Ben McKendry hasn't just had his usual ball-winning presence for the Whitecaps U-18s: he's also found his offensive form. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
This week, the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency U-18 and U-16 teams have been in Frisco, Texas for the United States Soccer Development Academy playoffs. In their inaugural season of USSDA competition both the U-18s and the U-16s managed to win their divisions in the regular season, booking a trip to Frisco without having to chance the arcane and bewildering wild card rules.
31 teams from around the United States, plus the Whitecaps, competed in four-team round robins. The winner of each of those round robin groups advances to the round of eight, which play down until one team in each age category is crowned 2011-12 USSDA champion.
The Whitecaps U-18s and U-16s, both led by head coach and interim technical director Craig Dalrymple, both faced heavy expectations. All the MLS academies that make it this far are strong teams and the Whitecaps are stronger than most. But they also got tough group draws: the U-18s were in against the defending champions Pateadores, while the U-16 group included a South Carolina United Battery team that had an extremely strong season, including a win in their only match against an MLS academy, and boasts goal-per-game 1995 forward James Carlin.
There are only good teams at this level, so it was a good test for the boys. Both age levels did very well and the U-18s are onto the round of eight.
The Whitecaps U-18s got their tournament started against the defending champions Pateadores. Both Pateadores and Vancouver featured a mixed team of 1993s and 1994s, but while Pateadores star TJ Casner (a 1994-born player) was a key factor, Vancouver's leading scorer Caleb Clarke was of course missing the tournament with his trial in Germany, although with second-leading scorer Yassin Essa (another '94) in the lineup Vancouver should have had plenty of power. The Whitecaps did have Bryce Alderson, sent to the tournament from the first team.
Against Pateadores, the Whitecaps got off to a horror start: infrequent scorer Casey Macias put the defending champs out in front not long after kickoff. Midfielder Ben McKendry, with only two goals all year, was able to equalize for Vancouver before the ten minute mark and turned the game into a slugging match. Both of these defenses conceded some goals and Pateadores actually scored more than the Whitecaps-minus-Clarke during the season. Ben Fisk had Vancouver ahead before half, though, and it came down to the defense to hold on.
In 41-degree heat, the fatigue seemed to hit the defenders, while perhaps the southern Californians of Pateadores had a slight edge in the climate. A few chances got through to Callum Irving then, on the eighty-first minute, leading scorer Casner tied it up for Pateadores. It got worse, as Casner then scored a stoppage-time winner to turn three points into nothing for the U-18s in their key opener.
Going down in such a fashion could easily have demoralized the U-18s. Didn't happen. The next afternoon Vancouver demolished Weston FC, a good team with some balanced scoring who won a few blowouts this season, 4-0. McKendry struck again in the seventeenth minute to put Vancouver in front and from there it was pretty much a turkey shoot. If the Whitecaps were tired from their awful loss the previous day the scoreline didn't show it: taking a 1-0 lead into half the Whitecaps dominated the last 45. Essa scored his first of the playoffs, an own goal made it 3-0, and then in the 90th minute future Simon Fraser University man Jason Van Blerk scored his first goal of the season to add insult to injury.
Still, the U-18s needed some help from the soccer gods to win their group and advance to the round of 8: they needed to win, Pateadores needed to lose, and the goal differentials needed to stay favourable. It all happened. Pateadores, perhaps having shot their bolt in the first two days of the tournament, lost 4-0 to Weston on Day 4. And the Whitecaps got a calm, composed 2-0 victory over a strong Texans SC Houston that was playing close to home soil. McKendry struck for the third time in the playoffs to score Vancouver's opening goal yet again on seven minutes, and U-16 player Sadi Jalali, a mid-season acquisition, scored his first goal at the U-18 level in the 65th minute. Callum Irving kept a clean sheet and the Whitecaps U-18s, in spite of what must have been an incredibly demoralizing first game, are advancing to the round of 8 in style.
The U-16s were also playing some darned good soccer. Leading scorer Brody Huitema got them off on the right foot in their opener against FC Greater Boston: in only 50 minutes of work Huitema got a brace to put the Whitecaps in front 2-0, and while Boston midfielder Mohamed Kenawy got a consolation goal it made no difference to anything but Vancouver's goal differential.
The next day's match against Charlotte Soccer Academy was a bitter disappointment. Goalkeepers Nolan Wirth (for Vancouver) and William Pyle (for Charlotte) traded clean sheets in a 0-0 draw where, for one of the few times all year, Vancouver's considerable firepower failed to make a mark. Craig Dalrymple didn't hold back: offense-first substitutes like Marco Bustos and Titouan Chopin came in early in the second half. Matthew Chow had a couple arguable penalty shouts turned down, and of course with Carlos Patino and Jalali up with the U-18s the team was short on firepower to begin with.
This draw would, unfortunately, be critical. The Whitecaps' goal differential was one worse than Charlotte's: they would need to make that differential up in the final game against the South Carolina Battery to advance. It was not to be.
The good news was that, this time, when Chow went down in the box, he got the calls: Sebastien Cabrera buried two penalties and Brody Huitema also added Vancouver's goal from the run of play. The team defense was also marred by the early departure of captain and stalwart centre back Jackson Farmer, and maybe that's what allowed South Carolina to knock two crucial goals past Nolan Wirth. Vancouver's U-16s ended up with a 3-2 victory but, despite finishing undefeated, it wasn't enough to send them through to the next round: Charlotte took top spot in the group with Vancouver finishing second.
In spite of the letdown for the U-16s, both Whitecaps Residency teams have done extremely well in the USSDA playoffs. The U-18s remain alive, with their matchup in the round of eight not yet determined, and the U-16s can leave with their heads held high. Many of these players will be hoping for a return to the playoffs next year, and for the graduating U-18s a championship beckons.