NEW WESTMINSTER, B.C. – Vancouver Whitecaps made big inroads into their future player development on Tuesday with the announcement of the signing of a memorandum of understanding, marking their intent to work towards the launch of a USL PRO franchise in the nearby community of New Westminster in time for the 2015 season.
The final consultation process still needs to take place between the city and their residents, but Whitecaps' President Bob Lenarduzzi described the early feedback as "very positive" and the launch of their own USL PRO club is being seen as the crucial missing link between the Whitecaps' successful Residency program and the full MLS side.
"We have said right from the outset of joining MLS, and even prior to it, we want to be a club that develops players," Lenarduzzi told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.
"Up to now, we've been missing that one piece of the puzzle and it's a very important piece. For us, if we want to continue to be a club that develops players, this is a piece to the puzzle that we have to have."
The Whitecaps have worked with their USL PRO affiliate Charleston Battery the past two seasons but having an affiliate on the other side of the continent has not always been ideal and implementing the Whitecaps' playing philosophy on an already established club can present challenges.
Lenarduzzi described having the Whitecaps' own USL PRO team just 12 miles away from their current MLS home at BC Place as "very advantageous."
"It's something we've been contemplating for a considerable amount of time," Lenarduzzi said. "We've invested a lot of money into our youth development program. What we've been finding, and what's been the case for a number of years now, is there's been a gap from the time that players graduate from Residency at the age of 18 and being able to play in our senior team.
"Between 18 and 23, the playing options for those players, not just in British Columbia, but across the country and in fact across Canada and the United States, there's a real void there. In most soccer playing countries that age of player is getting good competition. So the idea of being to have a USL franchise that will be able to be a place for those players that graduate from our Residency program to strive forward is very, very exciting."
One factor which isn't expected to be an issue for the Whitecaps is the Canadian Soccer Association's (CSA) decision not to sanction any new Division 3 level clubs in Canada. That is the division that USL PRO is currently classed, but existing MLS clubs could be exempt from that particular decision.
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With a number of MLS clubs thought to be keen to launch their own USL PRO clubs, following in the footsteps of the LA Galaxy's team, LA Galaxy II, this year, the decision to look south rather than across Canada makes much more sense to the Whitecaps.
"I think the CSA understand than the idea of something within Canada at that level is probably a long way away but it's still something that we can aspire to," Lenarduzzi said. "We're in consultation with them. We know what's required of us to actually have this become a reality and we'll work together with them.
"In the meantime, for us in particular. If you look at Seattle and Portland, having an opportunity to play against them at a lower level is something that just continues to build the Cascadia rivalry."