Axel Schuster - Vancouver Whitecaps - sporting director
Courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Vancouver Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster wants to build one of the world's best "development clubs"

As MLS continues to grow, many of the league's believers hope for a day when the division will rival the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A as among the world's best.

Vancouver Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster has a different kind of big dream, setting up one of the world's best academies. And he says that can happen even before the level of first-team football in MLS reaches as lofty heights, pointing to the example of clubs like Red Star Belgrade or Dinamo Zagreb that have globally renowned academies even while competing in domestic leagues a couple rungs below Europe's best.

"Of course it is a high target if I say why we should not be one of the top in the World," Schuster told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday. "But I think this league should, and we as a club in this league should first of all define our role and define what we want to be, and second we should be brave enough to say 'Why not? This league is growing more than every other league in the world.'"

In that sense, Schuster says the suspension of the MLS season due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has given he and his staff a rare, prolonged opportunity to consider the next steps in building an organization that can one day accomplish those aims.

"The best chance is to do things in a different way," he said, "and to do things more creative and maybe at one point to go to risk, to try something a little different way. Because if everybody do the same thing, everybody at the end is, there is nobody who can make big step forward, because we are all limited."

Engaging in those deeper level discussions is also possible because he says the club has accomplished all of its immediately necessary MLS Primary Transfer Window business already. The club previously acquired an international roster spot from the Portland Timbers and still has a spot open on its senior roster, but that didn't mean it had planned an imminent transaction.

"Everybody knows that we still have an international spot and we are fortunate in the first 20 we still have some space, so we are able to do something but we are not under pressure," Schuster said. "We didn’t feel the need to do something at that point. We felt very comfortable with the group we had, or have. There was more the issue in our mind to get them all in the right shape, to get them ready to play."

After splashing for forward and Designated Player signing Lucas Cavallini in December, the Whitecaps added 10 players in January and February that were clearly more of the supplemental ilk. And there were two constraints Schuster said everyone agreed to regarding incoming players: They would all be age 27 or younger, and they would all be seeing regular minutes at their previous clubs.

"We were convinced players who didn’t play for maybe one year or maybe only get fewer minutes in a bigger team on the bench, that that is much higher risk to know how they can adapt to our league and to know how then come back in form, in shape, than a player where we can see how he performed every week," Schuster said.

Where the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up an unexpected obstacle has come in building out Schuster's technical staff, most notably in his search for a scouting director.

"We have candidates we wanted to invite to Vancouver, and they have been already invited to Vancouver, and then somebody shut down the borders and canceled all flights, so they are not able to come here," Schuster said. "We are in the process, we have some candidates that we are convinced that they all could fulfill our profile and they could all be the right one, and it’s now time to bring them over to Vancouver to show them our club and to bring them together.

In the big picture, he stressed the wait to do that is a minor issue.

"We should not make our problems as big as the problems outside in this world," Schuster said. "It is what it is, and everybody has to wait until we can go on with business."

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