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The Athletic Bilbao of Canada

Canada v Morocco: Group F - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Youssef Loulidi/Fantasista/Getty Images

About a year and a half ago Axel Schuster declared he wanted to turn the Whitecaps into the Athletic Bilbao of Canada. He said this in an interview that was essentially an ad for a platform that allows clubs to buy and sell players more easily. But people read it and reacted to it and now it’s a thing. I mostly think these reactions are, to be frank, a bit dumb. But Schuster did say it so I thought we should talk about it.

If you’re not aware, Athletic Bilbao is a club in Spain that only fields players from the Basque region. Se essentially Schuster is saying he wants the Whitecaps to rely heavily on Canadian players. He later went on to clarify that in practice their three DPs and three U-22 initiative players would still be internationals but he would like the rest of the players to be Canadian. He also emphasised that this was a long-term goal, something that I think a lot of people miss.

Firstly, I want to talk about some of the sillier reactions to the quote. Every time a Canadian leaves the Whitecaps, a CPL player makes a move to Europe, or the Whitecaps opt not to select a Canadian in the super draft, you get an army of people saying “aha, Axel Schuster breaks his promise once again!” I think here the “long term” element of the stated goal is important to consider. If you say “in the long run we want to be the Athletic Bilbao of Canada” I don’t think that means that every Canadian journeyman is on the Whitecaps in the next 18 months. It doesn’t mean that Canadians who underperform shouldn’t be replaced or that Canadians you get a good offer for shouldn’t be sold. Indeed, if this is going to happen you probably need to be cashing in on Canadian players and reinvesting fairly regularly. You can still be somewhat discerning about the players on your team, even if your long-term goal is more Canadians.

The idea is that over the long term you bring players up through the academy who can fill out the middle and bottom of the squad. At least I think that’s the idea, I’m not in any of these meetings. But now that we have established what “the Athletic of Bilbao of Canada” does not mean, let’s talk about what it does mean and what steps might lead to achieving it.

As I see it, there is one big barrier to fielding an MLS team which is 80% Canadians today. There are not a lot of mid-range Canadians. Right now Canadian players come in three groups. The first group is “beloved national heroes.” These are regular players on the national team. You obviously have David, Davies, and Eustaquio at the top of this group but I would say it also includes players like Kamal Miller, Dayne St Clair, and Mark-Anthony Kaye. These are players it is either totally unrealistic for the Whitecaps to acquire or who would command a huge amount of their resources to get. The second group is the “old pros.” These are players who are in their mid to late 20s who have been around for a while, either in the CPL or lower levels in Europe who have never made the jump to MLS for whatever reason. Every offseason there’s a bunch of posts to the effect of “could X be good depth for the Whitecaps!?!?!” or “Wow, the Whitecaps are really missing out by not signing X.” This group includes Marco Bustos, Amer Didic, Dominick Zator, and until the last couple of years Kyle Bekker. You could maybe get away with one or two of these guys on the roster but realistically you wouldn’t be able to fill out a whole team with them and remain competitive. The last group is “magic beans.” These are young players in the CPL or MLS Next Pro (sometimes even the college game) who have potential but have no track record at a higher level. Because these leagues are so new, there isn’t really a way to say with confidence if they will succeed in MLS. Some people might make bold claims that they do know but I think we should treat that with some scepticism.

Now, this is not to say that there’s never a situation where you might want to acquire a player from any of those three groups. But there aren’t a lot of Canadian Brian Whites or Tristan Blackmons, players that might excel at one or two skills but are mostly just solid MLS players. I think you could make a reasonable argument that past development failures by the Whitecaps are part of the reason that class of player does not exist in great numbers but that can’t be helped now.

Now, having defended the Whitecaps somewhat, I will say that things right now are less than ideal. Personally, I do not really care that much if the players on the team are Canadian or not but even coming from that perspective, it’s suboptimal to be a net buyer of international spots when player development is such a big part of what you’re supposedly trying to do.

So, how does one solve this problem? You have to make those players. This is where WFC2 comes in. WFC2 is potentially a great tool for achieving the goal of increasing the number of Canadians on the first team. Predicting the futures of young players is always fraught so you need to throw a lot of darts to have any success. WFC2 gives you a lot more darts. If you are not sure what a player has to offer, you can basically test him out in an environment you know the level of before making a commitment.

But of course, the Whitecaps had WFC2 before and it did not generate many results. As an observer, I have some ideas about why that was and how those same mistakes could be avoided.

Firstly, the previous WFC2 was not a path to career advancement. The old WFC2 operated for three seasons and the three team MVP award winners combined for 9 senior appearances. WFC2 does not mean much if good performances are not rewarded with first-team opportunities. WFC2 should be like the Ultimate Fighter, the prize for being the best is a contract and subsequent organisational push. Obviously, some players will fail to take advantage of the opportunity but it’s important that opportunity is proffered. I think signing Ali Ahmed to a first-team contract is a great start. It will be interesting to see how he is utilised.

Another problem the old WFC2 had, in my opinion, was that it had a lot of filler players. Do you remember Andy Thoma, Will Seymore, and Thomas Sanner? I do! These were players, often already in their mid-20s, who had no realistic chance of ever making it to the first team but hung around because the ‘caps needed to fill a roster spot. The odd veteran can be helpful for a reserve team but the majority of players should have some kind of pathway to becoming a first-team contributor.

I think the filler problem is linked to a third potential problem. There have been persistent whispers of a sense of entitlement around the Whitecaps’ prospects. I don’t know to what extent that is true. Sometimes I suspect this is an attempt to deflect from their own failures but I can’t deny I have heard things in interviews and on podcasts and in interviews that have caused me to raise an eyebrow. Plus I can see how an environment where winning doesn’t matter, your place is more or less secure, and performing well doesn’t necessarily lead to further opportunities might not have players maximally motivated.

Well, once again I think we can take a page out of the UFC’s book here (though this is probably where we should stop taking pointers from them on prospect development). Nobody can be bigger than the brand and there needs to be constant pressure from below.

Obviously, the majority of the squad should be made up of academy graduates. But there’s no reason not to fish in other ponds as well. The Whitecaps already added Lowell Wright to WFC2 for a small upfront transfer fee and a number of potential escalators. I can’t say I am a big believer in that specific player but I would be very much in favour of making more of that kind of move for young CPL standouts. But it needn’t stop there. CPL means that we must be getting a pretty good idea of how performances in USports and League 1 Canada translate to the professional game. Most of the players in that pool won’t ever be up to the MLS level but there will be at least a few. I don’t see any reason why the next Diyadinne Abzi couldn’t skip the CPL altogether and just slot right into WFC2. I would also look to bring in players from abroad who are excelling at very low professional or semi-professional levels. The model player for this would be Chicago’s Omari Glasgow, an 18-year-old who was plucked from Guyanese football and now looks set to earn an MLS contract. This is as long as these players meet the right age profile. I’m not advocating for WFC2 to sign Ataphoroy Bygrave or Emiliano Tade (if you know, you know). I also, obviously, would not break the bank on any of these players. I am envisioning a lot of free transfers, loans with the option to buy, and small upfront fees with performance bonuses.

Again, many of these players won’t work out. Just like most of the academy players don’t work out. But your chances of striking gold are a lot higher than they are with castoffs from Europe or mid-20s Americans. If every player on the team has at least somewhat of a shot of making it to MLS then it matters a lot less if any individual player doesn’t work out. Plus it gives every academy graduate a stick to go with the carrot of earning a first-team contract.

Anyway I know that was quite long but to summarise my points briefly:

  • Building a team that’s 80% Canadians would be very challenging with the current composition of the Canadian player pool
  • To make this goal more attainable the Whitecaps need to build a player pathway that rewards doing well and punishes doing poorly
  • They can do this by rewarding top WFC2 performers with first-team football more regularly and bringing in players from outside their development system to compete for places.