We continue AFTN’s 2016 Whitecaps Residency week with a chat with U16 head coach Adam Day about the season so far and the playoffs ahead. If you missed our chat with U18 head coach Rich Fagan, then you can check it out HERE.
It’s been a fantastic season for Vancouver Whitecaps U16 side. One that has even surprised the coaches themselves with just how well the team has done.
Everyone knew it was a talented group, but it was a fairly fresh group, with a large chunk of last season’s successful side moving up the U18s. How long it would take them to find their feet was what everyone was waiting to find out. We didn’t have to wait long. They hit the ground running with five wins and a draw from their opening six matches and never looked back, landing another Northwest Division title at a cantor.
The ‘Caps recorded 23 wins, 3 draws and just 5 losses from their 31 games, winning their divisional title by a whopping 15 points from San Jose Earthquakes. Three of their defeats came in their only rough spot of their season in late December and January, but the team bounced back to finish the season strongly and end up as the third seeded team in the playoffs.
“I think overall, a little surprised to be honest,” U16 head coach Adam Day admitted to AFTN when we asked him about his thoughts on the excellent season. “I don’t think Carl [Valentine] and I at the start of preseason would have anticipated that we’d be rolling into the playoffs as the number three seed in the country.
“The boys have overachieved a little and all credit to them. They’ve really bought into the training methodology and the way they conduct themselves. The little dip in the season, in some ways we like to see that because we want to see how they respond and how they react to adversity, which is going to happen at various points in their careers.”
There were a lot of questions surrounding the U16s heading in to this season after their heartbreaking penalty loss in last year’s quarter-finals. A number of that squad moved on up to the U18s, but how the remaining group would respond to that playoff disappointment and mesh with the new additions was key.
That loss to Georgia United has also been used as both a motivational tool to the coaching staff and a learning tool for what to expect if and when the team goes deep in the postseason again.
“I think a little bit,” Day admitted. “As you said a lot of players moved on. There wasn’t too many memories in the group coming in to that. I think that probably helped because there wasn’t that hangover at the start of the season that they’re still thinking about the playoff defeat. The ones that were involved, it was a valuable experience, also for us as a coaching staff. We know what to expect at the latter stages of the competition and can kind of help players come through the playoff environment and hopefully into postseason play.
“But it hasn’t had a big effect on the group. I think there was a lot of excitement last year, even in the way we did lose a match. There was a lot of belief and pride in that performance on the day too. But when you get into the business end of the season and the top sides, it’s small margins. We found that out the hard way last year and hopefully we’ll be the recipients of that this year.”
As the team churned out the wins and the goals, the match in which Day and his management team realised just how special this U16 group had the potential to be, came down in Florida in December in the annual winter showcase. Vancouver faced off against defending U16 champions FC Dallas in their first match and came away with a 2-1 win. It was a victory the ‘Caps were well worth.
“The moment it kind of clicked into gear was in Florida,” Day said. “We had a strong first half [of the season], but we’re going in and we’re facing Dallas in the first game of that showcase. They were number one, reigning champions, and just simply, we were better. We thoroughly deserved to beat Dallas.
“We were the better team on the day and I think that really clicked into gear for the group and for us as a staff. You know, we could go and win this whole thing. Now that’s easier said than done. We had a little dip after Christmas. Again it’s a bit natural. You go away for two or three weeks, and come back and try to get back into the momentum of things. But kind of mid March, picked things right back up again and performances improved.”
As the ‘Caps first team have found to their cost in seasons past, it’s now how you start the season that really matters in a league with playoffs, it’s what form you finish the regular season in as you head in to them.
And with the USSDA playoffs set to being, the Whitecaps U16s are in excellent form just now, going on a ten game winning streak towards the end of the season, with only a narrow one goal defeat in their penultimate game spoiling a perfect dozen.
“I actually wasn’t aware of the ten game winning streak until we actually lost against Golden State,” Day revealed. “But that’s 11 wins in the last 12 games, which is fantastic form going in and again, just kind of replicates how it’s been for the boys.
“They’ve been extremely consistent this year and I think we go in to the tournament full of confidence. Anything can happen, we know that, but I don’t think we could be in a better position than we are right now heading into the playoffs.”
The depth of the Residency program looks to be stronger than perhaps at any time of its history. Players can move on up to the U18 level or leave the program altogether, and still the conveyor belt of impressive talent keeps coming through.
The U16s have certainly been one of the first beneficiaries of the talent produced by the Whitecaps many Academy centres around Canada, and it’s really helped the squad recover and rebuild from the players who moved up a level last summer.
“Yeah and they’re expanding all the time too,” Day said. “Frank Ciaccia coming in the same time as myself last year on the recruitment side of it. We’ve been up and down the country to try and find the best talent to merge with the BC talent and so far the scouting network has really proved pivotal.
“Obviously Alphonso [Davies] is a noticeable one right now, but Theo Bair has come in and Andres Charles-Barrera has come in from out of province. Both have equally done fantastically well and have had their spells with the 18s this year, so everything has just fallen into place right now. It’s a strong group. It’s come together very quickly. I’m really excited to see what the ceiling is for this group going in to the playoffs.”
The ‘Caps hit 89 goals in their 31 matches, averaging 2.87 goals per game. They hit five goals on three occasions, six goals twice and also recorded 7-1 and 8-1 wins in California in one particularly impressive weekend.
The bulk of those 89 goals came from star striker Alan Camacho Soto, who led the North America scoring charts with 29 goals. There’s no doubting that Camacho (who we’ll have an interview with up on AFTN on Thursday) will be a marked man by the opposition down in Frisco.
Any added focus on Camacho could play right in the Whitecaps hands however, with goals coming from all over the pitch during the regular season. In total 19 players found their name on the scoresheet for the U16s this campaign.
“It’s probably surprised me this year,” Day admits about how many players have found the back of the net. “I remember the first probably four, five games of the season, we were kind of looking at it with Alphonso [Davies]. He’d been directly involved in almost every goal we’d scored in the first couple. So there was a little concern at the start of the year, but as it kind of materialised on we realised that Alan was going to be the standout in front of the net, then Fonsie had got a couple, and Theo [Bair] started to chip in.
“But everybody’s played their part this year from the goalscoring front. Nick Apostol’s got a few, Georges [Mukumbilwa] has got a few, the centre halves have contributed. We do have attacking threats all over the pitch and it’s something we ask, especially offensive minded players, to contribute in and also the centre backs. If they’re going to come up for the set pieces, then you’re coming up for a reason.
“Alan is our talisman. He is the one who is going to put the ball in the back of the net more regularly than others, but we do have other areas of the field that we can score from, so it’s not an issue. The collective is strong and the collective is strong in front of goal too, so there’s no major concerns in that aspect. If Alan’s the one that takes the individual glory, then great, but we also know there’s other goals in the team too.”
The ‘Caps U16s get their latest playoff campaign off and running on Wednesday evening at 5pm local time (3pm PT) and have been drawn in a very winnable group.
Miami based Kendall Soccer Coalition are first up. The wildcard side just made it into the playoffs in 31st place out of the 32 qualifying teams after finishing 5th in the Southeast Division of the East Conference. Their record of 14 wins, 8 draws and 10 losses from their 32 matches should hold no fear for the ‘Caps but stranger things have happened and they’ll be more used to playing in the hot conditions.
Some old foes are next up on Friday in the shape of Real Salt Lake Arizona. The ‘Caps played them at home in the fourth game of the season back in September, coming away with a narrow 1-0 victory. RSL are another wildcard side, ranked 26th overall, after finishing 5th in the Southwest Division of the West Conference, winning half of their 36 games, drawing 5 and losing 13.
The final group game on Sunday looks set to be the decider, with the ‘Caps facing off against one of the few teams to beat them this season, fellow MLS academy Philadelphia Union. The Union beat the ‘Caps 2-1 in December’s Florida showcase and Vancouver will be out for revenge against the 12th ranked team. Philadelphia finished second in the Atlantic Division of the East Conference, 12 points behind the second ranked New York Red Bulls. They’ll be a tough team for the ‘Caps to face, losing only five of their games all year like Vancouver.
So a mixed group, but certainly a winnable won and the ‘Caps are cautiously confident.
“We have a little bit on Kendall, that we’re playing,” Day revealed. “I spoke to a couple of coaches that can provide footage for that. We know Salt Lake from the first game of the season and we played Philly down in Florida, so we do know what those teams are about too.
“My personal opinion in a lot of this is that I tend to worry about what we do, and I stress that to the boys. At the end of the day, we can only control what we do in the moments of the game and the pivotal pieces that happen, so if we get our end of things right, I’m really confident that we can go there and do a great job on anybody. We focus less on the opposition and more about us, and it’ll be no different this week.
“They’re all going to be good sides. They’re there for a reason as well. I’m expecting tough games and tough opposition. It could go either way but I’ve got a lot of confidence in this group, a lot of belief in this group, that if we do things right our end, we’ll be a-ok.”
As the U16s (and the U18s) start their road for team glory and hopefully a run at the North American championship on Wednesday, in the back of many of their minds will also be individual success and landing a pro contract with the club.
The success of Alphonso Davies from this year’s U16 team in earning a USL pro contract, along with the likes of Kadin Chung and others from last year’s team has shown all of these guys what is attainable.
Some standout performances in the playoffs and Carl Robinson and Alan Koch will be taking notice.
It’s not even the opportunities that are there but the fact that players signed are getting minutes and making a real impact, and those trailblazers are certainly used a motivation for the current crop of Residency talent by the coaching staff, which they’re hoping will bring the best out of the squad in this year’s USSDA playoffs.
“For many years in the European system, the phrase that obviously gets touted around a lot is that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” Day said. “Why couldn’t a 16-year-old be in the first team? It happens all the time in Europe. With the addition of the USL environment, Carl relies heavily on youth and wants to bring young Canadian talent through.
“It’s all there for the players and really that phrase is key. Kadin’s proof of that, Alphonso’s proof of that, [Matthew] Baldisimo’s gone into USL, Tommy Gardner, Terran Campbell. There’s lot of guys progressing. It’s exactly what we would want in a Residency program. Like look guys, if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort, the opportunity’s there for you. Not just for USL, but the first team.
“That’s ultimately, all of us in Residency, what we want. We want guys going into the first team environment, so it’s a big carrot for all the players. I think when you get the first couple of players get in there, the realism sets in. The players are now all fully aware that that opportunity is close in the next year, two years, three years, whenever that opportunity will come. If you’re good enough, you’ll get that opportunity for sure.”