The strides Vancouver Whitecaps FC have made in just their second season as a Major League Soccer club are nothing short of incredible. And while the first team’s exciting first half of the season has garnered most of the attention, the club’s residency program has been equally, if not more, impressive.
Though the Whitecaps residency program has been around since 2007, it is coming off a major restructuring that has already resulted in a number of successes.
After years of competing solely in the three-month United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (PDL) combined with international tournaments and exhibition matches, the U-18 ‘Caps entered the United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) in the fall of 2011 — as did the U-16 side in their first year within the club.
Whitecaps FC also expanded the residency program to include a pre-Academy group, which features U-13 to U-15-aged players separated into two squads — a testament to the club’s focus on growth and development.
“That took a lot of work, a lot of scouting, and a lot of planning,” Whitecaps FC Residency head coach Craig Dalrymple told whitecapsfc.com. “I think it’s safe to say that everyone who has been involved with that process is very pleased with the outcome.”
Being the first Canadian member of America’s top youth academy system is an accomplishment in itself, but that did not stop the ‘Caps from making an impact on the league.
The U-18 and U-16 ‘Caps both captured the Northwest Division titles in their respective age groups, earning a berth in the USSDA round of 32 last month in Frisco, Texas.
Despite going undefeated in group play, the U-16s fell just short of advancing to Academy Finals Week on goal differential. The U-18s, meanwhile, not only advanced to the Final 8, but made it all the way to the championship final this past weekend in Houston, Texas, coming within one goal of capturing the illustrious USSDA title.
Midfielder Ben Fisk, who netted a remarkable seven goals over the four Academy Finals Week matches, was recently recognized by MLSsoccer.com as one of five standouts from the tournament.
“We always want to improve our product; we’re never complacent,” Dalrymple said. “We want to better and we want to raise our standards, and we’ve done that.”
Although the USSDA season spans nearly a full calendar year, residency players are still given opportunities to train and compete in the first team development environment, which includes both MLS Reserve League and PDL games.
“That’s proven to be a key piece to our development strategy,” Dalrymple said.
Already, the program has graduated striker Caleb Clarke and midfielder Bryce Alderson to the first team. Both players were named to U-18 USSDA West Conference all-star team this season.
Others, such as standout goalkeeper Callum Irving, who turned in a spectacular performance in the USSDA final, midfielder Ben McKendry, who scored in each of Vancouver’s round of 32 fixtures, as well as starting centreback Daniel Stanese, are all off to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I.
It is sometimes easy to forget that players like Irving, McKendry, and Stanese are only 18/19-years-old, while most players who join MLS from avenues like the MLS SuperDraft are in their early 20s. For example, rookie striker Darren Mattocks, who spent two years at the University of Akron before joining MLS and making an immediate impact with the Whitecaps, is turning 22 in September.
Opting for the college route, whether that means heading down south or competing in the CIS, provides players more time to continue their development while staying in the Whitecaps system and training with the squad, before potentially making the jump to MLS down the road.
“The club has invested in their time, and I think there’s value in that investment,” Whitecaps FC head of player management and advancement Stuart Neely told whitecapsfc.com. “It might not be right now, but by the time they finish the NCAA, first team staff might throw them back in.”
There’s still room for improvement, according to Neely, and there always is. But the fruits of the club’s efforts were on full display this season, and by all accounts, things are only going to get better.