Richard has spent two years with the program and played a pivotal role in developing the Caps of the future. The building blocks for seeing local BC talent playing for the Whitecaps in MLS have now firmly been laid and the future looks very bright indeed.
AFTN's Steve Pandher sat down with Richard and chatted about the past two years, the current state of the Whitecaps Residency program and what the future could, and should, hold in store for youth development not just in Vancouver, but throughout the Canadian game...
You've spent two years as the technical director for the Whitecaps Academy. What are the biggest advancements you've seen in your time here?
The most important thing at the start was to extend the program as there was only one academy team at the time, U20 team and some prospects. It was to make the youth program start younger but the question was how young? There is a philosophy to starting young and I am used to working with U7/U8 players in Europe. The biggest challenge was if we could do that and find the quality of player from U12 to U18, the right coaches, facilities, medical programs, etc.
A big part of this process was could these players train and play games at their age group in Canada or North America. Most of the players who were in the program were the best one or two players on their youth teams. They could dribble, beat five players and score five goals but never advance their skills to the next level.
A coach can get help with that development but you need a certain level within the group, so you bring in the best players and then get the best training and curriculum for that age.
What's been your biggest challenge in the last two years?
The distances between top North American clubs are too large to find the highest competition every week like in Europe. You canít copy Europe because of that and we didnít try to, but we did find the best of both worlds within the league structure.
This was first season the Whitecaps residency played in the USSDA. What have been the positives of playing in the League this past season?
The reason we moved into the academy league was so players can develop against others at the same age, to play against high level teams, high level coaches, high level referees. There is a lot of travel and cost involved, which is why the commitment from the Club and its owners is amazing. We are the only Club, at this time, in Canada doing that [competing in USSDA].
The travel is also a positive because it prepares them for professional soccer, as it is a big part of the sport, especially in North America. Weíve made an educational program on travelling to prepare kids for when they move to the first team so they know when to rest, nutrition wise, flying time, time changes. We have sleep talks and how to handle time zones when it comes travelling across the country, so anyone who moves up knows they must be ready, not in a technical sense because there is a lot to learn still.
Is there one specific thing that makes the Whitecaps academy the envy of other North American clubs?
Kids from 12 years old are now committed with us full time, and by full time I mean they are no longer playing with their local club. We have them for longer periods so they can learn, train and learn our style of football and the Club is doing a great job, but we can do even better by bringing the best players together. There are not a lot of clubs that have that in North America because most are with local clubs and are brought in a couple of times. Other clubs will follow this for sure.
How close is the Whitecaps Academy to a European model? What is lacking?
The league structure is the biggest thing because in Europe you can travel 20 minutes by car and play the best clubs every week, including exhibition games. We play exhibitions against clubs that are one year older, which is good but not the same. With the developmental league, reserves and PDL we are getting there and the quality is better in Europe because we have so many players to pick from, but you canít change that so we have to make the best out of it.
And the Training Facility?
The training facility is big and the Club is working very hard to make it happen but finding the land seems to be the problem. There will be a moment where we will have that facility. I was involved in the plans for it and it will be amazing for the Club. It will make a big difference. Bigger than what a lot of people think, especially for the younger player who will see the first teamís changing room a few steps away. They will work harder and ask themselves "Can I make it there one day".
You can build a whole philosophy inside your facility so younger kids are at the end of the changing rooms hoping to move up to the top of the club. We try to do it now but it has to be scheduled.
Once the Academy is at full potential, how many players per year do you see moving onto the first team?
Across the world it is less than 3 but in Canada, where you donít have a lot of professional clubs, you have to have more, like 3 or 4 players. The reserve team can have 6 or 7 players and from that group maybe 3 or 4 make it to the first team.
Players need time and the time period between Residency and the first team is a challenge due to limited options. Do the graduated players go to college or do they stay with us and hope they get a chance with the first team? Do they still need time to develop physically and technically? The gap is getting smaller as they are getting time with the reserve side and training time with the first team, so things are coming into place now but it is very important to focus on the next step / years.
Since he signed recently, what are some of the advancements youíve seen in Caleb Clarkeís game over the past two years?
You could see he was a good player at the start. He had a long term injury which lasted six months, hurting his development. He should be an even better player right now if he didnít miss that training. He worked hard on his own in the last 4/5 months and has become a better professional in the way he trains than he was. He saw the light, in my opinion. Heís very focused now on becoming a professional player and actually doing the right things.
When he returned from first team training to train with the U18s or the U16s, he never came back with a bad attitude. No "Why am I back here?". And that attitude makes a big difference into how a player truly develops. Caleb, Bryce, Ben and Callum are great examples of this attitude and you can ask them in two years to come back and train with us and they will do that 100%. Players who can not do that will never maximize their development.
What has changed in BC during your time here that will help in developing better soccer players?
Now there is a better league structure within the province with the BCSPL in place. It is a natural pathway for players who start with their community clubs to move up to that league and then move up another level which is the Whitecaps academy.
Young players need time to practice, to learn, and of course they can learn on their own in the park but the better environment that can be created by it will be better for development. Also, overall, the community clubs are getting better and that benefits every young player in BC. A better development of the grassroots is key.
What can young players do to help with their own development?
You need to be the owner of your own development process. If they rely on the coach and just to do what the coach says, they will develop, but not 100%. They will always find out what their weaknesses are when we tell them and show them on video, but if they donít understand what it is to change that it is a mental issue.
The last step into developing 100% is not on field but off field. Are you coachable, are you asking for feedback from coaches, are you watching your video tape again and then coming back to us to find out how to fix it? Also coaches have to adjust their coaching style on the type / personality of the player. Things like learning strategies of kids are key in development. We can win a lot in this area in the future.
A big difference between Europe is that here players are willing to learn. The mentality to learn is fantastic here and the other part is to develop you have to be reflective on yourself, ask the coach questions, talk to your teammates. Players are not used to negative feedback, which is part of the environment in Canada, but negative feedback can be very positive if it is taken well.
How important is the mental part of the game in the development process?
I worked with players in Holland at the age of 12 who asked, when I tell them how to do something,"why should I do that because I watched the first team and they didnít do it like that". Players donít do that here and that means a kid from 12 in Europe is thinking about his position, he may be wrong, but he is thinking about it.
Can the player understand what we are telling them? There is an intelligent part in receiving information from the coach. Some can see it from the board but half of the group donít understand the board and are unable to transfer it to the field. They need the board flipped onto the field and then they understand it, which is why video is an important part of training. Kids are more digitally developed everywhere, so we need to progress in that in the coming years.
If you were to give advice to a player who wants to develop, would you tell them to go play professionally in another league or to go to college?
College is a part of development so we have to use it here and they are homegrown when they go to college, so we can bring them back if they can make the first team. We need to find a way because I know for sure when this program finds the time that is what this program needs.
The 98s, 99s, and an amazing group of 2000s and 2001s will need six years to develop. If the Club is doing what they are now and make it better at developing, there will be some fantastic players for the first team. But if they donít get a chance between 18 and 21 for the big club then college is a way to go. Loaning players out is another part to develop in this Club.
So loaning out players would be a good option?
It is absolutely necessary in my thoughts to loan players out in order for them to continue to play and develop. Playing time is so important for these players in the reserve group between Residency and first team. If they are stuck in the back of the group of the first team they will still get fantastic training, the best here, but playing time is always a big part. Work with clubs in Canada, North America and Europe and the club is aware of that option so they can get a similar environment to develop and play in a full time reserve league. We donít have a full time reserve league, only 10 games. MLS have to take this more seriously if they care about development.
In the reserve leagues in Europe they will play against players of a similar age every week, where they can return to the team or develop them to sell them to those clubs because it is a business.
How important is having a cohesive style throughout the organization? What is your preference?
If your academy style matches the big club then you can win with academy players. The players that are recruited need to fit the profile of the position and then you can develop them from 12 to 19. If you look at soccer around the world and where the goals are coming from, 78% are coming from the wide areas and set plays. Count the goals every week in the MLS or the reservesÖ Most of the goals start in the wide areas. Itís a one on one on the side, which means you could win a battle there while in the middle itís usually one against two. Everyone is getting more physically developed and there are 2-3 big guys in the center. There is no space in the center except for the counter. If you want to win something and change the play with a certain quality, that is why, in my opinion, you have to develop wingers.
You donít see wingers in North America. I have seen centre back and centre striker type players on the wings. You can win games when you look through all the stats from the sides. It also can be full backs like Dani Alves from Barcelona or Young-Pyo Lee with us. They are more right wingers but are in the lineup as a right back. Crosses are so much harder to defend for goalkeepers than straight balls, which are easy to defend. This is an important philosophy in our way of developing a style and the players.
Is there anything that upsets you when it comes to developing young footballers?
Everyone looks at the amazing way Barcelona play now and itís the worst thing for coaches and youth players to see, because now youth coaches are getting players to play that way at an early age in games. And I say donít play. Until 12 years old just dribble and beat players. Technical development is the most important part and you can only technically develop if you play 1v1 or 2v2 and not 8v8 and 9v9. Copying Barcelonaís style is great but not until the U16 level.
You still have to play games because itís important to kids, but coaching to develop players is more important than the results. Even if it goes wrong because you can only learn when it goes wrong. If the coach changes their philosophy because parents are yelling then it can go wrong.
What can assist the process in Canada and North America?
The MLS and US Soccer are talking about youth development, but in order to achieve that you have present more opportunities, as well as clubs, financial ways to do that through contracts, help with travel. So the commitment to do it is important, because saying it is easy, but who is doing it really because I think we are.
Clubs in Holland like Ajax, were down in the table but won the league now because they changed philosophy and play with 10 players developed in their academy that are currently 22 or younger. Feyenoord is another example where they had financial troubles and started playing their own players instead of buying higher priced talent and ended up in second place.
With the 3 current MLS academies, and a potential Division 2 league, what timeframe do you see where Canada can become a power in CONCACAF and have a chance at qualifying for the World Cup.
Around ten years if everything goes perfectly. With the circumstances in Canada, you need a philosophy from the CSA to take their time, which means having a technical director who believes in development. There are a lot of good things going on.
I was with the national team U20s in Florida with Stephan Hart and Tony Fonseca, who are focusing on the national program. It is a commitment to the philosophy. It takes the big clubs in Europe 10-12 years to develop players. They stay focused on the style, in how to develop coaches and players. If you give the time and believe in the style, with the other clubs it can turn around in ten years. Impossible to change it immediately.
What is currently lacking in Canadian football that can be corrected going forward?
Tony and Stephen are doing great but that is the philosophy in Canada and I donít want to say itís wrong, but you need a certain style that everyone fully believes in.
The national team and coaches need to talk to the clubs more. Iíve asked for that a couple of times. So sit down with technical directors of Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and the Vancouver Whitecaps. I hope they do that more because that is where it starts with the clubs working together to find out how they are thinking and build the national teams.
The academies are developing national team players and they go there for one, two or more weeks in camp and they are (maybe) doing things different, it doesnít make sense. So the CSA should meet with the technical directors every month and meet with the provincial associations like BC Soccer, who will go to the grassroots. I saw the new system proposed by BC Soccer and it looks very good.
It takes time and then you have to develop youth coaches and decide the type of players you want to develop. I see that these things are coming in place now.
During the academy games you made an effort to make sure the young players acknowledged the supporters that came out to the match. What was the reasoning behind this?
Itís a huge thing in building a Club because the supporters are the Club. The players, coaches and the people in the front office are great, but the club is built by the supporters because if they donít buy tickets then it is over with the Club.
If the supporters like how the team is playing, and how the players react to them, it a huge thing in building a Club. It canít be lip service, itís part of your job. Players forget that and sometimes donít think about that after a tough game. Especially in North America where it is a very positive minded fan base compared to Europe, which will allow you to build your club around it and make you a stronger Club.
Any fond memories of Vancouver and the time you spent here?
So many. Itís a beautiful city and I love the way Canadians live relaxed, which is different than in Europe. They drive so slowly here but itís a good part at the end of the day. Very polite in the way the kids are raised.
Social development is a big part which they are forgetting in Europe a little where itís too much focus on individual. I met committed people in the club from the office to the field who are willing to listen and learn. There is a fantastic mentality to develop systems from ticket sales to everything else in the club. It was a great time for me personally to learn of a new cultural experience. I will continue to follow the club for the next twenty years.
I wish everybody in the club and the incredible fans all the best. And maybe I will be back in the futureÖyou will never know..
I'm sure I speak for the majority of Whitecaps fans when I say we would love to see Richard back here one day or even involved with the Canadian national team.
His leaving will be felt by the Residency program, but he has set the foundations for a very bright future.
Thanks for sitting down with Steve and doing the interview and for all your hard work with the Caps in your time here. All the very best wherever your footballing future takes you.