“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.