Brett Levis signed his first professional contract with Vancouver Whitecaps’ USL side back in February of this year, and after a stellar debut season, the 22-year-old will be back in a ‘Caps jersey for 2016.
The Whitecaps were quick to add Levis to the returning core of the team for next season, re-signing the talented midfielder last month.
For anyone who had seen him play PDL for the ‘Caps or Victoria Highlanders the previous two seasons, Levis was a fairly obvious addition to Alan Koch’s inaugural WFC2 squad.
Despite missing a chunk of the season (eight games) through an ankle injury suffered against Portland in July, Levis finished the season as the joint third highest scorer with WFC2, grabbing four goals and two assists from his 20 appearances.
Growing up in Saskatoon, football has been Levis’ life from a very early age.
It’s a much used cliché to refer to a ‘childhood dream’ when writing about young players carving out a career in the pros, but playing his youth and college football far removed from Canada’s three top level clubs, playing professionally was always a prime desire for Levis, he just wasn’t too sure how realistic a one it was.
“I don’t know if I thought it was going to happen, but I definitely always wanted to [play professionally],” Levis told AFTN when we caught up with him at WFC2’s November mini camp. “I’ve been playing since I was 4-years-old and that’s all I’ve ever focussed on.
“I used to live on the west side of the city, I moved to the east side of the city just because there was a school that had a soccer academy there. So I played there for four years, we won four Provincial titles. My whole life has just been pretty much soccer, no matter what.”
Levis’ youth career began with the Saskatoon Youth Soccer Club, before his family made the cross-city move to enable him to play his high school football for the Centennial Chargers.
After winning back to back team MVP awards, the next stage of Levis’ soccer journey took him the CIS college route, staying in his home province with Saskatchewan Huskies.
It was something of a risk. Saskatchewan isn’t exactly known as the soccer hotbed of Canada. That’s not saying there aren’t good players there, there clearly is. It’s just getting noticed can sometimes be more difficult, which played a part in his decision to head west for two summers to play two seasons in the USL PDL.
“I went to University, I took my classes, did what I had to do,” Levis told us. “But that was the best soccer we had there, was at the University, so it was kind of what I had to do. It was a challenge but it was probably the best thing I did, was to go to Victoria. That was two years ago now, to play in the PDL, just to get out there and get seen.
“I feel like, geographically, I might have been held back a little bit where I was situated. We have good coaches and stuff but we don’t have the MLS teams or we don’t have the people there that can sort of see you and send you places.”
That is a situation that will hopefully change with the Whitecaps expansion of their Academy Centres to Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada. The ‘Caps now have three academies in the province, two in Saskatoon and one in Regina.
Putting up excellent numbers at CIS level also goes a long way to getting you noticed as well, and that’s just what Levis did.
He finished his four year Huskies career with 23 goals and 15 assists from 42 regular season appearances, winning a Canada West Championship in his final year and CIS All-Canadian honours.
But as Levis mentioned, it was playing for Victoria Highlanders in the 2013 PDL season that brought him to a wider audience and in particular put him on the Whitecaps’ radar.
Levis scored 12 goals and added 6 assists, as the Highlanders won both the Northwest Division and Western Conference titles, before losing out in the Final Four.
The Whitecaps liked what they saw and brought him into the fold of the ‘Caps own U23 team for the 2014 PDL season.
“They were a MLS affiliate club so I was obviously very happy,” Levis said. “In the PDL, it was my first year when I went to Victoria and I did really well that year. At the end of that year I was brought in for a ten day trial with the Whitecaps. Just a little stint to kind of see how it went and I thought I did pretty well.
“Then from that break, end of PDL until next year’s PDL season, they were talking to me and kind of giving me the layout of if I come here, play PDL and I do well, I might be able to train with the first team once in a while.
“It was just something I had to do. I loved it in Victoria, but especially for my development, and then I did well again in PDL and then I was brought in for a couple of weeks to train with the first team again last year and now the USL. I definitely think it helped my development a lot faster.”
The midfielder made 14 appearances for the ‘Caps U23s in 2014, getting two goals and adding four assists, as Vancouver finished the season in excellent form.
Levis hasn’t looked out of place in making the jump from CIS and PDL levels to USL this year. While some were struggling to find their feet in the early going, he seemed to settle right in, although the midfielder admits that from his viewpoint, there was a noticeable difference in the standard of play from what he had been used to.
“I would compare CIS to PDL and I would say there’s quite a big jump to the USL,” Levis told us. “Obviously it’s a completely different nature. Players are now getting paid. It’s now the professional level. A lot of people do it as their full-time job.
“So I just think there’s more dedication, there’s more on the line. Especially with MLS affiliate clubs because now there is that bridge that if you perform that you might be able to make. I would definitely say the USL is a lot higher level and again, that’s ironic because I wouldn’t say that the level itself is a huge difference between USL and MLS.
“But again it’s the players that can just get those small details and everything right, because you see in the US Open Cup that there’s a lot times that a USL team will beat a MLS team. So it’s just the little things you’ve got to work on.”
As with all players in the WFC2 set-up, there’s still a lot to be done on his learning and developmental curve if he is to make the next jump up to the first team. Having 1,094 competitive professional minutes under his belt obviously helps, and that ankle injury aside, Levis is happy with his progress in his first season as a pro.
“I thought it went pretty well,” he said. “The injury obviously hindered me a little bit. I wouldn’t say it necessarily hurt my development but if I was able to get through a full season healthy, maybe I would be in a different position, but I’m definitely looking forward to this season coming up to be more fit, stronger and hopefully get through a full season injury free.”
Levis, along with Spanish winger Victor Blasco, were the two WFC2 players without a current MLS contract that impressed most during this inaugural USL season.
Both clearly did themselves a lot of good for their future prospects with their performances this past season. Carl Robinson also liked what he saw, inviting both players to train with the MLS squad in the latter half of the year, and Levis knows such training stints just help his development even further.
But there’s no resting on his laurels. His fledgling pro career may have got off to a good start but he describes going from USL to MLS level as “the biggest jump” of them all, in many regards.
“It definitely makes me a lot better,” Levis said of training with the first team. “That’s the highest level we have here in North America, is the MLS. You get players from all over the world brought in to that environment. It’s very rewarding getting to train with them and it makes you better. It’s a little bit faster, it’s a little quicker.
“Those are the little aspects. When I say it’s the biggest jump, it’s kind of ironic because it’s the smallest details that you need to work on to make that jump, but it is maybe the hardest jump to make. A lot of players can come through, and have come through, and played USL but maybe haven’t been able to make that jump. Same thing with the NASL.
“I still think I have age on my side, so I’m going to just work on exactly what they tell me. The little details of the in and out. Everything that we do in training every single day. So hopefully that will help me.”
Levis now needs to build upon that good debut season and continue to make those necessary developmental strides. The 2016 USL season will likely play a big part in how close he can come to making that next jump.
WFC2 coach Koch put together a mini-camp for the returning 13 USL roster players last month, along with a number of trialists from Canada and worldwide. Having been put together a short notice this year, having a chance now to have some proper time to work on tactics and bond will be massive for the team and Levis feels it will help him and all of the guys perform at a higher level next season.
“It’ll definitely help the team chemistry,” Levis admits. “Last year, we were kind of thrown together last minute. There was even three of four players we signed mid-season sort of thing. It was definitely hard to jump into a season. The USL is a long and a good league.
“It’s a really good league and a lot of the teams, especially the MLS affiliate clubs, they’ve already been in the league for a year or two, LA Galaxy II. Then you’ve also got the non affiliate clubs that have been in it for years. It was definitely hard to just get thrown in to, but again, I think this year will be much better. We’ll be much better prepared, I think we’ll have a better team, we’ll have better chemistry, and even the guys who have stayed you just build that relationship for another year.”
There’s no question that WFC2 will be in a much better shape for their second USL season, but as for Levis’ own personal development, what does he feel he needs to improve on in his game to make that jump we’ve been talking about?
“It’s kind of hard to pick exactly one thing,” Levis said. “I think the biggest thing for me is that I want my fitness to be as high as it can possibly be, because that’s one thing, especially if I do get called into the first team for preseason or wherever I go, I don’t want fitness to be the thing that’s holding me back.
“I’m young enough that that shouldn’t be an excuse at all. So as long as my fitness is the highest it can be and the best level, again, the small details. It’s every little thing. Making sure I check my shoulder every single time. Making sure my passes are clean, crisp.
“It’s every little thing, but it’s being able to do them consistently.”