Well that was a wild weekend of USL playoff action.
By the end of it, the top three seeds in the Western Conference had crashed out and WFC2 were hosting a semi-final match at Thunderbird Stadium on Saturday. Three of the top four seeds in the East remain, including the top two, but the weekend’s results have blown the USL Championship wide open.
No matter how their game played out in Colorado Springs on Friday night, it had been a season of success for WFC2 in their second year in the league.
More points, more wins, a first playoff appearance, and players knocking on the door of the first team. Any sort of playoff run would just be the icing on the cake. Now they’ve added their first USL playoff victory and hosting their first ever home playoff match to those achievements.
“[We’re] Ecstatic,” WFC2 head coach Alan Koch told AFTN. “It’s great to go to a place where we haven’t won before and get a result like that. Very, very happy that we could do it with the group that we had. A lot of young guys and it was their first playoff opportunity and they embraced that opportunity.”
Vancouver’s starting line-up for the match had an average age of 21 years and 8 months, but taking the “old man” of the team, 26-year-old Kyle Greig, out of the equation, that average fell to an incredible 19 years and 3 months.
WFC2 captain Greig was the only player to have experienced the USL playoffs before, from his time OKC Energy. Now the whole squad have had that taste, and those first round nerves have gone. Heading in to the match, Greig’s message to team was simple.
“We’ve said any team can beat any team, and everybody knows that,” Greig stated. “That’s what I kind of reiterated to the guys. If we play at our best there’s nothing to fear. We can get a victory out of this.
“Colorado’s a tough place to play. I don’t think many teams won there during the season. We knew that we’d got a point there, so I said if we play at our best, we’re better than those guys.”
The ‘Caps knew they had their work cut out when they headed south to face the third-seeded Switchbacks, especially coming on the back of the 3-0 defeat a very young WFC2 side suffered against Colorado Springs just a few weeks earlier.
The home side controlled the early stages, as Vancouver struggled to get much going in attack, and when the in-form Luke Vercollone headed home a 7th minute opener for Colorado Springs, you wondered if it was going to be a long and disappointing night for the ‘Caps.
But the fight and resolve that has been missing at times in the MLS team this season, has been there with WFC2 all season long and it was never more to the fore than on Friday night, as the ‘Caps fought back strongly to tie things up with a Kyle Greig strike just ten minutes later.
“I know we always talk about this as being development, and development opportunities for our guys,” Koch said. “What better opportunity to test our players as to their resolve, and can they deal with this type of environment, than by going down on the road in a playoff game.
“I literally had a thought there that okay, we’re either going to show that we can do it now or ‘oh my god, what’s going to happen’ kind of deal. Give the players credit. They didn’t panic. Scoring a goal pretty quickly after they went down steadies the ship a little bit and the guys took confidence from that and built on it as they went along.”
The desire to get themselves back into the match was fantastic to see, and the team looked more like the ten-game unbeaten WFC2 side from the start of the season, rather than the one that limped into the playoffs over the past two months. The spark was most definitely back.
“There was a little bit of a different vibe in that game,” was defender Brett Levis’ take on the performance against the Switchbacks. “The second half of the season we had a lot of our slumps and we let go of games late in the game. Teams would go up [a goal] and people would start to slouch and question themselves.
“But I think in that game, speaking to the guys after, it was more the mentality throughout the first half of the season. You go down a goal and we weren’t concerned at all, we were going to win that game. Bottom line. I feel like we had that [in Colorado] and if we continue that mentality, I think we’re going to be fine.”
After being under the cosh in the early going, the Whitecaps were in the ascendency after Greig’s goal and they took the lead with what proved to be the match winning strike in the 31st minute, with Kianz Froese drilling home a low one just outside the box to secure the 2-1 victory.
— Whitecaps FC 2 (@wfc2) October 1, 2016
Colorado Springs pushed hard to get back into the match for the last hour, but one of the most pleasing aspects of the result, the win aside, was how resolute the ‘Caps defence was against a dangerous Switchbacks attack.
This was a defence that had given up goals left, right, and centre over the closing weeks of the season, as the ‘Caps finished with a goal differential of zero. With that in mind, there must have been major concerns for Koch and his management team as to whether his young side could hang on to their lead.
“Definitely, because they’re a good team,” Koch readily admits. “If you look at how they’ve played at home, they’ve scored late goals in a lot of their games. That was obviously a concern. I thought we created opportunities to get the next one, and when you don’t get the next one, you always leave yourself exposed.
“Anytime you only have a 1-0 lead, particularly on the road, it is a little bit concerning. But give the guys credit. They showed their character to weather the storm and manage the game very, very well and we’re ecstatic to get the result.”
“[It was] a great, great victory. We’re very happy with the result, but happy with the performance too. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. In possession, we didn’t always make the right decision, but in the playoffs, if you can get through a game like that and you weren’t at your complete best and still win, that’s a huge positive. That gives us something that we can build on. The guys feel confident, they feel good about themselves, and we’re excited now to play the next game.”
Overall it was a fantastic team road performance and a well deserved win.
We’ll admit, when the Switchbacks took the lead, we had those exact same thoughts as Koch, but Greig rallied the team on the pitch and wouldn’t let their heads go down from the early setback. The response was perfect.
“Going down early was kind of tough, but just looking around, none of our heads dropped or anything like that,” added Greig. “I just said, ‘hey, we need to have a reaction from this’, and we had a reaction. Ten minutes later when I got a fortunate ball that popped up to me in the box, that kind of set the tone for the rest of the half. Kianz picked up a goal and our defence was solid. It was a good team performance.”
The victory sets up a home quarter-final clash against OKC Energy. The ‘Caps put in an assured performance to beat the Oklahomans 2-1 at Langley in their last game of the regular season less than two weeks ago. That scoreline didn’t reflect the performance, with WFC2 dominant in the first half, before sitting back a little bit too much in the second.
OKC pulled off an upset of their own over weekend, with the seventh seeds coming back from behind to see off Callum Irving’s second-seeded Rio Grande Valley 3-2 on Saturday. But the biggest upset of the first round was Orange County Blues seeing off the top seeded Sacramento Republic on penalties to set up a semi-final at Swope Park Rangers (who beat LA Galaxy II).
Form, seedings, and previous results are all out the window now, with the path ahead all of a sudden looking a lot more favourable for Vancouver. The ‘Caps certainly should have anything to fear from the three other teams remaining in the West.
“After the [Switchbacks] game, we kind of sat back and once that whistle blew we said if we can go to Colorado and win, we can beat any team in this league,” Levis feels. “That’s our mentality and we’re going to continue working towards that, and hopefully make a push for the final. We can definitely do that.”
With Sacramento, Rio Grande, and Colorado Springs all now out of the equation, it’s looking a very wide open Western Conference and WFC2 have a very realistic chance at making it to the USL Championship game at the end of the month.
“It’s exciting,” Koch told us. “If you’d asked every coach before the playoffs started, I think every one would have said there’s so much parity in this league. It didn’t matter if you were number 1, 8, 2, 7, whatever the case me be. Even playing home or away, it doesn’t really make any difference.
“We’re excited for the game. We’re excited that we don’t have to travel. But having said that, it’s going to be a 50-50 game and we’ll give it our best shot.”
And it looks like Koch will have a very strong WFC2 squad at his disposal against OKC. With no MLS game this weekend, every eligible first team player (those who have played five times in USL over the season) will be available to him, with only the injured Ben McKendry and Marco Bustos, who is away with the Canadian national team, set to miss out.
Acknowledging the importance of the playoffs to the club, Whitecaps first team coach Carl Robinson sees WFC2’s postseason run as a great development opportunity and learning experience for a number of his young steeds, and that includes Alphonso Davies, who is training with the USL team all week and will feature in this weekend’s semi-final.
“I’m sure Alan will want him to play in that game,” Robinson told us after Sunday’s loss to Seattle. “We’ll look at it. I’ll make every player available to go and play in that. It’s important to the club that we try and go through that round to the next because it’s about experience.
“We had it last year playing in the playoff games. We haven’t got it this year. Obviously the USL team will get it this year. Anyway I can help, if it’s right, then those players will play.”
Saturday’s Western Conference semi-final kicks off at noon at Thunderbird Stadium and it will be highly disappointing if this game isn’t a sell out.
Every Whitecaps season ticket holder received three vouchers to use at a WFC2 game this season. Sadly, most of those have gone unused, but they are valid for this match and there is no better time to use them and #StuffTheBird this long Thanksgiving weekend.
For those fans who haven’t yet experienced WFC2 in action live, Koch had a message for them.
“If they haven’t come out to watch us before, this would be a great time to come,” Koch said. “We’re playing for all the marbles now at this stage. We play an exciting brand of football.
“They need to come see the young guys play because the young guys are getting better every single week we’ve been playing and hopefully they can continue that march that we’ve started.”
Come out and #SupportTheFuture.