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Do the Whitecaps Have a Problem With Canadian Content?

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have brought the country Canadian Soccer Jesus. But is that enough of a contribution?
The Vancouver Whitecaps have brought the country Canadian Soccer Jesus. But is that enough of a contribution?

Forgive me, I'm about to go a little Canadian-soccer-supporter-inside-baseball here. This is the kind of thing that would almost be good for a Self-Indulgence Sunday, except we played on Sunday so I didn't bloody well have time.

There have been mumblings among certain Canadian supporters that the Vancouver Whitecaps don't have enough Canadian content on the team. Vancouver's twenty-nine-man first team roster includes four actual Canadians (Terry Dunfield, Philippe Davies, Kevin Harmse, and Russell Teibert) as well as one Canadian in the strictly MLS sense (Alain Rochat). Given that the MLS minimum for Canadian players is three, we're just skirting the edge of that requirement. Toronto FC, to pick the most obvious point of comparison, runs out Nana Attakora, Doneil Henry, Ashtone Morgan, Julian de Guzman, Adrian Cann, Keith Makuyuba, Matt Stinson, Oscar Cordon, and Gianluca Zavarise; they would have Nicholas Lindsay but they're still trying to pull what's left of his right leg out of that snowmobile. That's... that's many more than three, is what that is.

Some of the complaints come from Canadian club neutrals who find Vancouver a hard team to cheer for. I understand these people and would doubtless feel the same way in their shoes; luckily, FC Edmonton seems determined to run out the first fully Canadian professional starting eleven in national history at some point this season. But there's also the suggestion that the Whitecaps lack of content is actually bad for the Canadian national team; that the Whitecaps aren't pulling their weight in developing Canadian content compared to their peers in Toronto, Montreal, or Edmonton.

Is that true? Much as I hate to say it, maybe.

Part of the reason for the disparity is a simple difference in philosophy. Of Toronto's Canadians, the majority are fairly marginal players who graduated from TFC Academy: Henry, Morgan, Makuyuba, Stinson, and Cordon. Those five players aren't expected to have much of a role in Toronto FC's first team barring a roster crisis, but Aron Winter and company thought it wise to have them on the first team roster all the same. Playing reserve games, occasionally coming off the bench, and developing in a professional environment.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, on the other hand, have been far more conservative. Only Teibert and American third-string goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre are recent Whitecaps Residency graduates. One suspects they wouldn't have signed Sylvestre at all if injury concerns with both Joe Cannon and Jay Nolly hadn't made a regular third goalkeeper a prudent investment (frankly, I wish they'd kept Simon Thomas). Teibert is obviously a starter. To put it simply, the Whitecaps prefer to have their Residency-quality players down with the Residency team playing every day and filling up depth spots with journeymen like Harmse and Blake Wagner who hopefully won't be in too far over their heads. The exception comes when somebody is obviously ready for prime time, like Canadian Soccer Jesus or Ethan Gage before Reading swooped in.

Had the Whitecaps been as aggressive as Toronto, one suspects we'd have seen a few more Canadians on Vancouver's roster. Alex Semenets (now with FC Edmonton) and Randy Edwini-Bonsu (now in obscurity), almost certainly. Maybe a Derrick Bassi to fill the Doneil Henry role. Kevin Cobby. Maybe Bryce Alderson, by consensus one of the brightest prospects on the team.

But the Whitecaps aren't that aggressive, and I can understand why. Take Alderson as an example. You won't find any informed soccer person in the Lower Mainland who doubts his bona fides as at least a future MLS-quality midfielder. But he's still a very young player. He spent last year playing with the CSL's Portugal FC Reserves; you expect to toss him into a Major League Soccer lineup? Other high-class prospects like La'Vere Corbin-Ong, Coulton Jackson, and Ben Fisk are likewise clearly not yet ready for Major League Soccer. Toronto might sign them anyway and let them learn on the job; Vancouver prefers to have them working with their peers. Which way is better? Well, we're going to find out, aren't we? I'm inclined to prefer the Toronto model, but I don't know.

Obviously, the Residency is going to be Vancouver's most important contribution to the future of Canadian soccer. But there's another avenue that should be considered, and that's Vancouver's reluctance to bring in Canadian journeymen to fill roster holes. Many of Toronto FC's Canadians have been of this sort. Their trials of Eddy Sidra and David Monsalve, and signing of Gianluca Zavarise this past summer, for example, weren't necessary from a roster rules standpoint: they had plenty of Canadians around already. But they wanted a backup goalkeeper, a fullback/midfielder, and a midfielder/forward. Monsalve, Sidra, and Zavarise were given a chance; Zavarise was given a contract.

This season, of course, the Whitecaps actually haven't fallen behind Toronto in that department. Toronto signed one journeyman Canadian from outside the system: Zavarise. Vancouver signed one: Harmse. In the past Toronto signed many more, but Toronto also had a higher Canadian quota to fill so that made sense.

It's hard to think of many more Canadians Vancouver might have wanted. It's been suggested they could have brought in Canadians playing in Europe to fill roster spots they gave to MLS journeymen, but why would they? From a club standpoint, the MLS journeymen like John Thorrington, Blake Wagner, and Jonathan Leathers were cheaper: they came in the Expansion Draft so demanded no transfer fee and generally had reasonable contracts. From a Canadian perspective, those Canadians playing in Europe are playing in Europe. Bringing Issey Nakajima-Farran from the Danish Superliga to MLS isn't going to help Nakajima-Farran, Vancouver, or Canada.

I don't want to let the Whitecaps off the hook. As I said, I'm not sure their conservative policies with graduating Residency players will pay off. I am also a bit disappointed that a few Canadians didn't get calls, like the aforementioned Thomas instead of Sylvestre as the third-string goalkeeper. I can definitely see a place for a useful utility winger/forward like Stephen Ademolu on this team, provided Ademolu is willing to sign for about ten bucks an hour (but would I rather have him, or Igor Pisanjuk, or Andrew Ornoch instead of Atiba Harris? Umm...). But this is a difference of strategic opinion and the fates of one or two minor players of negligible national team consequence, not anything that's going to affect whether Canada wins or loses.

The Whitecaps could probably be doing more for their country. But not much more. They're not perfect, but they're all right.