There’s a new professional soccer team coming to Metro Vancouver in 2022.
On Monday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC confirmed they will join 20 other clubs across Canada and the United States in the new MLS NEXT Pro. The North American league takes its place at the top of the development pyramid and completes the pathway from MLS NEXT to MLS first teams.
The league, which kicks off its inaugural season this March, offers young players the chance to showcase and develop themselves week in and week out in their quest to claim the MLS NEXT Pro championship.
For the ‘Caps, the league is a game changer for the club's top youth prospects.
“For the whole club, it is very big and it’s something we were looking for since I arrived at the club in November 2019,” explained Axel Schuster, Whitecaps FC CEO and sporting director.
“Player development cannot go without competition, without having meaningful minutes in a competition, without getting challenged. I’m really excited going into 2022, we now have all the platforms and are in a position to provide more possibilities and opportunities for players.”
In addition to MLS NEXT Pro, the development pathway includes U-15 and U-17 competing in MLS NEXT and the U-19 team playing in the new League 1 BC, as well as pre-academy and U-16 teams competing locally.
“It’s something that is going to create a natural, sustainable path and it will help the team, not only this year but the club in the future to better identify which players should get chances with the first team,” added Vanni Sartini, Whitecaps FC first team head coach.
As it’s been well documented over the course of football history, there’s been plenty of players who began their careers in high-level youth leagues for their hometown teams and have gone on to have illustrious careers.
An example Schuster points out is Germany’s World Cup-winning starting 11 from the final in 2014, where every player starting the match previously spent time in lower tier leagues at the beginning of their careers.
Players such as Mats Hummels, Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, and Bastian Schweinsteiger all played more than 30 games in development leagues.
“Those players have played in a similar player development platform, in a fourth or fifth league in Germany. If playing in a development league was so important for those players, who have been the best players in the world, you can imagine how important it is for a player that doesn’t have those skills,” explained Schuster.
A big part of the development for players in MLS NEXT Pro will be playing in under pressure situations, in meaningful games, as they attempt to win the MLS NEXT Pro Championship, rather than just be invited to train with the first team and not get valuable experience or minutes on the weekend during an MLS regular season match.
MLS NEXT Pro will give those players a chance to play in a professional environment, while also allowing the players to pursue those opportunities of training with the first team and possibly earn themselves an MLS contract if they show their qualities.
“It’s critical because you can train a lot, you can be the best training player and you can do every exercise perfectly, but the game becomes much more complicated with the fact that there’s an opponent on the pitch. The pressure that comes from games with also having the responsibility for a result, being 1-0 up and the opponent pushing for an equalizer. This is something you cannot train,” said Schuster.
“The competitiveness is very important, we need to compete for something because if you compete for something you’re going to enter into the mindset of a professional player,” added Sartini.
For the club, Schuster notes the importance of how much the league will help the ‘Caps in becoming one of the top producers of Canadian football talent in the country ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
“We all have the vision and it’s also part of our identity to be the club that develops Canadian talent. I think our time is now, the next five years is the perfect opportunity in this country to create excitement, to create a basis to become a soccer nation. We want to be the organization that has a clear pathway and offers a lot of options for young players to get connected with the game and to train on a very good level.”
Being the only Canadian team to have academy centres all over the country, with the Whitecaps FC BMO Academy System from the west coast to the east coast, the ‘Caps have already taken plenty of steps forward to foster a natural pipeline of talent for the first team. To date, the club has signed 24 academy products to MLS Homegrown contracts and over 80 academy graduates have signed professional contracts domestically and abroad.
The addition of MLS NEXT Pro will only boost that number even further and provide the meaningful minutes players need to compete at the highest level possible.
“For me, it’s the top of our development pyramid so as I said I think it’s very, very exciting to have this team. We have a very good vision of how the team will look and who can play on the team, it’ll be interesting to see how those guys do in the competition.”
Details on the side including team name, home stadium, coaching staff, roster and much more will be announced in the coming weeks.