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Fullbacks, Kids, and Building a Future Without 23-Year-Olds

Lately, I've been taking a long-term view of the Vancouver Whitecaps situation at fullback.

Two things have turned my mind in this direction. The first was the signing of Supplementary Draft defender Greg Klazura. Klazura is 23 years old, which is a bit much to be considered a prospect. He's got a hell of a history: skipped out of the 2011 MLS draft to go to graduate school. Had Martin Rennie not intervened Klazura would presumably have become a doctor: he has a Bachelor of Science degree and was on a pre-med course (I wonder how $32,600 in sweet, non-guaranteed MLS money compares to life as a physician; some people just want to live the dream).

Klazura's not a great player. He's versatile but his first duty will presumably be at right back, where our depth is weakest; that said, he spent the entire 2010 season playing left back at Notre Dame. He had one of the better games against the University of Victoria and has enjoyed an impressive training camp, but at his age it's unreasonable to expect him to improve much from where he is today.

The second thing that got me thinking was a post on the Vancouver Southsiders board discussing our 1993-born Whitecaps Residency players. The question was, what will be the fates of these young men who, after this USSDA season, will be too old for U-18 competition? The Whitecaps could carry them on the USL PDL roster but that's a serious reduction in playing time.

Vancouver's U-18 defense has been fair: regular starters have been 1994-born left back Adam Polakiewicz, 1994 centre back Daniel Stanese, 1993 centre back Tim Hickson, and 1993 right back Declan Rodriguez. Backed by another 1993 (Callum Irving) in goal, the U-18 Whitecaps run middle of the road in defense. But we need fullbacks and both Polakiewicz and Rodriguez are good ones. Polakiewicz is a former Canadian U-17 international who started at the U-17 World Cup. Rodriguez has no international pedigree but 2011 was his first year at fullback after being converted from an attacking midfielder/forward. Rodriguez's start wasn't fantastic but he's rounding into a quality player and seems to need only experience.

Neither of these players are likely to be as good, today, as Klazura. Klazura has high-level amateur experience: 1,170 minutes in USL PDL in 2010 and 2011 with the Indiana Invaders, playing every minute of every game he got into. Neither Rodriguez nor Polakiewicz are anywhere near that. But they're also half a decade younger than Klazura, who when he was 18 did not play a single game at Notre Dame (he got his NCAA start, a little lower level than USL PDL, at 21 years of age).

Klazura aside, the average age of the Whitecaps' fullbacks is over thirty years old. Alain Rochat hits the big 3-0 next February, Lee Young-Pyo is obviously ancient, and backup left back Jordan Harvey is 29 next January. Rochat has a few years left at this level and, barring injury, nobody is worried about him, but Harvey's quality isn't that high and Lee started so long ago he tied an onion on his belt.

The problem isn't Greg Klazura, who fills a need. The problem is that, in two years, the Whitecaps are going to be right back trying to fill needs instead of arranging long-term strategies to fill them from within. That's partially Vancouver's fault, but much of the blame rests on Major League Soccer.

Left Backs Right Backs
Alain Rochat 29 Lee Young-Pyo 34
Jordan Harvey 28 Greg Klazura 23
Adam Polakiewicz 18 Declan Rodriguez 18
Italics indicate Residency players
All ages as of start of MLS regular season

The problem is that, in a lot of important ways, MLS roster rules do not provide an incentive to sign players like Polakiewicz and, particularly, Rodriguez.

Who will we cut to sign Declan? I wouldn't get rid of Klazura unless I had a superior replacement lined up (think a Jordan Harvey of the right), since we need somebody physically and emotionally mature available in case Lee gets hurt. There are no other right backs to get rid of, so it would have to be somebody further up the roster; fine by me, since having a guy like Rodriguez play USL PDL and apprentice on the MLS roster with the occasional appearance is almost ideal.

But there are only 30 roster spots available. That's enough to run a first team with some squad rotation but it isn't enough to devote much room to development projects. Some of the spare space available is given over to Generation Adidas players like Michael Nanchoff and Omar Salgado, who get big salaries that don't count against the cap because MLS identified them as promising American youths worth subsidizing. The Whitecaps have a few players in high-depth positions who could be got rid of (my pick: Atiba Harris) but not all that many, and it doesn't take a lot before you simply can't find a roster spot for a player like Rodriguez, who's an interesting but not a blue-chip Bryce Alderson-level prospect.

Meanwhile, Major League Soccer and the NCAA are going to throw another fistful of Greg Klazuras at us next year. Sure, a 23-year-old who came up playing college soccer isn't going to be nearly as good as a 23-year-old who came up through a professional academy; the difference is that the college 23-year-old didn't cost Martin Rennie a roster spot for a few years of his development and didn't cost the Whitecaps a dime.

So Declan Rodriguez, and others like him around North America, are going to pas through their last academy seasons and then move on because signing them is actually too risky. You can't get rid of your experienced depth in case injury comes, you can't get rid of your Generation Adidas players because of their high-value contracts, and you haven't got enough roster spots to carry along too much hope.

Of course, the Whitecaps would retain Rodriguez's rights if he went on to, say, play CIS or NASL soccer. And then he could spend a few years in an inferior training environment and if he was good we could sign him back. As opposed to his training at the highest possible level for those years and reaching the peak of his potential. Stuart Neely, late of the Toronto FC Academy, has joined the Whitecaps to manage just this sort of transition from U-18 to adult soccer. It remains to be seen what solutions he comes up with, but the mediocre world of college soccer ain't good enough.

In other countries, your reserve teams play more than ten games a year. You get domestic cups with more than four games where you can play your promising prospects in the early rounds. You're not limited to only thirty guys eligible for league games at any given time.

Why not increase the MLS roster, and with it the number of off-salary-cap roster spots? I love the MLS salary cap for encouraging parity and fiscal responsibility, but five to ten more $40,000 contracts for teams that want them will neither break the bank nor skew the table. An aggressive rule, which I'd love, would be to restrict a certain number of spots to homegrown players. Those who make the grade need more opportunities to play at a superior level once they turn 19 and the USSDA is out.

The homegrown player rule was a good start. It was only a start. MLS needs to expand teams' abilities to train their own talent, and until that day comes the Whitecaps must move aggressively to give as many youth players as possible that opportunity.