Whitecaps hope to inspire next generation with new training facility

Members of the media tour the Vancouver Whitecaps locker room at the MLS soccer team's new National Soccer Development Centre training facility at the University of British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — On a recent trip to the U.K. to work on his coaching licence, former player and current Vancouver Whitecaps U-15s coach Robert Earnshaw had a chat with soccer legend Thierry Henry about the feeling some clubs inspire in their players.

“He said, ‘Some football clubs, when you step in — top, top football clubs — you step in, and the first day, you just feel it,’” said Earnshaw, who was on hand as the Whitecaps’ first team made use of their new 38,000-square-foot fieldhouse for the first time. “That’s what we’re trying to create here.”

Until now, the Whitecaps had never had a dedicated training facility. With a new home, dubbed the National Soccer Development Centre, on the grounds of the University of British Columbia’s sprawling Point Grey campus, the organization is hoping to inspire not just their current crop of players, but a future generation of talent.

The NSDC, which includes the fieldhouse and five fields at UBC, along with two at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, is a project more than a decade in the making, costing $32.5 million, with $14 million of that coming from the provincial government.

The three-storey building, which includes locker rooms, a sports science wing, a players’ lounge and a two-storey weight room with floor-to-ceiling windows, is divided by an imaginary line, something Whitecaps chief operating officer Rachel Lewis calls an “aspirational” divide.

The building enforces a kind of hierarchy that is perceptible only if you pay close attention to the layout. The second floor, which houses locker rooms for the various Whitecaps teams, highlights the division.

At the top of the first flight of stairs, first-team players make a right turn, heading west toward a spacious locker-room equipped with name plates illuminated with players’ faces above each stall. Players in the lower rungs of the organization — who will move in later this summer — turn left, heading toward more basic facilities. Even the kitchen, which is shared by players at all levels, is set up to enforce the division; first-team players sit along the west side, while the most junior players eat at the other end.

The point of this set-up isn’t to create a kind of militaristic sense of order, but rather to give players at lower levels something to strive toward.

“That’s one of the biggest things we want to try to get, that inspiration for the young boys,” Earnshaw said. “To see an older player, a top player in our first team, and them be so close, and they say, ‘That’s where I want to be.’”

The various youth residency teams have until now been training in Burnaby. For first-team coach Carl Robinson, housing all the various teams under one roof makes his job easier.

“I have access to all the teams anyway and I spend a lot of time travelling from here to there, so that travel will reduce which is good,” he said.

“I think it’s important we’re under one roof, because we talk about being one club, and we are one club, but there’s got to be boundaries,” Robinson added. “You’ve got to know the rules, but it makes you hungrier to want to do more.”

The sparkling new facility could also help Robinson attract top talent to his Major League Soccer side.

“This is the next step for us, to be able to attract players as well,” he said, explaining that big-name players especially tend to want to see what a team’s training facilities are like if they’re considering signing with a club.

“It will certainly help in that regard,” he said.

Robinson, in characteristic style, was careful to announce that it’s business as usual for his team, despite their fancy new digs.

“It’s the next stage for the club,” he said. “You’ve got to respect the facility, you’ve got to enjoy the facility, but nothing changes. You still come to work and work hard every day.”

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