Wednesday was the first day of Matthew van der Eyden's great soccer adventure.
On the final day of August, van der Eyden started his first day in the fully funded Vancouver Whitecaps FC player development residency program based in Burnaby.
The 16-year-old New Westminster product is one of just four players from B.C. to make the elite 25-player under-17 residency squad and the only one from the Lower Mainland.
Van der Eyden made it through the Whitecaps' spring evaluations, which drew the top players from Western Canadian provincial teams and those from the national training centres in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.
"All this wasn't here five years ago. If this wasn't here, I'd still be where I was last year. If that happened, I would have nowhere to go," said van der Eyden. "It's like a step up from amateur to professional. It's a totally different atmosphere. You need a different mentality."
That mentality, learning what it takes to be a fulltime professional soccer player both on and off the field, is a welcome challenge for van der Eyden.
"When I was little, I always wanted to be a professional athlete. Now, I don't really know what I want to be, but I know what I don't want to be," he said.
"I don't fancy going to post-secondary, or (working) in an office and doing the same thing everyday. I want to have an interesting life. I never wanted my main goal to be making money."
To that end, van der Eyden will be training with the Whitecaps five times a week after attending two blocks of classes at Burnaby Central Secondary.
Games will be scheduled every Saturday.
"Every other week we have a game away. I like that," said van der Eyden. "I like playing soccer. I like doing that. It will be a change and I like that."
The 'Caps will play for a u-17 MLS Cup against similar residency teams while competing in the Northwest conference of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league.
Vancouver will play against MLS programs Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes, and five other regional programs in Washington and California.
Players will receive individualized programs and age-specific training with an emphasis on speed of play and performance.
Sports science programs, including strength and conditioning, psychology, nutrition and medical support will also be to international standards.
Van der Eyden, who spent most of his formative years in the Coquitlam Metro-Ford club system, has been a fixture on B.C. provincial teams for the past four seasons.
Last season, the B.C. team brought home the third-place medal at u-16.
His club team, Sparta, also went to the national championships at u-14, where Metro-Ford finished with the bronze.
But van der Eyden was not a natural when he left the Royal City at nine to play soccer at Metro-Ford.
"I wasn't very good when I just came (to Coquitlam)," he said. (Coach Les Krivak) gave me this opportunity. I wasn't really a soccer player. But every game, I got so much better."
As a 12-year-old, van der Eyden improved enough to play on the Whitecaps Prospects team that won two tournaments in Holland. However, he is the only player from that squad who is currently part of the residency program.
Not surprisingly, van der Eyden has a unique perspective of himself in sport.
"What I hope to get out of the (program) is different from what most kids are doing," van der Eyden said, adding that it is that element of danger that appeals most to him.
"My idea of fun is it's difficult, it's risky, it's not safe," he said.
"Everybody kind of thinks it's the way (the world) is supposed to be. I look at it and say, 'It can't be it.' It's like a search for truth."
Van der Eyden thinks the beautful game, played against elite competition, both in tournaments and overseas, could be the vehicle that brings him closer to realizing that dream.
"The bonus is it's something I'm good at. I like having something to prove. What's the point if it's easy?" he added.
"I'm sure for a lot of kids, they feel pressure. But I feel good under pressure. It's something I feel comfortable with. If there's no pressure, there's no motivation.
"It's the best when you have to go into a (game) and something's on the line."
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