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"The U18 team, we saw this year that they didn't get beyond the group stage [of the playoffs] but they performed very well" Whitecaps President Bobby Lenarduzzi told reporters at an executive roundtable on Monday. "One of the reasons that they were handcuffed at the actual championships was because Kianz Froese and Marco Bustos were up [in the MLS team] and weren't playing there. So that's actually success as far as I'm concerned. "If we don't get the results but we're pushing players up then that's our yardstick. Our U16s got beyond the group stage but unfortunately lost on penalties. But lots of players that we think have an exciting future with the club." Despite the successes, no-one at the Whitecaps is resting on their laurels. They know there's still a lot of hard work ahead to get to where they want to be with their long-term strategic plan for youth development in Vancouver, British Columbia and throughout Canada. And it is the growth of the lesser publicised Whitecaps Academy Centres in recent years that has perhaps seen the biggest boost for the club's desire to develop that Canadian talent pool and have the widest range of young talent available to them. The Whitecaps now have Academy Centres throughout British Columbia, and have recently established three key centres in Saskatchewan and one in Manitoba. They've been a huge success and there's more to come. "I'm very proud of what we do in the Academy Centres," Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett told the roundtable. "This was originally about BC but now we realise that we have the opportunity to establish ourselves across the Western provinces and more and more young players from the east are considering us in their selection of developing their football careers, which is a big bonus for us as well. So we'll continue to develop on the Academy side." That message was echoed by Lenarduzzi, who confirmed that the next part of that Academy development will come as soon as this week. "The Academy centres are something that we are proud of and as time goes on, I think we'll be even prouder and we intend to have our footprint all over Canada," Lenarduzzi added. "I know we have territories in Quebec and Ontario that we can't stray in to, but that won't stop us from investigating those areas outside of that. "We currently have nine Academy Centres and we're in 13 cities, three different provinces and we'll have an announcement later this week that will actually incorporate another province, so we're excited about that." That province is Ontario and the announcement will officially be made on Thursday in London in conjunction with the Elgin Middlesex Soccer Association. Although Major League Soccer has identified restricted development territories for their three Canadian clubs, the Whitecaps area allows them to venture into western Ontario, and they very much want to take advantage of that. The Whitecaps goal is a simple one. They want to be the first choice football club that the best players and the top prospects from throughout Canada want to come and play for. "Our job is to be the best choice out there and be a way of having, through our coaching staff, a clear path through USL to the first team," Mallet explained. "And all the things the players are looking for - minutes, time, being able to develop. "Really that's it at the end of the day. I think we are very competitive in North America. I'd argue that we're in the top three or four in North America. Our objectives are to be as high as some of the European or international clubs, South America included, to put ourselves on that level. "As it comes to individual players, some are going to come through, some are not. Whenever someone doesn't come through, we analyse it of why and try to improve it the next time through." Why would a kid near Toronto or Montreal want to move west when they have MLS clubs on their doorstep? Simple. Right now, the Whitecaps have several factors going for them in their desire to be a young player's preferred club of choice. The key one is Carl Robinson's philosophy of playing young players and build the 'Caps around young talent that will hopefully be in Vancouver for many years to come. Young players want to come to a club where they see that the manager is prepared to give them a shot. Several players on the Whitecaps MLS and USL squads have made that very point to us this year. They signed with Vancouver because they knew that they'd be given their chance and it was then up to them to take it. It's a philosophy the club have embraced and Mallett was keen to highlight the role he feels Robinson has played in the Whitecaps continuing to be a "proper football club", not just giving lip-sync to it but actually being heavily involved and hands-on in every aspect of the club from the youth teams up. "Carl has been the living, breathing example of how to set up a proper football club," Mallett stated. "He's carried out what we hoped the organisation would be, which is having a coaching philosophy that runs from the 14s, and eventually maybe even younger, threads all the way through. "There is a clear path and the gaffer of the shiny MLS club knows the name of the players at the 14s, sitting at the 16s, knows who's on the bench in the USL, meeting with Alan Koch. These are the things you want and then the global connection. I think he's done a fantastic job and structurally this is what we were looking for." But the Whitecaps are also looking at that area in a player's life and career between youth team and the pro ranks, and feel their investment and plans in that regard will also attract players to join their academies. The 'Caps are naturally fully aware some players won't make the grade at all, while others may need a bit more time and development before they're candidates for the MLS squad. That's obviously where the USL team comes in and the now established pathway between the Residency, that and the first team. The Whitecaps are now fully embedded up at the University of British Columbia. The USL team play out of UBC's Thunderbird Stadium, the MLS squad primarily train there and the 'Caps new, state of the art training centre will be up and running there soon. But being on a university campus gives the club another opportunity to explore to ensure that young players throughout Canada want to be part of the Whitecaps system from the ground level up - giving the players both a football and a college education. In the past, if players graduated from the Residency their options were limited and if they wanted to plan for the future and get a degree, then going down the NCAA or CIS college route was really the only way to go, but that meant putting your pro footballing aspirations on hold for four or five years, or more often than not, for good. But that is no longer the case and the Whitecaps USL team can present a player with an opportunity to do both. WFC2 defender Chris Serban is the perfect first example of that. Serban graduated from the Whitecaps Residency program last summer and headed to UBC, becoming a pivotal player for the UBC Thunderbirds team and winning Rookie of the Year honours. The talented full-back then signed a pro contract with the 'Caps to play in USL in February and a key driving force behind his decision to do that was the fact that he could play football and continue his studies and degree at UBC at the same time. Ben McKendry came out of college at New Mexico in his Junior year to sign a MLS contract with the 'Caps and is now looking to finish the final year of his degree at UBC in his spare time. Going forward, the Whitecaps are actively exploring options with the university to offer players both an education and a USL contract. It's something that would attract players from not just Canada, but worldwide. And with such an option and path on the table for them it should also act as another driving reason for young Canadians to choose the Whitecaps and their academies over other teams. Not all would, or could, take that path but the carrot would most certainly be there to strive to achieve it. "It's been discussed," Mallett told us. "It's a unique asset we have and there's certain parts like that. Being a father, education is very important. It's not the UK model and other parts of the world where it's not looked at, at the level it is here. So we believe we have the asset. UBC is interested in doing that and we believe that could be a unique offering for our club." But back to the Academies. Thursday's announcement will make it 14 Academy Centres in four provinces, with more to come. But the key to the expansion of these Academies is to not overreach too soon or too fast and to protect the quality standard in each Centre before moving on to the next one. But the Whitecaps already know that there's a huge demand from kids across Canada to be part of their set-up. "We prefer to go slow growth," Lenarduzzi told us. "There are kids in other parts of Canada that we've identified that we'd love to relocate. We think that they're that talented. You can't discount the branding aspect of it as well, from a commercial point of view, but it is development driven. "We feel that if we can get ourselves around the country and for that matter, eventually other parts of the world as well, what we don't want to do is to feel like we've got the plan and do more than we're actually capable of doing. "Bart Choufour [Whitecaps Pre-Residency head coach] is now full time with us and that's made a huge difference because he's been able to get to these Academies outside and within British Columbia and provide the curriculum that the different clubs that we're working with and provincial associations are just desperate to have it." So just what is the plan for these Academy Centres and just where do they fit into the 'Caps current Residency program? For now, they will operate as 'Prospects' and 'Skills' Academies, playing games locally and provincially. The players will be monitored and assessed and once the Whitecaps identify a player as having that top potential to make the next step, they will be invited to head west to join the Residency program and play for their age appropriate side in USSDA. As the Academy Centres continue to grow the Whitecaps also haven't ruled out putting further teams into the USSDA in years to come. "I think looking down the road that is something that we'd certainly consider," Lenarduzzi added. "But what we want to do first and foremost is just make sure that we're doing a good job of what we're doing currently." The eagle eyed amongst you will also have noticed the throwaway line above about expanding outwith Canada. So to us, that clearly meant a South American Academy! Grow our own Latino talent. They do come on trees right? As ridiculous as that may sound (Barcelona are in Burnaby now after all), we did in fact ask about that and the 'Caps aren't ruling anything out! "We want to do what we're doing right now well," Lenarduzzi replied with a smile. "But then there's no reason why, as we evolve, that you can't look at that kind of situation. Then as those opportunities present themselves look at them for sure." Just let that sink in for a few seconds. The Whitecaps 'brand' on the lips of people outside of Canada and North America. Jeff Mallett feels it's not as out of the box as you may have initially thought and he's witnessed the huge rise in awareness in Major League Soccer and its teams these past few years, and the Whitecaps want to be a part of that and play a part in developing that awareness further. "I get to travel a lot in the football circles, not just in the UK but in different parts, and the MLS on people's radar," Mallett told us. "Just in the last year, it has changed dramatically. It really has as a viable option to come in. The teams that have come in with a second team in LA, the New York team, with Manchester City involved. "So when you go around and talk to real people involved in football, sitting down working with these 16s and 18s in these countries, it's on the map. Legitimately on the map. Honestly, two years ago, people were aware of it but not much talk, but it's come a long way. "So for us to be out there is not a bad idea. Nothing in the foreseeable future. We've got so much work to do here to finish this off before we scope, planting flags too far abroad." Never say never though!
We've made our feelings known on this a lot over the years. That's a debate (again) for a whole other day, but in summary, we're always club before country. Whether that be my home one of Scotland or my adopted one of Canada, that feeling is the same. We're a Whitecaps site. Ultimately, we don't care what country the Whitecaps players come from, we want to see a winning side and the best players making the squad and getting the playing time because of their talent, not their passport. That said, we also absolutely love it when "one of our own" makes it and a youth player we've followed, talked to and supported from the Residency ranks comes through the pathway to the first team. That's why this site is packed with coverage of the 'Caps USL, U18 and U16 teams. For others, country comes first and Canadian clubs, whether at MLS, NASL or USL level should primarily be concerned with developing homegrown talent to help the national team and help Canada qualify for another World Cup. Always easy to say when it's not your money being spent on running said club. And for those people, the Whitecaps can do no right. How dare they play South American talent when there's Canadians that should be playing? How dare they actually do what they exist for and try and win trophies and make playoffs by playing their best players? The irony of it all, is that if you look at the Whitecaps developmental pyramid and its aims, the national team actually sits at the top of the pyramid, with the MLS team nestling in underneath. That doesn't fit their narrative though. Homegrown player development has been at the forefront of the Whitecaps since the current ownership group took over. The club deem it as a success goal but feel that it's still very much an ongoing process. "Once Greg Kerfoot and Jeff [Mallett] and the two Steves [Nash and Luczo] got involved, it was really a primary focus for us," Whitecaps President Bobby Lenarduzzi told media at an executive roundtable on Monday. "We wanted to be a club that developed players and as a result of that, we invested significantly in it. I think we have been trailblazers in MLS. "When we entered the league, our questions were actually related to what can we do with player development and we were actually getting back from them not a lot of information because clubs hadn't been interested in developing players. When you look at what's going on now, I think we were the catalyst to get that going." The 'Caps admit that it hasn't all been smooth sailing and there have been errors made to get to where they are at right now. "In our regard, we started up and I can be the first to tell you that we made mistakes along the way because we didn't have a model in North America to follow," Lenarduzzi added. "We couldn't emulate what they do in Europe because they don't have scholarship opportunities there. "They have infrastructure, they have league play. We didn't have any of that. So we've actually come a long way in that regard and I think we're starting to see the benefits of that now." Indeed they are. The Whitecaps now lead the league in homegrown talent on their MLS roster, a stat Lenarduzzi says makes him "very proud". It currently stands at eight and counting. The ultimate goal is to have 50% of the MLS roster made up of homegrown, developed players in a five to ten year timeframe. This season is shaping up to see the highest percentage of minutes played by Canadians for the Whitecaps in the MLS era (get all the stats on that on the excellent Out Of Touch blog). Again, that doesn't fit the whole narrative for those that feel that the Whitecaps don't do enough (anything?) for Canadian soccer. Neither does the excellent work done by the 'Caps in their Residency program in producing the talent that packs Canada's U23, U20 and youth teams. It's at national team level that the naysayers point figures. Why aren't the three Canadian MLS clubs packed to the brim with Canadian players? That's what Benito Floro certainly feels judging by his pre-Gold Cup media conference call where he described MLS as "a foreign league" out to help the "American program". "We have three teams who are playing in MLS," Floro added. "But only two or three players are starting. That’s a bad position for us, no?" To be fair, he is correct. But is that the fault of the clubs or a good indication that the players aren't good enough for that level compared to who else is on their squads? If he wants the answer, he should look at his recent results with Canada. Right now there are 10 MLS players on Canada's Gold Cup squad. Only one of them is a Whitecap, Russell Teibert, and he's not a starter under Floro. So is that the 'Caps fault as well? The solution for Floro is a Canadian league. That would also appear to be the path that the Canadian Soccer Association want to go down. All the murmurs points to the CSA establishing a D1 Canadian league, with an announcement imminent. Canada DOES need a national domestic league. Just not a top tier one. There is no way it can rival Major League Soccer right now, despite what the fantasists and idealists would have you believe. A 2026 World Cup bid aside, a domestic league is the only way to grow the game here and have a decent place for young Canadian talent to play and develop when they're not good enough to be part of the Whitecaps, TFC or Impact set-ups. As far as Lenarduzzi is concerned, going for such a top tier league right now is not the correct way to go. "As far as a domestic league goes, we have a USL team," Lenarduzzi said. "We have teams below our MLS teams that are developing players and, in all three [MLS club] cases, the majority of players that are playing in those teams are young Canadian players. "So if we're talking about the short term and the lack of MLS players on the Canadian roster, that's unfortunately a short term view because it's not going to happen overnight. It takes time to develop players. "So in terms of four and eight year cycles, I think the next one you'll see some of the players from the Canadian teams as part of that national team that are currently trying to qualify. The next cycle, my hope is that if we're all doing our jobs properly that there's going to be more players to pick from. "As far as the Canadian league option goes, I don't think there's a real need for it quite frankly." You can picture the pitchforks being readied in some circles already! But he is correct. A D1 league does not instantly make these players world beaters overnight. Neither does playing against players of a similar ilk. They need to be challenged by top talent and be exposed to CONCACAF players and their style to succeed at international level. A D2 or D3 tier development league, in addition to the existing NASL and USL clubs would seem to be the more realistic way to go. Even having Edmonton and Ottawa moving to this new Canadian league would make sense and run it as a tier below MLS. And talking of the USL sides, the initial rumblings around the new Canadian league seem to indicate that the CSA want to have teams in the three big markets of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.Support and sustainability-wise, Vancouver would struggle to support a new side as far as we're concerned, so could there be pressure or a mandate from the CSA to force the 'Caps to move their USL team to a new Canadian league? "That's probably a question that you should ask the CSA," Whitecaps Vice President of Soccer Operations Greg Anderson told us. "But I don't think it's something that they can mandate. We've had sanctioning of our USL team and I'm sure it's something that we could work through with the CSA if they wanted to take that step to start the league." While many would have you believe that the CSA are unhappy with the Whitecaps for their perceived lack of commitment to the Canadian program, the relationship between the two parties is in fact strong. "I think it's good," Lenarduzzi said. "From our perspective, as a club, and the three MLS clubs, someone has to develop the players and you're not just going to snap your fingers and have development emerge overnight. "So there needs to be a patience there. We're all relatively new at it, but I do think over time, there will be the fruits of the labour that will start to be clear. Russell Teibert is a great example of that. Sam Adekugbe is another example of that." You can also add in the likes of Kianz Froese, Marco Bustos, and others, who are just going to get stronger as the years go on and undoubtedly play their part for both the 'Caps and Canada. The Whitecaps are more than doing their bit for the development of Canadian soccer. Don't let the naysayers tell you otherwise.
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.