“Our club wants to first and foremost be a Canadian club”: Vancouver Whitecaps hoping that recent changes can allow them to become the Canadian talent pool they’ve long dreamt of being

Long seen as a weak spot in the club, they’re trying their best to change things.  

Despite being a club that is best known globally for having once been home to current World XI left back and global superstar, Alphonso Davies, who came up through their academy, the Vancouver Whitecaps have otherwise struggled to get players through their youth system and onto the pitch for the first team.

Even beyond stars of the level of Davies, who really only comes around once in a generation, the ‘Caps haven’t really had much in terms of homegrown talent sticking around and making a lasting impact for the club, period. 

In fact, other than ‘Caps mainstay, Russell Teibert, who has been with the club for over a decade, and Davies, there hasn’t really been a Whitecaps homegrown who has been able to have much of an impact over a significant period of time in the decade-plus they’ve been in MLS.  

That’s not for a lack of talent, though. 

Just look at some of the names over the years, such as Sam Adekugbe, who is competing for a Turkish Super Lig title and is a mainstay on the Canadian Men’s National Team, or Kianz Froese, who has carved out a nice career in the German 3rd division. If not, how about current Leicester FC prospect, Chituru Odunze, who earned a move to the English giants before even signing a contract with the Whitecaps? 

Heck, just a look at the ‘Caps current crop of homegrowns, be it those who played in Vancouver this season, such as Michael Baldisimo and Thomas Hasal, or those who impressed on loan on or in the systems of some solid European clubs, such as Theo Bair, Simon Colyn or Damiano Pecile, should be indication enough that the talent is there. And if all that’s not enough, a peek at the roster of Pacific FC, the current champions of the Canadian Premier League, should be more than enough to really drive that point home. 

There’s a reason why MLS’s Matt Doyle even suggested earlier in 2021 that according to most experts, the Whitecaps were  “on par with (academy powerhouses) FC Dallas and the (LA) Galaxy and the (Philadelphia) Union, at that elite level,” in the last 10 years. 

Yet, despite that reputation, though, no one other than Davies and Teibert have really been able to break through to that next level. A few came close, such as Bair in 2019, or Baldisimo in 2020, but they were unable to turn those solid campaigns into much more. 

The good news, though? 

The ‘Caps are more than aware of their struggles at getting academy products on the pitch, and are looking to change that. It’s not a process that can be done overnight, but those in charge at the club are doing their best to set things up, solving a problem that has hindered the club over the years. 

And the problem is clear. The talent is there, but the opportunity isn’t always so, and it’s important that the ‘Caps change that. 

“We need more platforms for the players,” ‘Caps CEO and Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, told BTSVancity last week. 

So now, led by the likes of Schuster, and new head coach, Vanni Sartini, the ‘Caps are looking to take the next step towards providing that opportunity to their players, which they’ll hope leads to them finally becoming the team they’ve long wanted to become. 

“From the outside looking in, people told us (what) we were missing from our club,” Whitecaps co-owner, Jeff Mallett, told 86Forever’s Samuel Rowan in 2019. “(And) people told us that with the huge group of players coming through our program, we should be doing better.”

And speaking of Schuster, he is certainly talking the talk in terms of wanting the ‘Caps to finally become that team that gives opportunities to their young players. 

Famously, he even told Transferroom earlier this year that he wants the ‘Caps to become the ‘Athletic Bilbao’ of Canada, which for those who are unfamiliar with the Spanish-based club, are known for only playing players who come from the Basque region in which they play. That’s not to say that the ‘Caps will only play Britsh Columbian talent, as they have access to a lot more resources than that, but it means that they want to be a team built on the back of Canadian players from across the country, instead.

It’s a bold target, no doubt, but it’s the sort of ambitious talk that you don’t mind seeing from executives, especially considering the ‘Caps previous struggles at integrating their young players into the roster. 

And asked if he still stands behind that mission now, Schuster didn’t back down from it, either, amending that while his team might still invest in international players with his big-ticket Designated Player (DP) and ‘Young Money’ slots in that reality, he’d otherwise still want the rest of the team to be Canadian. 

“I have said that I would love to build something (like that) here,” Schuster admitted. “You cannot tomorrow be the Athletic Bilbao of Canada, it’s impossible, but I would love to some point be in a position to say that we have our 3 youth initiative players and 3 DP spots, and then other than that, we only work with domestic players. “

“And then we can go from there.”

That’s intriguing, because if there’s theoretically a team in Canada that could theoretically have the infrastructure to do that, it’d be the ‘Caps. They might not have the hotspots that teams such as Toronto FC or CF Montreal have at their disposal, such as Brampton or the outskirts of Montreal, but the ‘Caps do have the advantage of controlling every part of Canada expect a good chunk of Ontario and Quebec, giving them a unique edge over their rivals. 

They’ve started to realize that, too, setting up Academy Centres all over Canada, such as in the prairies, in Ontario and in Atlantic Canada, allowing them to flex that unique geographical advantage that they’ve been given. 

Thanks to that, they’ve got a pool of over 20 000 kids to work with, per Schuster’s estimation, which is almost unheard of in most places, where most teams academies might be lucky to crack 4 digits. 

That helps explain the amount of talent that has come through the ranks for the ‘Caps, showing that the teams’ struggles aren’t really down to the players in the system, but more so the opportunity they’ve been given, something that Schuster is looking to change. 

It poses challenges of its own, as it’s a lot easier to individually manage the growth of 1000 kids than 20 000, but at the same time, it also *should* theoretically give the ‘Caps an advantage in terms of identifying players who could one day make an impact for the club, and Schuster recognizes as much. 

“In our system, there is a number somewhere between 20 and 30 000, it’s incredible,” he admitted. “And that’s a number that no European club will ever have. In the idea of this development pyramid, we have a really big first level of that pyramid, while in Europe, it’s not a pyramid, it’s a skyscraper, because there you identify players early, and only focus on them, and then in the process of player development you find out that some of them are not making it, or some are going off-road, some are losing interest, some have challenges, so there are a lot of things that are happening.”

“So here, the question is how to oversee all of that, and how do we really get to a point where we really know about all of our players and can identify the talent in the first level in the pyramid and go from there. It’s not as if there aren’t enough kids that are connected with the sport in Canada, it’s not like there aren’t enough young kids that have the potential to be future players for Canada, we need to oversee the number of players and find the right structure to help support them and to identify the talent.”

Schuster looks on during a press conference back in 2019 (Keveren Guillou)

So seeing that, the next question is pretty straightforward: what are some steps that the ‘Caps are taking to change that? They’ve got that pool of over 20 000 kids across the country to choose from, and they’ve got the ‘proper’ academy teams in Vancouver where the top of the top-end players end up and play together once they’re ready, but what happens to those who reach that point? 

And the good news is that the ‘Caps have really started to finally put the people in place who can help create a system that allows the talented players who are in that system to come through, instead of falling through the cracks. 

Leading that charge? New head coach, and Director of Methodology, Vanni Sartini, who was recently given the keys to the car, with the car being the Whitecaps first team, which he’ll balance with his duties in the Methodology department, which is more focused on the academy.  

Before that, though, his main focus was on the latter, a role that he exclusively held for more than half a year before picking up the interim head coach job this summer, a role that he eventually made permanent. 

And while his time in the methodology role was short, he impressed the brass with what he did, doing enough to keep that title despite becoming the first team coach, which is something that you don’t always see at most clubs. 

He wanted to stay in the role, and the ‘Caps wanted to keep him there, and in the end, it led to a solution that made sense for both sides

“Yeah, it was important for me (to keep Vanni), in the end, if you have Vanni, and you decide to continue with him, then he also has to be the Director of Methodology, because it’s his background, and he worked in that role for a reason,” Schuster explained. “In the past, he was an instructor for the Italian Soccer Federation, and also for the US Soccer Federation in coaching cultures and working on the methodology side. To now add someone else (to replace him) would make no sense, because you have that capacity already in your club (with Vanni), and secondly, it could lead to conflict because if the head of methodology would think in a different direction than your head coach, that’s not beneficial for the process.”

“So we have to speed up in all process, (do) a little bit of streamlining of things, (as) it will be a little bit different because (Vanni) has less time than he before when he was 100% the Director of Methodology, but we will back him for other roles, we will assist him to help him get his thoughts implemented in the academy and to address all of the thoughts into the academy and the coaches.”

But that’s not a surprise to see. As Schuster mentioned, Sartini was always perfect for a job in the methodology role, having had experience in coaching other coaches. 

He’d always had an itch to coach himself, which is why he became a first-team assistant for 2 seasons with the ‘Caps before taking the Methodology role with the academy to help sort things out after the departure of former director, Craig Dalrymple, but he’d also relished his time working with other coaches, saying that it was something that he’d recommend to other coaches. 

So while his surprise run as interim head coach has changed things, as he helped the ‘Caps return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, he wanted to make sure that the work that he started as director of methodology didn’t go to waste, either, hence the double role. 

Going back to when he was first hired as director of methodology and coach of the U23s, it was always a role that he relished, so when he was given a chance to keep it, he jumped at it. 

“They identified me as the person who could be the head of methodology, and coach of the U23s, I took it as a huge promotion from an assistant coach of the first team, to be honest,” Sartini told BTSVancity. “Because for me, that was the path that I saw myself on, now I had this big leadership position, and maybe I can also see if I’m going to be ready to step into an even bigger role like a first-team head coach in the future.”

“So my plan was to stay in this role for a couple of years and then to try and be the head coach somewhere else or at the Whitecaps, and then after 7/8 months, I had to change positions to become head coach of the first team.”

And that’s going to be key for the ‘Caps. 

The last thing they would’ve wanted to do is to put another new face in charge of their academy after already having gone through change there recently, and while Sartini’s role won’t exactly be what we’d traditionally be used to seeing from that position, as it’s not often that you see a first-team head coach also hold that title, but that has its advantages. 

Sartini clearly has the passion for the role, and just getting a chance to talk with him about it reveals as much. 

For example, he has very strong thoughts on how an academy should be run. 

At a lot of clubs, what you’ll see is that teams will try to streamline their academy process, making vertical integration as easy as possible, which means that they’ll have all their teams, from the U13s up to the first team, all play the same way. 

And that makes a lot of sense to do, because that gives players that come up through the ranks an advantage, because they’ll know what each coach expects from them as they progress in their careers. 

But for Sartini, he’s specifically making sure that the ‘Caps don’t do that. Instead, each level has a distinct style, one moulded by whoever the head coach is, who is tasked with getting the most out of their players in the way that they deem fit. 

They still operate under the same methodology as anyone else at the ‘Caps, one that runs throughout the club, but each coach has their own autonomy to operate within that system, which is pretty unique. 

By doing that, Sartini feels that it’ll help both the coaches and the players, as the coaches will be able to learn and adjust to their surroundings, while the players will learn to be versatile and to play a variety of styles, which will prove to be useful when they make the first team, where tactics are often more flexible, and adjusted on a game-to-game basis. 

And through that sort of vision, Sartini is hoping that can make a big difference for the academy going forward, allowing them to continue to push out players who they hope can one day make a difference for the first team. 

“What we decided was to have a strong methodology, the way of working goes from the U15 to the first team, I’m using the same methodology, the way you work, how we organize the training sessions, it’s more or less the same, but to have total independence of content from each coach,” Sartini said. “I believe it’s wrong when team’s clubs have it where the U15 plays the same way as the first team, I think it’s crap, sorry for the word. I think it’s extremely wrong because I want the coaches to express themselves, and to express themselves according to the players that they have, so I actually love the fact that our U17s play different than our U16s, and so on, because it creates a variety of styles that are very beautiful to see.”

“And the players’ experience (a lot) when they change coaches, or play in a different position, or a different system. (Each team) all work the same way, they’re very tactical and very organized, according to the methodology, and as long as you’re very organized, I don’t care how you organize things, I’m happy about it.”

Sartini walks out for a game at BC Place earlier this year (Keveren Guillou)

But that just leads to the main point: what happens once those players start to reach the ages of 16 to 20, where they might be ready to play first-team soccer? 

And that’s the main problem that the team has to address. 

While the methodology might be more organized than it ever was, and the pyramid wider than ever, the ‘Caps never had a problem of getting players to the cusp of the first team. The issue was always more in what happened when they got there. 

But what’s exciting is that after years without a solution, that is finally getting set to change in 2022. 

After a hiatus, the ‘Caps will be getting a 2nd team back again, and while it might not be exactly like the first iteration of the VWFC II, also known as the ‘Thundercaps’, this could be that missing frontier that the team needs in order to finally start churning players towards the first team. 

As we’ve seen here, the main problem has always been with opportunity, not the production of talent, so while it’s great that the academy is being set up in a way that could produce more players than ever, they still lacked that opportunity. 

Now, though, with the return of a second team, who will play in MLS’s new ‘MLS Next Pro’, the U23 developmental league that will kick off next year, that’s going to change. Along with the emergence of a ‘Caps U19 team, which will play in BC League 1 next year, that’s two more opportunities for academy players to play, as a few years ago, the ‘Caps didn’t have a team at either of those 2 levels, period. 

And it might not seem like much, but make no mistake, for players between the ages of 15 and 23, it’s massive. 

Before, when a player aged out of the academy at 18, if they weren’t already in the first-team picture by then, a future at the club was pretty bleak, leaving them to have to go to university or via another route. 

Now, though, by having a U19 and U23 team, that gives them 2 more opportunities along the way, buying more time for those players, some of which might bloom later than their compatriots. 

Plus, more importantly, it’ll also give a chance for players to test themselves in tougher environments, without necessarily having to dive right into the pro game. 

That’s key, because while the fact that those teams will help those late-bloomers, that will also make a big difference for all youngsters, especially those on the cusp of breaking through. 

Take someone like current ‘Caps homegrown, Kamron Habibullah, who got a chance to play 34 minutes in MLS as an 18-year-old this year. 

He was aided by the fact that the ‘Caps still had a U23 team, even though their schedule was quite haphazard, but other than games with them, minutes were hard to come by for him in 2021.

Next year, though, he’ll have the chance to fight for first-team minutes once again, but if he struggles to do that, minutes won’t be as hard to come by this time around. 

Why? The ‘Caps will have the option to let him test himself against other U23 players who other teams feel are close to breaking through in MLS Next Pro, allowing him to play in a pro environment without having to go on loan or play directly in MLS, all while still training with the ‘Caps and remaining in their system. 

And that sort of opportunity is massive. Instead of just throwing players in at the MLS level to sink or swim, players will be able to progress through the various levels, such as at the U19 level and U23 level, before then getting their shot with the first team. 

That’s the sort of opportunity that was lacking before, but now, that’ll change, and the ‘Caps are quite happy that they’re able to be a part of this process. 

“It’s very important,” Schuster said. “I have to admit one of the wonderful (things) are the second teams, it’s very important, and I agree, players here are so disadvantaged here in North America right now, especially in Canada. There’s a lack of competition, and the most important thing to grow as a player is competition, to be on the pitch, and to get challenged every weekend.”

One big problem that the ‘Caps faced before was that while they had a lot of talented players in their system, many of them weren’t ready to play at the first-team level when thrown in, but now, with this U23 league, they’ll have more control over that development, and for Schuster, that’s a big thing. 

“So the amount of games that a young talent plays in a competitive format is so dramatically different, then we shouldn’t really be surprised that we think sometimes that our players aren’t ready,” he explained. “Because how could he be ready if he’s not getting challenged each week, if he’s not making his mistakes, and getting experience every week. Instead, it means that they’re getting their experience and making their mistakes right at the MLS level, and then very early he’s on the shelf where people say “he’s not MLS ready”.”

With that, Schuster is hoping to avoid fewer situations like that of Patrick Metcalfe, the 23-year-old ‘Caps homegrown who left the club this offseason after 361 minutes with the first team this year. 

Metcalfe is a perfect example of why the ‘Caps needed a second team, as he came through the ranks right at the tail end of when WFC II was running, and is just ageing out of the U23 level as it gets properly revived. 

Because of that, Metcalfe missed a lot of key games in his prime developmental years, as his options between the ages of 19 and 22 were to either play directly for the first team, or with the U23 team, who didn’t have a league at the time.  

To drive home how much of a difference that having a U23 team could’ve had, Schuster highlighted the example of someone at his former club, Mainz, defender Ridle Baku, who like Metcalfe happens to be 23 years of age, and is currently a German National Team defender. 

As Schuster pointed out, due to the presence of certain opportunities with Mainz, versus a lack of opportunities with the ‘Caps, Baku was able to play 66 games between the age of 19 and 21, whereas Metcalfe got to play just 12. That’s a massive difference. 

It’s not to say that if Metcalfe played 54 more games between the ages of 19 to 21, as Baku did, he’d be starting for the Canadian National Team, but it certainly would have been key for his development, potentially creating more of a direct path to the first team, of which he could still be a part of if he had those games. 

Luckily, Metcalfe will land on his feet again, as he’s a solid player, but there are a lot of players out there who aren’t so lucky, highlighting the importance of having such pathways, which is why the ‘Caps are so happy to have a second team once again. 

“It’s going to be very important for me,” Sartini said of the development. “As a coach in the short term, it’s going to be very important to me because I can really have a taste of the guys probably ready to make the step in the first team, and to also give minutes to the young players that would otherwise just train with the first team without playing.”

“For the long term, it’s going to be a key piece for the club, I think it’s going to allow the club to make much better educated decisions on young players, on who to promote to the first team, and to give a contract or not, and it’s literally given us the possibility to not make mistakes, but to reduce mistakes of missing out some players, which without a second-team, is normal, because it’s really hard when a kid is 15 or 16 to predict if he’s going to be a professional player, but it’s less hard when he’s 18 or 19.”

But then, the last step in the whole process is the most important – tying all of that together. 

And luckily, in Sartini, the ‘Caps have a guy who by his own account, is a pretty passionate coach, one who as we saw above, doesn’t mind getting stuck into the academy. 

That’s important, because while he’ll still have to find a way to get those players involved in the first team, many coaches are fine with ignoring the young talent that sits in front of them, but not Sartini. 

To be fair, though, that’s what happens when you’ve got someone who was out there less than a year ago getting stuck in as a U23 head coach, but that’s Sartini for you, and that was always going to be one of the advantages of hiring him. 

“I didn’t do anything different when I was coaching the U23s or with the first team,” Sartini admits. “I was coaching and putting the same level of passion when I was coaching the U23s, I was treating them like they were Real Madrid.”

Plus, another bonus with Sartini is that thanks to that work that he did as head coach of the U23s, as well as on the ground as Director of Methodology, he has a pretty good knowledge of the ‘Caps academy. 

He might not know all 20 000+ kids currently in the system, but as for those who are in Vancouver with the main academy system progressing towards the first team, his finger is most definitely on the pulse there, giving him an idea of who to keep an eye on going forward.  

“I know every player that we have in the academy (in Vancouver),” Sartini said confidently. “So of course, it’s something that’s been an advantage compared to anyone else, who would’ve come here, taken the first (few weeks) to see how things are done here, and then having an idea to try and influence that.”

But that’s exactly why he was hired to helm the first team. Obviously, as he showed over his time in the interim role, he’s a pretty good coach, but the ‘Caps want more than just someone who can do the Xs and Os. 

And in Sartini, they’ve got someone who can not only do those Xs and Os, but is also comfortable in putting the work with the academy, too. 

Because of that, it made him a no-brainer to get this role, and now that he’s in it, the ‘Caps are hoping that he can be the final bridge towards getting more young Canadians out on the pitch with regularity. 

Often, talented players get stuck at clubs where they just don’t play, but Sartini is hoping that he can provide that opportunity for them to fight for minutes, provided that they’ve done enough to earn it, of course. 

That’s why Schuster had no qualms in bringing him back, and is expecting him to follow through on that process going forward. 

“We thought about what we expect from our head coach for the next years, what kind of role he has to do, and part of it is to playing an important role in player development and leading that development and strategy to develop more Canadian talent, and make them ready for the first team,” Schuster said. “So it was very important that we signed somebody as a head coach that also had a good overview about the market of Canada, and to understand where our economy is right now, and where the areas where we have to grow, and the areas where we’re already doing well.”

“For those reasons, it was very beneficial to continue to work with Vanni, because he has the best insight, as he was working for the academy in an important role.”

Now, for the ‘Caps, all the pieces are in place for them to finally start living up to their reputation as a top producer of young talent. 

Not only is the infrastructure there, but the opportunity is finally starting to follow, and with Sartini helming the first team, those who are ready will finally get a shot to play. 

So while we might not see the next Davies or Teibert (or Adekugbe or Odunze) right away, if they’re out there, the hope is that they won’t fall through the cracks, instead, becoming regulars for the ‘Caps. 

It won’t be easy, but the plan is there, and the ‘Caps are looking to follow through on it.

One day, they hope to lift MLS Cup at BC Place, and while we have no idea when that could be, they’ll aim to do so with a strong Canadian contingent helping lead the way, cementing the teams’ ambitions to be the ‘Atletic Bilbao of Canada’, or at least some adapted version of that. 

The next step is going out and doing that, but now that the infrastructure is in place, it’s a good start, and from there, they’ll hope that the rest will line up and progress accordingly, something that they feel their latest moves can help them do. 

“Our club wants to first and foremost be a Canadian club,” Schuster boldly stated. “A club that plays with more Canadian players, and gives more Canadian minutes to Canadian players than any other club, that’s the bar we put.”

“At the same time, we want to be successful, so you have to balance that, it doesn’t help to play Canadian talent if they’re not ready, if you play Canadian kids and they lose every game, then I don’t believe that the development really worked, so for development has been for me making players ready to compete in the highest level, and to now just throw them in and see if they can swim.”

“For that reason, we need the right set-up.”

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