Vancouver Whitecaps Residency alumni Ben McKendry had a standout NCAA season with New Mexico Lobos last year. The midfielder earned multiple accolades and the attention of scouts throughout North America, and now he has earned a MLS homegrown contract off the back off it.
The Whitecaps’ 30 man MLS roster is already pretty close to bursting at the seams, but there’s always room to be made for more talent, especially if it’s one of your own.
McKendry has played for the Whitecaps in Residency, PDL and the MLS Reserve League. He showed this year that he is ready for Major League Soccer. Carl Robinson agrees and after three years at college, the 21-year-old is heading back to Vancouver as a MLS player.
Making the switch at this particular stage of his career looks to be the best move for both the player and the ‘Caps.
Robinson told AFTN last year how highly he rated McKendry and indicated that there was a MLS contract waiting for the defensive midfielder whenever the player felt the time was right. That time is now.
McKendry becomes the eighth homegrown signing on the current MLS Whitecaps roster, and the 27th player on the squad in total. As a homegrown signing, McKendry is likely to have signed a two year guaranteed deal with options and although he will get most of his minutes in USL PRO this season, he will be entrenched with the MLS squad and with the number of games facing the ‘Caps this year, he is fully expected to see first team minutes.
McKendry was a member of the Whitecaps’ Prospects program before officially joining the Residency program in September 2010 and was part of the highly talented ‘Caps U18 side that narrowly lost the USSDA Championship game to FC Dallas in 2012.
The young midfielder made 20 appearances for the ‘Caps in PDL action during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but with no MLS contract on the table, and no real pathway to help get there at that point, McKendry decided to head to college and went down the NCAA route with New Mexico Lobos.
McKendry explained the thought process behind that decision when we chatted with him just over a year ago. His game has developed well with the Lobos, allowing him to make the switch from a more central midfield role to that of defensive midfielder, where he has excelled.
The development of McKendry these past couple of seasons will now benefit the Whitecaps. They are getting back a talented and composed DM, but also one who has a keen attacking eye and a good finish.
In his three years at New Mexico, McKendry scored 14 goals and had 5 assists in his 61 appearances and 4702 minutes of soccer, most of which came in the defensive midfield role. 106 shots in amongst those stats as well, along with a knack for grabbing game winning goals.
McKendry played a key role in helping the Lobos reach the Final Four of the NCAA College Cup in 2013, scoring the decisive goal in the quarter finals against Washington Huskies to send them there in his sophomore season.
Having lost a number of seniors, New Mexico struggled to follow up that success in 2014, failing to make the postseason. McKendry shone though and started to get the attention of many in the college game in the US, earning several plaudits along the way. The influential TopDrawerSoccer.com ranked McKendry 7th in the nation in the midseason player rankings, and he eventually finished 36th after the Lobo’s late slump (fellow ‘Caps Residency alumni, goalkeeper Callum Irving, finished 15th incidentally, and Vancouver’s number one draft pick, Tim Parker, was 76th).
The Whitecaps have kept close tabs on McKendry while he was down in New Mexico, with former assistant coach Paul Ritchie travelling down to see him play on several occasions in the past. Robinson is a fellow defensive midfielder and rates him highly.
McKendry has regularly returned to train with the Whitecaps’ MLS squad these past three seasons, keeping his homegrown eligibility intact. But with other clubs starting to show an interest in the midfielder, the Residency alumni’s stock was high and he was faced with the dilemma of whether to come out of school early or complete his senior year in 2015 and join the pro ranks a year from now.
A lot can happen in 12 months though. Players can get injured or see their form and their stock take a dip. Managers who rate you can move on or decide to go in a different direction in terms of role specific personnel. Coming out of school early, without finishing your degree, can hurt future job prospects if it doesn’t work out in the world of soccer, but you can also finish your degree at a later time. Much to weigh up, and in the end it was a no-brainer – McKendry had to take his chance and the Whitecaps were in the perfect position to offer it to him right now.
There is no doubt that the addition of a Whitecaps USL PRO team has been a key influencer for McKendry to leave college in his Junior year. Whereas other homegrown talents like Bryce Alderson and Philippe Davies have been stunted and frustrated by the lack of opportunities and key competitive development minutes, the new ‘Caps team guarantees McKendry much-needed regular playing time at some level.
With the first team having over 40 games this season in MLS, Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League action, McKendry will feature at some stage, but as talented as he is and as highly as the ‘Caps rate him, there is a lot of work ahead.
McKendry is coming to a Whitecaps MLS squad that isn’t exactly short on defensive midfield talent. Whereas Carl Robinson went with a regular two-man defensive shield last season in a 4-2-3-1 line-up, he is expected to go more with a 4-4-2 diamond formation this term.
Matias Laba clearly has that job, with Gershon Koffie and then Russell Teibert looking to be back ups. McKendry is clearly the number one DM for the USL PRO team now and will gain valuable experience playing there at the next level up for him. Opportunities in the first team will be scant, but there will be injuries, there will be suspensions, there will be players rested and there will be games where Robinson looks to return to that two man shield.
So for those that haven’t seen him play, how would we rate McKendry in terms of Whitecaps prospects? Better than Bryce Alderson in the DM slot has always been my opinion of McKendry and that hasn’t changed. The fact that he can bring an attacking and goalscoring threat to the defensive midfield role is a big plus, and don’t forget he can also play other midfield roles. He’s bringing versatility and hunger with him. It’s certainly a depth and strength upgrade to what the Whitecaps had last year.
Having watched a lot of his New Mexico games these past couple of years, including a couple in person, he can make a team tick. At 21, he’s coming in at a great age and he’s had excellent experiences and performances at USSDA, college and international levels. Now comes the next step.
Robinson will give him chances to show his worth both in preseason and as the season progresses. As he’s said to all his young players, they’ll get their chances, it’s then up to them to take them. That applies to McKendry now and we’re delighted for him.