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Sam Adekugbe has been in the Vancouver residency system since September 2011. Time and time again he has excelled at the U16 and U18 levels and after he signed his MLS homegrown contract, he has stepped up to the next level, knowing that the road to becoming a full time MLS starter will be full of obstacles and challenges. In the long run they will only make him a more well rounded and more complete professional footballer because of it. Last weekend during the game versus the Fire there were signs that he has plenty to work on to become the most complete left-back he can be. He isn't always in the perfect defensive position, he can maybe be too aggressive from time to time, but what he lacks in his technicalities he makes up for it with his raw speed, pace and his gifted abilities. Numerous times he showed off that unsuspecting speed to blow past countless Fire players and run right around them down the left side of the pitch. He showed great footballing smarts by jumping into the play when he was open to do so. Now the pass wasn't always sent to him by his teammate, and there were a few wasted 50 to 60 yard runs, but at least he knew when he had an opportunity to make them. He also knew once he didn't get the ball to hustle back and get into sound defensive positions just in case there was a quick turnover and a counter attack. Just as well, as watching the game there was plenty of them by both teams. Moving forward, Carl Robinson has a difficult decision to make now every game. Does he go with the football intelligent, experienced and great team leader that is Jordan Harvey or is the future now and should he start the uptempo and faster Adekugbe? As of now, there appears to be no limit on Adekugbe's potential as a player. What to do with him and how to get the best continued development out of him are now the questions facing the Whitecaps management. USL and the new WFC2 team are still an option for Adekugbe this season. That would be a great chance for him to get quality, competitive minutes on a pitch. But there is the potential of him not benefiting enough from the quality of play in USL. Adekugbe has shown he is capable of holding his own and excelling at the MLS level. Sure he will learn from his mistakes at either level, but it might be better for his continued footballing development to make the mistakes around players like Mauro Roslaes, Pa-Madou Kah and Steven Beitashour than players like Brett Levis, Tyler Rosenlund and Jackson Farmer. And I mean that as no slight or with no offence to the USL players I named, but they don't have years and years of experience at the highest level of football in North America, and in Rosales' case in South America. Another option thrown around by Whitecaps supporters on Twitter these past few days caught my eye. Could we have Harvey start at right-back for the struggling Steven Beitashour, thus allowing Adekugbe to continue to start and gain quality MLS minutes and experience as the left-back? Other than the assist to Octavio Rivero to set-up the game winning goal (which we have to give him kudos for), Beitashour has struggled this preseason and the two games so far in the regular season. Just like last season he has been beaten too many times by being sucked in too far into the middle of the pitch, then having the opposing team's defender run right past him giving them an easy shot or too much space to make a decent cross into the defensive box. Harvey has filled in nicely at the right-back position a few times over his career, he has the experience to be able to not look completely out of place on the pitch in that spot. Ethen Sampson is currently the first choice back-up to Beitashour, and although Tim Parker may also be an option there going forward, the cupboard is somewhat bare for the Whitecaps in that position, and not for the first time. Adekugbe's performance on Saturday earned him a place in Major League Soccer's "Team of the Week". That display, along with the 'Caps keeping their first clean sheet of the new season, make him hard to now drop. Tough decisions ahead for Robinson.
Robinson told AFTN last year how highly he rated McKendry and indicated that there was a MLS contract waiting for the defensive midfielder whenever the player felt the time was right. That time is now. McKendry becomes the eighth homegrown signing on the current MLS Whitecaps roster, and the 27th player on the squad in total. As a homegrown signing, McKendry is likely to have signed a two year guaranteed deal with options and although he will get most of his minutes in USL PRO this season, he will be entrenched with the MLS squad and with the number of games facing the 'Caps this year, he is fully expected to see first team minutes. McKendry was a member of the Whitecaps' Prospects program from 2007 before officially joining the Residency program in September 2010 and was part of the highly talented 'Caps U18 side that narrowly lost the USSDA Championship game to FC Dallas in 2012. The young midfielder made 20 appearances for the 'Caps in PDL action during the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but with no MLS contract on the table, and no real pathway to help get there at that point, McKendry decided to head to college and went down the NCAA route with New Mexico Lobos. McKendry explained the thought process behind that decision when we chatted with him just over a year ago. His game has developed well with the Lobos, allowing him to make the switch from a more central midfield role to that of defensive midfielder, where he has excelled. The development of McKendry these past couple of seasons will now benefit the Whitecaps. They are getting back a talented and composed DM, but also one who has a keen attacking eye and a good finish. In his three years at New Mexico, McKendry scored 14 goals and had 5 assists in his 61 appearances and 4702 minutes of soccer, most of which came in the defensive midfield role. 106 shots in amongst those stats as well, along with a knack for grabbing game winning goals. McKendry played a key role in helping the Lobos reach the Final Four of the NCAA College Cup in 2013, scoring the decisive goal in the quarter finals against Washington Huskies to send them there in his sophomore season. Having lost a number of seniors, New Mexico struggled to follow up that success in 2014, failing to make the postseason. McKendry shone though and started to get the attention of many in the college game in the US, earning several plaudits along the way. The influential TopDrawerSoccer.com ranked McKendry 7th in the nation in the midseason player rankings, and he eventually finished 36th after the Lobo's late slump (fellow 'Caps Residency alumni, goalkeeper Callum Irving, finished 15th incidentally, and Vancouver's number one draft pick, Tim Parker, was 76th). The Whitecaps have kept close tabs on McKendry while he was down in New Mexico, with former assistant coach Paul Ritchie travelling down to see him play on several occasions in the past. Robinson is a fellow defensive midfielder and rates him highly. McKendry has regularly returned to train with the Whitecaps' MLS squad these past three seasons, keeping his homegrown eligibility intact. But with other clubs starting to show an interest in the midfielder, the Residency alumni's stock was high and he was faced with the dilemma of whether to come out of school early or complete his senior year in 2015 and join the pro ranks a year from now. A lot can happen in 12 months though. Players can get injured or see their form and their stock take a dip. Managers who rate you can move on or decide to go in a different direction in terms of role specific personnel. Coming out of school early, without finishing your degree, can hurt future job prospects if it doesn't work out in the world of soccer, but you can also finish your degree at a later time. Much to weigh up, and in the end it was a no-brainer - McKendry had to take his chance and the Whitecaps were in the perfect position to offer it to him right now. There is no doubt that the addition of a Whitecaps USL PRO team has been a key influencer for McKendry to leave college in his Junior year. Whereas other homegrown talents like Bryce Alderson and Philippe Davies have been stunted and frustrated by the lack of opportunities and key competitive development minutes, the new 'Caps team guarantees McKendry much-needed regular playing time at some level. With the first team having over 40 games this season in MLS, Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League action, McKendry will feature at some stage, but as talented as he is and as highly as the 'Caps rate him, there is a lot of work ahead. McKendry is coming to a Whitecaps MLS squad that isn't exactly short on defensive midfield talent. Whereas Carl Robinson went with a regular two-man defensive shield last season in a 4-2-3-1 line-up, he is expected to go more with a 4-4-2 diamond formation this term. Matias Laba clearly has that job, with Gershon Koffie and then Russell Teibert looking to be back ups. McKendry is clearly the number one DM for the USL PRO team now and will gain valuable experience playing there at the next level up for him. Opportunities in the first team will be scant, but there will be injuries, there will be suspensions, there will be players rested and there will be games where Robinson looks to return to that two man shield. So for those that haven't seen him play, how would we rate McKendry in terms of Whitecaps prospects? Better than Bryce Alderson in the DM slot has always been my opinion of McKendry and that hasn't changed. The fact that he can bring an attacking and goalscoring threat to the defensive midfield role is a big plus, and don't forget he can also play other midfield roles. He's bringing versatility and hunger with him. It's certainly a depth and strength upgrade to what the Whitecaps had last year. Having watched a lot of his New Mexico games these past couple of years, including a couple in person, he can make a team tick. At 21, he's coming in at a great age and he's had excellent experiences and performances at USSDA, college and international levels. Now comes the next step. Robinson will give him chances to show his worth both in preseason and as the season progresses. As he's said to all his young players, they'll get their chances, it's then up to them to take them. That applies to McKendry now and we're delighted for him.
"They're fantastic signings for the club," Robinson told reporters. "I'm absolutely delighted to get those two on board, especially now with a couple of months to go till the end of the season because it's important. It's important for them to get to grips with what it's like being a MLS professional, getting used to the environment for January when they come because it's the progression I want as the manager of the club as well as what the club want. "I think it's important for the growth of this club that we see players coming through regularly. Not just one year, every three or four years, but every year. They're added to our already talented young pool of players that we've got. I'm delighted to have them both on board." It's a delight matched by both players, as they grinned from ear to ear throughout their first media scrums as pros. So now that they've had a small amount of time for it to all sunk in, how does it feel to have signed their first pro contracts? "[Monday] was an amazing day really," Froese told us. "It's surreal to say the least. It's a dream come true but the work starts now." That was a view echoed by Bustos, although it's their hard work already in the Residency program that has seen them earn their pro deals at 18-years-old. But now that the pair have that MLS contract, neither is going to be resting on his laurels. "It's a good feeling because I've pretty much put the weight off my shoulders for how hard I've worked for the past 10, 12 months," Bustos told us. "To know that I've got myself in the team for next season is a good step for me because that then pushes me to fight for a spot on the squad. That realistically, at the end of the day, I want to be in the 18 man squad and sooner, rather than later, be in the 11 man squad." Both players have impressed at training this year and they got an initial reward back in May when they started the first leg of the Canadian Championship semi-final in Toronto. Although a spot in the second leg was deprived of them due to a Canadian national team training camp, the experience that both got in that game against TFC gave them a taste of playing for the Whitecaps first team and left them knowing they could perform at that level and wanting more. "The experience leaves me with the thought that I can be here and I could play with the squad," Bustos said. "It makes me believe that I can get in the 11 man squad and it shows me that the coaches believe in me. Whenever the coaches give me the chance to get out on the field again, then I'll hopefully take that chance and give them everything." Froese agrees and the match helped them realise that they've arrived in football and are playing with and against world class players now. "When I saw [Michael] Bradley playing in the World Cup, I was like, 'yeah, I've played against him'!," Froese joked. "Obviously it just shows that we can do it and we can hopefully play, so it just gives us confidence to go and do it when the chance comes." And Froese may be getting that chance in the very near future. With six games remaining, Robinson has no qualms about pitching the young star into the mix, whether the Whitecaps are in the heat of a playoff battle or not, and the 'Caps coach has no doubts that he's already capable of playing at MLS level. "Kianz is very much in contention," Robinson replied when asked if Froese would only play if the Caps were out of the playoffs. "We don't need to be eliminated or out of it for him to get the opportunity. I think you see today in training what he brings. "We know there's areas of his game that need a little bit more focus. I just spoke to him at length about what we're going to do in the offseason, but he's very much in the picture between now and the end of the season. And rightly so, because his performances and his training have fully deserved that. So don't be surprised if you see him soon." Signing a MLS contract is already a dream come to true for Froese, but to then play right away and have the chance to shape the club's playoff hopes is taking it to another level altogether, but one he's excited at the prospect of and ready for. "That would be unreal," Froese said. "That's my goal for right now. To hopefully get to go on a trip with the team and just be a part of the team and help in any way I can. Obviously that's earned on the field, so right now I'm just focussing on staying consistent and hopefully I get a chance." Unfortunately, Marco Bustos won't get his chance to shine this season, having only signed a pre-contract for MLS that won't kick in until January next year. It's disappointing, especially with the top form that he is in right now with the Residency, but taking the long term view, this may see him signing a Generation Adidas deal with Russell Teibert moving off his. And in light of Major League Soccer's weird roster rules at the best of times, the Whitecaps didn't want to take any chances. "As you know, with the expansion draft coming up, it's a tricky time for all MLS clubs," Robinson told us. "With the protection rule of only ten players, maybe bumping two of them up at a certain time will give the possibility of me maybe losing one or two players and I don't want to do that at this time because I'm building here. "I can get one of them on the roster, which is why I think Kianz is slightly more ready than Marco, even though Marco scored five goals on the weekend and beat six men to get his goal of the season contender." And what a goal that was. If anyone needed convincing of the talent Bustos has and what he offers the Whitecaps, they should have seen his second goal against San Juan on Sunday. It may have been at youth level but he picked the ball up 40 yards from goal and weaved his way past six players before coolly putting it away past the keeper. Has he scored a better goal than that? "I can't remember all the goals I've scored, but I think that's probably one of the best ones I've scored for the Whitecaps Residency," Bustos said. "Going through those bunch of guys and finishing was pretty cool." Bustos hit a hat-trick in Saturday's 3-2 win for the Whitecaps U18s over Seattle and followed that up with a brace against San Juan. With the minutes ticking down he had the chance to hit back to back hat-tricks, but could only look on as his shot cannoned off the left hand post. "It would have been nice to get the two hat-tricks but at the end of the day we won the game, so that's all that matters to me," Bustos told us when we ask him if he was disappointed at missing out on an impressive feat. Bustos has been given the captain's armband for the U18s this season and the attitude and knowledge sharing he has shown since training with the first team, played an important part in the decision to reward him with a MLS contract. The Whitecaps are always keen to see how the young players react when they go back into the Residency environment and Bustos' attitude has been exemplary. So how did the captaincy come about? "The two Residency coaches, Steve Meadley and Niall Thompson, had pulled me aside at the end of last season and asked me if I would take the honour of being the skipper," Bustos told us. "They talked to me a little bit about trying to build my leadership to make myself a better pro and I wanted to take the challenge. "Just to have that extra leadership skill in me and to lead by example and lead vocally, I think will make me a better player, so I wanted to take that opportunity to make myself better." He has already been leading by example, and not just with his five goals on the opening weekend, but Bustos hopes that he and his good friend, and fellow Manitoba boy, Froese can be good role models for other Canadian kids looking to make it in the pro ranks. "Knowing that me and Kianz have made it here will hopefully inspire other young kids to follow their dreams and to go forward and hopefully one day they could follow our footsteps," Bustos added. With more Residency homegrown talent on the horizon and pushing hard, I don't think he'll have to wait too long for that.
Whitecaps fans have been crying out for some new striking talent and although this might not be what they had in mind, and despite their young years, both players have already shown that they have what it takes to play at a higher level. The pair started Vancouver's Canadian Championship semi-final first leg in Toronto in May and acquitted themselves well. Both also saw PDL action for the Caps' this summer, contributing six goals between them (4 for Bustos and 2 for Froese). Last year saw both players represent Canada at the FIFA U17 World Cup in the UAE, playing in all three matches. Hailing from Winnipeg in Manitoba, Bustos made the move to the Whitecaps Residency program in September 2011 from his hometown side FC Northwest, after having a trial with Liverpool as a 14-year-old. He played the 2011/12 season for the Caps U16s and started the following season with them as well before current Whitecaps assistant coach Gordon Forrest took over the reigns of the U18s and immediately moved him up a level. It paid rich dividends for the Caps, with Bustos grabbing 14 goals in the regular season before going on a tear in the playoffs with 5 goals to send them back to Finals Week. Last season Bustos led the U18s in scoring with 19 goals and is captain of the U18 side in this, his final year in the program. And as we mentioned above, he kicked off the team's new season leading by example and scoring five goals in their first two matches (two of them penalties), where he has been playing as a striker. Froese is another prairie boy. Born in Havana, Cuba but growing up in Brunkild, Manitoba, Froese joined the Whitecaps Residency program in 2012, having previously trained with FC Edmonton. He scored four goals for the U18s in the 2012/13 season and followed that up with 12 regular season goals that saw him second on the team behind Bustos. Internationally, Froese has already earned a senior call-up to the Canadian national team, playing and scoring against Fort Lauderdale Strikers in a friendly in January. Most recently he was part of Canada's U20 squad at the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland. Both players have been training regularly, and impressed, with the Whitecaps MLS team since preseason and the hope was always to have them signed at some stage this year. When we asked Carl Robinson a couple of weeks ago about the prospect of adding them before the roster freeze, he wouldn't confirm but made his preference clear. "Maybe. Maybe, yes," Robinson told AFTN. "It would be good. Another two youngsters into the fray would be nice." Now he has them, although sadly it's only Froese that is available down the stretch. Too young and inexperienced to be thrown into a MLS playoff battle? Perhaps. But one thing I know about Bustos and Froese from watching them these past couple of years is that not only do they play with a confident swagger and without fear, but they can both score goals and haven't looked out of place playing against older opposition. Remember, "if you're good enough, you're old enough", and maybe, just maybe, the Whitecaps have added two players who are actually both.