Whitecaps raising profile of pro soccer

MLS developing homegrown Canadian talent to aid national program.

Local kids got to hang out with a couple soccer celebrities on Wednesday to wrap up a skills camp at Moir Park. Omar Salgado (centre) is a professional soccer player for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Local kids got to hang out with a couple soccer celebrities on Wednesday to wrap up a skills camp at Moir Park. Omar Salgado (centre) is a professional soccer player for the Vancouver Whitecaps

With Western Canada as their backyard, the Vancouver Whitecaps have focused on expanding their presence in British Columbia and is actively running academies across the province.

While the club has had a presence in the West Kootenay with a prospect centre in Nelson, the time has come to have a permanent presence in the East Kootenay.

Brett Adams, the regional coach who is based out of Nelson and runs one such academy, has been working in the East Kootenay, assessing the viability of setting up a year-round prospects centre in Cranbrook.

It’s moved from a vision to reality, with tryouts beginning next fall.

“We’ve sustained a very good program through the fall, winter and spring phases, we always have good numbers,” said Adams. “On the back of that, we gave KEYSA some technical direction, which assistant coach Sam Heap took on, and that was very successful. We got great feedback from the KEYSA board.

“So much so, that we’ve identified that there needs to be a prospects group within this area.”

While it will be based on tryouts, Adams says the exclusivity of the program will only help the players who make the cut.

“We want to give some of these kids more opportunity to go to Vancouver, go to a [MLS] game, to go and be trained by some of the more elite staff,” Adams said.

That became all the more tangible this past week when some Whitecaps celebrities  came to Cranbrook to take part in a skills camp, as current Whitecaps forward Omar Salgado and Whitecaps executive Sam Lenarduzzi were on hand for a Q&A and autograph session on Wednesday.

Lenarduzzi, a former professional soccer player with the Whitecaps and a member of the national team, has moved into an executive role with the club where he oversees regional development programs across the province.

“I think when you put on camps like this, you’re always looking to find that diamond in the rough, and you have to go everywhere to find it,” Lenarduzzi said. “Just because this is out-of-town, doesn’t mean that there not here.

“In areas even outside of Vancouver such as Squamish or even up in Williams Lake, some of our national team players have come from those areas, so I think it’s valuable for us to do it.

“…The big thing we’re trying to do is create a pathway for those kids out there that really want to be at this level.”

World Cup fever

It’s safe to say Lenarduzzi knows his stuff.

Born in Italy, his family moved to Canada when he was very young, and settled in Vancouver. He didn’t start playing soccer until he was 12 years old, but that didn’t hold him back from embarking on a professional career, mainly with the Whitecaps.

He also played on the national team, and watched his brother, Bob, compete in Canda’s only appearance in the World Cup in 1986 in Mexico. Lenarduzzi had retired a year before, but attended the tournament as a colour broadcaster.

Though he was on the sidelines, it was still the event of a lifetime, he said.

“It shows you, when you go to a tournament like that, the passion in this world about soccer,” Lenarduzzi continued. “When you go a World Cup, it’s an experience, and everybody should go to one, just to understand how big of a game it is.”

Unfortunately, the Canadians were held off of the scoresheet in all three games, which ended in losses.

However, it gave Lenarduzzi a close up view of how Canada played against some of the best players in the world.

“For the players who were there, and for me, it just goes to show what things we need to do, to get to the level you’re playing against, because there’s a lot of work there,” Lenarduzzi said.

Qualifying for the World Cup is a gruelling process with over 30 national teams vying for four spots in the CONCACAF governing body, which encompasses North and Central America and the Caribbean.

“When the groups are put together, the Mexicos and the USA’s are pretty well in our group, so you’ve got some pretty established countries,” said Lenarduzzi.

“Mexico, other than a little bit of a bad patch they went through, have always been the dominate one, even though now, if you look at the United States, they beat them on a regular basis.

“The United States can show you what you can do if you decide to put resources and effort behind things and I think on the Canadian side, that’s where we need to restructure a bit and do it that way.”

Developing homegrown talent

If Canadian players are going to become elite soccer players, they have to play in top-tier leagues.

Enter the MLS.

That’s where the value of the regional programs come in, where the Whitecaps can identify kids who have talent and the drive and aspire to play at a higher level.

“We, as a club, if we can get more homegrown players, it’s good for us, it’s good for the national team, so I think it’s good for a lot of things,” said Lenarduzzi.

“We here in Vancouver are probably the leaders in it. A lot of the other ones look towards us as a model as the way it works.

“But Montreal has gotten good at it, they’ve got a few homegrown players in their group and so does Toronto, so I think they’re following it and throughout the league, it’s popping up all over the place.”

The MLS is also becoming a destination for some quality players, as English star Thierry Henry is playing for the New York Red Bulls, while Brazilian Kaka has signed on to play for the MLS expansion club Orlando City FC.

The Whitecaps also have some elite talent of their own, luring Pedro Morales from a European league and also nabbing Nigel Reo-Coker from England.

“The way the league is set up right now, I think it’s here for the long term. We’re starting to attract some good players,” said Lenarduzzi.

“Mr. Morales, I’m sure, could’ve found many teams in the league other than ours and made a lot of money, but he chose to come here and [Nigel] Reo-Coker is another example.

“I think we’ve got some good players here, we have to develop our own, but at the same token, I think it [professional soccer] has grown.”

Living the dream

The Whitecaps added more international flavour to their roster with the addition of Omar Salgado in 2011, selecting him first overall from the MLS SuperDraft.

Salgado, a forward with the club, joined Lenarduzzi at Moir Park as an example of a current professional MLS player for the skills camp.

Suffering through a slog of injuries over the last two years with his foot, Salgado is finally healthy and playing matches with the team this season.

“It’s a dream come true. It’s a blessing and a curse—a little bit of both,” said Salgado, on being the first overall selection four years ago. “With that, comes a lot of pressure and expectation that you have to live up to and something I’m still trying to live up to right now.”

Born in El Paso, Texas, Salgado grew up playing soccer, guided by his father.

“He loved the sport, he was always pushed me to do what I could in the sport,” Salgado said. “He wanted me to be a professional soccer player and I pursued that dream as well.

“He’s always been inspiring to me.”

He knew that becoming a professional soccer player was a tangible goal after getting called up to the U17 U.S. national team as a 15-year-old.

“I got called up into the U17 national team, to live in Florida for a couple months and from there on, I knew maybe this is possible,” Salgado said.

“After that, I kept pursuing—left for Mexico for two years and then got drafted here.

It all happened really fast.”

Though the two years of injures have been an inconvenience—he broke his foot twice—he is now back on the pitch helping the Whitecaps climb the MLS rankings.

“The team is doing well,” Salgado said. “We’re in fifth place right now, but with two games in hand, so we can do something big this year. I think that we have the team to do it. The players that we have right now can win the MLS cup if we get the opportunity.”

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