When it comes to opportunities, Carl Robinson has been consistent – every player will their chance under him. The latest chance afforded to a number of his fringe players came in Tuesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League match against Central FC in Trinidad and Tobago.
Aside from a few old heads, it was a young and fairly inexperienced gameday 18 that headed to the Caribbean. Amongst them were four call-ups from the ‘Caps USL side. Three of them saw action on the night, with two of them, goalkeeper Spencer Richey and left back Brett Levis, starting and playing the full match in what was their first ever competitive minutes with the first team.
Both excelled and turned heads, leaving little doubt as to which players are at the front of the queue when the next round of MLS contracts comes around.
Levis and Richey had both played the full 90 minutes for WFC2 in Friday night’s USL game in Colorado Springs against the Switchbacks, before flying out to Texas to meet up with the MLS squad.
Both put in fantastic performances in that 1-1 draw, with Levis grabbing the ‘Caps second half equaliser and Richey pulling off nine saves that earned him ‘Team of the Week’ honours.
Defintiely a few days to remember in their careers, so when did they find out they were going to be playing in Champions League action?
“After the Crystal Palace game I heard that me and maybe a few other players may be involved down the line in the CCL games, so I was obviously looking forward to it,” Levis told AFTN when we caught up with him at WFC2 training on Friday.
“I didn’t actually find out till the Wednesday before we flew to Colorado. I found out right before. We had to pack up and stuff, so just to know to bring a bit of extra stuff to go to Trinidad, so that’s exciting.”
Not too long a time for it all to perhaps fully sink in, but definitely long enough to get excited by the prospect of the occasion.
It was certainly a difference experience to what both players have been used to with the ‘Caps in USL, but Richey at least had some previous experiences to draw upon from his time with the US U17 national team.
“US Soccer has a residency system for the under 17s, so I actually spent about two and a half years there where we travelled all over the world,” Richey told AFTN. “I played numerous games down in Central America, so it was quite a similar stadium with the track and the different type of grass than we’re used to up here. A bit more spongy. The ball up on top of it a bit more.
“So it was something that I’d had some experience with in the past. Not that I’ve played on that kind of surface for a while, but it definitely helped make me be a bit more comfortable.”
For Levis, it was a venture into the unknown, having played his college football in the CIS with Saskatchewan Huskies and PDL with Victoria Highlanders and the Whitecaps.
“I’m the complete opposite of Spencer,” Levis told us. “I haven’t really been involved at the national level and travelling around the world. In CIS I travelled around Canada and with the [Saskatchewan] Provincial team, and last year with the USL, I travelled around the States. I’ve never been as far south as Trinidad, so it was quite a new experience for me.”
And one that threw up a few surprises along the way, especially the playing surface.
“When we walked out on the pitch before the game, I was pretty shocked how half of it was weeds and half was grass,” Levis said. “Most of the guys said they knew it would be like that because they’d experienced something like that before, but I have not, so it was a little bit of a shock to me. But I felt I adjusted fairly quickly and it was a great experience.”
Certainly a fantastic, and important, learning and developmental experience for all of the guys, and not just in terms of the football played on the pitch.
“It partially makes you realise how fortunate you are for the facilities and the surfaces that you play on in North America,” Richey added. “The pitch actually ended up playing alright, especially when it had a bit of dew on it.
“Trinidad’s not the most developed nation, so I think for some guys it was quite an eye opening experience, so you get to realise how fortunate you are, how well the Whitecaps treat us and just the fact that we get to play and train at some of the best facilities, so it was quite awesome.”
The Whitecaps made a full eleven changes to the team that started the MLS loss in Dallas two days earlier. Only one player that started that game, Cole Seiler, even made the trip to Trinidad.
Such wholesale changes have backfired on the ‘Caps in the past. Last year’s Champions League campaign is a testament to that, and this year’s loss in Ottawa in the Canadian Championship is another. But on this occasion it worked and the ‘Caps came away with their first away win and first ever points on the road in the competition.
It was a young team (is it ever not with the ‘Caps these days?!), but Carl Robinson picked it wisely, with a few needed, experienced old heads thrown in to the mix as well. A lot of the squad had played USL minutes together over the season, but it still must feel a little strange coming into a completely different line-up to what you’re used to, especially when you’re making your competitive first team debuts.
“Yeah it was somewhat of a difference,” Levis admits. “But a lot of those guys, well a few of them like Edgar and Pa, are veteran pros so they kind of help you along. It’s not like you’re thrown in to this environment where if you make a mistake or you screw up they’re going to get on you.
“They’re there to help you out and we’re all in the same boat, we’re all playing on the same field. They’re really good at making you feel that you belong to the team and you’re not just thrown in to that atmosphere.”
It maybe wasn’t the most polished performance you’ll see this season from the Whitecaps, but it got the job done and the ‘Caps looked fairly comfortable for most of the match. At the times they didn’t, Richey came up big to keep Central FC off the scoreboard.
Having an experience central defensive pairing like David Edgar and Pa Modou Kah in front of him must have helped, especially with any nerves he may have initially had.
“Yeah, maybe a little bit,” Richey said. “I think also both Brett and I have been here a while, we’re not new. One of the nice things about having a USL team in the same location, there are players that go up and down, so we are quite used to playing with one back four in one USL game and then the next week maybe it works out with the first team where they can loan players down and it’s an entirely new back four. So it’s something I’ve had to deal with as a goalkeeper.
“Maybe it was a bit more challenging at first, but the more times it happens to you, and they’re all good players at the end of the day, so it’s more of a communication aspect and just trying to feel each other out. But it definitely helps having two guys like Edgar and Pa, who have been in the game for quite a long time and played at the highest level. It definitely makes your life easier.”
Tuesday night was made possible by the new rule in the MLS collective bargaining agreement that allows the Whitecaps to call up USL signed players for up to four non league matches over a season. For the Whitecaps that means Canadian Championship games, friendlies, and Champions League matches.
As we looked at yesterday, it’s far from perfect, and nowhere near enough to fully integrate an actual club culture in MLS, but it’s a start and a very positive move in the right direction.
“It’s great that they’ve done something different to what they had last year where we couldn’t even play in CCL games,” Levis agreed. “It’s a start. They’re not going to be able to completely overhaul it. I feel that the model that they’re trying to reach eventually is going to be the European model, where players can get signed at any age and they can play at any age group that they’re developing through. Depending on how well they’re doing they can get bumped up and it’s not a new contract or they don’t need to terminate a contract.
“You see how it develops there and how the few players that are so young that make it to that EPL stage. They haven’t had to deal with a lot of the business side of things in contracts. They have such a flowing system, like sort of a pyramid system. I think eventually it will get there but it’s a start. At least we get four games instead of zero.”
A feeling echoed by Richey.
“In the past couple of years, just with MLS developing their second tier USL teams, it’s been a massive improvement for development,” Richey added. “Just this past year they made the addition that you can play the four games. If it was my guess I’d assume that a few years down the line, I think that that’s the ideal goal somewhere that if you’re signed to a contract within the club you can play at any level.
“You can throw an academy kid out there if he’s on a hot streak. That’s sometimes what those European clubs do, then the kid rises to the occasion and the next thing you know he’s a superstar. It’s quite fortunate [having the CCL games]. Hopefully we’ll finish well and qualify for some more games down the road. At least we have the group stage games that we’re guaranteed this year.”
Looking ahead to what lies in store, also brings us to what may lie in store for both Levis and Richey, beyond these latest first team call-ups.
Doing so well, first in the Crystal Palace friendly where he grabbed the assist on Kendall Waston’s equaliser, and then in Tuesday game in Trinidad where he was a commanding presence both in defence and attack up that left wing, has brought a lot of attention onto Levis over the last couple of weeks.
He’s got there through a lot of hard work, fighting back from a bad injury midway through last season and transitioning from being a left winger to a left back. That offensive background has served him well, and he’s arguably the most exciting attacking full back we have in Vancouver right now, as his four goals and two assists from 18 appearances testifies to. It should also be noted that his goals have been excellent for the most part as well.
The 23-year-old Levis though is just taking it all in his stride, keen not to get too far ahead of himself in all of this.
“It’s more so, at least for me, last year was my first year as a pro, so there was a ton of up and downs,” Levis told us. “This year my main goal was just to focus on soccer and make sure I enjoy it and try not to think about the business side of things. The contracts, the what ifs, all that sort of thing. Just focus on my soccer.
“I’m going to continue doing that and obviously I hope to maybe push on at some point and I hope to be able to maybe play in another Champions League game. If I don’t, I don’t. All I can control and focus on is my football, so that’s what I’m going to continue doing.”
It’s an excellent attitude to have, and what the Whitecaps will no doubt be wanting to see from all the players currently with the USL team. It’s also one mirrored by Richey.
The University of Washington alumni was a third round pick in last season’s MLS SuperDraft. Right away his talent was clear to see and he had a strong season personally, in what was certainly not a great defensive display by WFC2 last year.
It looked to be enough to earn Richey a MLS contract, with Robinson saying that he was looking at him and Marco Carducci to battle it out to be David Ousted’s back up. But then Paolo Tornaghi surprisingly returned to the ‘Caps after being able to land a starting spot elsewhere, and Richey’s first team prospects went with it.
That must have been hard to take for the 24-year-old, but he didn’t sulk about it and has gone out to prove his worth, making 10 appearances so far this season and conceding just 14 goals along the way. His hard work and positive attitude is not reaping further rewards, and you have to feel there is a lot more to come for him in that regard.
“Similar to Brett, I’m relatively new to the professional game,” Richey added. “It’s only my second year in. It was obviously disappointing [not getting the MLS deal]. It was something I was working towards, I’ve been working towards. I thought that was potentially my opportunity, but it didn’t work out. That’s kind of how the game works.
“It’s something that you can let it get to you, but at the end of the day, if you do and you start losing your form, you’re the only one that suffers, right. The club, if you start to piss and moan about it, and lose your head, your performances will suffer and so will your chances of getting a deal down the line. Sometimes it’s how the business works. Just trying to keep putting a string of performances together and hopefully it’ll come soon.”
With the way both Richey and Levis have been performing this season, it surely will, and it would be a major surprise if we don’t see both of them as permanent fixtures on the Whitecaps MLS squad next year.
For now, there’s more Champions League action in store and a USL Championship to win.