Soccer 101: school's in - Vancouver Sun

Elliott Pap

Two new programs in Delta are designed to allow young elite players to concentrate on the sport they love while staying at home

In their endless quest for more beauty in the beautiful game, the Vancouver Whitecaps are rolling out two new programs to attract elite teenage players in the Lower Mainland.

The Whitecaps' Delta Prospects Academy and Delta School Academy are both set to begin in September, further enhancing the club's reach into grassroots soccer.

The aim, of course, is to gather promising players under one schoolhouse roof so they can train together and grow on a daily basis. The Whitecaps already have a residency program in Burnaby for their brightest prospects and the Delta academies will add another layer below.

It's all part of the grand plan to make the Whitecaps a better soccer team and Canada a better soccer nation. (We were 62nd in FIFA's May 8th rankings.)

"Will these programs help Canada internationally someday?" said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "To answer your question, it's an emphatic 'yes!'

"If I go back to when I was coaching the national team, one of the things I said - well, I didn't say it at the time because it would have sounded like sour grapes so I waited a year - anyway, I said it won't matter who comes in to coach the team, the bottom line is that coach will be, or won't be, the benefactor of what the system is doing.

"You could bring in the best coach in the world but he'll still have at his disposal what the system is producing," Lenarduzzi continued. "The Canadian Soccer Association has tried to do its best but, really, it's the advent of the pro clubs. So we're doing it and Montreal and Toronto FC intend to do it, too."

The Delta Prospects Academy will run out of North Delta Secondary, where 22 hand-picked Grade 11 and 12 boys will commute to class, become a team, and train daily during school hours under Whitecaps coach Bart Choufour.

The School Academy for Grade 8-10 boys, headquartered at Delview Secondary, will be less restrictive and open to any student wishing to hone his soccer skills.

Identical programs for girls will commence in September 2009.

"We feel these programs eliminate one of the big problems right now in youth development with players being pulled in a lot of different directions," said Dan Lenarduzzi, Bob's younger brother and the Whitecaps' director of youth development. "Instead of going to 20 different sessions a week with different clubs, they'll be with one club and going to school together."

Delta's School Board was more than happy to accommodate the Whitecaps. The board is already home to a hockey academy based at South Delta Secondary and it also works closely with major junior hockey's Vancouver Giants, whose high-school aged players attend classes at South Delta high.

It was an easy fit, said long-time Delta school trustee Dale Saip.

"The district has very successfully run our hockey academy for four years so we have a bit of a model," said Saip, the Giants' vice-president of business development in his day job. "We also have the model of Milan Lucic and Gilbert Brule [ex-Giants] and others having very successful academic situations here.

"So, as a school district, we have a lot of experience handling elite athletes. We have the experience and wherewithal to make this work for the Whitecaps. We told Bob Lenarduzzi: 'We want your guys in our schools.'

"We are thrilled to have them step up."

. . .

Two years ago, four Lower Mainland players left their families, friends and high schools to pursue soccer opportunities in the Netherlands.

Marcus Haber, Brandon Bonifacio, Robbie Giezen and Michael Nonni were looking to further their development while attending school abroad, both a practical and romantic endeavour.

They were already members of the elite Vancouver Selects under-16 team so there was little more for them in the Lower Mainland.

The Whitecaps, through their residency program and the two new academies, are hoping to grab a piece of this action. They aren't naive enough to think players will choose them over a European experience, but they at least hope to be in the running.

"One of the reason for developing our residency program is to kind of stop that," said Dan Lenarduzzi, referring to the overseas exodus. "We feel that Europe is still an option, and a very viable option, but we feel our programs will prepare them better if they are going to go."

Bob Lenarduzzi can relate to that. He left home at age 14 and headed to England to hone his skills. While it worked for him and he had a wonderful playing career, it's not for everybody.

"It was hard going over there at 14; it's a different culture," he said. "If something like this had been taking place here, I wouldn't have gone. I would think the ability to stay in your own backyard would be quite appealing to parents, although it might not be to the kid who will be thinking bigger things and be lured by Europe."

Lenarduzzi distinctly remembers talking to Marcus Haber, who played for Canada at last summer's U-20 World Cup, about his options. With the Whitecap school programs still on the drawing board, the club had nothing to offer the Habers.

"Marcus is a great example," Lenarduzzi said, "His family was very interested, but we just couldn't offer them something concrete. Now we can get in the game and recruit and provide something to the parents and the kids. Hopefully, it's something they'll look at and say 'yeah, why are we going to Europe?'"

Haber, 19, was just released by Dutch club Groningen after completing his junior eligibility and is looking to catch on with an English side in the fall. Now back home in Vancouver, Haber has no regrets about going overseas but agreed it would have been nice to have had other options.

"I definitely would have looked at the Whitecaps programs if they were available," said Haber, a defender. "I probably would have still gone to Europe regardless but maybe, for someone who couldn't get to Europe, this would be the best way to go. It's a more positive situation now.

"When I was here, I didn't really feel like I was challenging myself," he added. "So I was forced to go, I thought, to make myself better."

. . .

The Whitecaps aren't gambling on their Prospects Academy. They canvassed players and their families about their willingness to commute each day to North Delta and found no shortage of takers.

As of this week, Bart Choufour had a roster of 22 committed for the Grade 11-12 program in North Delta. They're coming from Maple Ridge, Langley, Surrey, Burnaby, New Westminster, Vancouver, West Vancouver and North Vancouver.

"I'm thinking it's too good of an opportunity to give up, I guess," said centre back Rhys Volkenant, who will be leaving Fraser Valley Christian High and making the modest drive in from Surrey. "It looks really good for development and that it will make you a lot better. It will be like it is in Europe, where they train every day and stuff."

Striker Ian Clark plans to car pool from North Van each day with his neighbour Riley Newport, a midfielder. It will probably take an hour each way, give or take the odd bridge problem.

"Yeah, I'm ready for the commute," chuckled Clark, a member of the junior Whitecaps team since he was 15. "The program is so attractive because it's the best players and I'll be training with them every single day."

Choufour intends to practise the Prospect Academy players six times a week, four sessions during school hours and another two after school. He also has an ambitious schedule lined up of some 50-odd games, some in an under-21 league and others against local colleges and universities.

"It's a big step for these players, especially the ones at North Delta," Choufour concluded. "They are very excited about it and I think they see it as a great opportunity."