Whatever happened to the teenage dream? – Whitecaps need to ask some searching questions around their youth development

Whatever happened to the teenage dream? – Whitecaps need to ask some searching questions around their youth development

“If they’re good enough, they’re old enough” is one of Carl Robinson’s favourite mantras. But as another two Residency alumni move to pastures new without making much of a dent in the Vancouver Whitecaps first team mix, the message seems to be clear – the players the ‘Caps are developing in their youth system aren’t actually good enough. So is that the case, and if it is, why?

The Whitecaps can talk all they want about youth development and the success of their Residency program, but the proof of the pudding is ultimately in the eating, and right now the ‘Caps are showing signs of famine.

The Whitecaps Residency program has long been held up as a shining example of a system other MLS clubs should aspire to. Or rather, it used to be. The truth of the matter now is that other sides in the league likes FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls have long overtaken the ‘Caps when it comes to developing their younger players to make the jump to the first team. Others aren’t far behind.

Dallas added midfielder Brandon Servania and defender Kris Reaves as their 19th and 20th Homegrown signings this month, making nine Homegrown Players on the club’s current MLS roster. Impressive development by a team that has prevented the Whitecaps U18s from winning a USSDA national championship in both 2012 and 2016. New York Red Bulls also currently have nine Homegrown Players on their MLS roster. Both the lead the way in the league, along with Montreal, who are at least doing Canada proud.

With Sam Adekugbe now transferred to Norway, Marco Bustos on loan in Mexico for 18 months, and Ben McKendry released at the end of last season, the Whitecaps lag pretty far behind with their Homegrowns, numbering just three – Russell Teibert, Alphonso Davies, and the most recent addition, David Norman Jr.

It’s a shocking state of affairs for a club that has pumped millions of dollars into their Residency program these past ten years. Millions spent and not one single Residency product is a regular first team starter, and we haven’t had one since Teibert was getting regular minutes under Martin Rennie in 2013.

Before we look at any of that, just how do the Whitecaps stack up to the others in the league? Well let’s have a look:

It’s pretty shocking, but at least we’re not Portland who despite having both USL and PDL teams number one solitary Homegrown signing. That is truly shocking, but hey, they’ve won a MLS Cup so maybe they know what they’re doing.

Now, long time readers and regular podcast listeners will know that I’m not in the play Canadians because you’re a Canadian camp club. That whole mindset is partly behind the demise of WFC2 following poor results, low attendances, and an inadequately competitive young side in a league of teams not viewing it from a development standpoint.

Players should make the Whitecaps MLS squad on ability, not because of their passport. Going down the latter route only results in token players like Philippe Davies (who spent one year with the ‘Caps in MLS) and Bryce Alderson (who spent three) being rewarded with MLS deals, then released when it was clear they weren’t up to the league standard, or even the team standard to compete for first team minutes.

Neither played a MLS minute and where are they now? Well Davies is playing with Quebec Premiere Ligue side CS Longueuil and Alderson looks to have been a free agent since the summer of 2016 after being released by Fortuna Dusseldorf II.

Others have come and gone, having failed to make the grade.

Marco Carducci spent three seasons with the ‘Caps, didn’t play a MLS minute, and is currently with Rio Grande Toros in USL (we still have hopes he’ll get another shot in either MLS or in the Canadian Premier League).

Caleb Clarke at least made two brief MLS appearances in 2012 during his four seasons with the club. Part of those saw him go out on loan and he plied his trade in Germany for a while. Most recently he’s back in BC and was playing VMSL Premier football with bottom side CCB LFC United. He does at least have five goals to his name for the season. Murmurs are he may be considering college.

Kianz Froese has gone to Germany too and is at least lighting it up to a certain degree, and I’m not even counting the frankly ridiculous Homegrown tag afford to Tanzanian Nizar Khalfan, South African Ethen Sampson, and American Brian Sylvestre.

You can also question just how much of Alphonso Davies’ development can actually be laid at the Whitecaps door, and how much it may presently be stalled.

This isn’t a piece arguing that the Whitecaps should be playing Canadians. That’s not the burning issue for me. What is, is that the ‘Caps whole youth development program needs to be asking some searching questions as we head into another year of the fast changing make up of Major League Soccer.

There are a number of pertinent questions that need to be addressed, but the stand out one is why can’t the multi-million dollar investment into the Whitecaps Canada-wide Residency and academy system produce any actual first team players?

Is it the club? Is it the system? Is the development good enough? Are the players? Where is it all going wrong? Is it even worthwhile pumping all that money into the programs for no real return and when the club just go out and sign better (and often cheaper) international talent anyway?

Something is very much broken with the whole set up and when you look back at it now, you have to ponder whether it was actually in a good state of repair to begin with.

So much talent in the early days of the Residency program was lost to overseas, where many of them still are, but at least they have provided a lot of the backbone of Canada’s national teams over the years. The recent crop of Residency alumni have excelled at youth level but then their rise seems to move into stationary orbit. We’re still waiting for that one big breakout star. Adekugbe or Bustos could have been it, maybe should have been it, and it will be both satisfying and frustrating if they do live up to their potential elsewhere.

It’s a situation that simply can’t continue. How much longer will Kerfoot and others be happy to put in so much cash with no tangible return? And are the Whitecaps best suited for the role of the main developer of BC youth talent if they can’t develop first team players?

Sure there’s a whole chicken and egg situation going on here. Players can’t develop if they can’t get playing time, but you can’t risk playing time in a results driven business on players that aren’t up to the grade. If Robbo plays a bunch of homegrowns and the results don’t follow, he’s not going to have many applauding him, but certainly will have a slew of people calling for his head, which he does just now anyway with results!

The much vaunted pathway to the first team that WFC2 was meant to provide has now gone. The affiliation with Fresno already feels like a busted flush, with only three Whitecaps youth products heading down there, while others decided playing in the horrendous summer heat of California wasn’t for them and trying their luck overseas or going to college. The standalone players Fresno have been adding are also pretty uninspiring, with a definite journeymen feel to many of them. Not sure how that’s meant to help the ‘Caps loaned young guns.

With the Canadian Premier League just around the corner, opportunities for Canadian players will now increase dramatically.

Those clubs will have academies. No longer is the lure of sending your kid to a MLS club so big, especially when the said MLS club just develop the player to be a talented youth but then can’t bring them on any further or have the necessary outlet for them to continue that development. If I was a parent, would I want to send my kid to Vancouver or Montreal when you look at first team opportunities afforded to homegrowns? And if they do come here, and the ‘Caps want to take a longer look after the age of 19, well they’re going to have to go even further away to Fresno now.

Even for locals, the Residency is now based out of the new training centre at UBC. The ‘Caps have provided transport for those local players who still will be living with their parents, but for those that stay out in the Fraser Valley or North Van, that’s one hell of an additional commute on top of your schoolwork and training.

All of a sudden, the Whitecaps Residency program is a far less attractive proposition, and despite the truly excellent nationwide set-up that the ‘Caps academy centres now give the club, again, what’s the point if you’re just going to have the bulk of these kids till they are 18 and then they’ll go and play for someone else?

As a player, you might find the Golden Ticket that will get you a MLS deal and a first team breakthrough, but even Charlie Bucket looked to have better odds. At least you have a great chance of getting a paid scholarship out of it, but I’m pretty sure that Kerfoot and Co aren’t in this for the altruistic aspect of that.

But this isn’t just on the ‘Caps. We have to consider the fact that compared to talent elsewhere in the world, the young Canadian players the Whitecaps have been dealing with haven’t, on the whole, been good enough to compete with the cheap Latino talent Robbo has been bringing in. That’s not something that’s going to change overnight, no matter what LTPD systems the CSA, BC Soccer, and others try to enforce.

A number of kids also want to chase the European dream. Adekugbe wanted to play in Europe. No matter how many people here wanted him to stay and unseat Harvey, De Jong, or whoever, the player didn’t want to.

It should also be remembered that only a small fraction of kids that come through academies in England make it to the top level of the pro game. Of those kids that enter an academy for the age of 9-years-old, less than 1% make the grade or earn a living from the game.

Some make it in the lower leagues, so in the not pro non leagues. A number of those released have a better shot of getting into MLS teams based on talent than homegrowns here though, if they decided they wanted to. SFU have had some English academy kids earn scholarships in recent years.

With such a large player pool leaving top English academies, a growing number of clubs have decided not to even have their own academy, save the money, and pick up the best of the talent developed elsewhere. In a way that’s what the ‘Caps are doing when they bring in players like Deybi Flores from Honduras and Isaiah Hudson from Trinidad and Tobago, it’s just that they’re blowing through a whole lot of their own money with their academy set up as well.

So what’s the solution? Well there’s no easy one, otherwise I’d be working for the ‘Caps and they’d already be addressing it. But searching questions now need to be asked – by the club, by the supporters, by the media.

What’s wrong with the ‘Caps system? Why can Dallas, Montreal, and NYRB produce a steady stream of homegrowns that are making actual first team contributions, and Vancouver can’t?

And if no answers can be found, then surely further scaling back of youth development budgets, or at the very least put different people in charge, with new ideas (and I’m not talking coaches here, but above that. The coaches are doing just fine), has to follow.

Not great for the local talent, not great for Canadian football, but ultimately it will mean little difference for the Whitecaps. That South and Central American well will still be there for them.

Or maybe the sale of Alphonso Davies will fund the next ten years of Whitecaps youth development in the hope of uncovering another one like him.

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Authored by: Michael McColl

There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Caleb Wilkins at 16:58

    Alderson is a business owner now according to his Instagram

  2. Nick Collins at 18:06

    All very good questions and we the fans deserve concrete answers. Soon! Thank you for such a coherent laying out of the premise

  3. Canadianspur at 21:26

    Curious why you say the academy coaches are doing fine. I should think they aren’t beyond being questioned as well.

  4. Michael McColl Author at 02:06

    That’s a fair point re the coaches, but in the case of the Residency I would point to regularly winning their division and making the playoffs, two USSDA U18 Championship games, and a U16 Final Four spot in six years. So on the playing side, I feel they coaches have done a great job at getting these kids to be a winning level at youth football.

    For me the failure is getting them ready to be a pro and yeah, you can question whether the fault for that falls on the Residency coaches but I put it beyond that and on to the organisation as I feel the most important time to get these kids ready for the pro game is around age 18 to 21 and the ‘Caps fail miserably here. Without WFC2 now, they’ve also gone backwards in this regard.

  5. the Englishman at 07:43

    From ‘the Englishman’

    Youth development is a very complex subject and one that can only be assessed and judged by results over an extended period of time, which can make it a very expensive project if you get it wrong! Take the English Premier League as an example. After all these years none of the clubs have found the magic formula. Very few boys develop from the youth teams through to become Premier League Players. In fact most clubs have already given up trying seriously and now operate development projects that are really community projects.

    From personal experience over a number of years I would say that unless youth players have at least 5000 hours of ‘deep practice’ and good coaching in their account by the age of 15 it is almost impossible to make the transition at 18/19. At the age of 15 onwards they need to be practicing for a minimum of 25 hours per week 52 weeks of the year. Many of the Latin players come from impoverished and poorly educated backgrounds and their only lifeline has been soccer! 1000s of hours kicking a ball around from the age of 5 upwards, with one dream ‘to be a professional soccer player!’ Self motivation and determination is a prerequisite.

    Development is further complicated at clubs that don’t have their own soccer philosophy running through all age groups including the professional team. Barcelona is probably the best example of this where young kids are playing exactly the same style of soccer as the first team. They may not all arrive in the first team but they command huge transfer fees from other top flight clubs throughout Europe and are highly sought after.

  6. Angus Walker at 14:53

    Players that come through the youth system, particularly supporters of the club, have a commitment to the club that can add an extra 10% to their on field performance. They have the same drive and determination as those of us who stand and watch, and that translates to the pitch.

    Yes I knock Teibert every time Robbo picks him. His skill level is just not MLS standard. But whenever he does get a start, you can never fault his work rate and commitment. If we got that from some of the more skillfull players on the team we’d have an MLS cup in the bag.

    There is no coincidence that the two clubs with the best record in regard to bringing youth through, FCD and NYRB, have both been Conference Champions for 2 of the last 3 years.

    Unfortunately, these are not the sort of players that win you MLS cups. Their week in week out determination is worth quite a few extra points over the course of a season, where that never say die attitude grabs the draw from a loss or a last minute goal for a win. Points don’t count the same in MLS as they do in the top leagues. All a team is interested in doing is making the playoffs, so these sorts of players fizzle out when it comes to cup play.

    Once you get to playoffs you need a Geovinco, a Villa, or, dare I say it, *cough*, *spit*, a Dempsey.

    I think, relying on the likes of TSS, the CPL (when it starts) and moving a few players through Fresno and grabbing the odd Fonzie that comes our way (lets face it, he was developed before we found him) will be ok, if they invest that money they save in getting a decent DP or two!!

  7. PatS at 21:19

    The Whitecaps cannot develop talented skillfull players for the simple reason that they are coached to play “boomball”
    Watch Davies to regress to a level from which he will never recover.
    Was it not two years ago that Carl Robinson called Russell Tiebert the future captain of the Whitecaps?
    There is the problem.

  8. Trisha at 01:51

    My ex broke up with me for the fact that he wanted space, i tried telling him how much i love him but he was just so stubborn, he suddenly changed, he started cheating, I was so hurt and depressed. so a friend suggested the idea of contacting a spell caster, which I never thought of myself. after i contacted dr_mack @yahoo. com for his help. I asked him to do a love spell for me so that my lover can come back to me, but before the spell was done, I was a bit skeptical about the capacity to bring my lover back to me. 3 days after the spell was actually cast, my lover transformed, he returned to me and since then there is no more mistrust and no more lies between us. He doesn’t cheat anymore. there is no word to say how grateful I am, I am leaving a testimonial on this page, Dr Mack…

  9. Joe Deasy at 08:11

    I’ll have what he’s having

  10. Michael McColl Author at 16:54

    Dr Mack is my alter ego and other business!

  11. peter rose at 17:39

    poor coaching year after year……….we have yet to have a coach who even knows what system he is trying to establish!

  12. Soccer Mum at 13:19

    To give some contextual perspective, according to the NCAA, 1.4% of their players are drafted by the MLS from 24,803 NCAA players. According to MLS Soccer, among last year’s draft picks, 18 had minutes with the first team; many of them did not have many minutes.

    I would venture to say that academies lose the opportunity to attract many top drawer athletes because of the requirement to become a single-sport player at a young age. Of course, soccer also competes with hockey, which further draws many of Canada’s talented athletes.

    I don’t think there are simple answers here.

  13. Chris Kucyk at 03:22

    For those who live in the Vancouver area and are Whitecaps fans. They are having a Whitecaps combine tournament for the U14 boys from across Canada. This is to showcase their prospect players from the programs they are running coast to coast. My son is involved and the coaching and training they get in Nova Scotia is outstanding.

  14. Chris Kucyk at 03:25

    Sorry the combine tournament is running over the March break 12th to 16th. Not sure of location yet.

  15. Avid Soccer Parent at 20:13

    From a parent who’s child was chosen by and played for one year in the whitecaps youth residency program, what we saw take place should be questioned. The fear-based coaching and constant negativity resulted in my son making the choice to leave the program in June after being asked back for the next season.

    He went from receiving little playing time and being put down by his coach to top goal scorer in the program by the end of that year due to an outside coaches positive influence on him and our support; not fear.

    But even as top goal scorer, negative comments continued and statements came from his Whitecap coaches like “Don’t think you’re that good.” “You’ve got a long way to go to be good.” And my favourite “The gap is still huge for you” was the feedback.

    So many questions… Why can’t these coaches see intrinsic motivation? They don’t need to threaten these kids. If they did need it they shouldn’t be in the program. Why do the coaches feel the need to put these kids down? They’re already nervous enough knowing they could be cut at any point. Why are the coaches unaware these kids are emulating their bullying behaviour with their own teammates?

    Then an assault took place in the dressing room against a boy that had already endured a year of bullying by those same teammates at the end of the season; it was by their top 2 players. How could this happen? Whether the coaches did know or didn’t know about the bullying of this boy, they should be held accountable for it being allowed to happen. It was their job to know, to look after each child in the program. It happened because the coaches didn’t involve themselves with the players as people and these boys felt they were top dogs, allowed to treat others like they had witnessed.

    Why was no one speaking up I wondered? No one wanted to make waves. Parents said to me, “Where else can these kids go? There aren’t other options”. I couldn’t accept this answer as a parent of a hardworking boy with a dream, too kind and respectful for this type of behaviour and negative environment.

    In the end no change was made and no coaches were fired. More questions came up as I compared this program to a workplace. I’d never treat people that worked in my organization like this, even when I had the power to do so, so why are they? Who’s in charge of this program and it’s success? Who judges what success looks like? I’d suggest homegrown players is not a KPI.

    It is an internal problem within the Whitecaps organization. It needs rebuilding with people that have experience and understand that positivity, encouragement, hard work and success are not mutually exclusive.

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