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  • Whitecaps' Bobby Lenarduzzi: "We want to be known as a club that develops it's own players"

    Michael Mccoll

    While others in MLS go down the route of bringing in big name and big money signings, to varying degrees of success, the Whitecaps have gone with a lower key and in-house development approach. Some critics accuse them of being cheap. That was an accusation surprisingly levelled by some out east following the signing of young DP Octavio Rivero last month.

    But if we're being honest, you're not going to get the likes of Kaka, Frank Lampard, or Steven Gerrard coming to Vancouver to play on a horrendous fake pitch week in and week out. You might not even see them coming here when their teams actually play in the city.

    What you will see is an array of lesser known South American talent and burgeoning homegrown talent keen to make their name in the game, and that's an approach that the Whitecaps won't be shifting from for the foreseeable future and the 'Caps approach to youth development is something that Lenarduzzi is particularly proud of.

    "Even prior to joining MLS, it was clear we invested a lot of money in youth development for a good three, four years in advance," Lenarduzzi told reporters at the 'Caps first media presser of the new year. "That was always our philosophy. Having said that, we also knew that we had to bring in players that were difference makers.

    "We decided that we want to be known as a club that develops it's own players and we've stayed the course in that regard. If you look at the U20 team and the U17s, and we have nine players on both of those teams that are either current Residency players or have been through our system and I think that speaks that it's starting to work. Now what we need to do is to get more players, like Russell Teibert, like Kianz Froese, and we need those players to be coming though on an annual basis."

    Producing a steady stream of quality young players is a key focus for the Whitecaps, and one which Lenarduzzi is well aware won't just help Vancouver to the success they desire, but also provide a big boost for the Canadian national team, at all age levels, in the process.

    "One of our goals is to try to have a conveyor belt of having players coming through our system and onto our first team," Lenarduzzi said. "But equally important, on to our national teams. We need to get back to the World Cup.

    "I think a lot of what will determine if that's a possibility or not is what we are doing and what Toronto are doing and what Montreal are doing, Edmonton, Ottawa, in terms of giving those players an opportunity to play and get better and vie for MLS spots and national team spots."

    Of the 20 players named in Rob Gale's Canadian roster for the upcoming 2015 CONCACAF U20 Championship in Jamaica, which gets underway on Saturday, nine came through the Whitecaps Residency program. Four are currently on the Whitecaps MLS squad, two others will be part of the 'Caps USL PRO squad this season and two more are currently away at college.

    Add in nine of the 20 members of Canada's U17 squad being part of the 'Caps Residency program at present and the footballing future is looking very bright for Vancouver, with Lenarduzzi acknowledging how far ahead the Whitecaps seem to be right now compared to their Canadian rivals in terms of youth development.

    "It's nice when you look at those numbers and you look at the representations from the other professional clubs, it's something at this stage that we can be proud of. But we're not going to rest on our laurels. We're going to continue to put the emphasis on development and I think as much as we want to be a club that develops players, we need for the coaching staff to play those players.

    "And in Carl's case, he proved that last year in the Amway Cup and probably the best example of that was not long after Kianz Froese signed a MLS contract, he's coming off the bench at half time in front of 50,000 plus people. That's when people will ideally look at it and go they're doing what they said they wanted to do. It's taken them time, but player development is all about time."

    And therein lies one of the key components to it all. The switch from youth football to the pro ranks and getting playing time. The Whitecaps may have six Canadians on their MLS roster, but none of them are going to be starters when the new season kicks off in March. They're not at that level yet compared to others in the squad, although Sam Adekugbe is arguably the closest. Even ahead of Russell Teibert due to squad positional depth.

    Lenarduzzi admits that there isn't too much point developing all this young homegrown talent if they're not going to get too many minutes on the pitch and sees that as the next step for the Whitecaps to take.

    "We've stayed the course and now we're starting to see the dividends from it," Lenarduzzi feels. "Ultimately, we will see the dividends from it when we have three or four or five of those guys in our first team on a regular basis but I've always suggested that development is time consuming. It takes time for players to come through and do what you want them to do at the first team level. You don't just snap your fingers and have players go from not playing to playing. We'll continue to do what we're doing.

    "I'd love to see Marco Bustos, Carducci, Kianz Froese coming on in MLS games, CCL games, Amway Cup games and getting the minutes that will determine if they're capable of playing at that level or not. We think they are but all we're asking for as a club from our coaching staff is if we're going to develop these players, and there's an opportunity to play them, let's play them and then find out whether they're capable or not."

    It's a position that Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson fully understands and is keen to remedy, but not to the detriment of both the player and a successful team on the park.

    "Money doesn't guarantee you success, as you've seen with a number of clubs," Robinson told reporters today. "I want to try and guarantee success but in the right way and I feel the right way is developing our own Canadian players through our Residency program.

    "We spent a lot of money on our Residency program. For that to come to fruition, there's nothing better for me and the club that we would like more than to develop them, play them in the first team and then maybe sell them on at a later date. That's going to be our model. We'll stick to that. We won't change our philosophy, I won't change my philosophy and we'll continue to try and strive for success."

    One of the crucial pieces to the development puzzle will be put in place with the 'Caps new USL PRO team.

    That team may be kicking off their season in a few weeks time but they don't have a head coach at the helm as it currently stands. That's a situation though that the club hope to have settled within the next fortnight.

    "We're still going through the process," Lenarduzzi admitted. "There are some candidates internally and as you can imagine, once people realised that we were in USL, we had a lot of resumes come from virtually all over the world."

    "We've narrowed the list down but we still need to do a little bit more work with the people that we have decided we'd like to interview further. Ideally we'll have a decision, by the latest, in two weeks."

    So, with a healthy amount of Canadians in their first team squad, some more promising ones on the horizon, a new USL PRO team set to kick off packed full of homegrown talent and providing the bulk of players for Canada's younger national teams, Vancouver Whitecaps certainly seem to be doing their bit for Canadian soccer. Could they do more? Perhaps. But they're streaks ahead of some of their rivals.

    But what of all those naysayers out there who like to say that the Whitecaps hate Canada and do nothing for Canadian football?

    "It's shocking to me, but that comes from a very small circle as far as I can gather," Lenarduzzi said. "I don't pay a lot of attention to that but whenever I hear that and I hear that we're not playing Canadian players, what I often do is turn that question back around on the person that's making those comments.

    "[i ask them] tell me of a player right now in Canada, that's not in our Residency program, that should be playing in our first team? And more often or not I get silence. I also believe that if you're going to make comments like that, you should also have the ability to back them up. A lot of people say it but a lot of people can't back it up and that's frustrating."

    Indeed it is, but ultimately, who cares? The Whitecaps will be the ones having the last laugh and the continued success.

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