BURNABY, British Columbia – The 2010 MLS season showed an encouraging emergence of homegrown players who have validated a growing emphasis on player development. On Wednesday, the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps FC unveiled the man who will lead their development program.
The club announced that former Sparta Rotterdam technical director Richard Grootscholten will become the new technical director and head coach of its full-time Residency program.
“The main thing is the ambition of the club, and it’s a real ambition, it’s not a thought or a dream or something,” Grootscholten said. “When you want to grow as a club, not only one year, two years, but 20 years, you have to have players of your own.”
Grootscholten has a proven track record developing players in the Netherlands. With his guidance the last five years, Sparta became known for their ability to develop young players, despite a limited budget. The 45-year-old Dutchman steered 17 players from the youth program onto the club’s first team, six of whom went on to play for the U-21 Dutch national team.
“When you want to have success, you have to develop also the person,” Grootscholten said. “The way they learn, the way they act, the way they go on with injuries. When you put the money in the development system, it’s in your own hands, you can be sure about some players, and you can know for sure when you let them go to MLS that it will be right.”
The hiring of Grootscholten is the latest step in molding the Whitecaps’ development structure as they prepare for their maiden MLS season. Last week it was announced that former team captain Martin Nash would move to a coaching role with the club’s youth program.
“I’m glad that he will join us,” Grootscholten said. “I think it’s good when good players from the club with good standard and good experience are there to tell the kids what it is to be a pro.”
The Whitecaps’ full-time Residency program incorporates housing, schooling and other support services, but what distinguishes it most from other academies is the fact that it signs all their players to full professional contracts. Over the last couple of years, 10 Residency players have gone on to play for the Whitecaps’ first team.
"One thing that's so impressive about this organization is their commitment not just to their first team, but to developing players," MLS president Mark Abbott said of the Whitecaps on a visit to Vancouver in March.
MLS as a whole has made significant strides in player development, with the “Homegrown Initiative” that allows teams to sign two additional players to the roster who were identified and developed through the club’s academy program.
"For us to improve, the overall quality of play and be competitive in this global sport, we had to get serious about player development,'' MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin told reporters last month.
In its short existence, the MLS homegrown program has already seen 17 players signed to professional contracts. The shining example this season was D.C. United’s Andy Najar, who was named 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year — the first ever academy product to win the award.
The Whitecaps hope that Grootscholten will be able to parlay his coaching pedigree into similar success with MLS player development.
“If we have one or two players every year that can play in the first eleven, that would be great,” Grootscholten said. “You have to have players of your own. Only then can you grow to be a real club.”