Lack of first-team Canadians making Whitecaps a tough team to support

Bob Lenarduzzi

The Vancouver Whitecaps, have three Canadians on the roster, the bare minimum required by MLS rules.

One of them, Philippe Davies, hasn’t played in an MLS match yet.

Russell Teibert, the teen from Niagara Falls, Ont., isn’t a first-choice roster pick.

And, the third, Alain Rochat, is a Swiss international. So, put “Canadian” in quotes when you speak of him.

When the Whitecaps play Real Salt Lake on Saturday, acting coach Tom Soehn could field a starting XI with the only “Canadian” being Rochat.

Does this make the Whitecaps a difficult team for the Canadian soccer fan to support? In the end, that’s a question that you, the reader, has to answer.

After trading hometown star Terry Dunfield away to Toronto FC on Thursday, Whitecaps’ President Bob Lenarduzzi — a former Canadian national team player and coach — said during a conference call the fact that Dunfield was a Vancouverite was “irrelevant” to the deal.

“In pro sport, you build clubs on the abilities of players, not where they come from,” Lenarduzzi said.

Now, if you’ve ever heard Lenarduzzi speak about the team that went to World Cup finals in 1986, he’ll lament the number of players on the squad who couldn’t find teams on which to play. It was a ragtag group of players, many of whom didn’t escape the realm of semipro North American soccer.

Now, the shoe is on the other foot. Lenarduzzi is the boss. He’s on the club side. And he has obviously learned that management is a cruel business.

Yes, the Whitecaps have a great Residency program, where Canadian teens are getting the chance to get the hours of training they need to become professionals. The hopes are that many of the bright spots — including the reigning U-17 player of the year, Bryce Alderson — will graduate to the senior club. Lenarduzzi also sits on the MLS joint task force with the Canadian Soccer Association, which is looking for ways to integrate more Canadian talent into the top ranks of the North American pro game.

But the emergence of those players is still a ways off.

In the present, a team that’s struggling along with two wins is facing maybe an even greater challenge. Like Toronto FC before, the Whitecaps are becoming an increasingly tougher team for the Canadian fan to like.

The Whitecaps had a fantastic opportunity at the start of the season to become Canada’s Team. Years of bumbling and arrogance — supported by boring soccer — from Toronto FC had made the team hard to support. The number of empty seats at BMO Field are testaments to that. And, an ugly front-office battle with the team’s Canadian star, Dwayne De Rosario, had galvanized fans — many of TFC’s hardcore supporters (as in, people in Toronto) sided with the club, while Canadian fans outside the TFC sphere wondered how the team’s all-time best player could become such a pariah.

But the Whitecaps have kicked that opportunity away. In an expansion season, it’s OK to struggle. It’s not a sin to miss the playoffs. But, in having a team that’s only regular “Canadian” in the starting lineup is a Swiss international who spent his infancy in Quebec, there is nothing for the casual Canadian fan to latch onto.

Yes, Lenarduzzi and Soehn can say that where a player is born isn’t important. That a birth certificate doesn’t matter at a big club.

Of course, no one in England has ever written a story about the lack of English players at Arsenal. No one in Spain has ever demanded that the big Spanish clubs repatriate players who have gone off to play in England or Italy. MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy don’t jealously guard U.S. poster boy Landon Donovan from making a move to Europe.

(Read, sarcasm.)

At the NASL level, the Montreal Impact replaced local players with French imports, and it hasn’t worked.

Take a survey of Canadian soccer fans — I mean, the ones who are hardcore, who are interested in and/or follow the exploits of the four Div. 1 and 2 teams. Ask them which teams they dislike. You will see different hands go up when Toronto FC, the Whitecaps and the Impact are named. But, when FC Edmonton is mentioned, is there any dislike for a club that works so hard to have two-third of its roster made up of Canadian players — and has the development of Canadian players at the heart of its raison d’etre?

No.

Having homegrown players is a big deal, everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are Manchester United or the Atlanta Silverbacks. It’s one thing for the Whitecaps to admit that things aren’t working out; but it’s another thing for it to say that fans don’t care about passports.

Some PR advice for Lenarduzzi and Soehn. Next time you’re asked about the lack of Canadian content on the Whitecaps, point to the residency. Say that you are looking forward to bringing in more Canadians in the future, but that it isn’t working out right now.

But, ban the word “irrelevant” from your vocabulary.

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About Steven Sandor

I'm currently the colour commentator for FC Edmonton broadcasts on Sportsnet, NASL.com and TEAM 1260. I've covered the Toronto FC beat for four years, worked for the Edmonton Aviators of the USL for a season, covered the Edmonton Drillers of the NPSL and started covering Canadian World Cup qualifiers in 1996. I've covered the CONCACAF Champions League and the U-20 World Cup. I'm passionate about soccer in North America.