Youth development is always a touchy subject in football. While each team seems to have a golden goose that buoys their past, the hardest part of the whole process is to find a sustainable model, allowing teams to build off a mix of acquired talent and domestic homegrowns to find success, much like Ajax Amsterdam was able to do this past season en route to a Champions League semi-final berth, before selling on a couple of players for 150+ million this off-season.
The Caps are looking to improve in that regard, as they look to compete in MLS with a mix of shrewd investments and cheap homegrown talent, allowing them to compete with a lower budget in the short-term while ensuring they can sell some of them on to ensure financial stability in the long-term. Coach Marc Dos Santos and his crew have done a lot of work to get there, so far, but they still have quite a way to go. Here is a look at what they have done, and what they can do, to ensure they can get where they want to be.
The youth development of the Vancouver Whitecaps has certainly been a topic of discussion for many years. From the start of their tenure in MLS, where their young Canadian tangent was headlined by Russell Teibert, to the now-famed Alphonso Davies years, and everything in between, the Whitecaps handling of youth always seems to be a hot topic amongst the Vancouver faithful. With this season’s side tumbling down the MLS standings, there has been a bit more scrutiny on the club’s youth development as of late, as they struggle to turnover their squad after a rough end to last season.
What to make of the numbers this year?
The numbers are not great for Vancouver, as besides Russell Teibert, there have not been many regular minutes doled out for Whitecaps homegrown players so far this season. Theo Bair has been the only U23 Vancouver homegrown to pick up any action, with his 216 minutes in 6 appearances (2 starts) leading the way, but besides him, it’s been sparse. In this case, the Caps get a pass, as many of their young players that fit that criteria have been unavailable for selection for many of those matches, with Michael Baldisimo (Injury), David Norman Jr (Injury), Simon Colyn (International absences) and Thomas Hasal (Injury) all missing various periods with various ailments and commitments.
But, despite those many underlying issues, the question remains: How can Vancouver do better at integrating young homegrowns? While many fans are (unreasonably) expecting to unearth another Alphonso Davies, who was a once in a generation talent, it is fair to still expect more than what they have seen, at least in terms of serviceable MLS depth. The introduction of Theo Bair has been a good start, now hopefully Vancouver can build on that.
What Have They Done so far?
To be fair to the Caps, they have had a bit of a hole in their youth development, at least from around 2013-2017, making it hard to introduce young talent right from the beginning of the Marc Dos Santos tenure. Vertical integration was a catchphrase at the beginning of the season, with it representing the idea that youth would have a path to find themselves from the Academy to the first-team, allowing them to grow and be ready for action when called upon.
The Caps have made a couple of key steps in that regard, with the main one being the introduction of a U23 side, allowing many players that are either too old or too good for the academy but aren’t good enough for the first team to play in a competitive environment. For many years, one big issue for the Caps was that they lost a lot of good players in and around that 18-22 age range, as opportunities within the club dried up fast after the conclusion of their academy stints. The Caps are aware of this, as outlined by their mission statement on the team.
“An extension of the club’s MLS first team, bridging the gap between the club’s top academy and youth prospects,” it says on the Caps website of the program. “The team plays professional competition locally in Canada and the United States, while making trips abroad to play top competition around the world”
For an example of these kinds of players that could have benefitted from a U23 side, look no further than the Canadian Premier League, where many of these players are currently plying their trade. On Pacific FC, we see many of these players, such as a Noah Verhoeven, who used to play for the Whitecaps Academy a couple of years ago. Out of options once the Whitecaps FC 2 team folded, he had to play a year in Fresno, where he struggled for minutes, before joining Pacific for this season, where he has been one of their better players. He got called up to train with Canada’s national team ahead of the Gold Cup, truly showing how good of a player he is, making one wonder if he could have maybe stuck around a little longer with the Whitecaps.
What Needs to be Done?
So with players like Verhoeven, or Cavalry goalie Marco Carducci (who the Whitecaps get to welcome back to BC Place this Wednesday), who are quality U23 players who have just fallen through the cracks of Vancouver’s system, doing well in the inaugural campaign of the CPL, it certainly leaves a lot to be desired with what the Whitecaps have been doing the past few years. Luckily for them, there are a few solutions, it’s just up to them to execute them.
1: More Teams
While having many teams can be tough to sustain financially, it is the way to go, especially for teams that aspire to emulate a European development model. The Whitecaps had a good thing going on with their Whitecaps II side that competed in the USL for 3 seasons before being disbanded at the end of 2017, and a return to that would make a big difference for their squad.
If re-created, it would allow an environment where many first-team tweeners could find minutes, allowing them to build confidence at a professional level, while preparing them for the demands that the first-team will ask of them. When the Whitecaps had the Caps 2, they were able to create an environment where players playing sporadically for the first-team (think Theo Bair, Brendan McDonaugh and Brett Levis on this edition of the Caps) where they could continue to find minutes at a good level (USL), while allowing for talented youngsters in the academy, like Alphonso Davies did back in the day, to be eased into the professional game, instead of immediately getting their teeth kicked in at the MLS level.
The big key of a squad like that, however, is that it needs to be kept local. As the Caps found out last year, when they had an affiliation with USL side Fresno FC, it is hard to control the development of your young players when they are playing thousands of miles away. They had the right idea by having an affiliate, but they were better off with a local iteration.
“We are delighted to be working with Fresno FC, where the USL will provide the opportunity for high-level competition that will benefit our first team in MLS in the future” Bob Lenarduzzi said after the disbanding of Whitecaps FC II.
“We expect that the internal competition for playing time at Fresno FC will provide a tremendous and challenging environment for our top young players.”
But, while as competitive as an environment as it was, they had no control over the development and were unable to have much of an impact on growth of their loaned out youth When the team was kept local, like the Whitecaps FC II was, it allows for the young players to be controlled, allowing for them to train and play with the first team if necessary, while not being sacrificed in terms of playing time like they were in Fresno.
The U23 squad would still have value in this case, as it is a great opportunity for youngsters that are more fresh out of the academy but not ready for the jump to USL and MLS, as they could compete against players closer to their age and level, before potentially moving up to those aforementioned teams. The only problem with the team right now is that they do not play in a league, meaning they do not have a regular level of competition, instead relying on playing friendlies all over. If they were to join a league like USL League 2, where Cascadia rivals Portland and Seattle both house U23 teams, they would be exposed to a regular level of competition, while still being able to compete in high-level friendlies if they do come up.
Speaking of Cascadia rivals, Portland and Seattle are two examples of teams that employ both a U23 and a second-team that competes in USL, and they have used both very well, competing in MLS while bringing up solid young talent. They have been able to handle injuries and international absences well, as they have a wealth of bench and young talent that is ready to step into the lineup if needed, as they stay in-form by competing in USL while having a solid assembly of youth that is slowly cultivating itself down in USL League 2. While they are both teams lead by solid DPs, the integration of cost-effective talent in both their starting 11s and on their benches has played a strong role in their collective success over the last couple of seasons.
2: More successful integration
But, for all these teams being created, there needs to be a successful integration model. Having these developmental teams would be a great help, allowing for youngsters to get minutes and grow in a professional environment, but they need to eventually find themselves to the first team. That has been one of Vancouver’s main struggles over the year, as they have failed to consistently integrate their young talent to the main squad.
A couple of teams that have done a great job of this are Dallas FC and the New York Red Bulls, who are arguably the development kings of MLS. Year after year they manage to integrate several homegrown players into their teams, allowing them to have a cycle where they compete, sell off their players, and restart fresh each season, while using their money by investing in quality players to shield the youngsters, as well as investing in bigger and better youth development.
So while their young players come in ready to compete in the first team, thanks to a development model that allows for them to come in already adapted to the tactics and level required of the first team, they are not completely thrown to the wolves either. DP’s and MLS veterans, the core requirement to compete in MLS, make up the spine of the team, but they do a great job at filling in the cracks with youth, which allows for these teams to grow talent while competing year-in and year-out.
This is where Vancouver could stand to learn a lesson, as they have struggled to brave the plunge and try and integrate more of their youngsters, constantly relying on veterans. For example, instead of bringing on 3 substitutes that are all MLS veterans, what’s stopping one from being a Michael Baldisimo, who is still awaiting his first MLS minutes? While Vancouver has good veteran options off the bench, which can be tempting for a coach, throwing in a youngster in with 2 veterans could prove just as beneficial in the short term, while growing something for the long term. Instead of constantly going all-in with veteran subs, having more youth off the bench would allow for better long-term growth, even if means that a few points have to be sacrificed in the meantime to get there.
However, to get to that point, the model does have to better prepare the kids for the jump, something MDS has been adamant on all season.
“If they don’t do well enough in training, how are they going to do in a game?” Dos Santos told J.J Adams of the Province July 19th. “I don’t think we should live in La La Land and think that just because they’re academy products they should play. Theo deserved (to start). There are one or two players who have grown in training that may get their chance eventually. That has to be clear.”
Another big key is how prepared they are when it comes time to make the big step. So how to ensure that that jump happens?
3: Ensure a streamlined style of play across levels
The Caps have done well in this regard, with their youth teams playing some pretty nice football, but continuing and growing on that across all the levels will be beneficial for the long-term. Part of the successful integration of youth is ensuring that they are both ready and comfortable to make the transition. While the creation of development squads is good to make sure they’re ready, the shielding of youth with veterans and the streamlining of a playing style is good to make sure they’re comfortable
If youth come into the squad having learned the possession and high-pressing football that coach Marc Dos Santos is trying to impose on the main team, they will be better able to step in and contribute, allowing them to play their game at a higher level. Under Carl Robinson, when youth players came in to play, they were often lost and unable to contribute, as his system was good to chase results, but not one that would allow for comfortable integration of youth, especially with teams at all levels trying different styles. In the 8 or so months with Dos Santos, the youth at all levels are playing nicer football, so look for more of them to make an impact in a couple of years as they come in ready and more comfortable to make an impact on the first team.
What does the future of youth development in Vancouver look like?
So while youth development has certainly been an area in need of improvement for years, bar the Davies coup, there has been some progress made, and there is a good template for improvement. Bringing back Caps II, in either a partially owned model or something of that ilk, would be the kind of off-the-field investment that the now-famed “Davies Money” could prove benefitial in funding on the “sporting side” of their operation. Doing that, as well as ensuring the U23 team has a league to call home, would do wonders for both the youth looking to get up to the first team, as well as the fringe players struggling for opportunities with the main squad. Ensuring that those players, as well as those in the academy, are cultivated by learning the style of play that the main team employs, as well as getting the chance to train with them due to the proximity to home that these teams entail, will allow for greater integration both over the short and longer-term.
Until then, we shall monitor their decisions with a careful eye, as the Caps look to become both a team that competes thanks to careful recruitment, as well as sound youth development and integration. While the integration of youth has been dry for this year, players like Baldisimo, Bair, Norman Jr, Hasal and Colyn provide hope for the near future, while other prospects like Kamron Habibullah, Georges Mukumbilwa, Patrick Metcalfe and other good youngsters looking to make a difference over the longer term. While not every one of those players will work out, for various reasons, avoiding situations like Noah Verhoeven, a tough case of a good player falling through the cracks, will be paramount to ensure future success in that regard.