Axel Schuster says no "magical" solution for Vancouver Whitecaps academy

VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps’ new sporting sirector, 46-year-old German Axel Schuster, brings more than two decades of player development experience from the Bundesliga's FSV Mainz 05 and FC Schalke 04, during which he rose through the German technical ranks.

Now he wants to make sure Vancouver provides a similar path for as many players as possible.

It was at Mainz that Schuster got his first coaching role, walking into the club without any coaching qualifications and being appointed U-12 head coach. He progressed from there. But it's partly that early start that informs his stated priorities as he arrives at the Whitecaps as the first person to hold the title of sporting director at the club.

“In Mainz we had a successful youth academy and I was part of that youth academy in the beginning,” Schuster said at his introductory press conference on Friday. “When I left Mainz we were one of the top three academies in Germany and won the first ever German title in U-19 [level]. But it’s a lot of work to do that.

“You have to create a pathway from first kick to first team. You have to build up a system and a strategy and a philosophy and to bring everybody on the same page. It’s very important to coach the coaches because they are the key to your players. It’s a lot of work to be done."

With the obvious exception of Canada national team and Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies, the Whitecaps have struggled compared to MLS peers to sign Homegrown Player contracts that result in meaningful minutes for the first team.

For example, this season Vancouver had six Homegrown players on the roster. Only the now-26-year-old Russell Teibert and Theo Bair played more than nine minutes in the 2019 MLS season.

But Schuster was keen to caution that players shouldn’t just be signed or played for the sake of it. They have to be ready. 

“You cannot over pace it,” Schuster said. “You cannot say we want to have five academy players in the first squad. If they are not ready for that, that will not help or us. But we have to raise up the chance or the pathway and the quality of the players to make it happen. 

“I heard that in the overall system of the Whitecaps, there are 22,000 kids. So that is much more players than we have at any club in Germany, so we have to be good there because that will give us a good chance to find the right player. We have to focus on the high talents and the top talents, and don’t speak about 20, speak about a handful, and make with them career plans and always find the right platform to develop them.”

The Whitecaps have a residency program with teams in the US Soccer Development Academy at the U-15, U-17 and U-19 levels. They also have academies throughout Canada and a pre-residency program in Vancouver. 

The ‘Caps have been without a USL team of their own since 2017, though they did establish a U-23 development squad that does not have a league but plays in friendlies locally, nationally and internationally. 

These are all areas that Schuster is keen to examine closer to improve the club's overall development model.

“It is not that easy here because there is not such regular competition like in Europe because of distance,” Schuster feels. “So for that we have to find good solutions. Sometimes we might have to have someone on loan for one year to get more competition somewhere else. We have to discuss each case differently. It’s something I already did in the past and we want to do here, but we can’t be magical, but we want to see process in one year.”