It’s been quite the start to the season for WFC2. Quite the year in fact. Six games in the league, six preseason friendlies, unbeaten now in 12 matches.
The friendlies of course mean little, it was against mostly college opposition, and with all due respect to those teams, USL is a whole different animal. But it’s in the league that Alan Koch’s young group have shown what they’re made of.
Four wins and two draws see the young ‘Caps sitting second in the Western Conference, two points behind Los Angeles Galaxy II, with two games in hand thanks to the freak weather in America.
They’ve played some great football along the way. They’ve shored up their defence, conceding an average of a goal a game, in a stark contrast to last year. They’ve added a real attacking threat with the dangerous partnership of Kyle Greig and Daniel Haber, who now have eight goals between them in the six matches so far.
They’ve also has some very young line-ups with many of their teenage stars starting, including 15-year-old Alphonso Davies, who made his fifth USL start in last night’s win against Tulsa Roughnecks, and 17-year-old Kadin Chung, who made his fourth. Chung set up Tulsa’s first goal with what Koch described as a “moment of brilliance”, when he spun his way through the Roughnecks defence.
But perhaps most pleasing of all is the fantastic fight and fighting spirit of this young group. They’ve fallen behind in their last three games and come back to take seven of the nine available points, and they fought back twice in the win over Tulsa.
It wasn’t the most polished performance to get by the Roughnecks on Wednesday night but it was that fight that delighted Koch almost as much as the three points.
“We had great spirit in our group,” Koch said after the game. “You can see it in the guys that came off the bench. Kyle [Greig] came on and scored right away and Daniel [Haber] came on and scored too. So there is a great spirit amongst the group.
“We’re obviously ecstatic to come back. To be a goal down and come back, then go 2-1 down and come back, then finish it off and win 3-2, we’re very happy to get the three points.”
Koch also took time to praise his side’s composure throughout the game. They didn’t allow themselves to be rattled and were patient in trying to break down a defensive Tulsa team that clearly wanted to try and kickstart their season by taking something, anything, from this match.
Breaking down such teams was a problem for the Whitecaps last year, and not just at USL level, but the team has learned a lot from that inaugural season.
“We knew they would do that if they scored,” Koch said of the visitor’s tight defensive structure. “They’re on the road and they’re trying to get something out of it, and fair play to them. I thought they did a very good job of it. In the last few minutes, we turned things around.
“We spoke to the players about it before the game, potentially that’s what they might do and how we might have to solve that problem. I don’t think we solved it very well for the most part of the game, other than the last little bit when we capitalised on a couple of opportunities.”
Much of WFC2’s success this year has come with their core group of USL players, boosted by MLS guys Marco Bustos, Ben McKendry and Cole Seiler. Koch has been able to field almost settled gameday squads, who have a chemistry and understanding with each other.
The Tulsa game saw the chance for the ‘Caps to get minutes for some more of the MLS fringe guys, with seven MLS players starting. The team is there for that of course, but it was noticeable last year how much it disrupts the playing style, as everyone struggles to get on the same page.
It was the same against Tulsa, but as late as it came, and needing the introduction of Greig and Haber in particular, the ‘Caps came up with the goods.
“Tonight we had a bit of a hybrid of a group,” Koch said. “Some first team guys that haven’t played for us and you could tell that it took a little bit of time to get into the game. That’s part of playing minutes. You grow comfortable when you play more and you get more confident.”
And confidence is sky high amongst the ‘Caps camp after that start. They’re turning heads throughout the league but also within the Whitecaps organisation.
Carl Robinson was sitting up beside me last night with Pa Modou Kah. He liked what he saw from a few of the guys and they were at MLS training this morning. That recognition just adds to their confidence and drive.
Koch is keeping his feet firmly on the ground as always. He knows it’s too early to get carried away and a lot can still happen in such a competitive league. You just have to look at last season’s Western Conference champions, Orange County Blues, who have jumped up the table after three straight wins.
But he’s delighted that the players he has are hungry for success and that hunger leads to the best development they can get – being in a winning and competing side.
“We said last year, when we weren’t winning, we go game by game,” Koch stated. “Now we’re winning, we still say we’re going to go game by game. We’re not looking too far ahead. We’ve got to give the players opportunities. The great thing about this job so far this season is the guys are taking those opportunities.
“Whatever player you throw out there is grabbing the chance he gets. So there’s a feelgood factor amongst the group right now and hopefully we can carry that on into the next game.”
That next game should be a cracker between the Western Conference’s top two sides, with Los Angeles Galaxy II heading to Thunderbird Stadium on Sunday May 15th. You don’t want to miss that one.