in that the Whitecaps has residency programs for both boys and girls.
Page said when players sign up for the high-performance teams, it means a big time commitment.
“It’s four or five days a week, 10 months of the year but if they want to play at the professional level that’s what it takes. The kids their age that are part of the full-time residency program with the Vancouver Whitecaps or Montreal Impact or Toronto FC, they’re training five, six days a week.
“We wanted to create as much of that environment as we could get here at home so that our kids who have the interest, who have the commitment level, that we provide them with the program.’’
Bitar welcomes the challenge.
“It’s not too much of a big deal for me,’’ said Bitar, who spent a year and a half with the Canada Games team. “I’ve played on a lot of teams so it’s pretty much the usual for me to have this much time commitment. You really have to manage your school work and all of that around it. (As for) social time, you don’t get much but you do what you can.’’
Is it worth it?
“I think so because of the achievements you get out of it. You try and win a medal. When you get the opportunity it’s a lot of fun to try,’’ Bitar said.
When they play
2 p.m. – under-15 girls
4 p.m. – under-15 boys
11 a.m. – under-15 girls
1 p.m. – under-15 boys
* All games vs. Halifax County
* All games played at UPEI turf field