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When Kids Stop Being Kids: How to Improve Whitecaps Youth Development Past U-18

It's great that Alex Rowley will be at Simon Fraser next year, but why can't he and his teammates receive the best development environment possible rather than a mere afterthought? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
It's great that Alex Rowley will be at Simon Fraser next year, but why can't he and his teammates receive the best development environment possible rather than a mere afterthought? (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

One of the worst parts of the summer is seeing which Vancouver Whitecaps Residency players won't be part of the team going forward. For every Caleb Clarke there are ten who don't get that homegrown contract from the Whitecaps and some of them are bloody talented. No announcements have been made, but we can make some educated guesses: Daniel Stanese is in Germany, trialling for a contract. Midfielder Alex Rowley and defender Jason Van Blerk are set to attend Simon Fraser University starting this fall. Other Eighty Six Forever favourites like Tim Hickson and Callum Irving aren't listed on the team's official USL PDL roster; Irving played last week against Kitsap but Hickson was on the outside.

This is sadly inevitable. Not every player can ever sign a professional contract. Some won't be good enough, some will be bad fits, and some will just slip through the cracks. It's always unfortunate when a talented young player is told to pursue other opportunities but there's no way around it. It's worse in Major League Soccer, where only two of a team's homegrown players are eligible for Generation Adidas contracts at any given time, and everyone else has to face signing for a pittance on the MLS developmental scale.

That's the most infuriating part. Because of MLS's youth-hostile roster rules, it's difficult for a team like the Whitecaps to take risks. To get a Generation Adidas deal you better be Russell Teibert or Bryce Alderson, and even Clarke was scoring almost a goal and a half every 90 minutes in the U-18 league before he earned a regular homegrown contract. Yet plenty of prospects, particularly defenders, don't reach their full potential until their early twenties. MLS teams are filled with players who were playing an extremely marginal level with amateurish coaching as teenagers, but continued to develop into their twenties and became draft picks. Would-be homegrown players, on the other hand, must impress young.

Every time a player is cut loose too early, the Whitecaps lose a potentially useful prospect. The player may have bad feelings, however unjustified, and you can't underestimate the impact a few influential, disgruntled alumni can have in as close-knit a community as Canadian soccer. We all know how soccer clubs, steeped in tradition and habit, can sometimes lose track of the human factor: spending $50 million on a big transfer then not hiring somebody to help him settle in a new country, for example. Human resources management stinks in professional sports and it stinks even worse at the youth levels. The Whitecaps lead the country in their U-18 and younger programs, but beyond that something must be done.

Not everything is in the Whitecaps' control, of course. Ideally, the Whitecaps would have a first-class team playing regularly during the summer in the North American Soccer League for reserves and elite prospects, rather than either the low level of the USL PDL or the ersatz, infrequent, poorly-scheduled montrosity that is the MLS Reserves League. The fact that there's no good winter competition in Canada above the U-18 level should be a much bigger deal than it is: elite prospects face the nightmarish choice of a risky college career under non-professional conditions with sub-par coaching or a winter spent in an MLS system but with neither team nor games.

Rumour is that the Whitecaps pay over $2 million every year to run the men's Residency program. With such a budget, surely they could assemble a U-23 team which could train as a unit, get the benefit of the Whitecaps' first team and Residency coaching, and play anybody of quality in the region who'd give them a game. However, it's not so easy to get a decent schedule of friendlies against reliable opposition. We can talk casually of combing the CIS and NCAA ranks for strong teams but those teams have league games of their own. Their players have class, and for that matter so do many of ours. Scheduling under such circumstances isn't easy.

Until a decent U-23 league exists we should follow and expand upon the Seattle Sounders model. The Sounders take pride in placing their U-18 graduates in good NCAA programs. MLS rules allow a certain amount of leeway in retaining these players' rights provided they spent at least year training with the Residency[1]. Seattle and the Philadelphia Union have been especially prominent in sending youngsters not quite promising enough for an MLS contract to school, with their rights controlled by the MLS team in case they pan out.

If Vancouver can't keep players in-house, they should at least get the most out of them. The Whitecaps have made some efforts to help Residency players transition to school, but there's so much more they could do. For example, striking up formal relationships with area universities such as Simon Fraser, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria. For a relatively modest investment, the Whitecaps could improve the calibre of coaching at these schools and have sessions with the best Residency coaches. In exchange, Whitecaps prospects would study and play at these schools, joining whichever program best suits their abilities. If they improve then Vancouver holds their rights, offers them a contract, and gets a spectacular return on investment. If they never make the required level then the player has an education. There'd also be an obvious improvement to players at these schools who aren't in the Whitecaps system, improving the overall level of talent.

As we know, Major League Soccer has a salary cap and a million rules designed to force parity. This makes for great, exciting soccer, but it also provides an opportunity for canny front offices to get ahead. By investing in secondary youth development, the Whitecaps can tangibly improve their team without spending a nickel on the salary cap. It would be like getting one or two extra mid-first round SuperDraft picks a year.

The idea isn't just to extract the most talent possible, but to provide current and future Residency players with an exit plan. The less hope a player has of getting something from the program, the less effort he put in and the fewer good players will be willing to sign on in the future. The Whitecaps currently try to help their prospects on their way out, but today those efforts are unfocused and unclear. The more clearly established a path for the not-quite-elite talents becomes, the better for the team and the better for the players. This isn't to say that some road must be carved in stone; that Dan Stanese must be told "sorry, we won't help you get those great trials in Germany; we want you to major in shoveling shit in Victoria instead." But the road must be there, and it must be made as solid as possible.

Alex Rowley will play at SFU next year and the Whitecaps will likely keep his rights. That's great and it's a pleasant change from just letting him walk. But what if a few other Whitecaps Residency graduates were with him and Jason Van Blerk, and the Whitecaps were kicking in a few tens of thousands of dollars a year to ensure they got the best on-field practice possible. Of course SFU could never be entirely a Whitecaps youth team; they have their own priorities as well, so do the same trick at a few other schools. And tell everybody about it, so the second-best scorer on the 2012 Whitecaps Residency doesn't need to worry that he isn't hearing about an MLS contract yet and that High Performance League star's parents will sign their kid on without reservation.

Not every player who went that route would be worth a professional contract. And yes, a few good players would still be missed. But the best Residency players would have a few more years of superior coaching, a few more years to impress the Whitecaps brass, and something to look forward to even if they were never going to play professionally. Probably not even one player a year would be good enough to sign out of college, but it doesn't take a lot of success stories for such a program to be worth the money.

Once upon a time, Vancouver was the North American pioneer in youth development. Let's have them take the lead again.

[1] — Some clarification on this roster rule: if the Whitecaps add a player to their homegrown player list (not to be confused with signing the player to an MLS homegrown contract), the Whitecaps retain the player's rights if the player then goes on to a four-year college. A player on the homegrown list must have resided in the MLS team's home territory for at least one year prior to inclusion and cannot be a current United States youth international at the time of inclusion. The homegrown list is fairly loose; teams have been eligible to list players as homegrown because they played for a scratched-together academy team at one tournament.