Vancouver Whitecaps 2’s inaugural USL season reached the midway point last Sunday.
14 games gone, 14 still to come, with hopefully some additional playoff matches at the end of it all.
The midway mark was reached in less than stellar fashion with a pretty poor performance in a 2-0 home defeat to a Los Angeles Galaxy II side that we can perhaps be held up as the measuring stick to where the ‘Caps want to be this time next season with regards to their USL team.
Los Dos blazed the trail for MLS sides to put their own, standalone teams into USL and not just go down the rather unsuccessful affiliation route. LA certainly had a fairly successful debut season, finishing third in the regular season standings, before just losing out 3-2 in their playoff semi-final to the eventual champs, Sacramento Republic.
The team also gave Bruce Arena the ideal place to get his injured MLS players back to full fitness and get his younger guys more professional experience, and LA used that side to much success.
So after all the excitement, promise and fanfare of the Whitecaps launching their own USL side, has it lived up to Carl Robinson’s hopes and expectations during this first half of their first season?
“It’s been probably exactly what I expected,” Robinson told AFTN this week. “Everyone compares us to Portland and Seattle because they’re USL teams as well. If you look at the average age of Seattle’s USL team, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s older than my first team squad.
“So every team and every club has their own identity of what they want to do with their club moving forward. Ours was, well we’ve got a young first team squad so unfortunately Alan’s going to have a young USL squad. We’ve got 18, 19, 20 year olds playing against 23, 24, 25 year olds. They’ll learn but they’ll learn for the good of it as well.”
Robinson is still trying to find the right balance between how many of his MLS guys to send down to keep sharp and the use of them in his regularly rotating gameday squads.
To date, 13 of the Whitecaps 30-man MLS roster has turned out in USL action, with the recovering Diego Rodriguez and Marco Bustos perhaps being the best beneficiaries so far.
That’s obviously meant a lot of chopping and changing in the WFC2 starting line-up, as has the rotation of the remaining USL squad members in order to get as many minutes for all the young players as possible.
“Obviously you want to go and get results but it’s about development,” Robinson added. “It really is about development at that level for me. If Alan can push players into my team in the next couple of years or I can get players games, which I have from the first team, it’s a vital tool.”
After a mixed start, the Caps are starting to see the best of both worlds – player developmental time and wins in the process.
At the halfway stage of the season, WFC2 sits with a 3-7-4 record and 13 points. Not fantastic, but not the worst in the league either. They currently sit second bottom of a tight Western Conference, but at the time of writing this, that sees them only four points off the sixth and final playoff place in the West.
Still a lot to play for down the stretch and like MLS, a run of wins or a run of losses can see a team rise or fall down that table pretty quickly.
With a young squad that was put together pretty close to when the season got underway, it’s been an overall pleasing start to their inaugural campaign in the eyes of WFC2 head coach Alan Koch.
“We’re halfway through the season and we’re only four points out of a playoff spot,” Koch said after last Sunday’s loss to LA. “That’s a huge positive for the group that we have. It’s a young group. I think we still have the youngest group in the league.
“To be at the halfway mark and be only four points out, that’s a huge positive. As much as we’re going to address things that weren’t good today [in the loss to LA II], we are in a good place and hopefully we can continue the good work that the guys have been putting in during the second half of the season.”
Koch echoed Robinson’s comments as to the exact purpose of the team, telling us that “as much as this group is about development, that’s the primary mandate, we want to get results”.
And they have been coming. The team was unbeaten at home before LA came to town and had a four game unbeaten streak before hitting their current three match losing one. Fine lines, as Robinson would say.
But all things considered, is the team where Koch was hoping they would be at this stage of the season or is he a little bit disappointed that they’re not a bit further along in terms of development and results?
“Tough question after we’ve just lost 2-0 and we didn’t play very well,” Koch told us. “We are in a good place. The team has got better, I’d say, every single week, other than this week, so we’ve come on a long, long way. A lot of the young players have really improved and the experience that they’re getting is invaluable.
“They’re much, much better players now than they were when we started the season. I think we’ve come together as a group. We’re creating a team identity. So after 14 games, we’re in a much better place now than we were at the start of the season and I hope after the next 14 games we can say the exact same thing.”
It will certainly be interesting to see who the standout players have been come the end of the season.
So far, a few have impressed, some unexpectedly, others have been slow to find their feet but are starting to come on to their game, and some have struggled and you have to give the honest assessment that they aren’t likely to be with the club next year if they don’t show rapid improvement.
We won’t name names at this stage, that’s not fair considering the whole set-up of the team. It should also be remembered that for the vast majority, this is their first experience of the pro game and they’re coming up against some much older players. Players will also learn and find their feet and comfort zone at different paces.
And while it may sound harsh, part of the remit of the team is to see which players the Whitecaps should continue investing in and which players aren’t ready or likely to make the grade and should be cut free. Expect a big turnaround in this team over the years. Football’s a tough business. You need to perform to survive.
Have WFC2’s games shown that any of the MLS players stepping down could make an impact in the first team squad? Yes. And is there talent on the USL roster that could develop into a MLS player one day? Again, yes. So a win-win situation there.
Moving in to the second half of the season now, there are some clear areas that Koch and his coaching team will need to focus on at both ends of the pitch.
Defensively, WFC2 have a tendency to ship goals. The goals against total of 24 is the highest in all of USL and can’t continue if they have the playoffs in mind. That’s two dozen goals conceded in 14 matches and two of those saw clean sheets. Considering a lot of the Caps defence has consisted of MLS guys this season, that’s a bit of a worry.
“Obviously conceding those goals is disappointing, so we do have to tidy it up at the back,” Koch told us. “The positives are we’re creating a lot of chances but didn’t score. So we’ve got to address both sides of the ball.
“We’ve got make sure we defend better. The big part of that for the young players is learning to communicate a lot more on the field. Sometimes they’re timid and sometimes they show that they actually can grab the bull by the horns and sometimes they don’t.”
While the aim of WFC2 is to mirror the playing style of the MLS team in terms of formation and tactics, they also seem to have inherited their missedchanceitis. The team are looking good going forward every game until it gets to the final third and chances are regularly squandered.
Caleb Clarke leads the scoring charts with five goals, but the Whitecaps overall total of 14 goals is second worst in the Conference and sixth worst in the 24 team league.
Those 14 goals have come from 151 attempted shots, 72 of which have been on target. It’s been tough going but a few more chances going in here or there would have made one hell of a difference to the teams standing.
‘Every game that we’ve played, we’ve created chances,” Koch continued. “We’ve just got to have the confidence and composure to go and take them. So we’ll address both sides. Aim for a clean sheet and aim to score goals and hopefully that’ll lead to good performances and positive results too.”
WFC2 get the second half of their debut season underway this afternoon with a home Cascadian clash with Timbers 2. Portland are currently sitting in that sixth and final playoff spot in the west, so it’s a game which could give us all an indication as to whether the remainder of the season will be an exciting playoff battle or a tough slog with development and improvement very much in focus with an eye to next year already.
For everyone involved, let’s hope it’s the former!