The Whitecaps’ new USL Pro affiliate is the best chance in years for their Canadian players to see professional minutes, which doesn’t mean we should be uncritical.
Devotees of my ramblings will know I have never liked United Soccer Leagues obviating their decades-old independence to operate as a feeder league for MLS, representing the homogenization, dishonestly, anti-supporterism, and anti-Canadianism I despise in North American soccer. Based on the poor support for farm teams around the world I thought it would be a disaster at the box office and the Los Angeles Galaxy II are proving me right with every game in the empty StubHub Center. When you see someone considering starting a professional soccer team in Canada, prefer NASL to USL.
But there are no independent Canadian teams in USL Pro, so let the Americans worry about their own pocketbooks. An affiliate in this league is the best practical option for the Whitecaps. It would be a surprise if attendance broke 1,000 but what matter? Presumably the Whitecaps know what they’re in for financially; attendances and the Whitecaps’ own sorry crowds for PDL are public information. (One hopes the two USL Pro-specific partners in the team, Ian Gillespie and Gary Pooni, are also well-informed.) So if Vancouver, or Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact, want to take advantage of United Soccer Leagues then be my guest! Pick the bones clean, Canada; it’s high time we got something for ourselves out of this relationship.
The presence of elite sport is a fillip to New Westminster, with no serious outdoor sports and not even junior “A” hockey (though the local lacrosse scene is strong). Queen’s Park Stadium is a characterful but old and dreary facility and the upgrades planned to bring it up to professional standards are desperately needed, provided the Whitecaps are paying: the public shouldn’t be subsidizing professional sport, and the fact that nobody has mentioned the funding source for the refurbishment in this press release raises worries. I also hope, for reasons a couple paragraphs above, this Whitecaps affiliate is not preempting an independent team. And while a regional rival might provide a lever to help the Victoria Highlanders finally go professional, as a part-time Highlanders fan I always hoped to see them in the NASL. (Some full-time Highlanders fans disagree; for them this should be a day of unqualified fist-pumps and lunchtime beers.)
Some wonder why this team won’t be in the interior, perhaps the Okanagan, where a large population starved of summer sport and too distant to regularly attend Whitecaps games might be go nuts for USL Pro. But, setting aside commercial considerations, having their USL Pro team close to home means Whitecaps players can work with the first team at UBC in the morning and be at Queen’s Park for a game in the evening. The further afield you get, the more independent the market but the more difficult soccer integration becomes.
Having wasted a few hundred words, such navel-gazing soccer structure bloviations are irrelevant to your average Whitecaps supporter, who care about what’s on the field rather than behind it. This new affiliation represents, in the current climate, the best chance for the Whitecaps to get Canadians into professional soccer. USL Pro is a decent enough level and will provide a good test for young Whitecaps. No doubt the core of the roster will be MLS depth, the usual combination of NCAA-trained American scrubs, journeyman bench talent, and trialists we remember from the MLS Reserve League, but your Bryce Aldersons and Sam Adekugbes can count on big minutes. As we saw even in the Reserve League, the number of players required will ensure playing time for Canadians (and Chileans) from the Whitecaps Residency. I remind you that USL still uses the “five from seven” substitution system, so there are more chances for players off the bench than other leagues. Those bench players will be predominantly Canadian.
In fact it’s possible that a 2015 Whitecaps II team would record more Canadian minutes in a single season than the senior Whitecaps have recorded in their entire MLS history, at a level that isn’t senior national team stuff but will draw exposure and could point the way to better things. That’s nothing to scoff at, and that’s the reason I’m grinning now.
Many assume this spells the end to the Whitecaps’ long-time partnership with USL PDL. The Whitecaps have made no announcement either way, but USL Pro and USL PDL are not “either or” propositions, and maintaining a presence in USL PDL would fill gaps that might otherwise open even with the arrival of USL Pro.
Most obviously, not every promising U-20 player will be ready for USL Pro. It is a lower level than the NASL, and the example of Jordan Hamilton in Wilmington shows teenage Canadians can succeed there, but it is indisputably a professional league with quality veterans like Matt Delicate, Allan Russell, and Samuel Ochoa making mincemeat of the unprepared.
The Whitecaps will know this, based on the mixed experiences with affiliates Charleston: Omar Salgado played well while he was there, Andre Lewis has settled in nicely, and Mamadou Diouf has enjoyed a depth role, but Marlon Ramirez and Emmanuel Adjetey were or are out of their depth and quality young centre back Jackson Farmer was just too young to get minutes. Last year Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson played decently when healthy but struggled for minutes late in the year, to the detriment of their development. Charleston is near the bottom of the table, so we’re not talking about a formidable lineup. Even talented young players sometimes just aren’t seasoned enough for that sort of soccer, and throwing a player in out of his depth is no solution to anything. USL PDL still has a role as a valuable transitional step for those trying to graduate from dominating the USSDA U-18s to making a contribution against men.
Secondly, now that the MLS reserves will be in New Westminster, a Whitecaps PDL team could help the team keep tabs on NCAA players who have come through their system. The Whitecaps would be a richer organization if Residency graduates such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, Brody Huitema, and Alex Rowley had remained involved over the summers, turning out with the Whitecaps U-23s and perhaps staking a claim to a senior contract after their school days.As long as the Whitecaps had professionals playing PDL NCAA rules made this impossible. With these professionals out of the way the PDL team can return to its original youth development role, and that opens the door for participation from the NCAA ranks.
Thirdly, and more aspirationally, bringing in CIS players as the Whitecaps have over the past few years, as well as new NCAA faces, could pay for all parties. Ex-Whitecaps U-23 captain Gagandeep Dosanjh seemed to be carving out a decent NASL career at Edmonton until injuries intervened, Reynold Stewart got a good look at the NASL combine, and I still hope to see players like Niall Cousens, Brett Levis, and increasingly Cody Cook get an opportunity. Over in Victoria Carlo Basso is having another decent PDL season, but because he attends Simon Fraser University the Whitecaps could never have given him a look. This wouldn’t just be good for FC Edmonton and the Ottawa Fury, the main beneficiaries today of Canadian college talent, but potentially the Whitecaps, who now have a USL Pro team they’ll want stocked and who, hopefully, will be able to give players developed there first team places.
In the grand scheme of things a reserve team is small beer. Remember that the Whitecaps entered a team at this level for their first three MLS seasons and it didn’t matter. Three Canadians other than those affiliated to MLS teams are in USL Pro this season and the average fan could not name one, while Canadian graduates of USL Pro include almost nobody you’d be interested in. What counts is not getting Canadian players into USL Pro; what matters is getting them beyond.
Until the Whitecaps prove they have both the ability and the will to graduate Canadians to some quality league rather than burying them at intermediate levels this is an opportunity for New Westminsterites to see cheap soccer rather than meaningful change. Cynicism, alas, has its place: we’ve seen the Whitecaps take measures that should theoretically be good then fail us (investing heavily in a Residency program then favouring foreign players in the first team, or showing no commitment to ensuring Canadians play for Canada). British Columbian representation, as well, is a serious, separate concern for many fans, with the Whitecaps exerting a dominance over the provincial soccer community this new team will only increase. The Whitecaps are on a cash basis with domestically-oriented supporters: we’ve been burned too often to extend them credit.
But this omen is auspicious. The team is spending time and money on a change to their organization that should benefit Canadian talent. It won’t matter a whit if further measures aren’t taken, but that’s no reason to scoff at this hopefully meaningful move.
 — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Whitecaps FC announces intent to bring USL PRO soccer to New Westminster.” WhitecapsFC.com, July 8, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2014/07/wfc-announces-intent-usl-pro-new-west.
 — For the best article I’ve yet read discussing this, see: Dellow, Tyler. “The Big Post About Why Europe’s Sport Structure Is Better Than Ours.” MC79Hockey.com, November 15, 2012. Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.mc79hockey.com/2012/11/the-big-post-about-why-europes-sport-structure-is-better-than-ours/.
 — Tomasch, Kenn. “Taking Attendance: Ranking ‘Em (Almost) All.” kenn.com, July 7, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.kenn.com/the_blog/?p=6004. The LA Galaxy II’s average attendance, as of this writing, is 687: lower than any NASL team, any NWSL team, twelve USL PDL teams including the Victoria Highlanders, and a few NPSL teams (!). The only full-time professional team with lower attendance is the hoary Dayton Dutch Lions. The Galaxy II are a decent team, too, currently running third in the league though everybody’s got games in hand on them.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Canadian Domestic Content Before and In the MLS Era.” Maple Leaf Forever!, February 14, 2014. Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2014/02/14/canadian-domestic-content-before-and-in-the-mls-era/. Through the end of the 2013 season, Canadians had played a total of 3,554 minutes for the Whitecaps in three Major League Soccer seasons. It is unlikely the total will be as much as 5,000 minutes by the end of 2014, meaning that in a 28-game USL Pro season about 192 Canadian minutes per game would be enough to break the record.