Football can be a cruel mistress. So can Simone, but that’s for another time.
A couple of days have passed since the heartbreak of Vancouver Whitecaps U16s penalty shootout loss to Georgia United in USSDA quarter-final action on Wednesday night.
It had been a pulsating game. End to end stuff in 100 minutes of action. Four well-taken goals, chances galore at both ends, shots cleared off the line, crossbars rattled and two excellent goalkeeping displays. An enjoyable evening up at SFU but one that only served to send us to penalty kicks.
It’s always the cruellest way to lose a match, but no-one can really find a better solution and let’s be honest, they’re always exciting. Tense, nervy and agonising, but exciting none the less.
The game got off to the best possible start for the young ‘Caps when Cole Morokhovich headed home Daniel Sagno’s cross just over a minute in. It looked like the scene was set for a joyous and historic night up on the mountain at SFU and the Whitecaps went for the killer second.
Despite numerous chances, with Terran Campbell having a dipping long range effort tipped over the bar midway through the half, and several goalmouth scrambles, that second goal didn’t come and the ‘Caps were soon made to rue those missed opportunities.
While Vancouver dominated the first half, Georgia United came out all guns blazing to start the second and thought they’d got back on levels terms four minutes in when USSDA leading scorer, the 32 goal Patrick Okonkwo, powerfully headed home a free kick but was called offside.
But the ‘Caps didn’t learn from their slack defensive play and were soon punished seconds later when the outstanding Andrew Carleton, who just turned 15 in June, curled home a low cross to tie things up.
Vancouver nearly restored their lead when Campbell went on a strong run and flashed a shot just past the left post in the 54th minute and it was those fine lines that Carl Robinson always talks about as Georgia went up the pitch and scored.
It was Carleton again, this time brilliantly curling a free kick around the wall and perfectly placing it into the bottom right corner of the net. Quite the turnaround but it only served to spur the Vancouver players on in front of the large crowd and Michael Baldisimo tied things up again with ten minutes remaining, coolly slotting home a Kadin Chung cross that came through to him at the back post. 2-2 and very much game on.
That goal set up a grandstand finish, with both goalkeepers needing to be in top form.
Georgia pushed hard to finish it in normal time and Frazer Poulter was lucky to see his attempted clearance head goalbound but tipped around the post from under the crossbar by Luciano Trasolini.
The ‘Caps keeper was called into action again moments later when another Carleton free kick looked to be heading in before Trasolini tipped it on to the cross bar and Poulter cleared the headed rebound off the goalline.
Vancouver were on the rack and Trasolini stood tall again to tip another dipping Carleton effort on to the bar, this time a long range deflected one from just inside the ‘Caps half.
But the ‘Caps had the final chance of normal time when Campbell saw his effort cleared off the line and we were heading to two ten minute periods of extra time where first Nicolas Apostal and then Noah Verhoeven had chances to win it for Vancouver in the closing moments, but found Georgia keeper Samuel Morton in fantastic form. And I still feel the Caps should have got a penalty in the first half of extra time!
So it came to penalties. Midfielder Munir Saleh (pictured below), who had been excellent throughout, stepped up first but saw Morton save his kick. The next nine were all buried, perfectly placed as well, and Georgia advanced 5-4 on pens to face New York Red Bulls in the semi-final in Carson California this coming Thursday.
A truly heartbreaking end and Wednesday’s loss will still sting for the losing ‘Caps and hurt like hell these many hours later. But they should be proud of the performance they put in, the season they had and what lies ahead for them.
Carl Robinson was there to offer some words of encouragement to the team at the final whistle, but just what do you say a group of young guys to pick them up after a game like that where they left everything out on the pitch?
“I said to them football’s happens like that,” Robinson told AFTN. “Sometimes decisions are made by the gentleman up above that you don’t agree with and it’s important you learn from these occasions and these times and these moments.
“But more importantly they had all their loved ones in the crowd supporting them. I said to them when I’m finished talking go over there and give them a hug because they’re the ones that will be there for you through thick and thin, whether things go well or not.
“And I said, they should be proud of themselves because they did everything to win the game. Unfortunately the penalty shoot-out, as we found out last year in the Amway Cup when Toronto beat us at home, they didn’t deserve to beat us, they did, it happens. But it’s how you grow as a player from that.”
And although it may not feel like it right now, this game will be a great moment of growth for all of the players and teach them some valuable lessons in their development. Might all sound a bit clichéd but it is true.
The loss should hit home hard the need to take their chances for one. The ‘Caps could have been out of sight by half time. It’ll also let some players know where they are compared to their peers and what they need to work on over the summer.
It was a great team effort, but there were some fantastic individual performances in there, all of which should be used as a springboard to further develop their games. Robinson agrees.
“Some fantastic performances from some of the individuals,” Robinson told us. “I went round and I spoke to some of the individuals because I felt they deserved the respect of me speaking to them as a group but also individually.
“Kadin Chung and Tommy Gardner were absolutely fantastic. Munir, who missed the penalty, tough moment for him, but he’ll come strong. He was the best midfielder on the park for me, without a doubt. We’ve got some great young talent, great young Canadian talent, coming through.”
Little comfort to Vancouver but they lost to a very good Georgia side with some really strong talent. Morton was a different maker in goal and was solid throughout, keeping his team in the game in the first half. It was clear to see why Okonkwo had hit so many goals this season. He looked a player mature above his years and it’s no wonder he’s picked up a full ride scholarship from my eavesdropping in on relation’s conversations!
Then what can you say about Carleton? The Man of the Match, two great goals, couple of other close calls and coolly tucked away the winning penalty. He’s already been capped by the US at youth level and certainly seems to be one to watch. I wonder if Robbo managed to stick some discovery rights on him.
Georgia were delighted by their win, as they should be. Celebrating three times on the pitch in front of the shattered ‘Caps was perhaps a bit excessive (once at the final whistle and two rounds of Olés), but it’s what I would have hoped the Caps would have done if they had won down there. And if they wouldn’t have (too un-Canadian?) then they need to add that side to their game if they want to make it. We need players that have that niggle to rub victory and success into the faces of those who they have beaten. Nice guys don’t win in this game, you need that ruthless streak. That they also need to learn.
If I was U16 head coach and U18 head coach Rich Fagan, I would use those celebrations to spur the guys on come the new season starting in September. Take this picture below:
Print it off, pin it up in the dressing room and remind the guys how they felt with the defeat last season. Remind them how bad it was to see Georgia celebrate winning on their turf and tell them to make sure they don’t have that feeling again come next year’s playoffs. You grow and develop by using such failures and low points to take you to that next level. It can sometimes be the best motivation going.
So what about the future?
Well the Residency program certainly appears to be in great shape. This U16s group is likely the one that will produce the next crop of homegrown talent to join the MLS and USL squads.
Half the group will move up to the U18 level next season. They’ve all got another two or three years of development at youth level ahead of them but if they continue to develop and fulfill their potential, you can see a number of the players making the next jump when they graduate from the Residency program.
The Whitecaps have the highest number of homegrown signings on their roster in all of MLS (eight and counting). The latest additions of Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese are blazing a trail for this current group of young talent. Then you have all the homegrown guys on the USL roster as well.
It was great to see so many former homegrown players, and other MLS first teamers, in attendance on Wednesday night in a crowd of several hundred. It lets the young players know that this is a Club. A Club with a pathway from the first team all the way down to the pre-Residency teams.
The path is set now for the players in the Residency. They have something to clearly aspire to and that is one of the most pleasing aspects of the Whitecaps for Robinson right now.
“We’ve created a clear pathway now, which is the hardest thing to do because sometimes clubs are disjointed and they don’t have that pathway to create for young players to easily transition through from the Residency to USL to the first team,” Robinson told us. “My job, 18 months ago, was to try and create a pathway and I think I’ve done that by playing the guys in the first team.
“Creating a pathway with the USL, the club have been fantastic giving us support with the USL team, which is an important part of their development and we’ve got great young talent coming through the Under 16s and 18s now.
There certainly is and it’s not just here in Vancouver. The Whitecaps have set up a string of academies recently on Vancouver Island and throughout other parts of British Columbia, expanding into their development territories in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and soon to be western Ontario if reports are to be believed.
It’s a great investment from the club and one which will just add to the Residency talent in years to come, but Robinson doesn’t want to rest on his laurels and stop there.
“I want to go a step further and I want to try and identify these guys as 11, 12 and 13-year-olds,” Robinson added. “We don’t want to miss any talent because if we do, we’re not doing our jobs correctly. So it’s a lot of work, a lot of miles, a lot of conversations but it’s definitely worthwhile because if you look at the bigger picture, we want to find the best Canadians.
“It’ll happen over a period of time. It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s a process. We’ve got the first steps in the correct order with our process. Now we’ve got to go and find more players and find the best players because we don’t just want standard players, we want the top players, because there are top players out in Canada, without a doubt.”