After Axel Schuster’s opening press conference a week ago, I took a moment with Vancouver Whitecaps co-owner Jeff Mallett to discuss the state of the club’s youth development situation, and to hear what he may have learned through the “Sporting Director” hiring process.
Often in the sports world, interviewing candidates for a top-ranking position provides a wonderful opportunity for a club to learn about how their own organization is perceived from the outside, even if some of that information doesn’t come from the candidate they end up hiring. With this in mind, I asked Jeff Mallett what he had learned from both Nolan Partners, and the candidates they had interviewed, in regards to how their youth development programs were perceived, and where people from elsewhere in the football world saw room for improvement.
Jeff explained to me some of the feedback he’d received: “Like Axel said (in his press conference), don’t tell me you have 15 or so special players. You likely only have a handful. And then, what we need to do for those players, is we create a specific plan for each individual, and we can use the example of a loan opportunity as part of that, it doesn’t necessarily just have to be within the club, were going to look at what fits for you specifically, so long as you have the ability.“
This has likely been the most glaring problem with the club’s youth development, especially in the last year – and at Eighty-Six Forever we’ve spoken about this ad nauseum, because it’s important not only for the club, but also the country, and needs to be addressed head on.
If you look at former Whitecap David Norman Jr and the currently loaned Simon Colyn, both players looked lost when they found themselves too mature for the academy level but not yet ready to be an MLS rotation-level player. In both these cases, it seems as though there wasn’t a clear plan, or the plan simply wasn’t well thought out enough – and Mallett implicitly acknowledged as much. Hopefully, Schuster can bring in his experiences at Mainz and Schalke to help improve this stage of the club’s player development process, and the club can learn from its past development mistakes so as not to repeat them.
Another aspect of youth development that was brought to Mallett’s attention through the interview process was the importance of coaching throughout the organization:
“The second thing that was called out, to put it simply, is to coach the coaches. When we went through the whole process of hiring, people kept telling us, you’re only as good as your coaches. I’m not saying we don’t have good coaches, but that’s definitely an area where we need to look at it closely. We need to figure out how to identify the best coaches for the job…so those were the main components, from the outside looking in, that people told us we were missing from our club. People told us that with the huge group of players coming through our program, we should be doing better.”
For all the importance that’s put on “high performance” or “elite” youth sporting programs these days, it’s often staggering how woefully low the standards for coach training and certification are at these levels. This is something that for the most part, is taken far more seriously in Europe than it is in North America (in all sports), and hopefully this is another element that Schuster can improve based on his experiences. While I think it’s unlikely that Schuster will be doing a lot of hands-on “coaching the coaches” himself, hopefully he can assemble the right team for the job.
The third and final element that Mallett spoke about was the importance of getting his new hire, Schuster, a “seat at the table” with the Soccer Associations most directly linked to the Whitecaps’ success. Jeff explained that this process was already underway: “We’re already looking at getting Axel involved with the various boards/groups at CONCACAF, the MLS League Office and Soccer Canada: that will be a big part of Axel’s role”.
I think this very well could be the most important element of Axel’s role. Schuster certainly seems like he’ll be more comfortable in the boardroom than he’ll be pitch side, but this could be invaluable. For a long time, it’s felt like the Whitecaps don’t get much respect from the MLS League Office, and with Soccer Canada, there have been persistent issues which have challenged the youth development side of things. If Schuster becomes a prominent voice in the minds of Soccer Canada and the MLS League Office, this can only serve to help the club’s interests down the road.
As a final point of conversation, I thought I’d address my thoughts on the Axel Schuster hiring. Up to this point, I haven’t really shared my perspective, because it’s been difficult for me to try and figure out – and I think most of us in the media came away from last week’s conference struggling for a compelling storyline. Now though, with a week’s worth of perspective on the topic, here are my thoughts (on Schuster) in a nutshell:
Similar to many others in the media, I’m concerned with Schuster’s lack of frontline experience and seemingly non-existent talent evaluation chops (see everything Manuel Veth has reported). Yet at the same time, I think Schuster could be just the kind of “organizer” the club needs. If Schuster is able to break down some of the archaic and dysfunctional structures that have plagued the club for far too long at the front office level, then who cares if he can pick out the best 17-year old Uruguayan right back to sign? The lack of talent evaluators is still a problem no doubt, but that might be easier to install after Schuster’s made some changes – and in the meantime, at least the addition of Schuster will be better than what the club had before.