Building on two straight heartbreaking quarter-final losses, hopes were high for Vancouver Whitecaps U16s as they headed into last season’s USSDA playoffs in June.
Winning another Northwest Division title at a canter, losing just five of their 31 regular season matches, the young ‘Caps headed into the postseason as the third seeds, favourites to win their group and advance to the knockout stages once again.
But things don’t always go according to plan, or form, and the U16s surprisingly crashed out at the playoff group stages in Frisco, after winning just one of their three matches in the Texas heat.
With so much expected from the group, not least amongst the players themselves, it was naturally disappointing to end their season so early, but just what went wrong in the end?
“I think when I look back at the week, a lot of it has to do with form, and we were in good form,” U16 coach Adam Day told AFTN at Residency training this week. “Then we had this three week break, from the last game against LA. We come here and play intrasquads, and listen, our intrasquads are just as intense, if not more intense.
“I just felt we lost a little bit of momentum in that three week break. The guys felt pretty good. We felt good with the guys. When you get into that setting, it’s about the form that you are in for that week.”
The U16s started the week well, comfortably winning their first match against the Kendall Soccer Coalition 3-0, thanks to a brace from leading scorer Alan Camacho. But as the competition heated up, so did the conditions, and the team seemed to run out of a little steam when it came to production and execution, going down 2-0 to Real Salt Lake AZ in the second match and 2-1 to Philadelphia Union in their final group game.
Frustrating results, especially with the pressure the ‘Caps had put on their opponents in both games, as Day explained to us.
“If I break down the games, we thoroughly bossed the first game,” Day mused. “We were expected to, and we done very well. Lots of guys struggled with the heat, and it was nothing to do with fitness. The work that the med side do on it, we were by far the fittest, strongest teams physically out there, and we always are.
“But having to deal with that heat, it’s a challenge. Joel Harrison is a perfect example. The guy is one of the fittest at the club, he just dropped to his knees 15 minutes in and just had to get used to it.
“The Salt Lake game, in my opinion, was very unfortunate. We didn’t deserve to lose that game, maybe we didn’t do enough to win it. They had two or three opportunities, they suckered us on the break. The last 25 minutes of that game they didn’t come out of their defensive third, and it wasn’t because that’s what they were trying to do, we were just bossing it. We didn’t score and goals change games. We didn’t get the first one, they did, we let a sloppy second in, and now we’re chasing 2-0 and it becomes difficult.
“I still think to this day, had we have scored in the last ten minutes, and we missed a penalty in there too, I think we definitely would have drawn the game, if not gone on to win it. But we didn’t and in those settings, you lose one game and you know it’s near enough done.”
It left the Whitecaps heading in to the last game needing a win and hoping results elsewhere went their way. Neither happened against the Union, in another day of frustration for the team.
“The guys were focused for Philly and it’s very funny but the Philadelphia game was just like the one we faced them in in the showcase in December,” Day added. “We absolutely bossed the game from start to finish and they hit us for two out of three, four opportunities. We had six, seven, and scored one. It was a carbon copy. Their guys at the end were like we can’t believe we’ve beaten you twice this year. But it happens.”
Disappointing for sure, but also a fantastic learning experience for everyone in the team, from the players to the coaching staff themselves. And as much as it hurt at the time, and still does for the guys, and it leaves everyone with a feeling of what could have been, Day looks back at a successful season with a lot of pride in what his side achieved overall.
“I can’t fault the players,” Day told us. “We lost five games all year. Very consistent, very solid. [Then] we lost two games in a week. We didn’t deserve to lose either of them, but we did, and that was it. Pack your bags and off you go. I think what probably hurt more, the guys were frustrated, but when we saw that Dallas and LA were in the final, we deservedly beat Dallas in the showcase and we deservedly beat LA Galaxy three weeks before.
“So I think there were a lot of regrets for the boys that we could have been in there. From what I saw this year, I think us and Dallas were the two best teams and it would have been nice to showcase that in the final. At both age groups I think it probably should have been the two finals, but we didn’t do enough and you’ve got to learn from it. That’s part of their development to, to learn how to win tournament football. A lot of regrets, but their body of work was pleasing overall, so I can’t really complain.”
But like yesterday’s paper, that’s all old news now. Or today’s fish and chip wrapper as Robbo likes to say.
It’s a case of onwards and upwards, putting last season’s disappointments behind them, but building upon them for the new campaign that gets underway this weekend with matches against Sacramento Republic on Saturday, and a re-match I’m sure everyone is keen to have against Real Salt Lake AZ on Monday.
But it will be a very different looking U16 squad that takes to the pitch this season after 15 players moved up to the U18 side. That’s more than a whole team that Day has lost in one fell swoop, and a close knit one as well, with many of them being together for a few years now and coming through the ranks from the pre-Residency team.
As with the U18 team, only three players will be returning from last season’s squad – midfielder Alessandro Hojabrpour, and goalkeepers Evan Ince, and Trevor Schneider. Nine players are moving up from the pre-Residency, with 12 players coming in that are new to the program altogether.
“It’s challenging, but it’s exciting,” Day told us. “We’ve had two and a bit weeks into training now and you can tell it’s a very new group. It’s fresh and we have guys that are just sort of embedding into how we even want to play. We’ve basically scratched the surface of that.
“And then you’ve got the guys coming up who have been at the club, who know how we want to do things, but they’re the younger ones in the group so they’re not quite sure yet whether to take the reigns on the group.
“It’s new, it’s exciting, and I think for sure we’re going to be a way different team in December than we are right now, but I think it’s a challenge we’re looking forward to getting stuck in to, to be honest.”
Still very early days, and you just have to watch the squad to see they’re still finding their feet together. Whilst it’s likely that the consistency within the U18 group should see them hitting the ground running, it may be a tough first couple of games for the U16 side and a struggle to find their identity.
But from what he’s seen to date in training, which players have impressed Day so far?
“We’re aware of obviously a talent that has come up within the club,” Day added. “Some guys that have come in have started very well. Jefferson Alade has started well, Anthony Caceres, Jose Hernandez, Jacon Aulin [Angelozzi], but I could probably go through the whole list. Everybody’s made a decent start.
“But there are some guys in the attack minded areas that we would want to take the lead on the group a little bit. Daniel Kaiser and Andrew Peat, one’s from Alberta, one’s from BC. It’s a new pairing at centre back so that needs to get working sooner rather than later, but who knows?
“Every season you take, every team that you ever take, there’s always one or two that surprise you and there may be one or two that disappoint you. Right now, we just don’t know. A lot of questions, but a lot of excitement at the same time.”
Interestingly, all four players initially highlighted by Day hail from Alberta.
Aulin-Angelozzi (pictured above) comes to the ‘Caps from the successful Calgary Foothills club, with seven players in total coming to Vancouver from Alberta following the Whitecaps official partnership with the Alberta Soccer Association that was announced last month.
Forward Alade, midfielder Caceres, and forward Hernandez all join the Residency from FC Edmonton’s academy. Three of four players heading east from the Eddies (the other is goalkeeper Darlington Murasiranwa), and continuing the good relationship between the two clubs.
Of the nine players moving onto the U16 roster from pre-Residency, eight of them hail from the BC lower mainland. We’ve only a basic knowledge of most of the players, so won’t even begin to pretend otherwise, but one interesting name amongst them is midfielder Logan Chung, the younger brother of WFC2 defender Kadin.
Chung has already been called into the Canadian national team fold, so now we have both the Baldisimo and Chung clans taking the Whitecaps forward, which is fantastic to see. Let the battle of brothers begin.
The only pre-Residency call up to hail from outwith BC is another Edmonton lad, forward T-Boy Faiya.
Faiya has another interesting story in terms of relations, being the cousin of former FC Edmonton, and current Swedish side Landskrona BoIS, winger Hanson Boakai. Their mothers are sisters.
It’s a small world in Canadian soccer circles.
But it’s not just new players with the U16 squad this season, Day has also been joined on the coaching side by the Whitecaps newest addition to the coaching ranks, experienced defender Pa Modou Kah.
Kah was recently named player-coach with the Whitecaps USL side, but he’s also been spending a lot of time with the Residency as he works towards attaining his B licence, doing work with the U16s and the pre-Residency guys.
With 20 years in the professional game, Kah brings a career full of experiences to the Residency to share, and having a well known name from the first team joining the kids must also give them a buzz.
“Yeah, I think so,” Day admitted. “Players always look up to players, and when players transition to coaches, it’s always a kind of extra string in their bow so to speak. Because they’ve been a player, they know what they’re going through.
“The players do enjoy being around him. He’s a good character. He has the right sort of mindset of when to be firm, then the other side of it is joking around with them. Generally speaking, a lot of the pre-Res boys did a little bit of work with Pa last year, so they’re very familiar with him, and the new guys coming in, you can see. They asked Pa in particular to lend his expertise to the defenders, to the centre backs.
“Here’s a guy who’s not finished yet, he’s still playing with WFC2. Lean on his experience, use him, ask questions, challenge him, and he’s been there and done it. Anything you’re going through, he’s been through, so that experience is invaluable to the centre backs in particular, but also the way that he commands the back line, how he builds that into the middle area of the pitch. It’s all positive to have a guy like Pa around for sure.”
Another positive for the Residency program right now is the number of players the academy has moved on up to the USL side. It’s kind of hard to think that barely a year has passed since Terran Campbell, Kadin Chung and Tommy Gardner were all announced as having signed their first pro contracts with WFC2.
The successes of that trio, along with the more recent success in bringing Alphonso Davies on to the MLS squad and the recent academy call-ups, are all the motivation the Whitecaps need to drive the new crop of young talent already in the program, and joining it for the first time. It not only shows what is attainable, but provides actual examples that the guys can talk to and aspire to match.
“I remember saying [when the three guys signed] you need that proof in the pudding that if you’re good enough, we’ll give you the opportunity,” Day told us. “That was kind of the first batch of players to do that, then more recently Alphonso has gone that one step beyond that.
“Even for me, seeing Nick Apostol, Alan Camacho, Joel Harrison making their USL pro debuts, it just reinforces what we’re trying to do and if you’re good enough, and you’re working hard, and you’re trying to get better and reach those levels, you’ll be given an opportunity. It doesn’t matter if you’re 15, 16, 17 or 18.
“It’s good now to have almost two goes at that. It’s a very real product to the boys coming in. That could be you in six months time. Alphonso was these boys this time last year. New to the U16 environment. Amazing, but it can happen, and if you’re prepared to put the work in and you’re prepared to improve and excel at your game, you impress the next man up, which is Rich [Fagan, U18 head coach], then the next man up, which is Alan [Koch, WFC2 head coach], and obviously Robbo up in the first team. That’s how quickly football can change.”
So who will be the next players to follow in those footsteps? The group is so new to us right now that it’s almost impossible to say, but it’s going to be interesting to see who will rise to the challenge, and which player’s development quickly takes them to the next level. We wish them all the best of luck and look forward to seeing them in action this season.