Vancouver Whitecaps’ Residency program can rightly be held up as a shining light in North American football.
The Whitecaps see themselves as “trailblazers” in Major League Soccer in terms of running an academy, youth development and producing homegrown talent. It’s justified, for as we’ve mentioned several times now, the ‘Caps lead the league with eight homegrown products on their MLS roster.
The success of the Residency these past eight years should be clear for all to see, although arguments will persist around the number of regularly starting first team players that it has produced.
In Canada that is, for the program has produced talent that is starting at clubs throughout Europe and a slew of other talent current getting an education in the NCAA and CIS college systems.
On the pitch, the U18s have made the postseason in USSDA play for the last four years, which is incidentally as long as they’ve be in that league. They reached the 2012 Championship game going down to a late winner. The U16s have made the postseason in three of those years, reaching the quarter-finals stage for the last two seasons.
Things are certainly moving in the right direction.
“The U18 team, we saw this year that they didn’t get beyond the group stage [of the playoffs] but they performed very well” Whitecaps President Bobby Lenarduzzi told reporters at an executive roundtable on Monday.
“One of the reasons that they were handcuffed at the actual championships was because Kianz Froese and Marco Bustos were up [in the MLS team] and weren’t playing there. So that’s actually success as far as I’m concerned.
“If we don’t get the results but we’re pushing players up then that’s our yardstick. Our U16s got beyond the group stage but unfortunately lost on penalties. But lots of players that we think have an exciting future with the club.”
Despite the successes, no-one at the Whitecaps is resting on their laurels. They know there’s still a lot of hard work ahead to get to where they want to be with their long-term strategic plan for youth development in Vancouver, British Columbia and throughout Canada.
And it is the growth of the lesser publicised Whitecaps Academy Centres in recent years that has perhaps seen the biggest boost for the club’s desire to develop that Canadian talent pool and have the widest range of young talent available to them.
The Whitecaps now have Academy Centres throughout British Columbia, and have recently established three key centres in Saskatchewan and one in Manitoba. They’ve been a huge success and there’s more to come.
“I’m very proud of what we do in the Academy Centres,” Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett told the roundtable. “This was originally about BC but now we realise that we have the opportunity to establish ourselves across the Western provinces and more and more young players from the east are considering us in their selection of developing their football careers, which is a big bonus for us as well. So we’ll continue to develop on the Academy side.”
That message was echoed by Lenarduzzi, who confirmed that the next part of that Academy development will come as soon as this week.
“The Academy centres are something that we are proud of and as time goes on, I think we’ll be even prouder and we intend to have our footprint all over Canada,” Lenarduzzi added. “I know we have territories in Quebec and Ontario that we can’t stray in to, but that won’t stop us from investigating those areas outside of that.
“We currently have nine Academy Centres and we’re in 13 cities, three different provinces and we’ll have an announcement later this week that will actually incorporate another province, so we’re excited about that.”
That province is Ontario and the announcement will officially be made on Thursday in London in conjunction with the Elgin Middlesex Soccer Association.
Although Major League Soccer has identified restricted development territories for their three Canadian clubs, the Whitecaps area allows them to venture into western Ontario, and they very much want to take advantage of that.
The Whitecaps goal is a simple one. They want to be the first choice football club that the best players and the top prospects from throughout Canada want to come and play for.
“Our job is to be the best choice out there and be a way of having, through our coaching staff, a clear path through USL to the first team,” Mallet explained. “And all the things the players are looking for – minutes, time, being able to develop.
“Really that’s it at the end of the day. I think we are very competitive in North America. I’d argue that we’re in the top three or four in North America. Our objectives are to be as high as some of the European or international clubs, South America included, to put ourselves on that level.
“As it comes to individual players, some are going to come through, some are not. Whenever someone doesn’t come through, we analyse it of why and try to improve it the next time through.”
Why would a kid near Toronto or Montreal want to move west when they have MLS clubs on their doorstep? Simple. Right now, the Whitecaps have several factors going for them in their desire to be a young player’s preferred club of choice.
The key one is Carl Robinson’s philosophy of playing young players and build the ‘Caps around young talent that will hopefully be in Vancouver for many years to come.
Young players want to come to a club where they see that the manager is prepared to give them a shot. Several players on the Whitecaps MLS and USL squads have made that very point to us this year. They signed with Vancouver because they knew that they’d be given their chance and it was then up to them to take it.
It’s a philosophy the club have embraced and Mallett was keen to highlight the role he feels Robinson has played in the Whitecaps continuing to be a “proper football club”, not just giving lip-sync to it but actually being heavily involved and hands-on in every aspect of the club from the youth teams up.
“Carl has been the living, breathing example of how to set up a proper football club,” Mallett stated. “He’s carried out what we hoped the organisation would be, which is having a coaching philosophy that runs from the 14s, and eventually maybe even younger, threads all the way through.
“There is a clear path and the gaffer of the shiny MLS club knows the name of the players at the 14s, sitting at the 16s, knows who’s on the bench in the USL, meeting with Alan Koch. These are the things you want and then the global connection. I think he’s done a fantastic job and structurally this is what we were looking for.”
But the Whitecaps are also looking at that area in a player’s life and career between youth team and the pro ranks, and feel their investment and plans in that regard will also attract players to join their academies.
The ‘Caps are naturally fully aware some players won’t make the grade at all, while others may need a bit more time and development before they’re candidates for the MLS squad.
That’s obviously where the USL team comes in and the now established pathway between the Residency, that and the first team.
The Whitecaps are now fully embedded up at the University of British Columbia. The USL team play out of UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium, the MLS squad primarily train there and the ‘Caps new, state of the art training centre will be up and running there soon.
But being on a university campus gives the club another opportunity to explore to ensure that young players throughout Canada want to be part of the Whitecaps system from the ground level up – giving the players both a football and a college education.
In the past, if players graduated from the Residency their options were limited and if they wanted to plan for the future and get a degree, then going down the NCAA or CIS college route was really the only way to go, but that meant putting your pro footballing aspirations on hold for four or five years, or more often than not, for good.
But that is no longer the case and the Whitecaps USL team can present a player with an opportunity to do both.
WFC2 defender Chris Serban is the perfect first example of that.
Serban graduated from the Whitecaps Residency program last summer and headed to UBC, becoming a pivotal player for the UBC Thunderbirds team and winning Rookie of the Year honours. The talented full-back then signed a pro contract with the ‘Caps to play in USL in February and a key driving force behind his decision to do that was the fact that he could play football and continue his studies and degree at UBC at the same time.
Ben McKendry came out of college at New Mexico in his Junior year to sign a MLS contract with the ‘Caps and is now looking to finish the final year of his degree at UBC in his spare time.
Going forward, the Whitecaps are actively exploring options with the university to offer players both an education and a USL contract. It’s something that would attract players from not just Canada, but worldwide.
And with such an option and path on the table for them it should also act as another driving reason for young Canadians to choose the Whitecaps and their academies over other teams. Not all would, or could, take that path but the carrot would most certainly be there to strive to achieve it.
“It’s been discussed,” Mallett told us. “It’s a unique asset we have and there’s certain parts like that. Being a father, education is very important. It’s not the UK model and other parts of the world where it’s not looked at, at the level it is here. So we believe we have the asset. UBC is interested in doing that and we believe that could be a unique offering for our club.”
But back to the Academies. Thursday’s announcement will make it 14 Academy Centres in four provinces, with more to come. But the key to the expansion of these Academies is to not overreach too soon or too fast and to protect the quality standard in each Centre before moving on to the next one.
But the Whitecaps already know that there’s a huge demand from kids across Canada to be part of their set-up.
“We prefer to go slow growth,” Lenarduzzi told us. “There are kids in other parts of Canada that we’ve identified that we’d love to relocate. We think that they’re that talented. You can’t discount the branding aspect of it as well, from a commercial point of view, but it is development driven.
“We feel that if we can get ourselves around the country and for that matter, eventually other parts of the world as well, what we don’t want to do is to feel like we’ve got the plan and do more than we’re actually capable of doing.
“Bart Choufour [Whitecaps Pre-Residency head coach] is now full time with us and that’s made a huge difference because he’s been able to get to these Academies outside and within British Columbia and provide the curriculum that the different clubs that we’re working with and provincial associations are just desperate to have it.”
So just what is the plan for these Academy Centres and just where do they fit into the ‘Caps current Residency program?
For now, they will operate as ‘Prospects’ and ‘Skills’ Academies, playing games locally and provincially. The players will be monitored and assessed and once the Whitecaps identify a player as having that top potential to make the next step, they will be invited to head west to join the Residency program and play for their age appropriate side in USSDA.
As the Academy Centres continue to grow the Whitecaps also haven’t ruled out putting further teams into the USSDA in years to come.
“I think looking down the road that is something that we’d certainly consider,” Lenarduzzi added. “But what we want to do first and foremost is just make sure that we’re doing a good job of what we’re doing currently.”
The eagle eyed amongst you will also have noticed the throwaway line above about expanding outwith Canada. So to us, that clearly meant a South American Academy! Grow our own Latino talent. They do come on trees right?
As ridiculous as that may sound (Barcelona are in Burnaby now after all), we did in fact ask about that and the ‘Caps aren’t ruling anything out!
“We want to do what we’re doing right now well,” Lenarduzzi replied with a smile. “But then there’s no reason why, as we evolve, that you can’t look at that kind of situation. Then as those opportunities present themselves look at them for sure.”
Just let that sink in for a few seconds. The Whitecaps ‘brand’ on the lips of people outside of Canada and North America. Jeff Mallett feels it’s not as out of the box as you may have initially thought and he’s witnessed the huge rise in awareness in Major League Soccer and its teams these past few years, and the Whitecaps want to be a part of that and play a part in developing that awareness further.
“I get to travel a lot in the football circles, not just in the UK but in different parts, and the MLS on people’s radar,” Mallett told us. “Just in the last year, it has changed dramatically. It really has as a viable option to come in. The teams that have come in with a second team in LA, the New York team, with Manchester City involved.
“So when you go around and talk to real people involved in football, sitting down working with these 16s and 18s in these countries, it’s on the map. Legitimately on the map. Honestly, two years ago, people were aware of it but not much talk, but it’s come a long way.
“So for us to be out there is not a bad idea. Nothing in the foreseeable future. We’ve got so much work to do here to finish this off before we scope, planting flags too far abroad.”
Never say never though!