After a couple of heartbreaking quarter-final losses in 2014 and 2015, Vancouver Whitecaps U16s are looking to advance to the last four of the USSDA playoffs for the first time on Thursday night. Standing in their way are familiar foes, and fierce Cascadian rivals, Seattle Sounders.
Both sides won their groups at the academy playoffs in Indiana last week, but were made to work hard for their spot in the quarter-finals.
The 8th seeded ‘Caps beat a ten-man Houston Dynamo side 3-0 in their first game, before their own ten man side lost a late one 4-3 to Philadelphia Union. Other results meant the young ‘Caps fate was still in their own hands. They needed to win to advance and Keisean Brooks’ winner against LA Galaxy, seven minutes from time, saw them clinch their place in the last eight for the third time in the last four years.
It was a gruelling few days for the squad, with a lot of emotional ups and downs, but head coach Adam Day was delighted with how his young group responded to the challenges they faced to claim a deserved place in the quarter-finals.
“I thought we were immense,” Day told AFTN. “Three tough games in five days was always going to be tough but in the end I felt we were deserving winners. We completely controlled the first game vs Houston and that could have been 5 or 6.
“The Philadelphia game was hard on the boys. We recovered at 2-1 and got hit with a penalty, red card and 2-2 right on the stroke of half time. Another penalty put us behind but we were the better team with 10 men. We sat in and hit them on the break and we should have won it, then somehow we lost it.
“The last game was always going to be the toughest. LA are the usually one of the best with their ball movement and combination play, and aside from our goal, we didn’t get near them in the first half but we dug in. I felt physically we started to dip in the second half but around the 60 minute mark, LA had lost their impetus and we were deservedly rewarded with the winner seven minutes from the end . We always ask the boys to max out physically and the boys did themselves proud.”
The Sounders came through their group games with an unbeaten record after two wins and a draw. The 17th seeded Sounders beat BW Gottschee Academy 2-1 in their first game and 2nd seeded Sockers FC 1-0 in their second. That set up a last match showdown with New York Red Bulls. Seattle just needed a point to advance and they got it with a 1-1 draw.
The quarter-final draw now sets up the fourth meeting between the teams this season, and Vancouver will head into the match as narrow favourites, after pipping Seattle to the Northwest Division title in the last match of the regular season.
The first game between the two rivals came early on in the season, with the Whitecaps playing host to the Sounders up at SFU in their sixth match of the campaign on October 29th. Seattle were dominant that afternoon, coming away with the 3-0 victory thanks to a goal in each half from Cameron Martin and a late third from Connor Drought.
The new look ‘Caps were still finding their feet together in that much and they turned the tables on the Sounders in the second meeting down at Starfire on March 11th. Alessandro Hojabrpour (pictured below) opened the scoring for Vancouver in the 24th minute, with Jose Hernandez adding a second ten minutes later for a 2-0 final.
And it was the same scoreline and scorers when the young ‘Caps headed south for their final match of the regular season on May 31. Both goals came early, with Hernandez opening the scoring just five minutes in and Hojabrpour adding a second just two minutes later.
Those recent results will see Vancouver full of confidence heading into their quarter-final match-up on Thursday, but Day is expecting nothing but a battle from two teams that know each other so well.
“I think it’s a great match up on many levels,” Day told us. “We pipped them at their place on the last game of the season to win the division, Cascadia rivals, MLS peers, and of course we know each other inside out. I think the first goal will be crucial. We have shown our dominance in the last two matches when we have scored first and won, so we will be looking at more of the same.
“I think the game will be very tight and it is perfectly poised. They are an organized team who like to get the ball down and play but at the same time they can be more direct so we need to be prepared for everything. It is a game that can go either way, but we certainly hope it goes our way on the day.
Vancouver outscored Seattle 84 goals to 51 over the course of the regular season, but the ‘Caps lost two more matches than the Sounders, eventually finishing four points ahead of their Cascadian rivals in the final standings, and one point ahead of Crossfire Premier.
The goals have been spread around for Seattle, with ten players finding the net. Azriel Gonzalez is certainly their dangerman to watch, leading the team with 13 goals from 22 appearances, but Keeton Heggerness and Cameron Martin with seven goals each, and Alec Diaz with six, will also need to be carefully marked.
Vancouver’s firepower has been exceptional, with Hernandez (pictured below) leading the way with 22 goals from 29 appearances, including four so far in the playoffs. Hojabrpour has also had a great year, banging in 11 goals and contributing a numbers of assists, and Jefferson Alade is in excellent form after his return from injury and has 10 goals on the year, including three in the playoffs.
The ‘Caps will be hoping it will be third time lucky, with the U16s having been at this stage on two previous occasions, but having gone out to two narrow defeats.
In 2014, they were forced to play their “home” quarter-final against Chicago Magic PSG in Bellingham due to the visitor’s travel issues and couldn’t catch a break, hitting the woodwork three times and seeing another three chances cleared off the goalline, before going down to a 2-1 defeat, with Dario Zanatta getting the only goal for the ‘Caps.
A year later, they crashed out 5-4 on penalties to Georgia United, after their match finished 2-2 at the end of extra time, thanks to goals from Cole Morokhovich and Michael Baldisimo.
Last season hopes were high that a very talented U16 side could make it as far as the Championship game, but a poor week of group games saw them bow out of the playoffs at the first hurdle.
The vast majority of that group moved up to the U18 side for this term, leaving the U16s to be rebuilt with a new crop of talent. It was expected that the group would take a bit of time to find their chemistry and flow, but they started strongly and seldom looked back.
So what would it mean to finally advance past the quarter-final stage for the first time at this level?
“I don’t think I can put into words what it would mean to this group in particular,” Day said. “We have had two previous opportunities at playoffs in my tenure with teams expected to challenge for the title and unfortunately we didn’t deliver. That expectation was never put on this group and they have really grown over the last six months and the reality is now, only eight teams can win it and they are one of them.
“They have gained belief over the playoff week and they have a different hunger and rawness to them, they will be ready. Internally we talk about meaningful games and getting to a semi-final, and potential final, are the pinnacle of meaningful games because trophies are on the line. Winning is a culture important to any future professional footballer and I hope we as a team and club get to showcase ourselves another time after the match vs Seattle.”
The quarter-final showdown kicks off at UBC’s Ken Woods Field at 6pm on Thursday. AFTN will be bringing you full coverage, but if you can get along to the game in person, please do, as the lads would really appreciate your support.