Niendorf squad heads to Japan - The Province

Whitecaps' residency players will gain from experience Marc Weber The Vancouver Whitecaps' rising sons are off to the Land of the Rising Sun. Thomas Niendorf's residency squad departs Thursday for Japan where they will play five games and also take in a J-League First Division tilt. It's the latest tour for Niendorf's group, whose previous trips to Germany landed three players -- Adam Straith, Kyle Porter and Greg Smith -- with FC Energie Cottbus's under-19 Bundesliga side. Niendorf said this tour was more about gaining high-level experience than auditioning -- foreign players in Japan are primarily Brazilian or Korean -- but that his boys were always showcasing themselves. "It's going to be a very competitive and high-profile situation," said the well-connected residency director and head coach. "It will be interesting for our players to see professional soccer in Japan and you never know what can come out of something like this." Residency players sign three-year contracts with the Whitecaps, whose aim is to develop them into professionals and national team members. The Whitecaps can make money through transfer fees down the road. The Japan trip came about in serendipitous fashion. Niendorf bumped into an old friend with J-League connections, Jan Scheznia, at a soccer conference in the summer. He convinced Scheznia to visit Vancouver and check out the program, and things developed from there. Scheznia has set up a highly competitive schedule with three games against first division junior clubs, including Gamba Osaka, whose senior team won the Asian Champions League. "We have good potential in our program," said Niendorf. "When he [Schenznia] saw us, he was very impressed, and said a trip like this would be justified." One of those players with potential is 17-year-old midfielder Ethan Gage, who was called up to the Whitecaps big club this past season and even started the USL-1 championship game. "I'm not looking forward to the flying part," Gage said of the Japan trip, "but going there and playing new teams and seeing new places, it's a great opportunity and it's going to be fun." In the week of the USL title tilt Gage spoke ambitiously about catching on in Europe this coming season, but he'll be back with the Whitecaps. "Thomas and I talked about it and made a decision on me staying," said Gage, who was passed over by Tony Fonseca for the most recent under-20 national team camp, but could yet be in the mix as the team moves toward next fall's FIFA U-20 World Cup. "If I went over to Europe right now I'd be struggling in some areas -- long balls and shooting. I need to work on my quickness, too, and I'm excited to be playing with the [Whitecaps] men." mweber@theprovince.com