As WFC2 await USL playoff opponents, coach Alan Koch is confident his young squad “can go and beat anybody”
Vancouver Whitecaps 2’s USL playoff picture is a little bit clearer following Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over OKC Energy in Langley, although their first playoff opponents still won’t be known until after this weekend’s final round of matches.
Swope Park Rangers 3-1 win over Tulsa Roughnecks earlier on Wednesday night meant that the ‘Caps will miss out on a home playoff game, in the first round at least, but postseason positioning was still key and up for grabs as they took on OKC at McLeod Stadium.
Heading in to the game, WFC2 sat sixth in the standings, with the visitors in seventh spot. Victory for Vancouver in their final game of the regular season meant they would finish fifth at best, sixth at worst.
It was a little bit heart in your mouth stuff at times in the second half, but the ‘Caps came away with a hard fought 2-1 win. A great way to end the regular season and it will give the team a big lift heading into the playoffs.
“Great win” WFC2 head coach Alan Koch told AFTN after the match. “The first 45 minutes we played some very, very good football. The best we’ve played in a long time.
“I’m glad we had to endure a little bit of adversity in the second half because that’s the type of situations that can obviously present themselves in the playoffs. Very, very happy with the performance and obviously very happy with the result.”
The ‘Caps snapped their five game winless streak thanks to a Marco Bustos brace, the first a 16th minute penalty and the crucial second from a beautiful deft finish with 16 minutes remaining.
It could have been more. Kyle Greig saw a first half header crash off the bar and there were a few other close calls and penalty box scrambles, but they also rode their luck a little in the second half as OKC raised the tempo and put them under the cosh for much of the half, with Kadin Chung coming up with a huge goalline clearance and Spencer Richey looking solid in goal.
The ‘Caps defence switched off at a free kick with nine minutes remaining, allowing Michael Thomas to brilliantly loop home a header, but the team held out for a big three points that moves them up to fifth in the table for now.
It was a great all-round team performance, but Koch took time to particularly praise his three MLS midfielders, after some tough times for them of late with the team.
“Very, very proud of Marco Bustos, Ben McKendry, and Kianz Froese,” Koch said. “Obviously I took them off the last game at half time. It’s not an easy situation to deal with as a professional footballer. I’m very proud of how they responded. I thought all three of them were very good tonight, so hopefully they can build on that. Kudos to them, they did very, very well.”
After their stunning ten-game unbeaten start to the season, the last few weeks have been a struggle at times for the ‘Caps, with just one win in their last ten matches before the OKC game.
The team has slipped down the standings as a result and Koch had challenged his side for a response and to build some momentum to head into their first ever USL playoff campaign. That’s just what he got.
“It was exactly what we needed,” a delighted Koch admitted. “We’ve struggled the last third of the season. We haven’t been as good as we were through the first two thirds. A lot of that has to do with changing players. We haven’t had a consistent line-up by any means and we’ve played a lot of young guys during that time.
“But we’ve won players this season when we’ve played young players too. I’m proud of how we’ve evolved as a group and how the individual players have embraced the opportunity they’ve been given. Guys got given the opportunity tonight [v OKC] and you could tell they were hungry for it.
“We even said at half time, you can feel that positive energy. It’s infectious. They feed off it and full credit to them, they put their best foot forward tonight and we can build on that and go into the playoffs now with a little confidence.”
Just who the Whitecaps will face in the playoffs will be known come Saturday night. As things stand right now, it would be a trip to Swope Park Rangers. But Callum Irving’s Rio Grande Valley is also a distinct possibility. A lot can change on Saturday, with all to play for for a number of teams.
Whoever the ‘Caps face, they’ll be confident of going in and getting the job done and will have ten days rest now to prepare for them.
“We’ve obviously got to figure out where we’ll go, and we’ll find that out this weekend,” Koch told us. “To be honest, we don’t really care where we go. There’s a lot of parity in this league between probably all eight teams that will make the playoffs. I wouldn’t say there’s one team that’s any better than anybody else. We’ll go one game at a time, as you should obviously in the playoffs.
“We’ll give the guys Thursday off. We’ll come back on Friday. A lot of the USL guys will have some time off at the weekend. They’ll need it, it’s been a long season, then when we know exactly where we’re going and when we go, next week we’ll start preparing and hopefully have a good week of training here before we hit the road and go put our best foot forward.”
The ‘Caps will be hoping to have as full and as healthy a squad as possible for the playoff campaign, but there are still some doubts over a couple of players with Daniel Haber being stretchered off on the hour mark of the win against OKC last night after coming on as a half time sub.
“It looks a like a bit of a hip pointer,” was Koch’s initial thoughts. “Hip pointers can be sometimes quick and sometimes can take a long time. We’ll hopefully stay optimistic but we’ll probably know more in the next 48 hours.”
It would be a big loss to be without the Canadian international, who leads WFC2 in assists and has seven goals on the year. And the news may not be much better for two other injured players, Will Seymore and Deklan Wynne.
“Both are probably going to be touch and go for the playoffs,” Koch added. “It’s another ten days. Both, I wouldn’t say they were day to say just yet, but they’re getting close. We’d like to have everybody available in ten days’ time, so hopefully they will be close. Matt Baldi[simo] will be back from a suspension, which will be nice to include him too, and then we’ll see. The first team’s got two games between now and next week, and we’ll see who we’re given.”
Although not getting a home playoff game is disappointing, Koch feels his side have proved that they can go and get the job done on the road, coming home with five wins and five draws from their 15 away matches. And if anything there’s less pressure on the side to go and play in front of an away crowd.
“We like playing on the road, to be honest,” Koch said. “You go away and there’s less pressure in some respects. You may play in front of bigger crowds, but the President of the club may not be watching you, Robbo may not be in the stands, that type of deal. It makes it a little bit easier for some of the young guys to go out and play. There is less pressure from that perspective.
“Having said that, when you play at home and if the President, the Vice-President, whoever’s watching you, the owners, you’ve got to step up. In our environment, you’ve got to embrace every challenge, no matter how much pressure is placed on you.”
Wherever they end up, Koch feels his team can go and win anywhere and keep their USL Championship dreams alive.
“For us, to be honest, it sounds kind of crazy to say this, but it doesn’t matter playing home or away at this stage,” Koch said. “It’s another development opportunity for our guys and we believe that we can go and beat anybody. We’ve done it this season, so why not go and win that first game, and if we win that first game we focus on the second game.”