There is a serious problem on the horizon for the Vancouver Whitecaps. On the surface it doesn’t look like a problem but it’s about to be. The problem is their current U-19 team is absolutely stacked. Their U-17 and U-15 teams have a few players who look like they might be decent but have yet to really establish themselves (perhaps not surprising considering these are straight up just children). But if you go down the list of players on the U-19 team, almost every single name has some promise. Surely this is a good thing, right? Well it is, but things start to get complicated pretty quickly.
The crown jewels of the group are Kamron Habibullah, Gianfranco Facchineri, and Simon Colyn. These three players are all really excellent and, providing they keep their heads down, work hard and all that good stuff, they have a very good chance of following in the footsteps of Alphonso Davies and Theo Bair. Habibullah is generally considered a player with the potential to be a star on the level of Davies and at this year’s U-17 World Cup in Brazil he certainly looked the part. Facchineri is a highly touted centre back who has been described as having the potential to be “Alphonso Davies but in defence” so no pressure there. Simon Colyn’s 2019 got derailed by injury but he’s already made his first team debut and has started the 2019/20 academy season strong. It’s never a sure thing with young players, and all three of these players have some kinks to iron out, but for the most part I’m not worried about them. The players I am worried about are the other guys on the team.
Consider for example Facchineri’s centre back partner at the U-17 World Cup, Nathan Demian. In Brazil Demian looked, frankly, not that great. He struggled with the pace of the game, frequently being caught out of position and misplacing passes. But if you are Nathan, or a concerned family member, don’t despair. It’s not like if you put Demian’s senior national team equivalents up against the senior national teams of Brazil or a top African team like Angola is at U-17 level they would look much better. Those players are still good enough to be solid MLS players. He’s only 17 and even as he struggled against the world’s elite you still saw how he had his moments. There’s a not unreasonable chance he can develop into a good professional player. But here’s the thing, it’s very unlikely that he’s going to be ready on his eighteenth birthday. What then is the plan for him? As far as I can tell there is none.
The Whitecaps have their U-23 development squad which, as I’m sure you’re all aware by now, does not play in a league and only played 18 games in 2019. Only 8 of those games were against professional opposition, using a very generous definition of professional. So if the Whitecaps have a player who isn’t ready for first team football when he graduates the academy, but who they still believe could develop into something worthwhile, then all they have to offer them is, essentially, putting their lives on hold for up to five years as they try to fight for their place. I do not think the development squad is without its uses. It’s a good way for U-18 players to get experience playing against men, which is a tough transition no matter the level of the men. But if you’ve finished high school and have the options of CPL or University open to you then I can’t see a good reason to choose to play for the Whitecaps development squad. It is no surprise that players like Jefferson Alade, Thomas Raimbault, and Jose Hernandez have chosen these particular routes. Now, I’m not saying any of these players should have been signed to first team contracts, they pretty clearly weren’t ready for that. I’m also not saying they definitely would have developed into first team contributors if WFC2 were still around. But under the current system the chances of those types of players developing into first team contributors is basically 0%. You are either a prodigy ready to sign an MLS contract straight out of high school or you’re out. That or you choose to play a handful of friendlies against VMSL teams and local universities, your professional prospects ever dwindling as you get older and older without making a pro appearance.
There are teams out there who use the traveling development squad effectively. England’s Brentford is a prime example. They run a U-21 which plays friendlies and in local amateur cup competitions. They have had some success graduating players to the first team with this model. But there are two important ways Brentford’s situation is different from Vancouver’s. Firstly, Brentford adopted the model as a survival strategy. Being a smaller London based club they weren’t able to compete with the Chelseas of the world and chose to pick up players that got released by the big clubs rather than try and fight a loosing battle for local youth. The Whitecaps, in contrast, have exclusive homegrown rights to almost the entirety of Canada. Secondly there are a lot more teams of much higher quality for Brentford to play against. Nevertheless I think we can see part of the answer in how they do things. The Brentford team plays in amateur cup competitions. The level of competition may not be the highest but the games are competitive and put players into a game with actual stakes. It’s not like the reserve teams in most countries play against a level of competition that’s all that high, but the games are competitive. Perhaps the Whitecaps could explore doing this in addition to trips abroad. This still wouldn’t do much for players aged 20-23 but perhaps some informal relationships with USL and CPL teams could be used to find loan deals for those players. The proposed western Canada semi pro league would be as good a choice as any.
Whatever the solution, something must be done. Because if the Whitecaps can get a good core of homegrown players, who don’t count against the cap, and then combine it with some shrewd signings then the rest of the league had better watch out. But every year they don’t have a proper pathway to the first team they are losing potential contributors to that hypothetical dream team. Potential contributors like:
Chance Carter; scorer of goals from such distance that the camera can’t even keep up with the ball
take a chance, Chance! pic.twitter.com/3jdrSCM67p— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) November 14, 2019
Damiano Pecile; who’s decision making needs some work but looks like he could develop into the player the ‘Caps thought they were getting when they signed Jon Erice
Brandon Cambridge; who looks a little outmatched against men but led the U-23s in assists and had a fantastic season for the U-17s last year.
Emiliano Brienza; an attacking midfielder with a pretty good goal scoring record at both youth and U-23 level.
Massud Habibullah; Kam’s older brother who quietly scored 17 goals in 25 games for the U-17s last season. That’s more goals than Theo Bair scored at the same age (I’m pretty sure, the system is a bit complicated). One of those goals was this ludicrous chipped goal:
Massud Habibullah doubled the lead on this fantastic chip pic.twitter.com/ccuGB5mjy0— Whitecaps FC Academy (@WFCAcademy) April 8, 2019
Dylan Vellios; a right back who also made the Canadian U-17 team.
And six other players who have played at least a game for the development squad (apologies to these guys, we only get glimpses of the academy players from the outside and it’s mostly the players who score goals we get to see, I’m sure you’re great). Between these guys and the handful of players who have already been signed like Bair, Mukumbilwa, Baldisimo and Hasal there is the chance to have a core of solid cost controlled young players in two to three years. But time is of the essence and as more of it goes by without a proper pathway to first team football the chances for the non prodigy members of the group to turn into impact players get increasingly slim.