There’s a problem Canada’s MLS player development model, and U SPORTS is here to fix it

Vancouver, BC- There is a hole in Canadian soccer player development. Many of the country’s top players are a part of academies operated by teams in Major League Soccer, although few make it to the pinnacle of their organization. 

After not being able to crack an MLS roster, many of these players turn to collegiate soccer, however, this exposes a greater problem inside MLS Canadian soccer player development; which is the lack of opportunities for players over 18 years. Only Toronto has a professional option for player development past 18, but even that is not as good as it could be. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact both used to have developmental teams in the second division of  North American soccer. These teams offered players the chance to play in a professional and competitive environment, while also serving as feeder teams to the MLS clubs. Both teams only lasted a pair of seasons before shuttering their doors and pushing more Canadians away from potential soccer stardom.

Jordan Haynes, once a part of the Whitecaps Academy has felt the full effect of Canadian soccer’s failure. Haynes spent a number of years in the Whitecaps academy system, where he moved onto his first professional contract with Whitecaps 2, the developmental team playing in the United Soccer League (USL).

“Having that stepping stone [WFC 2] was a great opportunity. It let guys like me, from the academy move on within the program and adjust to the higher levels of the game,” said Haynes, when asked about what the USL side did for him.

After three years, the Whitecaps shut down their USL side, leaving a gaping hole in their player development system, and sending their entire roster into a confusing tailspin.

For Haynes, that’s when the idea of playing in U SPORTS came across his radar.

“I didn’t really have a place to play when they shut down, so that’s when I tried finding somewhere else. After spending a summer in Calgary, I landed on UBC.”

Foothills FC/WFC — June 13 Road Match Report: Foothills FC vs ...
Haynes (top row with beard) with the Calgary Foothills (Foothills FC)

For the 2019 U SPORTS soccer season, Haynes was part of a Thunderbirds roster that once boasted 5 players who were formerly with Whitecaps 2. 

It was one of those five who drew Haynes to the program in the first place, “The year before I went [to UBC], my buddy from WFC2, Mitch Piraux played for UBC and sorta sold me on the program, and why going to school and competing in U SPORTS was the right step for me at that point in my life.” 

In the time that Haynes spent with the Thunderbirds, they had two national championship appearances, as well as a pair of gold medals from Canada West competition. So clearly there was some talent on the roster, but those are talents that could have been affecting Canadian soccer on a greater stage.

Haynes with the UBC Thunderbirds against UQTR at U SPORTS nationals (U SPORTS Canada)

“I really feel like I fell through the cracks [of Canadian player development]. I started to feel it even before UBC,” said the former Canadian youth international, “You get told all along the way about how you’re going to move up in the program, and then in an instant, it all sorta stops. It’s pretty crushing.”

Since Haynes left the Whitecaps, the program has only fallen into more disarray. The WFC 2 team is gone, and there are limited options for players to remain within the club after graduating from the academy. It is either a jump to MLS with the first team, a largely impossible feat, or training with a U23 development team that does not play in a league; two options that are not suitable for some of the club’s top prospects.

In the past week, all MLS academies were dealt an additional blow from the United States Soccer Federation, as the US Soccer Development Academy (USDA), the league which the Canadian academies also played in, disbanded. It’s shut down leaves some of the best young Canadian players without a league to play in. Combine the shutdown of the USDA with the non-existent pathway for players 18+, and the problems only become larger. It’s part of the reason why two of UBC’s most recent recruits are graduates of the Whitecaps U18 side.

This problem, although elevated in Vancouver is common in every MLS academy. Chris Castillo, a midfielder for Ryerson University also felt he was pushed out of the MLS program when he was with the Toronto FC academy. “Once there was any talk that I wanted to go to school, I  stopped playing,” said the Ryerson midfielder, “They didn’t let me travel, and it became pretty boring.”

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Castillo applauded the crowd with his teammates (Submitted by Castillo)

He had not yet made the decision to go to school, yet he was forced away from the academy system. For a kid that once played alongside Bayern Munich prodigy, Alphonso Davies, in the Canadian youth levels, being pushed away from his dreams of professional soccer was a tough blow to take. 

Although both Haynes and Castillo felt pressured away from MLS, there are a number of differences between Vancouver and Toronto. The Ontario club still has a  “2” team that competes in the third division of the American soccer system, but Castillo says that many academy graduates forego that opportunity, as it has not proven to excelrlate player’s developments

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Christopher Castillo - 2019 - Soccer (M) - Ryerson University
Castillo with the Ryerson Rams (Christian Bender)

It is clear that the Canadian professional pathway is flawed especially for the MLS teams. That’s where the Canadian Premier League is changing things. The CPL, which drafts players from U SPORTS has given hope to players who’s professional dreams were thought to have dissipated. 

“Of course the dream is to go pro, and now with the CPL it actually seems possible,” said Castillo, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Haynes, who joined the CPL ahead of the 2020 season. While the CPL might be fixing the problems on some fronts, the issues remain when it comes to MLS.

U SPORTS is not and will not be the solution that sends Canada back to the FIFA World Cup, but it helps to plug the hole left vacant by the country’s  MLS clubs. The stopgap nature, along with the introduction fo the CPL, university soccer is beginning to become a critical thread in the fabric of a burgeoning soccer nation.

This story also appeared on BTSVancity.com, the soccer affiliate of 49.

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