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The Youth Dilemma

Canadian Soccer Jesus will need no introduction to long-term readers, but he might get much more time on this website than the field next season.
Canadian Soccer Jesus will need no introduction to long-term readers, but he might get much more time on this website than the field next season.

This website has always promoted Vancouver Whitecaps youth talent. I've sung the praises of U-18 Whitecaps Residency players like Declan Rodriguez, Callum Irving, Ben Fisk, Tim Hickson, and Daniel Stanese. I've tried to stay on top of the U-16 talents such as the Adekugbe brothers, or goal-poaching sensation Brody Huitema, or agile goalkeeper Marco Carducci. And that's to say nothing of the players on the first team, like Residency graduates Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson, or my 2011 unsung hero Gershon Koffie.

It's true, to an extent, that you don't win games with kids. I'm a massive Alderson fan, I think he'll be a great Canadian defensive midfielder someday, but I'm not penciling him into the starting eleven because I don't want to overwhelm his developing skill set. Likewise, I preferred the Whitecaps chasing a veteran backup goalkeeper to signing Callum Irving because I didn't want to risk Irving getting MLS action before his time; he's better off playing regularly at a lower level. Even prospect hounds like me acknowledge that when you bring somebody up from the Residency you shouldn't count on them to carry a heavy load, but you need to give them MLS minutes to grow. That was the tragedy of Philippe Davies last season: he met expectations at every lower level but Tom Soehn and Teitur Thordarson never gave him a look.

I'm afraid we might be heading for similar tragedies this coming season.

The Whitecaps have a number of quality prospects at various points on the development curve. Alderson, Brian Sylvestre, and Omar Salgado are good young players but haven't yet proven they can carry an MLS load: they should be used conservatively but must be used. Teibert and Koffie were both quality MLS starters when they got the chance; Koffie played more minutes than any other midfielder and Teibert's qualities as a left winger were obvious to everyone except Tom Soehn. Even if you don't necessarily think they should be 90-minutes-a-night players, both Teibert and Koffie must be played heavily and in tough situations to hone their skills.

This is without counting players like Darren Mattocks, Michael Nanchoff, Chris Estridge, or Long Tan: players who are in their early twenties and counted as "prospects" despite being relatively far along in soccer terms. Mattocks and Nanchoff haven't been exposed to much high-level soccer and deserve their chance, but it's questionable how much development lies ahead of them.

The Whitecaps have plenty of good young talent, and that's great. But they also have too many second-rate journeymen threatening to nudge past that young talent on the depth chart. The Whitecaps, even with their remaking, are not likely to challenge for the Supporters Shield or the MLS Cup. They'd be wise to give their quality youth a chance to grow and succeed rather than run out immediately superior, but weaker long-term, journeymen.

I'm not sure Martin Rennie agrees.

It's dangerous to draw conclusions from pre-season games but sometimes, when you have a new coach, it's necessary. The Whitecaps have played twice so far this pre-season, with 1-1 draws in Arizona against the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake. I don't believe for a second in overanalyzing pre-season games, particularly ones that I couldn't watch, but for the purposes of this article we might learn something from Martin Rennie's use of his players: at the very least, we could get an idea what Rennie is thinking each player is good for.

Each game was played with three 45-minute periods. In the first game against Seattle, Rennie relegated almost all his youth to garbage time. Gershon Koffie played the second period in central midfield with Lee Nguyen and trialist Floyd Franks, as did Omar Salgado (up top with Darren Mattocks): they were on the field when Servando Carrasco scored the equalizer for Seattle. Koffie and Salgado were very much part of the second eleven but both were in their native positions and alongside some serious players: Davide Chiumiento was the biggest name but Jordan Harvey and Carlyle Mitchell are both going to get major MLS minutes in 2012 as well.

Teibert got screwed. He played third period garbage time: Mitchell got another period and the next-most-famous third period substitute was Long Tan. Worse, Teibert was in at left back (Tom Soehn's spirit lives on!), anchoring a decidedly third-rate defense of Teibert, Mitchell, Bilal Duckett, and Chris Estridge.

I am irrationally furious to see the return of the Russell Teibert at Left Back Experiment, even in pre-season. Better to give Daniel Stanese or Declan Rodriguez a chance in their proper positions. Teibert's strongest attributes are minimized when he plays left back, and even in MLS Reserves Canadian Soccer Jesus looked overwhelmed at the position. Compare this to left wing, where he has been very good, and attacking central midfield, where his playmaking eye and ball skills made him a great success in USL PDL. I have seen people justify giving Teibert time at left back by saying that it'll force him to improve his defensive skills, but that's like making Picasso paint houses to improve the firmness of his brushstrokes. It's completely missing the point.

At least Teibert played the whole period. Bryce Alderson and Caleb Clarke only got on at 108': Alderson replaced the trialist Franks (who started the third period for... some reason) and Clarke came on for Mattocks. Clarke is a good young player but isn't likely to make the team: minimizing his role in favour of the first overall pick is excusable. Giving Bryce Alderson's playing time to the 27-year-old Franks, who was a second-rate Railhawk in 2010 and 2011, is not.

The first pre-season game was awful for prospect fans. Salgado was in the right place. Putting Koffie behind Atiba Harris, John Thorrington, and Jun Marques Davidson makes me raise both eyebrows but can be defended. But giving Teibert garbage time minutes out of position, and shorting Alderson on garbage-time minutes for an old Carolina buddy, is an extremely bad sign.

I know people who think Thorrington outplayed Koffie in 2011. This is, I think, a bias towards recent results: Thorrington was by no means bad but people forget how good Koffie was under Teitur Thordarson before Tom Soehn's ill-advised tactics conceded the midfield every game and pulled young Gershon in four different directions. However, even if Thorrington is slightly Koffie's better, playing Thorrington over Koffie is short-sighted. Thorrington is 32 years old and his career is threatened by serious injury in multiple seasons. Koffie is 20, solid, and incredibly promising. He must get preference over Thorrington; anything else is short-sighted.

The second match against Real Salt Lake was better but still not good. Koffie was once again in the second eleven, but this time the boundaries between first and second elevens was less clear (at least, I hope Franks, Greg Klazura, and Harvey aren't running Thorrington, Lee, and Rochat off the team). Koffie played all forty-five minutes of his period, got a late yellow, and presumably fought a running duel with Real Salt Lake trialist Jonny Steele (sadly Koffie and Steele never played together on the 2010 USSF D2 Whitecaps: Gersh could have had some great scouting on Steele's awe-inspiring uselessness). He did get to see both Wes Knight and Cody Arnoux, who he'd have known from 2010: Real Salt Lake ran out as many 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps than the Vancouver Whitecaps did.

Once again, Alderson and Teibert were relegated to the garbage time squad, and this time Salgado joined them. At least both Alderson and Teibert enjoyed more comfortable circumstances: Teibert played on the left wing of a 4-4-2 while Alderson got the entire period. Salgado also played all 45 and apparently got a scoring chance, but given that he was against a central defense combo of Carlos Salcedo, Chris Schuler, and Julio Alarcon you'd bloody well expect him to. Clarke was a DNP.

It is very early to draw any conclusions. Rennie's plans are doubtless not finalized. However, I don't like the first principles I see. I have been all for Rennie's strategies acquiring depth, but it was always on the assumption that those players would be depth. If Rennie is benching promising youngsters for unremarkable veterans, he's off to a bad start.