Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program was one of the first, and is still considered one of the best, academies amongst the top professional clubs in North American soccer. Founded in August 2007, the program has developed from the Prospects team to a fully blown academy system that now goes from pre-Residency to U18 levels.
There’s been successes along the way. Alphonso Davies became the 13th homegrown player to have moved on to the Whitecaps MLS roster in the past six seasons, seven of them are still on it, and the current USL roster contains 10 Residency graduates.
The ‘Caps U18 sides have now lost two heartbreaking USSDA Championship games to FC Dallas, the first in 2012 and the second last month, while the U16 side was quarter-finalists in 2014 and 2015, and both teams have a slew of Divisional Championships under their belts.
All of which is great, but there is still that one big elephant in the room. It’s something we’ve covered here on AFTN before, and that is the fact that in those six MLS seasons so far, the Residency program has still to produce a homegrown talent that has developed into a regular first team starter.
For a club that’s modus operandi is investment in youth development and a philosophy of building a team around younger players over more expensive well known, bigger name stars, it’s not ideal. It’s also something that gets the Whitecaps a lot of flak in some quarters.
Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi “stands by the money that we invest in player development”, and although he acknowledges it’s not produced a string of MLS starters just yet, he feels the club is on the right path and has come a long way from where they started out.
“I think what people are looking to see on the player development side is instant results,” Lenarduzzi told AFTN. “We’ve been at it since pre MLS and what we’ve done as a club on the development side, there’s no model in North America for how to develop players because you have the scholarship opportunities, and MLS is relatively young.
“When we came into the league, I think that was something that differentiated us from other clubs because we would ask questions about development and how could we assure that we could keep our players if in fact we invested the time into them. As a result of that, there’s way more talk about developing players, which is absolutely important in my opinion for every club in MLS, because if you can actually develop those players that are core players, and some of them are star players, then you also benefit your national team programs as well.”
The Whitecaps Residency has produced a vast number of players, at all levels, for the Canadian national team over the years. But when you talk about club v country, there’s definitely a mixed reaction from the Whitecaps fanbase.
Some will argue (and Lenarduzzi is one of them) that the ‘Caps are a Canadian club and as such they have the onus to develop Canadian talent. Others would go further and say that should be the priority.
The downside of that when you get to the senior level of the club is that often those players aren’t good enough compared to what is already on the roster and/or can be found elsewhere, often on a cheaper wage.
That sees the current situation develop where players make the first team roster, but struggle to get first team minutes. Proponents of country over club will argue that Canadian players should be played no matter what. Development over results. That’s not to say you can’t have both, it’s just that Whitecaps history provides a great example that it’s a struggle.
Then you have the other side of the fanbase. Those that don’t care if a player is Venusian (think of the publicity that would generate!), just as long as they perform on the pitch, get the job done, and the Whitecaps win and pick up the points.
Lenarduzzi hears it a lot from both sides. The ‘Caps remain unwavering in their club philosophy, but at the same time, it is a results driven business.
“I had someone say to me they don’t really care [about developing Canadian players],” Lenarduzzi told us. “They just want to see us to win. They don’t really care if we’re developing players or not. That is something that I don’t necessarily agree with. I do believe that do we need to win and we can’t not win at the expense of development.
“This year I just think we’ve been faced by a situation that we’ve regressed from where we’ve been the last two years, but it’s not as a result of investing in player development. So we’re going to continue down that path. We’re not going to alter that. We think that if we continue to do it properly then that will be something that will make up the bottom end of our roster. Clearly you need to supplement, compliment that with the DP difference makers and then the quality players that sit inbetween.”
So that brings us back to just why can’t any of the homegrown Residency signings make it as a first team regular?
You really can’t put it down to Robbo not giving these guys the opportunity. The vast majority of them have had chances to shine, but for the most part they haven’t taken them, as some horrendous performances in the Canadian Championship and CCL have shown.
Is it their ability? Are they simply not at that level? There’s an argument for that, otherwise they’d be regulars with the national team, but then you’re not going to be a regular for your national team if you’re not playing for your club. A vicious circle.
Has their development been good enough to get them ready for MLS? Again, you can certainly argue that in the past with some of the guys. The lack of opportunities before the USL teams existed was shocking for young players in North American soccer. Bryce Alderson may be the one to have suffered most from this.
But now, the USL side is a fantastic opportunity for all of these players to go and show what they can offer to the first team, but they have to go and do just that and a lot of them haven’t been. If they can’t hack it at that level then what hope do they have of making it in MLS? Many MLSers look at it as a step down as opposed to a chance to impress. They’re not only hurting themselves, but the club, along with the chances of other players that could have had their spot.
That also brings up the players’ attitudes. Do some feel they’ve a right to a first team spot if they shine in the Residency? Are they too complacent and feel they’ve “made it” as soon as they get their MLS contract, and as Canadians feel they deserve a place in the starting line-up? A sense of entitlement. Some may not want to admit it, but there is an element of truth to that.
“I think some of it is due to how we’re structured,” Lenarduzzi told us. “We’ve gone through that learning curve of not having a model to follow in North America and now we’ve established ourselves with the pre-Residency, U14s, U16s, U18s. I’m a big believer when it comes to youth that kids need to pay their dues, and understand that there is a hierarchy there and that they need to earn the respect of the players that they play with.
“We’ve more recently done a better job of making sure that players understand exactly where they are in the hierarchy. Next year will provide an even better opportunity to do that because Residency will be out at UBC. You’ll have your changing rooms and the old Arsenal model.”
If you’re not sure what Lenarduzzi is talking about here, it’s the way that academies were originally set up back in the UK, so that young players could come through the ranks knowing their place in the club, staying humble, getting their opportunities to impress, and keeping their feet on the ground as they do it.
“When I went and visited their training ground what struck me outside of the fact it’s beautiful, it’s state of the art, these lush green pitches, the thing that struck home with me the most was the explanation of the changing rooms,” Lenarduzzi explained. “How the youngest players are furthest away from the first team changing rooms and inbetween there you have the age specific groups. You don’t go into the next changing room uninvited. You go into that changing room when you’re being told you’ve done well and now you’re going to get to the next level. So we’ve, out at UBC, that’s how we’ve structured the building.
“It’s a very simple logic but I actually think when you ask me why, I think that players maybe feel a little bit too entitled. They’ve come from their clubs, where they’re the big fish, and just assume it will be the same. And it’s not. A player can have the ability but what he also needs is to have the mental make up to understand I haven’t done anything yet and I need to prove myself.”
Knowing your place, showing respect, and not having a sense of entitlement are all aspects of a player’s attitude that the Whitecaps want to mould into the correct behaviours. Some may feel it’s a dated system in the modern footballing age, but with many players egos, often fed by agents, spiralling out of control at times, it is a necessity to have harmony within the locker room. One we agree with 100%.
It’s not always something that’s been seen at the Whitecaps over the years, and the club is determined to learn from earlier mistakes and make sure they’re not repeated. We’ve seen it ourselves in our regular chats with the current crop of Residency and USL players. Their attitude, no matter their background or nationality, is first class and just what it should be,
Attitude and ability have contributed to why some, but certainly not all, of the young talent in recent years have failed to make the desired breakthrough, but Lenarduzzi is confident that it won’t be too long till we see a Residency or USL graduate become a regular starter in the MLS side.
“We’re still finding our way through the development process,” Lenarduzzi admitted. “I still think with Russell Teibert, there’s still a chance for him to entrench himself in the team. Then you have Brett Levis playing [on Tuesday] and he was fantastic.
“Wonderful attitude, and he is a good example of being a good player but also understanding the hierarchy. He’ll be the first to tell you, I’m in but I haven’t done anything yet. We’ve addressed those areas and hopefully we’ll do a better job moving forward.”
Ultimately, whether it’s issues with their ability, development, attitude, or whatever it is, with the amount of money being pumped into the Residency program, the results so far have been poor in terms of first team impact. There’s no sugar coating that and everyone at the club would likely agree.
Four Canadians started for Vancouver in the weekend draw in LA. Of those, Teibert was the only one that had come through the Whitecaps own ranks.
Clubs like FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls seem way more successful at transitioning their homegrowns into first teamers, selling some of them on as well. Vancouver need to do better.
With the current and next crop of talent coming through, don’t be surprised if they do, but if it still doesn’t happen, then the questions as to why will only grow.