Saturday, May 02, 2009

Whitecaps' training facility moves ahead

The Vancouver Whitecaps are expected to announce a deal with the provincial government today to build a $30 million training facility/national development centre at John Oliver Park in South Delta [Phillip Raphael, South Delta Leader]. This is quite an interesting move and may considerably affect Canadian soccer.

For one thing, this kind of new facility will only further shift the balance of Canadian youth development to the West. The Whitecaps already have the most comprehensive youth academy in Canada and are producing and developing a lot of Canada's young talent; this facility should help them attract even more of the top prospects. The climate also favours a Western shift, as the B.C. soccer season goes year-round, unlike much of the rest of the country where snow prevents extensive play in the winter. I don't have many details on this yet, but it certainly sounds like a move that would aid Vancouver's youth development system and Canada's youth development as a whole, and it would also be helpful for the men's and women's senior national teams.

Keep in mind that the precise form of that youth system in the future is still up in the air, though. Negotiations are still underway with MLS about how to integrate the Whitecaps' residency program with the MLS draft system when the team joins the league in 2011. It's unlikely that the residency program will be scrapped altogether, as MLS obviously has substantial motivation to develop local talent, but its structure may change considerably.

That's why this facility will also be important for the full team. A world-class training facility would be a substantial boon to the Whitecaps, especially after they move into B.C. Place in 2011; Swangard Stadium is acceptable as a training ground, but B.C. Place wouldn't be a particularly good spot for practices. Solid training facilities in Delta would also help the Whitecaps in their quest to attract top-tier friendly opponents; in the past, many of the clubs that have come through town, such as Sunderland, have set up their training operations out in Langley at Trinity Western University. The soccer facilities there are decent, but it's a bit of a trek and it isn't an ideal environment.

A third benefit from this proposal for the Whitecaps is the marketing aspect. If this training facility will also be used by elite youth clubs, as seems likely given the government funding, that's a perfect opportunity for the Whitecaps to further develop their connections with those clubs, allowing them to draw both fans and potential prospects from those teams. They already have strong ties with much of the minor soccer community, but this can only help. Geographically, it's also a way to reach out to people in the heavily-populated suburbs south of the Fraser River, many of whom are crazy about soccer but not necessarily all that familiar with the Whitecaps.

The final question to consider is why the provincial government's going along with the idea, and there are several key factors involved. First and foremost, there's an upcoming election on May 12 that's expected to be close. In that election, Delta South is widely predicted to be a hotly contested riding between Liberal attorney-general Wally Oppal and former Delta councillor Vicki Huntington, who is running as an independent candidate. Not surprisingly, Oppal was the source for the above story on the matter and appears to be heavily involved. With the inclusion of time for minor soccer clubs, it also could be a counterstrike against the NDP's campaign pledge to spend $100 million on soccer fields and recreation facilities across the province [Bob Mackin, 24 Hours Vancouver]. Plus, soccer's already shown up as a battleground in this election thanks to the NDP's apparent threats to scratch the B.C. Place retractable roof and subsequent denial of any such threats. The Liberals came out of that mess looking pretty good compared to the NDP, so this could be another area for them to score points with soccer fans.

The Liberals also have solidly supported the Whitecaps' push for MLS status over the years: there were plenty of Liberal politicians who attended or sent letters or videos of support at the official announcement of the bid, and it was their decision to pour money into B.C. Place renovations that paved the way for Vancouver's MLS bid. Finally, don't overlook the self-interest factor; as Mackin reported in his above story, Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot donated $14,290 to the provincial Liberals between 2005 and 2008.

The mere presence of political factors doesn't make this a bad idea, though. As mentioned above, it could do a lot for the Whitecaps, local soccer and the national teams, and both Canada and Vancouver could sorely use a world-class training facility. The timing is likely thanks to politics, but it's a much-needed move and one that will benefit soccer in the Lower Mainland and in this country as a whole.

[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]

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