While Ajax has certainly produced many world-class players throughout its long history, for many the current gold standard for club academies is Barcelona. Through their famed La Masia facility – which until last year was centred around an old farmhouse that served as the sleeping quarters for many of the world's greatest footballers – the 21-time Spanish champions have consistently recruited, trained and honed the players that would feed into the senior team and keep the club at the apex of world soccer.
Anyone wanting to understand the value of the academy system need only look at the world's Best Player awards for the last three years. While Argentine Lionel Messi has taken top honours each time – and proved his value to Barcelona on Tuesday when he broke the club's scoring record with his 234th goal – teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta have also finished in the top five. The foundation all three got at La Masia, learning the tiki-taka style of play, characterized by short passing and possession, is certainly paying dividends in the present day, the club having claimed 13 of the last 16 trophies available to it.
And Barcelona's academy system has also paid off handsomely for Spain at the international level, where Xavi and Iniesta have combined with fellow La Masia graduate Cesc Fabregas, now back at Barcelona after eight seasons at English club Arsenal, to win the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup, with Fabregas setting up Iniesta for the only goal of that World Cup final.
While La Masia may be thousands of miles from Downsview Park, both literally and figuratively, its value to the success of Barcelona cannot be understated, and it's certainly something for Toronto FC to invest in as it attempts to make its virgin playoff voyage.