Vancouver Whitecaps FC is the highest professional soccer squad in close proximity to anywhere in Western Canada, but the team is doing what they can to ensure equal opportunities for young athletes across B.C.
Nearly seven years ago, the Major League Soccer (MLS) club planted a Northern Academy in Prince George as part of its youth initiative, and since then, the program has skyrocketed in popularity, especially with young athletes wanting to take their game to the next level.
Close to 200 kids year-round across multiple sub-levels, it has been able to train elementary school kids with professional caliber skill development, brought down through the Whitecaps system.
“It’s more than necessarily a growth in numbers as it is growth to area,” explains Whitecaps Northern Academy Head Coach Austin Derksen to PrinceGeorgeMatters. “We’ve started to change our priority as a program and trying to give value to the players in the sense of going from grassroots to the college and professional streams.”
The Northern Academy operates out of UNBC’s Northern Sport Centre.
Part of their success is the various age groups a player can start in, Under-nine prospects level, and continue on further in their soccer aspirations, which Derksen calls the Caps to College program.
“We are one of five Academies across the country that have that program, so we have a few extra opportunities for our older players to move up in their careers and try to move them into the university level. And we serve as the hub for players who want to join us from the Cariboo and Northwest regions too.”
Vancouver’s High-Performance Program (HPP) hosted a combine in the Fall inviting several Prince George players and mixing them with others from B.C.-based Academies, and a coaches panel ranks each player by skill level.
If a player gets lucky, they may also be invited to the Whitecaps’ annual youth showcase known as the Adidas Cup.
Sure enough, three young Northern prospects cracked the province’s top-15 in their respective age group and will be taking the pitch at Surrey’s Newton Athletic Park later this month to show off their talents.
This includes Jakob Anaka, Hannah Rickards, and Owen Branigan, who are all extremely excited to develop their skills in front of Whitecaps personnel.
“It’s a great honour,” Anaka told PrinceGeorgeMatters. “Just to play at the level that we play at for our age and get invited for a tournament not a lot of kids get the chance to go to. I can’t wait!”
“I normally don’t think of it as representing the Northern region because that puts too much weight on my shoulders,” explained Branigan when asked about what it means to be from Prince George at a provincial event like this. “For me, it’s about having fun and having the honour to go. It’s more like feeling sorry for the kids who can’t go who may be better than me.”
For Rickards, she is the only girl to be invited from the Northern Academy and is grateful to Coach Derksen.
“I like my coach; he’s taught me how to improve my game and since it’s the Vancouver Whitecaps, I know the training is going to be great. I also get to play with my friends and that’s important to me too.”
All three prospects echoed the same answer when asked why they joined this program in particular… because it’s the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“No matter what, it’s a professional club,” Coach Derksen added when asked what separates the Academy from other local soccer associations. “If you translate it over to football programs in Europe, for example, it’s like playing for the Arsenal Academy in Northern U.K., so that was kind of the idea surrounding this program. We’re creating a high standard here, doing it through the Whitecaps, and we can host players that get to wear the badge, put it on their resume, and coaches see that as a bonus to help them move up in the ranks of their soccer careers.”
The Whitecaps FC Youth Adidas Cup takes place March 30-31.
Derksen also wants the public to know that more camps are coming soon, along with more chances to get well-emersed in the game.
The Whitecaps Northern Academy is holding open tryouts at the Northern Sport Centre on April 12, ranging from Under-Nine to Under-14 players.
Interested parents and players are asked to contact Derksen directly via the Academy’s website.