Coaching changes midway through a season usually go one of two ways. They’ll either spark the players into an invigorated period of play or the new coach will struggle to get the chemistry going with his squad both on and off the pitch.
It’s always both a tough and exciting time for a team and when the coaching change comes about through promotion of the predecessor and not because of poor form, you just don’t know how it will really go.
Except in Vancouver Whitecaps case, they did.
When Rich Fagan became the ‘Caps new Under-18 coach back in January, after Steve Meadley moved up to become Alan Koch’s assistant with the WFC2 side, the promotion was a natural and seamless transition.
And so it should have been. Fagan’s been a very familiar face and coach to the players in the Residency program for a number of years now and he knows the skills and potential of the current group inside and out.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Fagan has been involved with the ‘Caps Residency program since 2010 and the local youth soccer scene in BC since 2004 with Surrey FC.
In his early years after joining the Whitecaps, Fagan had been head coach of the U15 Pre-Residency team, U12 boys and girls, WFC Prospects and the U18 women’s Prospects team and served as Craig Dalrymple’s assistant with the U16 team for two seasons.
His work and contributions to those programs was rewarded at the start of the 2013-14 USSDA season when Fagan was appointed head coach of the U16 side, guiding them to the Northwest Division Championship and through the group stages of the playoffs before the side crashed out to a controversial quarter-final loss.
Fagan and the U16s began this past season the way they had left off, taking an early and commanding lead of the USSDA Northwest Division of the West Conference on the back of losing just one of their first 14 matches.
When the U18 vacancy arose, there was only going to be one natural candidate to fill it and it’s been a smooth process in most aspects.
“I had assisted and I’d worked with a lot of the 97s and the 96s in the past,” Fagan told AFTN. “Half of the group I have with the U18s right now were on my U16 team last year. So there was a certain amount of comfort making that step into that group. It’s been pretty seamless though, if I’m being honest. It’s been really good.”
The only aspect of the U18s that hasn’t run so smoothly this season was out of Fagan’s control – the upheaval the squad faced with a number of key players moving on.
Captain Marco Bustos and midfielder Kianz Froese started the past Residency season in devastating form. Bustos hit a couple of hat-tricks and hit 16 goals in 12 games. Froese hit 3 goals in 8 matches and provided a number of assists. Both signed MLS contracts in September and were taken out of the youth level by the end of the year to concentrate on training and developing their game further in the first team and USL environments.
Their absence allowed others to step up and Dario Zanatta blazed a goalscoring trail, but he too left the program in February to pursue opportunities overseas after failing to come to terms with the Whitecaps with regards a new contract and opportunities here.
A couple of other players left the program following off the pitch issues, which we won’t go into here!
The result was that the U18s lost a lot of goalscoring prowess and experience and their form dipped as a result. Not the greatest introduction to the team for Fagan, but he saw it as an opportunity for others to shine and move some players up from the U16 ranks with an eye already on next season.
“We maybe haven’t scored as many goals since they moved on,” Fagan admitted to us. “But Kyle Jones, to be honest, has really stepped up. I think he’s averaging a goal a game in the last five. He maybe wasn’t enjoying that early on with Marco playing ahead of him a lot of the time.
“But first and foremost, we’re just happy that we’ve pushed on Marco, we’ve pushed on Kianz and it’s given the opportunity to players like Kyle, and an opportunity to others, to score some goals. Maybe not as many, but it’s been ok.”
And it was still enough to secure the ‘Caps U18s their annual spot in the USSDA playoffs, which got underway in Westfield, Indiana this morning, after finishing 4th in a very tight and highly competitive Divisional race.
As we covered on Monday, the U18s have a tough task ahead of them if they are to make it out of their group at the playoffs, with a number of the top performers of recent games staying at the U16 level for the playoff campaign.
That task is now even tougher after they lost their first group match to 2-0 to a ten-man Shattucks-St Mary’s side this morning, after having the better of the early running.
But the group has spirit and a lot of self belief and the previous playoff experience within the U18s will also play a big part mentally in the team bouncing back.
“Yeah I would think so,” Fagan feels. “I asked the boys, I asked them all last week, put your hands up if you’ve advanced to the Finals before and half the group put their hand up. There’s a quiet confidence within the group. They know what to expect.
“There’s not really going to be any surprises in terms of the intensity or the weather. We played there last year so they’re going to be quite confident, quite comfortable.”
There’s still two matches for the U18s to turn it around and they take on Chicago Magic PSG on Wednesday and DC United Academy on Friday.
As much as everyone connected with the club wants to go one stage further than the 2012 group and win the USSDA Championship, it’s the experience and continued development of the players that these games provide that is still the key focus.
And talking of development and future opportunities within the game, the current U18 group are the first to have the set pathway within the club of moving from the Residency ranks into the USL team and then hopefully onto the first team squad in Major League Soccer.
Not all will obviously make it to the final step. Few may even make it to that next level with WFC2. But the goal is there, the lure of a pro contract is there. Carl Robinson has demonstrated that he isn’t afraid to sign and play young players, and that, along with the recent graduation success from the Residency program have created a real buzz within the players.
“Obviously there was Russell [Teibert] and Bryce [Alderson] before, but most recently Sam [Adekugbe],” Fagan told us. “Half these guys have shared a changing room at some point with Sam. He’s went out and done that, there was that buzz, and then Marco now and Kianz also, the carrot, it’s right there for them. They can taste it and they know it’s real. It’s been excellent for them.”