After back to back group wins and agonising quarter-final losses in 2014 and 2015, Vancouver Whitecaps U16s were left bitterly disappointed and with “a lot of regrets” to not make it past the first round of the USSDA playoffs last year, after being tipped to make run for the championship.
It was hard to really know what to expect from the U16s this season, with so many of last season’s squad either moving up to the U18 team or leaving the program altogether. Head coach Adam Day told us as the start of the season that he thought it may take the group till the second half of the campaign to reach it’s full flow.
But the young ‘Caps came out of the gate strongly, winning five of their first eight matches, four of them with clean sheets, and put together an excellent year to land another Northwest Division title, clinching it by a single point thanks to a 2-0 win over Seattle Sounders in the final match of the regular season.
And Day was delighted with how the year’s played out.
“Really pleased with how the group has progressed throughout the season,” Day told AFTN. “I don’t think any of us were really sure how this season would shape up as normally we would have 8-12 starters returning to the group but that wasn’t the case this year.
“We had a lot of changes and a lot of “2nd years” (brand new to the club) come in and have to perform. In addition we’ve asked younger players to step up and they have all done that. We are not about winning but as I’ve said many times before, winning is a by product of the hard work that goes into training.
“Firstly the players, the supporting staff, and then the coaches collectively, and we have achieved what the previous two teams have achieved. We are divisional winners and a top eight seed going into playoffs, so all I can say is many congratulations to the boys, their hard work has paid off.”
The ‘Caps U16s finished the season with a record of 20 wins, 2 draws, and 9 defeats from their 31 matches, scoring 84 goals and conceding just 28, and coming away with 15 clean sheets. Forward Jose Hernandez led the way in the scoring charts with 18 goals from 26 appearances, with midfielders Alessandro Hojabrpour and Gurman Sangha adding 11 goals each.
In all, 13 players found the back of the net for the ‘Caps this season, in some excellent team performances. Their biggest win of the season came in January, with a 7-0 thumping away to De Anza Force in California, but they also had a couple of 6-0 victories and seven others by more than a four goal margin.
That’s seen them head into the postseason as the 8th seeds, and the top seeded team in a very tough group for this week’s first round of the USSDA playoffs alongside three other MLS academies – the 15th ranked LA Galaxy, 19th seeded Philadelphia Union, and 26th ranked Houston Dynamo.
Three teams that Day and his squad know very well, and the ‘Caps coach was left with conflicting feelings with how the group has ended up.
“We joked last year that we had the group of death but then we get this years draw!,” Day told us. “I have some mixed emotions about the draw. I think firstly frustrated that we were not really rewarded with being a top eight seed. Secondly, a little disappointed with being drawn against teams who we have regularly faced over the last 12/18 months.
“It would have been nice to have played someone different, Montreal, Kansas, Columbus, DC, Chicago etc, but then I think my overriding feeling now is excitement. You want to be involved in meaningful games and our group doesn’t get much more meaningful than this.”
First up, on Thursday at 12.30pm PT, is the Dynamo. Houston are a wildcard team and the fifth lowest ranked team in the playoffs, so Vancouver will feel confident about getting their 2017 playoff campaign off to a successful start.
Houston finished fifth in the Frontier Division of the Central Conference, posting a record of 13 wins, 6 draws, and 7 losses in their 26 matches, scoring 44 and conceding 34 goals. Domingo Mba Mba Ayecaba seems to be the main dangerman for the Dynamo, scoring 13 goals on the year in 25 appearances. If the ‘Caps can contain him, then there doesn’t look to be too much danger elsewhere.
Philadelphia Union are next up for the Whitecaps on Saturday. The Union finished third in the Atlantic Division of the East Conference with a 14 wins, 6 draws, and 6 losses, record. With 61 goals for in their 26 games, they can certainly find the back of the net, yet no one player hit double figures. 41 goals conceded will give the ‘Caps a lot of confidence that their free scoring team can do some damage in this one.
That could set up a Monday showdown with LA Galaxy for a place in the quarter-finals.
LA finished third in a hotly contested Southwest Division of the West Conference, winning 20 games and drawing and losing eight, in their 36 matches. They banged in 80 goals, so can score, but also conceded 50, so are ripe for the plucking. Forwards Misael Becerra and Ulysses Llanez seem to be the danger men, with 27 goals between them (16 and 11 respectively).
All in all, a tough group, but certainly a very winnable one, and with only the top side advancing, Day is cautiously optimistic.
“We have three great games lined up against opposition we’ve faced this year,” Day said. “We were dominant against Houston Dynamo in the showcase with 10 men and drew, we beat Philadelphia 4-0, and a few weeks back we got hit on the break to lose at home to the Galaxy, so I don’t think anyone will know what is going to happen in Indianapolis.
“What my challenge to the group will be is we know we can beat all three of those sides, can we do it three times in five days? The boys are in great spirits, form is good, so one game at a time and we will go from there.”