Stejskal: Inside the Whitecaps' ambitious, Canada-wide academy program

Vancouver Whitecaps Academy players

Late last week, as the club’s first team was kicking off their match at the Houston Dynamo, the Vancouver Whitecaps welcomed more than 450 of Canada’s top youth players to British Columbia for their academy center combine.

One of the more unique development initiatives in MLS, the combine (pictured above) brings the best players from the Whitecaps’ nationwide system of academy centers together to show their stuff in front of the team’s main academy staff. The event is an annual culmination of sorts for the club’s youth development system, which has become the widest-ranging such setup in all of MLS.

A growing number of MLS clubs have begun recruiting players to their academies from outside their geographic territory in recent years, but Vancouver have gone several steps further. The Whitecaps don’t merely recruit players from different parts of Canada, they’re rooted across the country. Over the past seven years, the club has established 22 academy centers in eight of Canada’s 10 provinces. The centers begin training boys and girls part-time as young as age 8 and work with their specific provincial soccer association to develop full-time teams for 13- and 14-year-olds. Players from those teams end up at the academy center combine. The best then receive invites to move to Vancouver to join the full Whitecaps academy, where they can better work toward pro careers.

“The long-term goal here for us as a club is to continue to help produce players by design,” Whitecaps academy center director and head coach Marinos Papageorgeopolous told earlier this week. “We don’t just want them to affect our club, we want them to affect the national team programs and affect the communities.”

The academy center strategy was borne out of a couple of structural challenges: Market size and home nation. Vancouver is the fifth-smallest metropolitan area in MLS. As such, the club has a shallower pool of local talent to pull into their academy. In order to hang with the league’s big boys, the ‘Caps have to look beyond Vancouver for youth players. That problem isn’t specific to them – Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and several others deal with the same issue. But Canadian law largely bars the ‘Caps from recruiting American players to their academy. Instead of looking for hidden gems in a country of 325 million like Kansas City or Salt Lake can, they’re searching in a nation with a population that’s just twice the size of the New York metro area.

In order to overcome those barriers, Vancouver knew they had to do something different. Their massive Homegrown territory – which covers all of Canada except Quebec, New Brunswick and the area within a 50-mile radius of Toronto FC’s headquarters – could level the playing field a bit, but only if the ‘Caps actually capitalized on it.

Enter the academy centers. Vancouver started building the centers in 2011, creating them in further afield regions in British Columbia, all across Alberta and several sites in Saskatchewan. The club formed partnerships with provincial soccer associations at every stop, staffing a coach in each center and beginning to build out the infrastructure needed to build full-time teams. They eventually made it all the way to the Atlantic coast, where they founded academy centers in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, all several thousand miles from Vancouver.

The centers serve several purposes. First is talent identification. By putting boots on the ground and working with already established provincial associations across the country, the ‘Caps can more easily find the best players in each region. They can get those players into their development pathway and, if they merit a spot, eventually invite them to the full academy in Vancouver. The longer-term play is to raise the overall level of soccer in Canada. The ‘Caps might not get a player out of a specific center for the first 10 years of its existence, but, through regular coaching education programs at the local level, better training sessions in underserved areas and close integration with the main academy, the club thinks they’ll help raise the standard. Ten years down the road, that higher level of competition should breed more talented players who could theoretically move to the main academy, the first team and perhaps the Canadian national team.

Stejskal: Inside the Whitecaps' ambitious, Canada-wide academy program -

Ricky King now leads the 'Caps U-19s after managing their Alberta academy | Bob Frid / Vancouver Whitecaps

“For me, the goals of the academy center are to run high-performance programming to make sure that we’re giving opportunities to players from areas of the country that aren’t attached to an MLS club and bringing those players here, then also helping to grow the game itself in Canada,” said Whitecaps U-19 academy head coach Ricky King, who spent a year managing the club’s Alberta academy center before moving to Vancouver to take over the U-19s in September. “That’s probably equally important. It’s not just about the players now. It’s those players in five, six, seven years that could be the high-performance players, too.”

According to Papageorgeopolous, the first five or so years of the academy center program were largely devoted to building out infrastructure. Setting up shop at each site, making hires and partnering with provincial associations took time. The club now feels that most of that work is out of the way. Now, the ‘Caps are focused on enhancing each program and getting more players from these smaller regions into the academy and first team. If they knock it out of the park, they might just find and develop the next Alphonso Davies, who Vancouver sold to Bayern Munich for an MLS record fee in January, at an academy center in Northern B.C., Manitoba or tiny Prince Edward Island.

“It’s really important that we start to see more players come in and make that transition from the academy centers to the academy and then into the first team,” said King, who, while working for the New York Red Bulls in 2011, helped identify a 12-year-old Tyler Adams at one of the club’s summer camps. “Obviously the one player for Canada and the Whitecaps that everybody knows is Alphonso Davies. He was an Edmonton-based player, and even though he didn’t come from the academy center network but from our scouting network, he kind of shows the importance of making sure that we do have these types of programs in place and that they are successful.”

They’ve already made some significant progress. The club announced on March 7 that they signed 17-year-old goalkeeper Thomas Hasal to a Homegrown contract. A native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Hasal is the first player from a regional academy center to sign an MLS deal with Vancouver. With Papageorgeopolous sharing that “about 30 percent” of the players in the club’s full-time academy are from academy centers across the country, he surely won’t be the last.