Vernon's Connor Glennon (right) watches as Stuart Neely

Vernon's Connor Glennon (right) watches as Stuart Neely

New wave for Whitecaps

Whitecaps encouraging next wave of soccer stars through youth development program.

You can pick up a styling Whitecaps T-shirt for $10. Game tickets start at $20 for the corners and the plush club ducats are a very reasonable $103.

Unlike their hockey counterparts in Vancouver, where you need to cash in RRSPs to take your family to a game – in the rafter rows – the Whitecaps are all about family entertainment.

There are no suits at their games unless a guy is running to B.C. Place for a 4 p.m. kick-off after pulling a Saturday shift.

The family feeling runs deep with the Major League Soccer (MLS) Whitecaps, who run youth academies for boys and girls while tracking young prospects all over B.C.

Dan Lenarduzzi is director of soccer development, while Stuart Neely runs player management and advancement for the Whitecaps. They were in Vernon this week checking in on our programs with NOYSA technical director Claire Paterson and her predecessor David Broadhurst.

Said Lenarduzzi: “Part of our role is reaching out to play a partnership with the local organizations and probably our longest-standing partnership is with NOYSA and Vernon Soccer Association, and it’s something we’re very proud of. Outside the Lower Mainland, Vernon is the one area where we do most of our programming.

“We have a school academy here, we have a junior academy for the younger players and we have summer camps so this trip, in particular, is to have a benefit for players who have been in our program that have some potential.”

Neely ran a special session indoors at the VantageOne Soccer Centre for 24 Vernon players of various ages. Some attend the Caps’ academy here. His job, since being hired four months ago, is much like the Welcome Wagon.

“It’s literally just to bring new players into the club, help direct them through the club, educate the families on how we operate, get them through the residency program and to the first team environment,” said Neely.

“And if they’re not suitable for the first team environment, or if there’s no contract available, we’ll likely put them out on loan overseas, maybe NASL and then also combine that with their education through the NCAA or the CIS programs.”

Neely said some MLS clubs are identifying players at age eight and monitoring their progress.

He said the training methods being used by Paterson and Broadhurst, who supports Paterson while he oversees the Okanagan Whitecaps women’s team, are “opening their eyes to a new training regiment which is not always accepted well because it’s a higher level. It’s more intense. There’s more demands placed on players. So you have to find the right balance.”

Neely, 46, said the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Whitecaps are all producing excellent young talent, as are the Edmonton FC of the North American Soccer League (second tier of the American soccer pyramid). Shaun Saiko, who has loads of family in Vernon, plays for Edmonton and last month was named the NASL player of the month with five goals and two assists. Saiko has played for Canadian national youth teams at U15, U20 and U23 levels.

Said Neely: “Those players who recently qualified for the World Under 17 Cup all came from those academy programs so it’s proving that something can happen and something is useful so we’re hoping that that transfers into our Under 20 programs and transfers to the men’s national team and obviously to the women’s side because the Whitecaps have a women’s program also. We’d like to see more women’s programs in the professional program itself to see that we’re developing both male and female athletes around the country.

“The pro clubs are about the pro clubs but at the end of the day, there’s a bigger picture and that’s our national team. We have to do what we can to find a balance between our pro club and the national programs, and we have good relationships with them at the moment. So, we’re hoping those players prosper and so does our national program.”

The Whitecaps are having a strong second year in the MLS and the fans are loving the experience. Vancouver is seventh out of 19 teams in attendance, at 19,000 a game. Rival Seattle Sounders draw an average 38,500 per game, while the Portland Timbers are at 20,500.

“Coming from Toronto FC, the vibe there is quite strong and hopefully the results will pick up,” said Neely, who likes Germany for the Euro Cup. “And in Montreal, the vibe is very strong in their first year in the MLS. They’ve got a decent squad and they’re playing well, but when you go to a Vancouver match with Seattle or Vancouver and Portland or Seattle and Portland, the intensity is unbelievable. The atmosphere at B.C. Place is great; it’s strong and the team responds to it. ”

There are Vernon fans holding Whitecap season tickets. Former Rep coaches Ron Krause and Mike Moore joined the Southsiders booster club on a recent bus trip to Portland.

“Now, we’ve truly become a B.C.-wide team whereas in the UPSL, we were a Burnaby-based team,” said Lenarduzzi. “Okanagan fans can go down and come back the same day with our Saturday 4 p.m. starts, and if they can’t make it down, they can watch our games on TSN or Sportsnet.”

Names like Eric Hassli, Camilo, Sebastien Le Toux and Davide Chiumiento are quickly being discovered by young fans, whose fathers used to know Buzz Parsons, Alan Ball and Bob and Sam Lenarduzzi from the 1979 NASL champion Caps like they knew names of the Canucks.

“Our brand has grown so much and now kids are maybe looking to become a Whitecap one day so we want to grow that and grow the sport,” said Dan Lenarduzzi, 52.

“The biggest tribute to the excitement of the sport is that you see so many Whitecaps jerseys around. Even coming here (VantageOne Centre) today, I saw people wearing Whitecaps jerseys and kids know some of the names of the players and that’s the future of the game.”

He is ecstatic seeing fans painting their faces and flying flags as they follow the Euro Cup down in Vancouver. The tournament, combined with Whitecaps coverage, can only enhance the beautiful game.

“I’m taking Italy, especially after their first game against Germany,” said Lenarduzzi. “I wasn’t expecting that. So certainly them. I love the Spain style of play so they’re always up there. I have an affection for England as well because they always seem to be there but find a way to not get through.”