FROM FLUMINENSE TO FREDERICTON:
HOW MARCUS LEES IS CHANGING FOOTBALL CULTURE IN NEW BRUNSWICK
Marcus Lees never wanted to compete.
When Lees was nine years old, as a rep player for the Brampton Bullets, all he wanted was to have more time with a ball in between his feet, and he didn’t really care where he got it.
“I didn’t even know what rep was,” Lees said. “My dad just said ‘Okay you’re going to go play with this team now.’”
Standing at five-foot-four at the height of his teen years, all Lees, a midfielder, knew was that his best chance at making his teams’ starting 11 on matchday — and getting more touches on the ball — was to focus on improving his technical abilities, so he could outsmart, rather than outmuscle, his opponents.
Despite his naiveté, Lees’ personal development program paid off. At 13, Lees earned a spot on the Ontario Provincial team’s U14 side. One year later, assistant coach Armandinho Manjate sent Lees on trial in Brazil, where he was accepted into Fluminense’s world-renowned youth academy.
From Fluminense, Lees eventually followed his passions to Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he became one of the most decorated players to suit up for the University of New Brunswick. Now, Lees, 26, is still there today as the founder of his very own youth football academy — ML Football Academy.
His training philosophy? Young players don’t need to compete — they need to learn to love the process of improvement. It’s a philosophy, and culture shift, Lees knows, from experience, works — and could be the solution to improving the quality of football players coming out of the city.
For the average Canadian youth soccer player, who’s learned to prioritize matchday over their own technical development, rolling a ball over to their opposite foot and passing it against a wall in a gym repetitively — a regular feature of Lees’ Ball Mastery sessions — is a hard thing to love.
But in Brazil, such monotony has been embraced by some of the most promising young stars the game has ever produced. Lees has seen it first hand.
To Lees, the year he spent as a member of Fluminense’s U15 youth academy was “like a job.” Wake up at 7:00 a.m. for the morning session. Get your kit from the kit man. Run through circuits for two hours. Go home and eat feijoada. And be back at the field by 1:00 p.m to do it all over again.
“This training was very technical,” he said. “One minute, you’re going through cones and then you pass the ball, go through more cones, and pass again. After the minute, you’d complete a different task. It was like a rotation. Everything was a rotation.”
From Monday to Friday, Lees said he would arrive at the academy complex in Rio De Janeiro among 400 other Fluminense academy players handpicked by the club, including Chelsea winger Robert Kennedy, who was nine years old at the time, and former Arsenal winger Wellington Silva, who was born in 1993 — the same year as Lees.
Lees said he was called up to play for the U15 academy’s first team, and was asked to stay in Brazil for another year. But, stuck in a house of foreigners with an armed security guard at the front gate, Lees, like many other Canadians experiencing homesickness during their first footballing experience abroad, returned home.
“For me, at that age, I think it was enough,” he said. “I missed my family. I missed home. I didn’t know what would happen in a year. I wish I had stayed, though, just to see what would happen.”
Lees instead tried his luck closer to his hometown Scarborough, Ontario, and was accepted into the Toronto FC Academy in 2009, a program formed by Canada’s first MLS outfit the year Lees spent in Brazil.
During that summer, Lees earned a Canadian Soccer League winner’s medal and another flight abroad — this time to participate in the MLS Youth Cup in Denver, Colorado.
But what stuck out most for Lees wasn’t the prestige or accolades he gained during his time as a member of the U15 and U17 TFC academy squads; he started a side hustle, training players one-on-one in public parks for 30 bucks an hour — where he discovered what he really wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“From doing that, I said ‘I want to be a trainer,’” Lees said. “I want to be one-on-one with players or maybe even work with teams. But I didn’t want to be a coach. I really liked training. I love playing. I love soccer, and I really wanted to share that energy with them that there’s more to winning and playing at the highest level. You just need to play sometimes.”
So Lees went to school to study to be a personal trainer, trading the prospect of earning a professional contract to play in the MLS for a university degree in health and wellness after being offered a scholarship to play for the University of New Brunswick soccer team.
Again, Lees was back in flight for football’s sake. This time, headed to Fredericton, a city with a population of over 60,000 people — a drastic change in locale considering Rio De Janeiro is home to over 6 million people.
He didn’t do any research. He didn’t even know how cold it was in Fredericton. All he knew is that it was an opportunity to help him earn a living off of his love for the process.
Meanwhile, in 2013, the year Lees began his studies at UNB, there was a movement — one that, coincidentally, sounded a lot like Lees’ development mantra — going on closer to home.
Across soccer leagues in Ontario, scores in games and league standings were being abolished from leagues across the province, a regulation that became mandatory for all competitive players under 12 in 2014.
“Unfortunately, when you put an overemphasis on competition, individual skill development regresses, and that’s what’s happened in our game for so long,” said Alex Chiet, the former chief technical officer for the Ontario Soccer Association in an interview with the Toronto Star at the time.
The changes were made as part of a new plan drawn up by the Canadian Soccer Association, called “Wellness to World Cup Long-Term Player Development,” which places an emphasis on practices and skill development over games for the purpose of better developing talent for the men’s and women’s national teams, according to the Toronto Star.
Other provinces followed. But now, seven years on from the Toronto Star’s report, Lees says the country’s football mentality on paper hasn’t resulted in changes on the field in Fredericton.
“A lot of players here are late developers,” he said. “From a young age, they haven’t developed, juggling abilities, first touch abilities, passing abilities… There’s always been this kind of disconnect between [players] loving soccer and competing in soccer. And for me, that hurts a bit.”
Juggling his studies with his obligations as a member of the UNB Reds soccer team, Lees scored 18 goals and 12 assists in 61 matches, helping the Reds to three straight Atlantic Championships from 2013 to 2015. During all five of his years with the team, Lees was named an Atlantic University Sport Conference all-star.
And In 2017, Lees represented Canada on the world stage as a member of the squad that participated in the FISU Summer Universiade competition in Chinese Taipei. “That was a crazy time,” he said. “Everybody was like, ‘Hey, can I take your picture? Can I get your autograph?’ It felt kind of like I was in the Olympics.”
But, once again, to Lees, the competition was secondary to the main event: making his mark developing young Canadian talent. As he racked up street cred with the Reds, local parents began to reach out to him and ask Lees to train their sons and daughters.
“And being in a small town like this, word of mouth just got out and I had people contacting me, ‘Hey, can you do a session here? Can you do a session here?’ And I was like, ok,” Lees said. “I saw there was an opportunity to start something; I was thinking about doing an academy and being a trainer for so long, and I started seeing things fall into place and just went with my gut and started ML Football."
Entering the final year of his Masters’ studies in kinesiology and exercise science at the University of New Brunswick, Lees officially launched ML Football Academy in July 2019. There were no nets. No tactical training sessions. Just kids weaving through pylons, shifting the ball between their feet.
"I looked at my training history and kind of blended it all together with what I learned in Brazil,” he said. “Then I looked at what the players needed and what they wanted, and I developed a program based on that."
The two main components of his training: working on a player’s speed and first touch. In practice, that looks like a lot of players running through agility ladders and moving the ball around in confined spaces.
It doesn’t exactly make for the most appealing marketing materials in a culture obsessed with score lines — but Lees believes his work will help young players find success through a love for the process as he did in his own youth career as a footballer.
“A lot of players take it as training,” Lees said. “But for me, it’s playing, and I think that’s the difference. It shouldn’t feel like training.”
“You’ll find this in anything you do when it just feels like time is flying,” he added. “Whether it be a job or something you have a passion for — when time is flying and you truly enjoy what you’re doing, you’re better able to pursue it."
The first club to buy into his philosophy: Fredericton District Soccer Association’s Premier boys U14 side, with club head coach Barry Morrison being a proud supporter of Lees’ work. Recently, Lees expanded his business to include local footballers aged 7 to 17, offering a range of six-week programs, technical clinics, one-on-one sessions and small group sessions.
His efforts haven’t come without criticism from the Fredericton soccer community, though. Lees said some local organizations had initially seen ML Football Academy as a “threat” to their businesses, but Lees, with the aid of Morrison and Miles Pinsent, Lees' coach during his time at UNB, has eased local tempers.
“They’ve done a good job of letting the community to see me more as an asset [to footballers’ development] rather than someone who’s going to take away business from them."
Over the current country-wide soccer shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lees said he has held talks with coaches from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia to determine how they can, as a collective, help young Canadian footballers enjoy the game, rather than it feel like “more of a job” centered around matchday.
One solution, prompted by Lees and the FDSA — to accommodate the country’s current social distancing laws — is the “700 Challenge,” which encourages players to post a video on Instagram of them making 700 passes in a row using minimal touches on the ball, offering prizes like FDSA scarves, stickers and gift cards for the best submissions.
Meanwhile, the local entrepreneurial community has bought into Lees’ vision. He was recently accepted into the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management & Entrepreneurship’s Summer Institute program, a three-month intensive that helps startups grow.
And just like he did in football, he intends to follow the process, wherever it takes him.
“Whether it’s soccer, education or trying to learn business, by putting the time in and making sure you’re learning the right things, you can hit some milestones.”
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