For the Vancouver Whitecaps’ community clinic in Squamish last Thursday night, the response was great enough that the organizers had to add a couple of fields at Brennan Park.
Sam Lenarduzzi, Whitecaps regional programs manager, said they had 160 players register for the free event and needed more space to accommodate all of them.
Lenarduzzi was joined by coaches from the team’s local academy as well as players for the clinic, which was organized in conjunction with the soccer associations from Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.
“All three associations have been involved. All three organizations have been great in getting out the word,” Lenarduzzi said.
The community clinic was aimed especially at younger children in the U7-10 groups, and while there is some emphasis from the coaches on developing skills, the sessions are less structured than the club’s typical academy sessions. The emphasis is on fun and creating enthusiasm for the sport, as well as giving soccer players a taste of what happens at in academy sessions.
“We want to try and expose it to as many kids as we can,” Lenarduzzi said. “The format of it is a fun format.”
He also said that while they usually focus on players in the U7 to U10 groups, because the corridor communities are smaller than the ones he works with in the city, the team decided to expand the clinic up to U14.
During the session, the kids had the chance to play in scrimmages as the evening went on, and at the end of the night they lined up to get cards, soccer boots and jerseys signed by Whitecaps players including Saje Brar and Shanya Dhindsa with the girls’ elite team and the men’s MLS team’s Marcos Bustos and Erik Hurtado.
Over the year, the Whitecaps host a dozen similar clinics in communities through the region.
Lenarduzzi has been with the club since it began in the North American Soccer League in 1974, and he has long been involved with the youth programs.
“They’ve been working on youth development ever since I’ve been with the team,” he said.
The sport has grown since those days, when they would hold events like school clinics. While some kids idolized players on the team, like his brother Bob Lenarduzzi or Carl Valentine, the response was less enthusiastic than it is now, as the team and Major League Soccer as a whole are on much stronger footing than in the old days of the NASL.
The community programs help the club grow the fan base and also help the team’s academy develop young players for the club.
“I think it’s a big inspiration for the kids,” Lenarduzzi said, pointing to a player like Bustos as an example of someone who came through the development system.
“This youth development side is a huge plus,” he said.
At the same time, for Lenarduzzi, there is the immediate satisfaction from when parents come over following a session like the Brennan Park event to tell him how much fun their children had.
“It’s always nice to give something back,” he said. “They’re a fun event for me.”