Caleb Clarke, down and out for the Whitecaps Residency. Sorry, this is the best picture I have of our new home-grown player! (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
The 18-year-old Clarke, turning 19 in June, is a star with the Residency and has been piling up an overwhelming number of goals this winter. Despite missing time with a dislocated shoulder suffered in Florida with the first team, Eighty Six Forever statistics credit Clarke with 21 goals in 1,485 minutes of USSDA action, or 1.273 goals every 90. That includes two in his last two games over the weekend. It should go almost without saying that he's the leading scorer on the team by far. He also scored 3 goals and 3 assists in 1,103 minutes of USL PDL last summer and was goalless with one assist in 83 minutes on last year's Reserves team.
Clarke's a tall, lanky kid who's a pure poacher. Unlike other Residency attacking players such as Ben Fisk or Carlos Marquez, Clarke was seldom employed as anything but a target man. He didn't show much versatility on a team where almost everyone was called upon at different positions, but on the other hand Clarke's also gotten indisputable results. His speed isn't remarkable but he has good positional instincts and is seldom caught offside despite playing a high line. He takes penalties accurately for the U-18s and is a good, if simple, playmaker, leaning towards making the obvious pass when defenses are drawn towards him rather than dazzling setups. He's also got strong stamina: this weekend was far from the first time he played 180 good minutes in two days.
He's a fine young player: one who takes advantage of his physical gifts against teenagers but also has skill. Like any youngster he isn't a sure thing, but what more could he have done to earn this opportunity?
Clarke's an easy player to like, though I'm not expecting him to immediately contribute in MLS or even the Reserves. In spite of his size he doesn't use his physicality terribly well: against smaller players at the U-18 level he can have it all his own way, but in PDL he was sometimes shoved around by grown men who shouldn't have had such an easy time. He also doesn't create too many of his own chances when playing against intelligent defenders, although he still finishes what he's given. By all means Clarke has earned a chance, but he's also somebody who gets a lot of results just by being bigger and stronger than the other kids with talent to back it up.
It looks to me like Clarke will only put occasional appearances into the gameday 18, barring injury. A summer of Reserves and Residency PDL matches loom for Caleb, similar to what Philippe Davies endured last season. The difference, of course, is that Davies was already proven with the Whitecaps USSF D2 team and Clarke is a teenager taking his first steps into professionalism. This contract will probably not affect where Clarke plays that much, but it'll remove a potential distraction for both player and team.
Signing Clarke brings the Whitecaps up to 29 of 30 MLS contracts used, with the 30th contract already going to Barry Robson. It also brings the team up to four Canadians on the roster, one more than the minimum: of course, it would be insane to predict anything bad happening to Russell Teibert, Alain Rochat, or Bryce Alderson. This is just a sensible move for a good prospect, not an attempt to shore up a quota.
Given the plethora of options the Vancouver Whitecaps have up front, this may be an indication that Darren Mattocks's burn may be serious enough to sideline him for some time. Or it may simply be a new opportunity for a young player who's proven he should be at a higher level. When you're scoring 1.2 goals every 90 minute game as a striker, you need to move up and that's the end of it. He's been training for the first team for some time and by all accounts looks consistently like he belongs.
Best of luck to Clarke, one of the true superstars of the Residency program.