The United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) playoffs are with us once more. So you know what that means, it’s time for AFTN’s annual Residency Week!
Both Vancouver Whitecaps’ U16s and U18s have qualified for the group stages once again and flew down to the Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Indiana at the weekend with high hopes and expectations of advancing to the last eight and the quarter-finals.
We’ll be bringing you our usual mix of interviews, “Ones To Watch” breakdowns and a full playoff round-up over the course of Residency Week, but we’ll kick things off with a quick recap of the Whitecaps Residency’s season so far and a look ahead to the teams facing them in Indiana this week.
The playoffs will take the same format as last year with 32 teams in each age group split into eight round robin groups of four. Only the winners will advance to the quarter-final stage, which will once again be played as four one-off matches, with the winners of those heading to LA for the Final Four weekend.
And the good news for the Whitecaps teams is that if they advance again to that quarter-final stage, that game will be held in Vancouver and not in Bellingham as they were forced to do before. It’s up to the opposition to make sure they have passports, so some advancements there at least.
It’s been a relatively good season for both the Whitecaps U16s and U18s. Strange to say just relatively when both teams have qualified for the playoffs? Well after the way it started, especially for the U18s, it looked like it was going to be a romp!
Instead a lot of squad upheaval and some key departures from the program hit the ‘Caps hard and it took them a few games to recover, regroup and find out where the goals were to come from once again.
The Under 18s started the season in amazing form. They were unbeaten with 11 straight wins to kick off the 2014/15 campaign, banging in 43 goals in the process, including an 8-0 victory over Nomads SC.
Hat-tricks were the order of the day with Marco Bustos bagging a few and Dario Zanatta joining in the fun.
Bustos, who was captain of the squad, scored 16 goals in his 12 appearances for the U18s before the Caps management decided that his time and development would be served better training full-time with the MLS squad that he would be joining in January. The ‘Caps considered allowing Bustos to fly down to join the guys for the playoffs to aid his recovery from injury and boost the team but some last minute niggles look to have prevented that.
Losing Bustos was a big loss to the team but it provided the chance for others to step up and Zanatta took on that role before he decided to leave the ‘Caps and the Residency program to explore opportunities overseas in February.
Losing those two key players left a void, along with losing Kianz Froese, who was now with the MLS squad too, and some others who departed for non-footballing reasons. The ‘Caps struggled at first. There were a lot of draws and the goals dried up a little, before the team started to hit their stride again and finished the season with three wins out of their last four games.
The U18s dip in form saw them go from the number one ranked team in all of the USSDA to finishing 4th in a very strong Northwest Division of the Western Conference, ending the season with a record of 19 wins, 8 draws and 5 defeats, for a Point Per Game record of 2.03.
To give you an idea of how tight the Division was, the second and third placed teams have a PPG of 2.06 and the ‘Caps record gave them the 13th best record throughout the USSDA.
But a wildcard place it was and that obviously meant the possibility of being drawn in alongside some of the top Academy teams.
As it ended up, the ‘Caps were drawn into Group A and kick off their playoff bid on Tuesday morning. They’ve been draw into a tough group alongside fellow MLS academy DC United, Shattuck-Saint Mary’s and Oakwood Soccer Club. The good news for the ‘Caps though is that none of their opponents won their Division.
First up is Minnesota side Shattuck-Saint Mary’s at 7am PT on Tuesday.
The Faribault based side just missed out on top spot in the Mid-America Division of the Central Conference by 0.04 in the PPG stakes to Chicago Fire U18s. Draws were their downfall, with 11 on the season compared to just the three losses, but that was good enough to see them ranked 16th in the playoffs.
With 59 goals scored and 33 conceded, the ‘Caps will fancy their chances of getting off to a good start, but U18 coach Rich Fagan knows the excellent reputation of Shattuck-Saint Mary’s in years gone by.
“Shattucks have a really good pedigree and a really good history of always being kind of around that top 16 of the USSDA,” Fagan told AFTN. “We play them first and I imagine that will be a really difficult game for us.”
A tough start and there’s no rest for the U18s either, who are back in action at 7am PT the next day when they take on Oakwood Soccer Club. Oakwood play out of Portland, Connecticut (who knew?!) and finished 3rd in the Northeast Division of the East Conference behind winners Montreal Impact.
Their 10-8-8 record saw them finish with a 1.46 PPG and despite their ranking of 21 in the playoff pool, look to be the easiest opposition for the ‘Caps this week.
“Oakwood, who we’ll play in our second game, I really don’t know too much about,” Fagan admitted. “We’ve never faced them before. On paper it maybe looks like an easier division, but again, don’t really know too much at this point about them.”
Hopefully the ‘Caps will have six points in the bag by the end of that one, with fellow MLS academy DC United the opponents in their final group game at 6am PT on Friday.
DC finished runners-up to the talented New York Red Bulls U18s in the Atlantic Division of the East Conference. They’re ranked 8th in the Playoff Pool and finished the season with a 18-6-2 record and 2.15 PPG. With 82 goals scored and 38 conceded from their 26 matches, 22 goal Eryk Williamson looks to be their big attacking danger.
“DC United play in probably one of the toughest divisions in the entire USSDA,” Fagan told us. “They finished in second place behind the Red Bulls, who we’ve played three times in the last four years. It’s always our toughest match. They’re always our toughest opponents and it’s always been close games between those two.
“I don’t want to say that that’ll be the toughest game, but I imagine it will be one of the hardest of the three.”
It’ll certainly be a challenge for the U18s. There’s no doubting their defensive strength but can they do enough in attack to break down these teams? We’ll soon find out but there is definitely a confident air amongst the group.
The same can be said for the U16s, who made it back to back Northwest Division championships after a dominant season that sees them seeded 7th in the playoffs.
The upheaval in the U18s meant a lot of players had to make the step up early this season to play at the higher level, but it just shows the depth of talent coming through the Whitecaps Residency system right now that despite missing those players, those remaining and those who were brought in stepped up and continued to strong play of the U16s all season long.
The team finished the season with 20 wins, 7 draws and just 5 losses from their 32 matches, with a PPG record of 2.09. With 79 goals scored and only 34 against, the ‘Caps were a scoring powerhouse, with Daniel Sagno (16 goals), Amanda Glorie (13) and Terran Campbell (11), leading the way.
They recorded two 7-0 victories, one against Colorado Rush at home in November and away to Santa Cruz Breakers in May.
The ‘Caps U16s ended the season with four clean sheets in their final five matches and are heading into the playoffs looking to follow up on their group win at this stage last year.
The U16s also kick off their playoff campaign on Tuesday, this time at the rather more toasty 1.30pm PT (which is 4.30pm local time). That in itself will be tough, but a number of the ‘Caps players on both squads have played down there before and they were all training in Burnaby playing with jackets on in the hot temperatures we’ve had here the past few weeks, followed by saunas!
First up for the U16’s is Atlanta side Concorde Fire. The Fire didn’t initially qualify for the playoffs after finishing 7th in the Southeast Division of the East Conference and one place outside the wildcard pool. But they’re in now! How? No idea. Can’t find it anywhere!
Concorde finished the season 16-12-8, scoring 66 goals and conceding 64. They shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for the freescoring ‘Caps.
Once the Fire have been extinguished, the ‘Caps are out for some revenge on Wednesday when they face Chicago Magic PSG, again at 1.30pm PT.
The Magic beat the ‘Caps U16s 2-1 at the quarter-final stage last season, in a controversial home match for Vancouver that had to be played south of the border in Bellingham due to passport issues for the Chicago side and featured some dodgy refereeing calls.
Chicago Magic finished 4th in the Mid-America Division of the Central Conference this season with a 12-6-9 record and 42 goals for and 32 against. That sees them as the 5th wildcard team, so the ‘Caps are favourites to get that revenge.
The final group game is on Friday at 8.15am, so at least they’ll have it a bit cooler when they take on Arsenal. The Californian Gunners finished runners up to the LA Galaxy in the Southwest Division of the West Conference with a 21-12-6 record. The Norco based side banged in 57 goals and conceded 34, ending up with 15th placed ranking in the playoff mix.
The ‘Caps already know the danger that Arsenal can be, with the Californians serving up the ‘Caps first defeat of the season in October and that 1-0 away loss was to be the only match the U16’s lost in their first 14 games.
On paper, the U16’s look to have a fairly easy group. But as we’ve said numerous times before, football’s played on grass (or turf!) and not paper. You don’t want to take anything for granted but at the same time, this group of players should have the self-confidence and belief that they have what it takes to advance to the quarter-finals for the second year running.
“I think we have to stress that to the players,” U16 head coach Adam Day told AFTN. “There’s always anxiety and nerves and excitement going in to it, but we have to try and eliminate that and really look at the black and white facts.
“We are the best team in the group and we’re the best team for a reason. We have to believe in all the hard work we’ve done on and off the field and really go there and make a statement and send a message to everybody else.”
But Day stressed that there’s a difference between going into the playoffs in confident mood and take any team for granted.
“We’re under no illusions,” he continued. “We’re not going to take anybody lightly because anything can happen over the course of 90 minutes, but we should feel confident in what we do because we feel we’re one of the best, if not THE best, in North America and it’s down to us to prove it. That’s not a pressure to the guys, it’s a reality of what we expect from them.”
And those expectations of just how well the Whitecaps teams will do in this year’s Academy playoffs runs high throughout the club.
Watching the week play out with much interest from afar, with be the Whitecaps’ MLS coach Carl Robinson.
Robinson has always shown a lot of interest in the ‘Caps Residency program since coming to Vancouver as assistant coach in 2012. You’d expect nothing less, of course, from a coach who loves to play and develop young players.
So how does he view the chances of both sides this time around, and just what would it mean to the club for one or both of them to come home with the Championship trophy in July?
“It’s very important,” Robinson told AFTN. “I sat down with the parents of the 14s, 16s and 18s on Tuesday night to discuss the progress of the club moving forward. We talk about young players being given opportunities and I said to them I can stand here and say we will give your son a chance and if I never played young players in my first team then they’d probably look straight through me.
“I said the proof is in the pudding and the pudding is right there in front of us in that we’ve got homegrown Residency players in our first team MLS squad. We don’t need to say it, we’re showing it and we’re doing it and we want your son, providing he’s ready, to be the next one to come through.”
“The Academy finals are huge. It sets a marker for us. I firmly believe that we can go and do very well there. I believe we can go and win it. Why not? Because in any tournament you enter you want to go on and win. But it will show the strength of the program because if we want to attract the best young players, we’ve got to show we’re playing young players but we’ve got to show we’re successful as well. It’s a great stepping stone for us if we can go on and win it.”