Whether you like or loathe Vancouver Whitecaps approach to recent Canadian Championship and Champions League campaigns, the one thing they have certainly done is to give valuable competitive first team minutes to a number of the younger and fringe players on both the MLS and USL squads.
Some players have risen to the occasion and tried to seize the opportunities presented to them, some haven’t. Some have struggled, raising questions about whether they have what it takes to a first team player with the ‘Caps, and the jury is still out on others.
Both competitions have given Carl Robinson a chance to look at a number of players these past few seasons. This year alone, 28 different players took to the pitch in the four Champions League games and the two Canadian Championship matches, with several others involved in the gameday squad.
Valuable minutes and experience for all involved, especially those that don’t see much (or any) MLS action. But the recent semi-final defeat to Montreal deprived the ‘Caps of at least two, and possibly three, more Canadian Championship matches this season, and means no Champions League action in the revamped format next year.
Suddenly those additional non-league minutes are no longer there, so how does Robinson get his fringe players ready for when called upon in MLS action? How does he keep them sharp and see whether they’re developing or regressing?
There’s time down with WFC2, but that often has the opposite desired effect both on the players going down and the performance of the team, who regularly play better when it’s the core USL squad and the regular MLSers like Ben McKendry and Marco Bustos.
There’s also the possibility of sending a few of the guys out on loan, whether in Canada or further afield.
Certainly a lot for Robinson to ponder and for him, nothing is off the table.
“It’s a real good question,” Robinson told AFTN when we asked him what now for a number of his fringe players. “They’re going to have to play in the USL. I’m going to look at loaning a lot of these guys out. I think they need competitive games. The USL is a great platform for my young players to play, but I also believe that some players when they go down feel that they probably don’t want to be there.
“I don’t want that to ever be created at this football club. Maybe the gap inbetween is a loan opportunity for someone. Whether it’s a different country or a different league. There’ll be three or four guys that I look to get maybe loan experience for six months.”
Robinson certainly isn’t averse to sending his players out on loan. To see where the land lies and that it isn’t always greener on the other side. Erik Hurtado went to Norway. Sam Adekugbe went to England. Kianz Froese and Caleb Clarke went to Germany.
More are set to follow and there’s certainly a number of candidates that instantly spring to mind for being loaned out for the rest of the year. Let’s look at five of them.
The prime candidate to be heading out on loan appears to be midfielder Marco Bustos.
The Residency alumni hasn’t played a MLS minute this season, and has made only four appearances, one of them a start, in his three seasons with the first team. That just 92 minutes of combined action in MLS, with most of his time spent playing with the USL team or out injured. It’s not ideal and it certainly doesn’t appear to have helped with his development or to take him to the next level. He clearly needs more.
Bustos has been linked with a loan deal to Chile in recent weeks, with Universidad de Chile seemingly leading the way but several other clubs may also be in the mix, both there, in Europe, and closer to home.
Wherever he may end up, Bustos certainly appears to be heading out on loan somewhere.
“He will be,” Robinson confirmed. “Busty needs to play. He’s played minimal minutes in the two Canadian Championship games for me, but he needs to play. With the amount of players that I’ve got here, he’s still a big part of this football club, but he does need to go and play now because otherwise he’ll get frustrated and I don’t want him to get frustrated as he’s a super young talent, so he will be one of them [loaned out].”
Sam Adekugbe recently returned to Vancouver from a season long loan with English Championship side Brighton and Hove Albion. A nagging hamstring injury forced the Whitecaps Residency alumni back to his parent club earlier than he hoped, limiting his playing time in England, and with Brighton now promoted to the Premier League, it’s unlikely that Adekugbe will be returning to the Amex Stadium for the 2017/18 season.
That leaves him somewhat in limbo, with questions around whether he even still wants to be a Whitecap after having a taste of playing, and doing well, in Europe.
Adekugbe spent most of his time with Brighton’s U23 team but impressed and made five first team appearances over the seasons, one in the Championship, two in the FA Cup, and two in the League Cup. The latter also saw him score his one and only goal for Brighton’s first team, in August’s 4-2 win over Oxford United.
“It’s been good, it’s been bad,” Adekugbe told AFTN about his time in Brighton. “But I think it’s all a bigger picture kind of learning of how to deal with these situations. I was with the 23s, I made my debut, which was good. I went there to be involved in the first time, that’s what my ambition was, and I was able to get there.”
His four seasons playing with the Whitecaps in MLS have seen him make 16 appearances, with 10 of them being starts. He looked to have made the starting left back spot his own in 2015, with a string of excellent performances, but injury and a rejuvenated Jordan Harvey put paid to that.
“It was a series of things [that took me to Brighton],” Adekugbe told us. “I spoke with Robbo and he thought that I was ready to play, but at the same time Jordan Harvey was playing very well. I can’t blame anyone. It was just a case of having two very good players who were vying for minutes.
“It’s difficult to split the time and Robbo thought at this time I can’t hold you back any more. I’m not trying to hold you back but he’s also not going to take someone out who is playing well. It wasn’t a matter of me saying ‘oh Robbo, I want to get out of here, I’m not playing’ or anything. It was just a matter of Jordan’s playing very well.”
Has much changed on the Whitecaps side? Well, Harvey’s not having his best season. It’s not been bad, but he’s not the player he was in 2015. Could this be Adekugbe’s chance or will the ‘Caps choose to give that in waiting role to Brett Levis when he recovers from his own injury?
Adekugbe’s now close to being back to full fitness. Whether he will be re-added to the Whitecaps MLS roster remains unclear. The hope was to possibly give him minutes in the Canadian Championship, but he wasn’t quite ready in time.
Another loan deal, especially to a club in the UK, seems the most likely scenario. Clubs there are already making their offseason moves and signings, so expect this one to move quite quickly if the ‘Caps decide that’s the best option for both parties.
Ben McKendry is having an excellent USL season. He’s been here before, then a couple of knee injuries ended the last two seasons with him sitting in the stands, missing out on the chance of first team football.
This season though could be different. He’s looking at his best, and finally made his MLS debut three seasons in, playing the full 90 minutes, and looking decent, in the ‘Caps 3-2 loss in San Jose in March. He also shone at times in the two Canadian Championship games against Montreal Impact.
But was that enough to see him in the mix for more MLS minutes? With Robbo favouring the three DM/CMs in a 4-1-4-1, and the addition of Tony Tchani, McKendry has seen himself slip to fifth in the pecking order in that role.
He’s a box to box player, and the ‘Caps don’t really have a lot of those, but Matias Laba, Andrew Jacobson, and Tchani are playing well that it’s hard to see McKendry making the breakthrough.
Tchani is the worst performer of the three, but you feel if he or Jacobson is to drop out of the line-up it will either be for a more attacking piece, such as Brek Shea or Yordy Reyna, or for Russell Teibert.
So where does that leave McKendry? Badly in need of competitive minutes in a more testing environment than the USL.
Robinson has regularly told us that he is high on McKendry and likes what he brings to the pitch, but right now, there’s not a place in the first team for him, so a loan deal would be the best option for both club and player. He has to be playing at this crucial stage of his career. He’s 24 and getting to the make or break stage of his time here in Vancouver you have to feel.
As to where that loan deal might be though is open to discussion. He could certainly go to a NASL or USL side, but that’s no better than staying here with WFC2. He could go to Europe, but at what level? We feel the latter is the most likely option, and who knows, maybe Scandinavia will beckon for another Whitecap.
Where in the world is Deybi Flores? It could be a new children’s book series, but he has been spotted by AFTN in recent weeks, standing on the track at Langley in his civvies after WFC2’s last home match.
He’s officially on loan to WFC2 for the season, but hasn’t played a single minute for the team yet after having to return to Honduras for a spell for family reasons. What’s going to happen to him now though is a mystery.
When Flores first came to the ‘Caps he looked a revelation, lighting it up on his debut against Portland in March 2015. He looked an exciting talent, but we never saw those glimpses in a Whitecaps jersey after that. He went on to make nine appearances in his debut season, but followed that up with just a single one the following year as he headed back on loan to CD Motagua for the second half of last year.
We didn’t think we’d see him again but up he popped for preseason training! The ‘Caps paid a transfer fee for him so clearly want to see some return. There were rumours of another loan deal back to Honduras but nothing was forthcoming. We still think that is the most likely option, although cutting him free altogether is likely better for both the ‘Caps and Flores.
Whatever happens, he’s not going to be in the first team mix any time soon.
This might seem a strange one considering the lack of healthy centre backs in the first team squad right now, made even worse by the apparent injury to Kendall Waston playing for Costa Rica on Tuesday night.
But this is bordering on a make or break season for the ‘Caps 2016 MLS SuperDraft first round draft pick, which may seem harsh considering this is only his second year with the club and his chances have been minimal.
After a strong start to last year’s USL season with WFC2 and some promising MLS outings last summer where he made two appearances at right back, Seiler seems to have regressed. He is yet to feature in MLS play this season, wasn’t part of the Champions League plans, and played in both the games against Montreal Impact in the Canadian Championship, but with very mixed results.
Robinson likes to carry five centre backs on his MLS squad. David Edgar’s season-ending knee injury has left them with four. The reoccurrence of Christian Dean’s foot injury, left them with three, and then Seiler himself had an injury for a couple of weeks. Now it looks like Waston may miss some time.
You would think that would see Seiler move up to partner Tim Parker, but Andrew Jacobson is the most likely to drop back and do that, which would tell you all you need to know about the faith Robinson has to throw Seiler into the MLS mix right now.
The pressure is on Seiler to impress. He has two other centre backs in the USL nipping at his heels to get a MLS contract, or even his, in the shape of WFC2 Player of the Year and current captain, Sem de Wit, and New Zealand draft pick, Francis de Vries. Robinson speaks very favourably of both.
Seiler struggled in the two Canadian Championship matches with Montreal. De Wit outplayed him in the first leg, and he primarily got the nod in the second leg because he’d played alongside Tim Parker before, to good effect, and had a good understanding with him. Plus he had a MLS contract and de Wit doesn’t.
But Seiler had a poor outing at Stade Saputo, and he’s followed that up last weekend with tough time of it in WFC2’s loss at Phoenix Rising. He needs to be playing regularly at a high level to not only develop but to see if he can cut it there. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Robbo loan him out to do just that, either adding a short term veteran to the MLS roster or signing de Wit or de Vries as a back up.
At the time of writing this, not a lot is known about Waston injury, so that may change any such plans drastically. He did walk off the pitch under his own power, so there’s at least that. But Seiler needs to either light it up in the USL or go somewhere and show the club that he is one of the men in the defensive future of the ‘Caps.