May 5th 2018, Vancouver- One of Whitecaps FC’s biggest moves this off-season had nothing to do with players. The club announced that it would be dissolving their USL (Div2) side Whitecaps 2 in favour of an affiliation with USL expansion team Fresno FC.
In 2014, the LA Galaxy became the first MLS club to field a team in the third division United Soccer League. The league has grown substantially since 2014, and 13 MLS teams have joined LA in their attempt to develop players through the USL.
The Whitecaps dipped their toes in USL waters in 2014 when they became affiliated with Charleston FC. This affiliation saw only one player move back and forth. That was former first overall MLS Superdraft pick Omar Salgado who fizzled out and is now dancing around the Mexican lower divisions.
After the failed attempt at an affiliation, the Vancouver franchise fielded a USL team of their own for the 2015 season. In front of an inaugural sell-out crowd, Whitecaps 2 battled TFC 2 to a 2-2 draw in April 2015. That first starting eleven featured four Whitecaps residency grads, two MLS draft picks and seven Canadians. It was a promising start to what was supposed to be the ideal pathway to link the club’s academy to it’s MLS side. Whitecaps 2 struggled to find results in their first season, finishing second last while putting an emphasis on development rather than results. It was in the second season when Whitecaps 2 started to shine, it was the one and only time they qualified for the playoffs, and they advanced to the semi-finals where they fell to Sporting Kansas City’s “2” side Swope Park Rangers. In the third and final season, Whitecaps 2 returned to their losing ways despite having two players sign MLS contracts.
When WFC2 launched in 2015, the Whitecaps made it their goal to develop more young Canadian professionals and to pave a clear path to the first team for their academy graduates. Throughout the team’s three year history four players moved on from USL contracts to sign with the first team, while many other players already on MLS contracts spent conditioning time in the USL.
The Canadian hope, Alphonso Davies immigrated to Canada from Liberia when he was only a few months old. He and his family settled in Edmonton where Davies lived before moving to Vancouver in 2014 to join the Whitecaps program. Now highlighting the Whitecaps MLS attack, the speedster began his professional career in the USL after having an outstanding season with the U18’s.
Davies became the youngest player to sign a USL contract when he joined as a 15 year old, and he then became the second youngest to sign an MLS contract later that year.
Davies excelled in the USL despite not training with his teammates due to school. That was just the first sign of his potential as a Canadian professional.
Adding to his accolades, he became the youngest goal scorer in USL history at 15 years and six months when he scored his first professional goal against LA on May 15, 2016.
After showing his worth with Whitecaps 2, he earned a short-term call-up to the first team for the Canadian Championship tie against Ottawa Fury. The academy graduate did so well in those two games, that he signed an MLS contract just a month later.
Davies was the first evidence that WFC2 was working. This was a kid who had been with the club since he was 14 and had developed within their system. It was exactly what the club had hoped for when they set out on their USL project the prior year.
The Canadian is still with the Whitecaps today, and has been their offensive catalyst so far this season; paralyzing defenders with his astounding speed. He has also been impressive for the men’s senior national team on every occasion he has been called in.
If only more players like Davies had come through WFC2, but alas…
Kyle Greig was the polar opposite of Davies for the Whitecaps. The American forward joined WFC2 at the age of 25, having already spent five seasons in USL. Greig was named captain ahead of the 2016 season; taking over the role from the departed Tyler Rosenlund.
Even though he was an older player, the Whitecaps continued to look at him to develop. This was one of the many mistakes the organization made when it came to the veteran striker. At 26, the Whitecaps offered Greig an MLS deal; making him the fourth option at striker for the first team behind Freddy Montero, Erik Hurtado and Blas Perez. Greig would score one goal for the first team in a Canadian Championship game against Montreal, but he only made one MLS appearance.
The decisions that went in to signing Greig to the USL side, let alone an MLS contract are questionable at best. With that said, there is sometimes an advantage to having more experienced players in the locker room; but in Greig’s case he was the wrong man at the wrong time for the ‘Caps.
The Whitecaps have seemed to have found a gem in late blooming Canadian Brett Levis. After coming through the Canadian university system with the Saskatchewan Huskies, Levis Joined the USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders for two seasons where he showed his worth at first as a winger before transitioning to a more defensive role. Unlike the others who came through WFC2, Levis is the only one who was with the team on the inaugural day in 2015. He started that game as a winger, but by the end of the 2015 season he had settled into the left-back position.
Levis’ performances earned him an MLS deal in August of 2016, and he made his debut as a substitute on decision day later that year. Unfortunately for Levis, he tore his ACL in that match and was forced to miss the 2017 season. Having recently made his return and first MLS start in a 2-0 win against Salt Lake, Levis has shown that he can play at this level despite missing an important season.
Saskatchewan’s second ever professional soccer player has gone through a lot to become a professional, and has certainly not taken the shortest route.
Levis is yet another reason why having a USL team in British Columbia was beneficial for the Whitecaps. In spite of the fact that Levis was a bit older, having a place for him to grow as a player was still an advantage for the club. Now, without that opportunity being available the Whitecaps are at risk of missing more of these “diamond in the rough” type players.
David Norman Jr.
The last of the four players to sign an MLS contract from WFC2, David Norman Jr. is the textbook example of player the Whitecaps want to develop. A local kid who has grown up as a supporter of the club, and advanced through the different age levels in their academy going all the way back to U12.
The son of famous Vancouver Eighty-Sixer David Norman didn’t spend much time with WFC2 as he joined them part way through the team’s final season. However, in his short tenure with the team he made a positive impact in the middle of the park. He won WFC2’s player of the year award after starting 25 of his 26 games and finishing second on the team in tackles.
Because of this impressive season, the Whitecaps signed him to an MLS contract as a homegrown player. While Norman Jr. has yet to make an appearance for the first team, he is another shining example of the value the Whitecaps derived from WFC2.
As much as player development is an important piece in football, one cannot forget the business side of the game. The downfall of WFC2 came down to three things; stadium location, attendance and money.
Prior to the Whitecaps announcing WFC2, the club looked at the possibility of building a stadium somewhere in Vancouver’s suburbs or the Fraser valley. Queen’s Park in New Westminster seemed to be the prime location for the team, and the Whitecaps had even offered to refurbish the pre-existing stadium to accommodate USL. Despite promising to fund the refurbishment, the community pushed the Whitecaps away; stating that their little league baseball had to take priority over a developmental soccer team.
Whitecaps FC 2 struggled to find a stadium to play at after the Queen’s Park idea failed. They were eventually forced into UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. UBC was far from the ideal location. The stadium was old, and there was no transit from other parts of the lower mainland. Those problems were the exact opposite of what had attracted them to New Westminster in the first place. Due to these complications, it was hard for many fans to come out and support the team.
In their second season, the team played three matches at McLeod Athletic Park in Langley in hopes of eventually moving the team to a more central location in the suburbs. The three matches proved successful, and led WFC2 to split their final season between UBC and Langley.
Interestingly, the team attracted higher attendance numbers when it was based out of UBC than it did when it split the matches. In 2015 and 2016 attendance was stable at 1,700 per match, while in 2017 when the matches were spilt between the two stadiums the attendance plummeted to 870. In defiance of previous logic, UBC attracted more fans than Langley; although even the larger attendance figures were far less than the rest of the USL.
Since the attendance was so low, and the fanbase wasn’t much higher; the club was losing significant money from running its own USL team. That was the tipping point that led to the demise of WFC2.
Although WFC2 was successful in its mission of player development, it failed to become financially stable. The Queen’s Park stadium would have likely meant a brighter future for the team, and if the club had secured such a central location it is very likely that the team would still be around today.
After the dismantlement of WFC2, the Whitecaps had a hole in their organization. They were left with Canada’s best academy but were missing a clear pathway to MLS. In an attempt to fill the void the Whitecaps approached USL expansion side Fresno FC in order to affiliate with them. Fresno agreed and the Whitecaps promptly assigned goalkeeper Sean Melvin, as well as midfielders Noah Verenhoeven, Mathew Baldisimo and Terran Cambell to them.
All of these players would have had instant starting positions if WFC2 were still around, but in Fresno it’s a different story. Only Verenhoeven has found regular playing time, as the rest of them have all been limited to substitute appearances. This led the Whitecaps to sign Sean Melvin to MLS in order to get him out of the disaster which was happening in Fresno. WFC2 was a development focused side that didn’t need to find results as long as players could come through the system. Fresno on the other hand is a club that looks to win, and rightly so. That means that these Whitecaps players have to earn their minutes, and if they’re not given them they can’t complain because in the end the Whitecaps want them there and Fresno couldn’t care less.
Having WFC2 around was a massive advantage for the club, and not having that will hinder the academy’s potential to produce more first team players in the future. Fresno is no solution and is not a substitute for WFC2, as player development is not their primary concern. It seems as though the Whitecaps did not learn anything from their failure with Charleston and have now strolled down a similar path with Fresno.