VANCOUVER, BC – Bob Lenarduzzi remembers the meeting as if it was yesterday.
When Vancouver Whitecaps FC majority owner Greg Kerfoot first expressed an interest in purchasing the club back in 2002, he asked Lenarduzzi where the team was training at the time.
The answer was Clinton Park.
It’s a nice little field in East Vancouver, but not exactly ideal for a professional soccer team. The ‘Caps, for example, would have to work around the other user groups to get training time. There were two fields at Clinton Park – one for rugby and one soccer field that was converted to baseball in the summer. For that reason, the ‘Caps actually trained on the rugby field most of the time.
“He looked a little surprised,” Lenarduzzi said. “I think the discussion revolved around: ‘Well, that’s a local park.’ And ironically enough, it’s a local park where I played my youth soccer. I remember him saying at the time, we’ll need to get our own facility.”
That’s something the club has never had.
Since 1974, Vancouver’s inaugural season in the old North American Soccer League, they have trained at a number of different facilities throughout Metro Vancouver, including Empire Stadium, Norwegian Seamen’s Centre, BCIT, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby Lake, Swangard Stadium, and Musqueam Field.
They even trained at Templeton Secondary School at one point.
“I’ve been involved with this club from the outset," Lenarduzzi said, "and we’ve never really had a training facility to call home."
Today, the ‘Caps move into the new Whitecaps FC National Soccer Development Centre (NSDC) at the University of British Columbia – a massive next step in the evolution of the club.
“To me, this is one of the biggest days in the over 40-year history of the club,” said Whitecaps FC chief operating officer Rachel Lewis. “Now our Whitecaps FC kids, in programs across the country, have a place they can aspire to one day call their home."
The NSDC features a state-of-the-art 38,000+ square-foot fieldhouse that will house the first team, WFC2, and the club’s U-18, U-16, U-15 and U-14 Residency teams. In total, approximately 200 players, coaches, and staff will be based out of the building.
As part of the NSDC, there are also five new, refurbished, or improved fields that are directly connected to or neighbouring the fieldhouse at UBC – three grass and two artificial turf – as well as two turf fields at Simon Fraser University that are home to the club’s Girls Elite REX program, which is in partnerships with SFU, BC Soccer, and Canada Soccer.
“The training facility is essentially the players’ office,” said Whitecaps FC vice president of soccer operations Greg Anderson. “It’s where they come to work every day. So to have a functional place where they have all the different elements they need and a beautiful setting, with beautiful fields, can only help in the development and performance of the players.”
The club had discussions with a number of different municipalities regarding housing the NSDC, including Delta, Burnaby, and Surrey, even signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Corporation of Delta in 2010 regarding a training centre at John Oliver Park.
Ultimately, the deal fell through, which opened the door for UBC.
In September 2012, Whitecaps FC announced a joint partnership with UBC and the government of British Columbia to construct the world-class development centre at UBC’s Thunderbird Park, with financial contributions from the provincial government and Whitecaps FC, and UBC providing the land. As part of that agreement, UBC’s Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre has been serving as Vancouver’s temporary training centre.
“Ironically enough, we may be at the best place possible,” Lenarduzzi said. “We’re on a campus that’s robust. When you think about UBC, when you think about their facilities, you can make your way down the walkway from our current temporary facility, which is the ice rink, tennis is right across from us, rugby is next, field hockey is next to that, and baseball is down a little further closer to our new fieldhouse. And of course they’ve got War Memorial.
“It's a great environment to be in and once people are able to experience the training centre they’ll see that it’s a fantastic facility with everything we need.”
Indeed, it is.
The three-storey building has a number of exciting new features, including a two-storey weight room with glass windows on one end and a fully-mirrored wall on the other, creating a stunning panoramic view of the new grass fields and surrounding mountains.
“The gym is really the jewel and centrepiece of the whole facility,” Anderson said.
Other features include a specific entrance and workspace for media, media conference room, players’ lounge, dining hall and kitchen with individualized nutritional options for each player, hydrotherapy-equipped sports science wing, and much more. The fieldhouse is also working towards being LEED Gold certified, meaning it is a high-performing green building when it comes to sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy efficiency, material selection, and indoor environment quality.
One of the most notable features in the eyes of many within the club, however, is the layout of the locker rooms. On one side of the building you’ll find the first team locker room. On the opposite side you’ll find WFC2 and the Residency teams.
That is no coincidence.
“As you work your way up, every locker room is nicer than the previous one,” Anderson said. “There is also a separate entrance for the first team. The kids in the Residency program will walk past the first team training fields every day without being able to train on them until they get to that level. These are the types of things we hope can create a drive in our young players.”
“The Residency players can see what’s available to them if in fact they make their way up the ladder and make it to the next level, and the level beyond that, and eventually to the first team,” added Lenarduzzi. “I think it’s motivating for the players to see what could be if they put in the work.”
Part of the inspiration for this came from a trip Anderson and Lewis made to the UK in 2012, where they visited the training facilities of English Premier League clubs Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC, and Tottenham Hotspur FC as well as the English Football Association’s St. George’s Park Football Centre.
They particularly enjoyed Arsenal’s facility, Lewis said, because it was “steeped in history and tradition” and also because it created that “aspirational feel” for the academy players.
“Even in their dining hall, there was sort of an invisible line where the first team would sit at the far end and the younger players would sit near the entrance,” Lewis said. “It was just an understood rule. That speaks to the kind of traditions we’d like to build in our facility.”
Currently, WFC2 and the club’s Residency teams and staff are based at Burnaby 8-Rinks.
They will be making the move to the NSDC over the summer, with the Residency players set to attend University Hill Secondary. 8-Rinks and Burnaby Central Secondary “served as a great home,” said Residency technical director Craig Dalrymple, but moving to the NSDC will be a game-changer.
“Rubbing shoulders with the pros is important,” Dalrymple said. “Having our own facilities that we can control in terms of timing, equipment, and space is vital for us. At 8-Rinks, we’re still renting fields, renting space and getting kicked off when there are school tournaments. That goes away. And when you drive up, the players will feel like they’re walking into a second home, which is important.”
Also important is the fact that Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson and his staff will now have more opportunities to watch the club’s young prospects up close and personal as opposed to relying on video footage and reports. It’s valuable for Robinson – and for the players, too.
“I have to always remind the boys that these reports go back to Robbo,” Dalrymple said. “I say if you aren’t performing, he’s going to find out. Well now, there he is standing on the balcony.”
There’s a reason “development” is in the name of the building. It’s not just a place to train.
From the very beginning, even before they joined Major League Soccer in 2011, the ‘Caps have prided themselves on youth development. It’s part of the DNA of the club. That is illustrated through the club’s vast Academy Centre network – there are 23 different Whitecaps FC Academy Centres set up in eight of 10 provinces across the country.
And now, it is illustrated through the NSDC.
“I just think this is a historic day for the club and one that we’ll look back on for many years to come and say this was a key piece in completing the puzzle for our infrastructure, our club culture and our pyramid of play,” Lewis said.
And it all started with that one meeting back in 2002.
It’s been a long process, but as Lenarduzzi said, “it will be worth the wait.”