When I write on this site, a great deal of it is about how to grow soccer in Canada. Even when I discuss the Vancouver Whitecaps it is often through the lens of Canadian soccer as a whole. There's a simple enough reason for this: I am one of those country-before-club supporters you run into every so often. While I desperately want the Whitecaps to do well and win titles for their own sake, if they also provide the core of the Canadian men's national team it'll make every victory a little sweeter. And the greatest peak of soccer ecstasy I can imagine does not involve Vancouver in the Club World Cup but Canada in the real one.
Luckily, the Whitecaps are making it easy for me. The Whitecaps Residency team has been developing primarily Canadian talent along with a few attractive foreign youngsters, and a few have already been making their mark on the senior team. Two Whitecaps Residency grads, Adam Straith and Randy Edwini-Bonsu, already have senior international caps for Canada, and you'd have to be a real pessimist to think they'll be the last. It's been good for the club and it's already been good for the country. Just as importantly, the Whitecaps have also brought in a few Canadian veterans like Terry Dunfield and Martin Nash while giving them important roles. I love it when worlds collide so seamlessly.
It's in that spirit that I look at the current Whitecaps roster, both Residency and senior, and examine them for the impact on their national team. There's a lot of young talent there, a few older players worth remembering. The 2011 Gold Cup is coming, and then 2014 World Cup Qualification: it's going to be a big few years for the Canadian national team. So I ask of each Canadian on the Whitecaps roster: what chance do they have of playing a meaningful (i.e. Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying, Confederations Cup...) game for Canada in the future?
MF Terry Dunfield: 85 percent. The 28-year-old central midfielder, who everybody and his dog had written off as a national prospect years ago, is my pick to be the Vancouver Whitecap most likely to make an impact on the national setup in the future. He's twice capped now, and while in his first match against Venezuela he didn't exactly earn rave reviews, the general reaction when Dunfield played against Honduras earlier this month was "wow, he's actually pretty good!" A lot of Canadians have been saying "wow!" to Dunfield lately (in fact, after his Whitecaps home debut I was as surprised by Dunfield's skill as anybody). Our central midfielders are mostly skill guys like Atiba Hutchinson or Julian de Guzman: the only real ball winner is Patrice Bernier and he's not getting any younger. Dunfield can not only win the ball but he can take set pieces and his passes, while usually unambitious, are accurate. He's not a flashy player but he's a reliable one and Canada's short on players like that. I would not only expect Dunfield to see a few more caps for Canada, but I'd be stunned if he didn't.
Dunfield is not only a handy player, but he's a good reminder of the facts of life as they relate to the Canadian men's national team. There will be times when Stephen Hart or whoever the coach is will have to call players that aren't necessarily among our twenty most talented just because the top twenty aren't available, or three of his best players are all attacking midfielders, or four guys who could all make the match-day squad happen to play for Toronto FC and they're away to Columbus that week so you know you'll have a fight getting them back. There's a lot to be said for playing an important role not many other Canadians can. While Dunfield will never be better than, say, Iain Hume, he might play more than Hume simply because Canada will need Dunfield more and Dunfield might more frequently be available.
MF Philippe Davies: 75 percent. Davies is only nineteen but is starting regularly for one of the best teams in the USSF second division even after the roster has been fortified by Major League Soccer prospects. That ought to be a pretty strong endorsement right there. The Longueuil native has ten caps for the Canadian U-20 team, the most recent in 2009, and was also a regular with the U-17 side. Davies has played at right midfield and after starting the year on the bench has won a starting spot in spite of stiff competition and new arrivals that have remade the entire midfield. He is an absolute natural with the ball at his feet and can pass marvelously, although his pace is suspect: he is, in short, the antithesis of the athletic but untalented player Canada has been accused of developing for so long.
Davies's national team hopes largely depend on whether he can join the Whitecaps in Major League Soccer or make it out of the second division somehow if he falls short in Vancouver (you know that, if the Whitecaps didn't want him, Montreal would at least look at the Quebec native for 2012). But he's no Tyler Hemming, a flash-in-the-pan who caught on briefly in MLS and is now a second division journeyman. He's young, he's skilled, and he's improving. Barring an unexpected setback he should be part of the Canadian setup at some point, even if it won't be in a core role.
MF Russell Teibert: 55 percent. When you talk about the future stars from the Whitecaps Residency program, you talk about Russell Teibert. Positionally, Teibert is a quick winger who plays some striker but his habit of roving around the field and getting involved in the attack recalls a young Dwayne De Rosario. Teibert is Canada's two-time U-17 player of the year, has three goals in eight appearances for Canada's U-17 national team, has a U-20 cap, and has already served as captain of the Residency team in USL PDL games even though he doesn't turn eighteen until January. He is unquestionably a bright prospect and probably the best in the Whitecaps organization even though he has only played one senior game with the Whitecaps so far in his career.
It's always tricky to tell whether a young player will make it. Particularly in Canada, where our player development programs are less advanced and there's always that haunting possibility that a seeming sure thing will wind up playing out the string in CIS and the CSL like Andrea Lombardo. As much as the Whitecaps Residency team has a player who will certainly play professional soccer, Teibert is that player, but until he's become a regular professional it's risky to pencil him into the national setup. All the same, I think the probabilities are in his favour.
GK Julien Latendresse-Lévesque: 50 percent. Canada doesn't have many goalkeepers. Maybe you've heard? In Italy, Robert Stillo of Genoa C.F.C. is our best young hope until proven otherwise, but then Adam Street was once highly touted until he fell off the face of the Earth after leaving West Ham United. As Pat Onstad could have explained in detail when he was being shredded by the Argentines this summer, a country like Canada can never have too many goalkeepers.
This is why Julien Latendresse-Lévesque looks like such a promising bet for the national team someday. The nineteen-year-old Residency product has capped twice at the U-20 level. Like Adam Straith before him, Latendresse-Lévesque is on a long-term loan to Energie Cottbus in Germany, and while unlike Straith Latendresse-Lévesque hasn't cracked the first team yet the Germans clearly see something in him and have been giving the young Chambly-born keeper regular minutes with their reserve side. Generally considered Cottbus's third goalkeeper, he and Stillo are by far Canada's two best hopes under twenty-three in goal unless Adam Street returns from whichever Iraqi bunker he's currently hiding in.
DF/MF Luca Bellisomo: 30 percent. Bellisomo is a guy who might get called up because of sheer versatility. He's 23, so he has lots of time left, and he's been almost omnipresent for the Whitecaps this season. He can play defense and central midfield and do them both at a professional standard. He may not come to MLS with the Whitecaps next year but nobody would be surprised to see him in Major League Soccer someday. At some point, the national team might need a Canadian who can play as a substitute anywhere he's needed and not embarrass himself, and Bellisomo might be that guy.
FW Randy Edwini-Bonsu: 25 percent. Randy already had his first international cap, against Jamaica earlier this year. Everybody seems to like him as a prospect: he's athletic, he knows his way around a pitch, and he can strike the ball with power. He was also outstanding for Stephen Hart and the U-20 national team, which probably got him that senior call in the first place. But he is twenty years old now and in his third professional season with a strike rate for the Whitecaps that is Rob Friend-ian in its futility. At the beginning of the year, I might have pinned this at 55 percent. But Edwini-Bonsu's chances are slipping.
DF Ethan Gage: 20 percent. Ethan Gage is the enigma. Once upon a time, he was as sure a thing as you could find in the Whitecaps organization: a teenager who was getting vital minutes in championship games and doing brilliantly. Then he sort of... stopped. He's been injured off and on but he also hasn't been able to recapture his old form. On the other hand, even though it seems like he's been around forever he's still only nineteen and he's still made six pretty good appearances with Vancouver this season. He has six U-20 caps and judging from his participation at recent international training camps he's still in the CSA's plans. It's far too early to write Gage off but the odds are against him.
MF/FW Alex Semenets: 15 percent. Semenets is another guy who time is running out on. He turned twenty in March but has seen only spot duty with the Whitecaps senior squad. Three goals in four U-20 caps is bloody impressive, but it won't mean anything if he can't gain traction professionally. I'm as big a Semenets fan as there is in Vancouver but unfortunately I'm not the one he has to impress. He's quick, passes well, and finishes with accuracy if not power: there's no reason the Kiev native can't become a professional attacking player on paper. I wouldn't be surprised if he missed out on the Whitecaps in 2011 but wound up playing elsewhere in the NASL for a long time. That's not a path to the national team, though.
MF Alex Elliott and Kyle Porter: 10 percent: I'm lumping some of the long shots together to save time. Elliott and Porter are both midfielders who spent some time in Germany; in Elliott's case as a signing and in Porter's case on loan to Cottbus. Elliott is 23 and made an impressive sixteen appearances with the U-20 team in his day (although in those sixteen appearances, Canada won only once), scoring four goals. Porter is only 20 but made four U-20 appearances with no goals. They both primarily play the flanks, although they're capable of playing centrally as well. Elliott's seen far more time with the Whitecaps this year than Porter but, then, he's quite a bit older. Neither of them are bad players, but neither of them are quite national team quality either or likely to get there.
MF Martin Nash: 10 percent. Martin Nash's essential problem is that he's a hundred years old. That's probably the only reason Nash hasn't added to his thirty-eight Canadian caps: on merit he probably deserved a call to Toronto and Montreal. Someone who'll be 35 by the time the next Gold Cup rolls around isn't someone you can bank on for big caps; besides, his last appearance was back in 2008's Martinique friendly and that was Nash's only appearance since the 2007 Gold Cup. One has to give him some chance just because he's playing at a high level and Canada might need a reliable midfielder to fill a gap at some point, but his return would be a surprise.
GK Simon Thomas and Dan Pelc: 2 percent. One never knows with goalkeepers. Simon Thomas is only twenty; when Pat Onstad was twenty he was backing up for the Winnipeg Fury. 20-year-old Lars Hirschfeld was playing (and playing pretty badly) for the indoor Edmonton Drillers. The 24-year-old Pelc is behind the pace but was also the Canadian Soccer League's best player last season with the Serbian White Eagles. If either of them manage to catch starting professional minutes at some point you never know, but I'm not holding my breath.