Canada’s First Generation of Truly Professional Soccer Players

Major League Soccer youth academies offer the resources needed to turn kids into tomorrow’s athletes


(Scott McLelland)

People tend to talk about Canada’s lack of success in the world of soccer as if it’s some big mystery. Hundreds of thousands of kids grow up playing the sport in Canada, so why can’t we field a decent national team?

In truth, it’s not hard to explain. While there has never been a shortage of youth soccer programs in this country, few have been designed to produce professional athletes, and almost none have had the resources to do so. Traditionally, soccer in Canada has been seen as more of an after school activity than a way of life. Canada can’t compete at the highest levels because we haven’t been taking youth soccer seriously.

This all changed with Major League Soccer’s expansion into Canada and the introduction of the country’s first professional youth academies. Now, after the better part of a decade, Canada’s first generation of true professional soccer players is almost ready to take the world stage.

“The most important thing is that we’re now mirroring other developed soccer countries in terms of bringing in young players, identifying them, playing best against best, and giving them an opportunity to maximise potential,” says Craig Dalrymple, technical director for Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s youth residency program.

Like other MLS academies—and the more established programs abroad that they are modeled after—WFC residency focuses on bringing players up in a professional environment. This takes massive commitment from these young players, and the club also has an obligation to facilitate a balance between soccer development and a normal school and social life.

Intake into the program begins at age 13, and the training schedule is designed to work around the school day. For ages 13 to 15, a normal week will involve five after school training sessions focusing on developing fitness and technical skill, as well as at least one competitive match against other youth soccer programs in the Lower Mainland. From ages 16 to 18, two before school strength training sessions per week are added to the schedule, with matches against other North American academies over the weekend. Additionally, all age groups compete in tournaments around Canada and the U.S. throughout the year.

“It’s unmatched in North America, what we’re doing,” says Dalrymple. “There’s very few other clubs that are doing it to the extent that we’re doing it and there’s very few other clubs that have had the success that we’ve had.”

The qualities that the program’s coaching staff look for in young players include a strong tactical understanding of the game, fitness and physical qualities, strong mental qualities and most importantly, according to Dalrymple, social qualities.

Even at young ages, a high level of professionalism is expected. Players need to have a strong work ethic and an even stronger commitment to the game. The coaching staff works hard to mentor the young players to learn those qualities. Still, it’s not uncommon for those with strong physical and tactical potential to wash out of the program because they are unable to demonstrate the commitment to the game among all the other aspects of everyday life.

“We value the character higher than the other qualities. Players need to be in love with the game,” says Dalrymple.

So far, WFC’s program has produced eight homegrown players currently playing for the Whitecaps or other top tier squads, as well as others playing for Whitecaps FC 2, the club’s second team. As said by Dalrymple, it takes a minimum of ten years for a new development program to really see the fruits of its labors in the form of top level professional players.

“In time, those players will start gravitating into our men’s national team. So I think you’ll see, in about three to five years, our World Cup squad populated by players that came through our academies,” says Dalrymple. “So that’s exciting.”

Among the first graduates from the Residency program is Jackson Farmer, who moved to Vancouver from Edmonton after being accepted into the program when he was 16 years old. Today, the 21 year-old centre back plays for WFC2 with eyes set on making the first team.

“The Whitecaps were especially good with the professionalism that they expected,” says Farmer. “If you did anything wrong or anything that wasn’t up to their standards, they’d let you know right away.”

By far, the biggest challenge for Farmer and other residency players was balancing soccer and all the other parts of growing up—namely education and a social life. Often, players are away from school for weeks at a time for various tournaments. The program recognizes the importance of giving players a balanced life, so a focus is put on making sure they have downtime, and their education is given top priority.

Farmer says it was the individual attention from the coaching staff that helped him to improve at just about every aspect of the game during his time in the program. Regular one-on-one meetings are set up between players and various specialised technical directors and coaches, and customised training plans are created to address each player’s individual needs. They also have access to nutritionists and other various specialists.

“They wanted me to grow as a player. They obviously knew that, within the first month, you’re not going to be a professional player, but they put together a program where they had all the technical staff and the medical staff looking at you as an individual player to push on to the next step,” says Farmer.

WFC’s youth development focus is not exclusive to male players. Whitecaps FC’s Girls Elite REX Program operates in a similar fashion to the men’s residency program and serves as a pathway to Canada’s women’s national team. Last month, the Club announced major expansions to the girl’s program that will see all players attending the same school with a flexible curriculum that can better balance players’ training and educational needs.

“We just want to start producing more players from B.C. going away to the national team,” says program head coach Emma Humphries, who played for New Zealand in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

As with the men’s program, the Girls Elite REX Program aims to create a professional culture and a strong competitive mindset in its players.

“It takes a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of hours that they’ll be spending with us and it’s not an easy task to ask of them day in and day out,” says Humphries.

While the men’s side of the sport is making great strides forward, Canada is already an established rising star in the world of women’s soccer. Canada’s women’s team took home bronze at the Rio Olympics this past summer which, according to Humphries, has big implications for the next generation of Canadian female athletes.

“I think it’s huge, that bronze medal. The more successful the senior team, the more high profile the game gets, the more kids connect with these athletes and hopefully have those dreams themselves.”

Humphries says that Canada is leading the world in terms of investment in women’s soccer, and this investment is translating to success on the field.

“If you look at any country in the world in terms of young talent, you’d probably pick Canada to be the one coming through in terms of youth development,” she says. “It’s pretty exciting times, and I think people are starting to recognize how good our young players are.”

Canada can hardly be said to have had an illustrious history in the soccer world, but for all our struggles in the past, the future looks bright.

“I’ve been in the country 23 years and [the difference] is night and day,” says Dalrymple. “It can only bode well for the future.”