From the Pigeon Loft: It still is what it is

From the Pigeon Loft: It still is what it is

Last week Robbo sat down with Michael on the AFTN podcast and declared, yet again and for all to hear, that Vancouver Whitecaps are a team that will focus on developing young players, bringing them through and supplementing them with experienced veterans. That has been a pretty consistent message over the past three years, and despite some supporters clamouring for a “big name, big money” approach to MLS success, I can’t imagine the team being more clear about their intentions and strategy. It is what it is.

The approach the club has taken is not without success in MLS. Indeed, there are two basic approaches to winning the league and the Cup: buy or develop. Both have data to support that they work. You can choose to be LA Galaxy and Seattle and buy your way to titles (with good academies and excellent coaching) or you can develop from within and take a more modest approach to results such as Dallas and Colorado and Portland (with a few decent DPs added in). We are doing the latter for the foreseeable future. To pretend otherwise is foolish.

As part of the discussion though, it has been interesting to see the way people react to the plan to develop younger players from within. On the one hand, it is great to see young guys coming through, and on the other hand the relentless demand for results means that many supporters are impatient with this approach. In a world where there is no room for mistakes, a young player having a 45 minute howler can result in a sharp loss of support, such as we saw with Fraser Aird and Marco Bustos last year. It’s unfair to these developing players, learning their position at the highest levels, but it’s hard to fault supporters for demanding positive results in the scoreline.

In the past, when football was not such a global phenomenon, recruiting and securing local talent was the way you made your club successful. Your players came from your town or region and you were behind them because you supported them, you knew their families or – like Ben McKendry – they had stood with you in the supporters section as kids.

But as football became economically stratified, the strategy at the highest levels became about winning the league at all costs, and with the advent of Bosman and the international transfer market, this meant that it was almost easier to buy a championship team than to develop one. In MLS this is truer still given the gulf in class between the international market and the local talent pool in most places, but it’s true even at the deepest levels of the professional pyramids in England too. Alan Hansen’s prescient utterance of “you can’t win anything with kids” seemed to mark a watershed moment in this respect.

As a result, the English development system has been in disarray for the past 20 years. Even in League Two the demand for results makes it wickedly difficult for a manager to field a crop of promising youngsters against the howls of “I didn’t pay good money to watch this.” Some League Two teams don’t even have academies anymore.

Somewhere along the line professional sports became a commodities market, and that is truer in MLS and North American sports than perhaps anywhere else outside of IPL Twenty20 cricket. And yet MLS was also set up to be a development vehicle for the US National Men’s Team, paid for by selling its entertainment value. David Villa and Kaka and Drogba and Giovinco put the bums in the seats to pay for Darlington Nagbe, Graham Zusi and, perhaps, Kekuta Manneh to ply their trade and become USMNT contributors.

Canadian soccer benefits marginally in an almost collateral way from this set up, although MLS does not make it easy for Canadians to develop in this league. We are still treated like guests in an American enterprise, but the ‘Caps, TFC and Montreal own a significant chunk of the future of the Canadian Team. The players that we witness out there learning their trade, stumbling and falling through a torrid 45 minutes, trying to get their asses off the bench for a first team start are the raw materials of Canada’s future qualification for a World Cup Finals.

For supporters I think this moment asks a question of us. To what extent are we willing to continue to support a team that has its expressed priority on developing success from within rather than buying it from abroad? For me that answer is clear. I’m all in more perhaps BECAUSE we are committed to young players than to glory hunting. But that doesn’t mean I’m tolerant of shit years.

One of the reasons AFTN covers such a depth of local football stories is to help supporters understand what lurks beneath the glossy first team images. There are hundreds of stories of local players and young players from elsewhere in the Whitecaps development system that you can get behind and support. In fact if anyone needs your support it is these young fellas, not the world class DPs that are only too happy to show up for a price until their knees start going.

These young guys have the power to lift you from your seat, as Alphonso Davies did numerous times last year. They are worth the price of admission when they are on their game. They are the future of our national team, they got us through the CCL group stages with the first seed, and they won us our first Voyageurs Cup. Our silverware in the MLS era has been delivered by teams made up of these players.

If your support hangs only on the acquisition of an MLS Cup through purchase you are going to miss this adventure. If you want to reclaim support for something other than corporate outcomes or glory hunting, there is a bigger story being told.

The reality is that supporting the Whitecaps these days is a constant balance between wanting the sexy and high profile results, and appreciating the developmental pathway of our younger players. Even though the constraints of the league make it so, I don’t have a problem with that. I love the trophies we have won and I would dearly love a Supporters Shield and an MLS Cup. I would love it even more if they were brought to me by a side stocked with players that we watched grow up and learn their trade here, because, like the Voyageurs Cup last year, those trophies would be Whitecaps trophies, not trophies solely acquired on the backs of high profile rent boys paid for by an aloof owner’s fortune for our mere entertainment. We all have Manchester City for that.

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There are 16 comments for this article
  1. John Andress at 08:27

    Thank you.

  2. Chris (@salishsea86) at 10:23

    You’re welcome John! And good to see you here!

  3. Rob M at 13:42

    Do you really have faith that this club can develop anything? Where does it state you can’t do both? What it comes down to is this club is cheap, history shows if you aren’t willing to spend you will be average at best!

    Former season ticket holder.

  4. Chris (@salishsea86) at 16:59

    I haven’t said you can’t do both. And history shows that you can go either way and have success in MLS. (And history also shows that seventh place teams can win the MLS Cup, for what that’s worth…I’m more of a “try to win the Supporters Shield” kind of guy myself.)

  5. Anonymous at 18:08

    It took a high priced DP midfielder mid-season signing for Seattle to turn things around this year. Spending works, not always but it is a better bet.

  6. Angus Walker at 01:45

    @Anonymous, That DP signing hardly won them the MLS Cup. Penalty shootout luck cannot be bought.
    @Rob M, history shows that to get sustained success you have to develop the youth. No truer examples exist than Man Utd and Liverpool in the English top flight. In fact Liverpool’s change from developing youth to Kenny Dalglish spending on big name stars won them the league but destroyed the Team and they haven’t won a league title since.
    @Chris, Your analogy of Alan Hanson’s Comment has no relevance in this context as his analysis was repeated many times, to his humiliation, at the end of the season as United won the double and those kids of Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers went on to win many more titles.
    The Whitecaps are doing the right thing by building through the youth.
    In this f**ked up league, where the champions are decided by a turkey shoot, it is even more important to build a dynasty that can stay together for a long period of success in, what I like to call, the real league (supporters shield) and hope that being the best will one day turn into an MLS Cup.
    With more teams like LA Galaxy (NYCFC, TFC, etc) Buying the @MLS Cup, while still possible, is only ever going to be a one shot deal and unless we have an owner with more money than sense, It is crazy to spend stupid money on a Jermain Defoe, then more on a Giovinco and still end up with nothing!!!

  7. Chris (@salishsea86) at 15:45

    Great comment Angus. Cheers!

  8. Anonymous at 01:14

    That DP got Seattle to the cup final. It’s as simple as that.

  9. Angus Walker at 10:46

    @Anonymous. By sneaking in the back door, t’is true. But he didn’t win them the cup. Like Portland last year, they won by PK luck and didn’t deserve to win the final. You can’t say the same for Leicester, Chelsea and (though I hate to say it) Man City in the last few years of the Premiership. That’s the problem with the MLS cup. You stand as much chance of playing heads or tails to decide the winner.

  10. Anonymous at 16:13

    Angus, I acknowledge your comments. I am not saying don’t develop youth. I am also not advocating that the Caps buy their way to success. I would like to see the club bring in a noteworthy DP like Loderio. A player of that quality would give the fan base someone to rally around other than a goalkeeper or a 16 year old. It would also immediately improve the team and that player would be a role model and mentor for younger players. Why not bring in a player like that?

  11. Angus Walker at 11:02

    @Anonymous, I don’t disagree. United’s class of 92 were inspired by Eric Cantona. I’m not against spending on a player who can inspire the whole team. I remember an Alex Ferguson interview where he said he’d never seen, at any club, the young players wanting to stay behind after training so they could have a game with Cantona. But would a big name player do the same?
    And I’m sure the club would be happy if we can get someone for the same price (1 Million).

  12. Anonymous at 10:34

    Angus, a mid to big name player would have instant recognition while a lesser known player would take some time, if ever, to beome the catalyst the club needs. After last season I think the club needs a boost. Wouldn’t it be something if the Caps signed a player that created a huge buzz. I remember the excitement around the Kenny Miller signing. I am not suggesting that a player at the end of their career be signed, like Miller. But I do recall enjoying going to the games knowing that at least one player was of proven intenational quality. What I would like to see is a carefullly selected DP in mid-career with a work ethic and leadership skills. Can’t we just have one player like that?

  13. Angus Walker at 15:13

    @Anonymous, Even the big spenders can’t afford mid-career players that are that good. With the exception of Beckham, I can’t think of a player anyone had heard of coming to MLS who wasn’t at the end of their career. Even the richest club in the world, Man/NY City, is only bringing in aging Europeans. You have to find a lower league player who is just the right level to not be good enough for Europe but will excel in MLS. But it’s always a big risk as Toronto found out, going through a few before they found a Giovinco or Seattle finding Loderio. Barnes has taken time to settle, but he said himself that the last game of the season was the first where he was settled and wasn’t living out of a suitcase in a hotel. He may be the guy if he can turn it on like that last game every home game like he did at Houston?

  14. Mattock at 15:40

    While I promised to never again comment on one of your efforts – and I truly admire your ability to continue finding new ground on supporter culture – this effort can barely stand up to a skimming, simple perusal.

    Lets start with the claim that the English developmental system has been – for the last 20 years ,in “disarray’ – there are currently 12,500 kids in the English academy system, Chelsea has a ridiculous 40 players on loan. There is duress for teams perpetually at the bottom tiers, but with extensive scouting, the odds are probably strong that the majority of young players showing talent will get noticed, the English FA will be keeping an eye on the development of English youth. The Whitecaps have their residency in the Lower Mainland and Academies in every province excluding one – New Brunswick. The Caps hardly promote staying local.

    Before I return to the topic of development Whitecap style, I’d like to comment on ….’not trophies solely acquired on the backs of high profile rent boys paid for by an aloof owner’s fortune for our mere entertainment.” I was just reading the MLS collective bargaining agreement and no where did it state that post – match ,players at the top end of the salary scale have to grab their ankles. I feel fortunate that I don’t have your poetic soul and was able to find spirit lifting pleasure in the play of Alan Ball, Willie Johnston, Ruud Krol, Kevin Hector, Trevor Whymark,the Silver Fox, numerous other dedicated and talented players, along with visits from the likes of Cruyff, Beckenbauer etc in the NASL era. I also enjoyed the canucks on the team. Aloof owners – know many? Don’t be tempted that often with the cheap (expensive?) shot.

    Dallas has to be Bobby Lenarduzzi’s favourite MLS team that doesn’t reside in the Lower Mainland…..he’s probably has mentioned them more often than the low down on season tickets. I’m not sure why you threw in Portland as their development seems to be american draft picks. We all know that teams will be spending more – and that doesn’t necessarily mean financial ruin – especially with Mr. Garber sending all that franchise fee moola back to the clubs.

    “and they won us our first Voyageurs Cup” ….in that pivotal game at home on August 26, 2015, do you know how many of the 18 dressed Caps for that match were Canadian? One – Teibert. Hardly “with glowing hearts….”

    The Caps academy – to this point – hasn’t really come through. If you look at Adekugbe, Bustos,Teibert,and Froese, their futures are unclear, a few could end up in the apparently soon to emerge CPL.

    If you look at the 4 recent graduates from WFC2, all players had time with other clubs, university – there is the still puzzling what was the deal with FC Edmonton allowing Davies to walk away, Levis had time with the Highlanders and U of Sask, Rage Cage is a seasoned yank player, and Ritchie an american draft pick. Then you take in the recent release of a number of canuck players for WFC2, and you wonder what the tolerance is for a player’s development.

    You also conveniently forgot in this ode to the domestic player, the sad stats of 2016.In regular MLS play, the Whitecaps gave 3,967 minutes to Canadians – 11.9%. Sounds alright, but if you take out the Canadian “rent boys” de Jong and Edgar, that total falls to 2,790 minutes or 8.3%.TFC almost doubled the minutes of canuck players during the regular season – 6985 minutes.Robbo is always stating he doesn’t want to block a young player’s path – but even when it was obvious we were unlikely to make the playoffs, he didn’t remove the obstacles for young players with a Canadian passport.

    You enjoy wallowing in the simplistic, false dichotomy that it’s either domestic or huge signings are the only two ways to proceed. The off-season of some Southsiders discontent has many taking shots at the owners, but I would suggest they are not in the majority of fans .Obviously we want success, talented canucks to emerge but only a few are expecting a large transfer that results in the doubling of the current wage structure. Perhaps what is needed is an examination of Lewis, Anderson, owners not to fork out for a free agent “name” in the $3-5 million wage hit that could help in the climb up the standings and perhaps fill the lower bowl.

    Consider occasionally abandoning the snorkeling for some scuba gear – there’s plenty to explore below the surface.

  15. old geezer at 14:33

    I just couldn’t resist adding my two cents. So here’s my rant.

    As a long time season ticket holder, I am increasingly asking myself, why do I go to a stadium I really don’t like, eat food (seldom do) that is over priced and not very good, and watch a team that is frankly….boring!! I could stay at home, watch the same game on tv, eat better snacks, have the use of a private washroom and not have a bunch of people walking in front of me at the most inopportune times. I don’t know the answer to that except maybe it’s just that I’ve always done it. It certainly isn’t because of the entertainment value these days.

    For me it all started by getting free tickets to watch this soccer team called the “Whitecaps” back in 1979. Did I go to watch the young Canadian players like Bobby Lenarduzzi or Paul Nelson or any of a very small handful of domestic or young players…NO. I went to watch the stars. I went to see over the hill players, some with pot bellies do their stuff. I could actually say, I saw …. in person play a game at Empire Stadium.

    Nowadays, I certainly am not going just because we have domestic or youth on the team. Frankly, I don’t give a rats ass if there are any domestic or young players on the field. I go to see the home team win just like I would if I was attending the Canucks or Lions games.

    Am I not a Canadian who supports the National Team….nope, don’t care anymore. As far as I’m concerned the National Men’s Team is a lost cause, at least in my lifetime. It is interesting that back in the dark ages, without the benefit of academies and a lot of focus on domestic player development, Canada actually made it to the World Cup.

    Do I want the owners to dip into the international player market….you bet I do. I want to see some players on the field who I actually recognize. Hopefully some European players who have a good work ethic. I probably shouldn’t have said that but there it is. I’m not prejudiced, I dislike everyone equally if they don’t meet my standards. How about someone who actually knows how to score, oh yes we actually had someone like that once. Too bad the front office didn’t try very hard to hold onto him.

    I really don’t care if we had a bunch of “rent boys”. Yes, I would like to see the Whitecaps actually compete for a cup that matters and go for glory (like the other two Canadian teams did this year). Do I care about the other competitions…nope, just a distraction and I wouldn’t go if the tickets were not part of my package because the club plays their “second” team.

    We don’t seem to complain about all the rental players on the Canucks or the Lions or the lack of young players, so why is soccer so special? Beats me.

    I’m not an insider nor do I claim to know much about soccer. I am a paying customer and that is my opinion.

  16. Rhm at 16:11

    I suggest some people get their heads out of your EPL world and focus on what has worked in the MLS. Saying LA’s approach is a one time phenomenon is ignoring this league. LA has managed to develop great young national team players, bring in great impact DPs and win, win, win. They did not “BUY” they developed great players and surrounded them with great DPs and great organizational management. Seattle -same thing (albeit it only one mls cup thus far). TFC again they have created more Canadian young players than the whitecaps AND have brought in great DPs (once they made the necessary changes up top in mgmnt). The whitecaps young players that have developed after 6 years how many are starters…none. So what we have is an ownership group that will not spend money (cheap), a poor history of youth development, poor recruiting to add that “with a few decent DPs added in)” portion that is supposedly our approach, poor in all ways from the top down.

    it’s a cheap, bargain basement PR cluster fuck that the whitecaps vomit on their fans and people buy their bullshit

    Until this team is sold to a professional ownership group that “is what it is”

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