This season certainly feels like something of a crossroads for Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Marc Dos Santos era is underway. The roster has been dismantled and the magnitude of the task ahead of him in his first year looms large, as others in the Western Conference make moves.
Yet expectations amongst the fanbase remain high. A bucketload of real and fake money from the Alphonso Davies transfer does that, even though we’ve seen no signs of it actually being spent yet.
There are a couple of different paths in a couple of different areas that the ‘Caps can go down this year, and we’ll certainly have a better indication by the end of it as to just what kind of future lies in store in Vancouver.
But one thing that does already appear apparent is that Dos Santos will be giving Canadian players a far greater look than any of his predecessors, with a focus seemingly on building a youth movement.
The latter we’ve heard before when Carl Robinson was here, so that’s nothing new. These players getting minutes on the other hand would appear to be more likely under Dos Santos, if his words are matched by his actions on the pitch. That might not be what a lot of fans want to read, with the desire to spend some money and match some of those around us being very prevalent amongst many I’ve spoken to of late. And although it may not look like that’s going to be happening right now, it is still relatively early days, with the main MLS transfer window not even opening until February 7th.
Ten of the 18 players currently on the Whitecaps roster for the upcoming season are Canadian. Half the squad are aged 24 or under, with three of them teenagers. That’s going to change. There will be additions. There will be experience and older heads added. Most of those currently in the squad will not be starters, with many not even in consideration for the gameday 18, come First Kick on March 2nd.
So where does that leave the likes of Theo Bair (pictured above), Michael Baldisimo, Simon Colyn (pictured below), and David Norman for the season to come? The indications are these players will see better integration with the matchday squad. Places on the bench, the odd MLS minutes here and there. But that’s obviously nowhere near enough to continue their development apace.
Now I’m not going to harp on again about the loss of WFC2. Over a year on I still think it’s a ridiculous decision, but I’ve said my piece on it many times and what’s done is done. But it can be remedied and it needs to be.
Carl Robinson once told me that he believed that the club should have both a USL and a PDL team, adding that that’s what a proper football club would have. Last year’s affiliation in the USL with Fresno was an unmitigated disaster, and although there’s not been any official announcement, that relationship is thankfully over.
The launch of the new U23 Development Squad last season was at least a start. An admission that the ‘Caps needed something for their young players to fill the developmental gap and between the Academy and the MLS side, and give their homegrown players on the latter some much needed playing time.
“Our development squad was in Mexico [recently] and it was great competition,” Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi said at the end of season presser back in October. “We’ve gone about it in a different way but we see that development squad being something that will be the bridge between our academy and the first team.”
There’s still no replacement for actual competitive minutes in meaningful matches, but it’s at least something, and has tempted back some recent Academy graduates like Patrick Metcalfe, Eric De Graaf, and Connor Glennon for the year ahead. Players who would have probably finished their college careers before making the move to the CPL.
Whereas it may have felt that this team, and let’s be honest WFC2 as well, was just a token gesture during the Robbo era, Dos Santos certainly seems to be approaching the new team with a far different outlook and enthusiasm. An external search is on for a new head coach to lead that team, with an appointment expected by early February.
“It’s very important that we use the development team, the U23, to use it well,” Dos Santos told AFTN. “We need to have the right coach coaching that team, that’s going to be an extension of the first team. An extension of what we’re doing in the first team. To make sure that that coach is almost like another assistant coach. That group is very, very important.
“When kids are developing, there’s the academy and then there’s this place between the first team and the U19 team that is almost an empty hole that you have to fill. It’s going to be very important for us. It’s going to be a younger, a dynamic team with a lot of energy. But that’s the groundwork that is being done. Now, we’re focusing a lot on the experience of this team.”
So far the actual games played by the team have been sparse. That is likely to ramp up very quickly and very soon under Dos Santos, but the problem still remains that these are really just friendlies. Glorified training sessions. But Dos Santos has plans. While we won’t be seeing them in a competitive league setting, for now at least, he wants them busy and playing a lot of matches this year to keep their levels up.
“For now, it’s to find a way for them to play close to 30 games,” Dos Santos revealed. “So if we’re looking at them playing in a specific league right now, no, that’s not going to happen in 2019. But at the end of the day we want them to have 25 to 30 games.”
That means more trips to the likes of Mexico, the US, and even Europe, along with matches against local college and lower league sides. This will at least keep the sharpness and fitness levels of the MLS signees up for when called upon. But this team needs to be more in the future.
I think we can almost certainly rule out a full return to the USL, and putting a team in the CPL appears to be a non-starter, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the new ‘Caps head coach push for a side in the new third tier USL League One if more Western teams can be added.
We’ve already had the announcement that all the MLS sides will be pulling their U19 Academy teams out of the USSDA from next season to play in a new MLS league. Will we perhaps see the same for U23 sides? Perhaps some loan deals with the CPL sides will be the order of the day.
However it all plays out, this is a key season for establishing the future of a new pathway from the youth sides to the first team. The rest of the MLS have caught up pretty quickly with the ‘Caps in terms of an Academy production line. Some have clearly overtaken us (NYRB, Sporting KC, FC Dallas). The ‘Caps can’t afford to be left behind and Dos Santos strikes me a man who isn’t about to let that happen.