Whitecaps FC Residency team in action
Bob Frid

Whitecaps FC Residency's USL Premier Development League season kicks off on Sunday

This weekend marks the start of the United Soccer Leagues (USL) Premier Development League (PDL) season for Vancouver Whitecaps FC Residency, as they take on Kitsap Pumas this coming Sunday on Bell Pitch at Empire Field. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. PT.

Currently the top level of men’s amateur soccer in North America, the PDL is based in the United States, Canada, and Bermuda. It currently consists of 64 teams competing in four conferences, split into nine regional divisions. Unofficially, it is the considered to be the fourth tier behind Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League, and the USL Professional Division. Whitecaps FC are in the Northwest Division of the PDL's Western Conference.

While not strictly a "professional" league in the sense that the majority of players do not receive payment, the PDL prides itself on its professionalism in terms of its organization and the way the league is run. The PDL is dedicated to developing young soccer players, and preparing them for future careers in professional leagues in North America and elsewhere. As PDL seasons take place during the summer months, the player pool is drawn mainly from elite National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) college soccer players seeking to continue playing high level soccer during their summer break, which they can do while still maintaining their college eligibility.

However, in recent years, teams such as Laredo Heat, New Orleans Jesters, our own Whitecaps FC Residency and division rivals Kitsap Pumas have been embracing at least partial professionalism through a new program called PDL-Pro, whereby teams can choose to employ players who are paid for their performances, but who still meet the age eligibility criteria. This does not contravene NCAA rules, which state that college players cannot play alongside professionals, but may play against them. What this also means, however, is that PDL-Pro teams cannot have any active NCAA players on their rosters, but may employ National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) players, community college players, ex-NCAA players who have already graduated, or other local players who do not play college soccer at all.

In addition, PDL squads often also include standout high school and junior club players, as well as former professionals seeking to continue competing at a high level, often having been forced to retire from top flight competition due to age or injury. PDL rules dictate that a maximum of eight players on each team's 26-man roster can be over 23 years of age, while at least three players on each team's roster must be 18 or younger.

Increasingly, the PDL is seen as a 'shop window' for professional clubs looking to discover and identify aspiring professional players who may enter the MLS SuperDraft in future years. Many of the players currently playing in Major League Soccer and elsewhere began their careers in the PDL.

For example, current Whitecaps FC MLS players Jay Demerit (Chicago Fire Premier), Greg Janicki (Michigan Bucks), and Shea Salinas (Carolina Dynamo) have honed their skills in PDL before embarking on a professional career in soccer. German international and World cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann played for Orange County Blue Star in 2003.

Last summer, I coached Ottawa Fury in the Northeast Division of the PDL's Eastern Conference. It was a fantastic experience, and the team was one game away from reaching the playoff semifinals. The season was a lot of fun, and I was pleasantly surprised by the talented players on my squad and throughout the league as a whole.

Whitecaps FC Residency team is coming off a difficult 4W-3L-9D season, where their youth and lack of experience was exposed in several matches. However, they continued to grow and learn, and were much more competitive near the end of the season. What’s most important for these players is to continue improving and learning to make the jump to the club’s MLS roster and beyond.

“I am looking forward to PDL games, as they truly demonstrate how the players are progressing and how they read and manage the game,” said Whitecaps FC Residency head coach Richard Grootscholten.

All in all, it looks to be an exciting PDL season, as the young 'Caps will entertain teams like last year’s PDL champions Portland Timbers U-23's, who in 2010, became first team in league history to win every game. There will be plenty of talent to watch each game, as the players look to impress and strive to reach their goal to become professional soccer players.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC Residency kick off their 2011 PDL campaign this Sunday, May 1, at 4 p.m. PT on Bell Pitch at Empire Field, as they face Northwest Division rivals Kitsap Pumas. Admission is free with seating for the match located in Section 225. Parking will also be free in Lot 16, accessible through the South Gate off of Hastings Street in Vancouver, BC.