In isolation, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ decision to trade away David Norman Jr for a conditional pick in the 2022 MLS draft is not of monumental consequence. While Norman was a feel-good home town story, and carried a last name synonymous with the heydays of soccer in Vancouver, it’s hardly the first time that a young player has been shipped off elsewhere in order to be given a fresh start - and if the Whitecaps were in the middle of a playoff chase, it’s unlikely we’d be paying much attention.
But when you consider the kind of year the Whitecaps have had, and couple that with general fan distrust, as well as the growing frustrations regarding the disconnect between the main club and academy/development squads, moving on from Norman Jr looks more like the sign of a much greater problem.
The question is: How exactly do the Whitecaps plan to groom their academy prospects and get them ready to play at the MLS level? And do they even have a plan?
At the centre of this issue is the “Development Squad”, which was re-banded this season after the dissolution of VWFC II two seasons ago, and the calamitous partnership with Fresno FC from last season. This team does not play in a league, and has spent the majority of their year wandering in the abyss, picking up exhibition matches here and there along the way.
If we go back to the beginning of the year and look at a piece from the Province’s JJ Adams on Norman Jr’s return from loan in Scotland, we can see that the young Canadian was optimistic about a fresh start under Head Coach Marc Dos Santos.
Now obviously, Norman Jr’s early season injury woes derailed what he hoped would be a breakout season, but there was still the opportunity for him to take the last few months of the season to regain his form, and get ready for a full MLS campaign next season, or at least that’s what one would’ve thought.
Yet since suffering a right-foot fracture on a team trip to England in March, Norman Jr’s only appearance for the Development Squad was in a 1-0 shootout victory over the Saskatchewan Selects on July 25th, in which Norman Jr only played 30 minutes before being subbed off. This happened because in the 87 days since the Development Squad played their last match in Korea, the team has only participated in one competitive match.
Fast-forwarding to Thursday at the Whitecaps training facility, Marc Dos Santos faced gathered media for the first time since Norman was dealt on Tuesday, and explained his reasoning behind moving on from the young homegrown player:
“I saw enough for our decision to be done in a very calm and lucid way. It’s good for us, and it’s good for David. Because we feel like David needs to move on. We feel that in certain areas of the field, we’re going to have to become better. And we just don’t think right now that David was the player that would bring our midfield to another level next year. So we know the numbers we’re going to have, who’s going to be available, what we’re looking for...so it would probably be a very frustrating time if David just stuck around, and it wouldn’t be fair for him either. So it’s good for David and it’s good for the Whitecaps.”
From my perspective, there are two things very troubling with these comments from Dos Santos. First off, it seems hard to believe that Dos Santos and his staff could’ve made an accurate evaluation on Norman Jr’s play based on just 30 minutes of competitive play in the past five months. Secondly, what does it say about the Whitecaps if there isn’t room within the organization for a young developing Canadian, who perhaps just needs another year of grooming before he’s ready to make an impact at the MLS level?
Dos Santos added some of his frustrations regarding the negative press surrounding the move, as well as the oft “over-hyped” nature in which former academy products are treated by fans and the media:
“The first thing is that the evaluation from the outside regarding David is very superficial. Because if I would ask 50 people about the departure of David, how many times have they watched him play? Nobody could really answer...What are his qualities?”
I followed up by asking Dos Santos for his take on the “Development Squad” being leagueless, and whether or not that, in his opinion, has a detrimental effect on the development of young players (like Norman), as well as a coaching staff’s ability to evaluate them:
“Your point is good, because what gives exposure to the player? If our Development Squad was playing in a league, that counted for points every Saturday, of course, our evaluation of the player would be much more clear. And it’s not easy to give chances to players when you’re fighting every day, every time, for three points. And you don’t see something that stands out in the player when comparing him with other players. So that was our evaluation...I think that for David [the transfer] was very important. He’s a great kid, he trained very hard, all the time, he had a great mentality at training - but he needed maybe another environment because he’s been here for a couple of years and didn’t play, really. And now he’s enabled to maybe show what he has. And of course, when you’re playing every Saturday, in any kind of league, it allows you to show your potential.”
Finally, I asked Dos Santos, in light of his comments, whether or not getting the Development Squad back in a league is a priority for the future of the club:
“We know that the format right now of the development squad is not ideal - and we question it every day. But again, you know, it’s a question of what league, when, how much, all of that is a factor. But of course, nobody here is delusional to think that if we’re not in a competition every Saturday, it’s easy to assess all of the work when it gets to the development squad group age.”
Although both Nick Dasovic and Marc Dos Santos have now openly acknowledged that the current “Development Squad” situation is less than ideal, both coaches have also mentioned “cost” as a key factor when looking at leagues to join. As always, this makes me wonder whether or not ownership has stood in the way of progress based on their financial bottom line. And to me, failing to spend money in this area would be a far bigger travesty then their below-average MLS payroll.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, I don’t think the David Norman Jr’s departure in isolation is a huge game changer. But the precedent that his departure continues to set is a dangerous one. If there’s little room for graduating academy prospects to hone their craft at the pro-level while working towards earning themsleves a spot in the First Team, then what exactly is the point of the Academy?
The reality is, not every player out of the Academy will be an Alphonso Davies or Theo Bair: some can’t make the jump from the Academy to the pro’s in a matter of months. For those who aren’t on such a rapid ascension path, there needs to be somewhere legitimate (in a league) for them to play, while maintaining their standing within the organization. And if the Whitecaps don’t solve this problem soon, we’re going to see more and more academy products walking out the door, just like David Norman Jr.