A disappointingly rare photo: a Vancouver Whitecap going down to a Fraser Valley Mariner instead of vice-versa. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
At first it seemed so promising.
In 2011, British Columbia's USL PDL teams had a pretty good year. The Victoria Highlanders made the playoffs. The Vancouver Whitecaps Residency just missed out, coming up three points short: no mean feat for a team that started half U-18s with no fixed roster. The Abbotsford Mariners (as they were then) were competitive, and while that sounds like a backhanded compliment they were certainly the best of the "lower half" teams in the Northwest Division.
There was a big change made to the USL PDL's Northwest Division for the 2012 season which only improved the outlook. In 2011, two teams made the playoffs. In 2012, four teams will get in. If that rule had applied in 2011 then both Victoria and Vancouver would have made it and Abbotsford would have been knocking at the door. It would have been great.
Didn't happen. On Sunday, when the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency U-23 lost 2-1 at home to the Victoria Highlanders, they became the last British Columbia team to be officially eliminated from PDL playoff contention. Victoria had fallen out long ago (and made a coaching change as a result). As for the former Abbotsford Mariners, now the Fraser Valley Mariners... the less said about them the better.
Where did it all go wrong?
The Fraser Valley Mariners are in tough: they're part of a major soccer club which has produced talent, but they don't have the resources of the Victoria Highlanders, to say nothing of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Their location can't help for players in their early twenties trying to start their lives.
The Whitecaps bagged two players off Fraser Valley's 2011 roster: starting goalkeeper Lucas Menz and leading defender James Farenhorst. The Highlanders also grabbed one: leading scorer Sasa Plavsic. Four-goal man Danfi Parker appears to be out of soccer. Players who gave the Mariners over 1,000 minutes during their successful 2011 season like Mohammad Aziz and Juan Pablo Morea Pera were still occasionally available in 2012 but much less frequently. That roster took a hit and most of it wasn't their choice.
The Mariners' season in 2012 has been nothing short of a catastrophe. With one game remaining (Wednesday against the Whitecaps), they have one point: a 1-1 draw May 19 at Washington on an Ethan Claibourne-Collins 90th-minute equalizer. They came damned close to getting their second point on July 2 against Victoria, but were sunk by a last-second Victoria winner by their former star Plavsic. Their leading scorer is forward Adrian Kecec with two, followed by Claibourne-Collins with one, followed by nobody. They have one 6-0 loss this year and three 4-0 losses.
The Mariners' job is to develop players, not to win games, but it's hard to train with the same intensity when you're 0-1-14. They've always been the weak sister of the three British Columbia teams competitively but they've created some players: this, however, is their absolute nadir. Normally I try to look on the bright side with teams like this, but this summer all I can do is wish them the best and say that the quality of the Fraser Valley soccer organization means they surely won't remain at this level long.
The Highlanders have also been pillaged by the Whitecaps U-23 team: Vancouver took last year's leading scorer Michael Marousek this summer. A few other of last year's regulars also left: forward Jamar Dixon, midfielder Andrew Gray, defenders Jack Pearson and Maxwell Wragg. However, most of their core players have returned, and many of those who haven't were ably replaced: the elevation of Elliott Mitrou to full-time starting goalkeeper rather than platooning with Trevor Stiles has been very well-received. And several essential pieces came back for 2012.
The team just underperformed. Ash Burbeary might have been expected to have a breakout season as a key forward: instead he went from five goals in 2011 to three in 2012 (two of them on the last day). Long-time Victoria icon Jordie Hughes's goal output halved from six to three. Craig Gorman came into his own with a five-goal season and Plavsic met expectations but it, combined with rough defensive play, didn't make up for the struggling lineup.
The coaching change on June 14 looks like it's helped in the short term. Under new boss Steve Simonson the club lost their first two but ended the season with three wins and two draws in their last five games. Hopefully if they can return most of their talent the Highlanders will be back in the playoff fight for 2013.
The Vancouver Whitecaps USL PDL team changed approaches for 2012. While in previous years the PDL team was the pinnacle of the Residency system, over the winter of 2011-12 focus was given to the USSDA U-18 and U-16 teams. As a result the PDL team, now under Craig Dalrymple, lost some of its importance; at one time they were thinking about not running a PDL team at all. Rather than a largely U-18 lineup, therefore, the Whitecaps filled out their roster with Canadian college talent and added their best U-18 and the occasional MLS loanee to the mix. The name change to "Vancouver Whitecaps U-23" reflected this shift. Only five U-18s played anything like regularly: Caleb Clarke, Ben Fisk, Callum Irving, Adam Polakiewicz, and Ben McKendry. Even Bryce Alderson got only 399 minutes.
Some of the new players have been worth watching. University of British Columbia captain Gagandeep Dosanjh has proven an offensive spark plug. The aforementioned James Farenhorst, plucked from the Valley, has been an excellent player, and after a terrific performance against the Whitecaps at the University of Victoria - Vancouver friendly this spring Cam Hundal has done a great job for the good guys. Residency graduate Coulton Jackson has returned to score a fistful of goals for his new/old club. Former Dutch Eerste Divisie player Alex Marello has provided predictable quality at right back and in midfield since arriving mid-season, as has Canadian-born 16-year-old defender/midfielder Kianz Froese.
Apart from those college players, the Whitecaps roster has been hugely inconsistent. Those same U-18 players have left the team for the USSDA playoffs, for MLS Reserves duty, for the Canadian youth national team, and of course just to get some vacation before the next USSDA season. The Vancouver lineup has at times been hilariously thin: goalkeeper coach Raegyn Hall is almost the regular backup on the bench now, assistant coach Martin Nash dressed for an away game against Kitsap, and in their past two games the Whitecaps have started two sixteen-year-olds: Froese and U-16 goalkeeper Nolan Wirth.
That probably explains how the Whitecaps have the second-best goal differential in the division at +14 but are still well out of the playoffs. It's rare for a team to be as good at scoring goals and keeping them out as Vancouver while still finishing in the bottom half. But there have been too many games where the Whitecaps were missing half a dozen players for whatever reason and got one point instead of three.
Even more than the other British Columbia teams, the Whitecaps put the "development" in "Premier Development League". Wins are useful only insomuch as they help the players get better. From that perspective, the season hasn't been a failure: the team has found CIS players worth keeping an eye on if nothing else, and I wouldn't be surprised if two of Dosanjh, Farenhorst, and Hundal were in professional soccer somewhere soon. Among the U-18 players McKendry has risen to the USL PDL level and Clarke, after a bit of a letdown in the summer of 2011, proved that he could score against older players after all (although his trial in Germany and an injury limited his impact). Ben Fisk has been banging them in against older men as well and continues to look professional grade. Carlos Marquez also banged in a few goals in very limited minutes, although his lack of size meant players in their twenties could push him around.
Vancouver has one game left: on Wednesday at Swangard Stadium against Fraser Valley (7:30 PM PDT). If they win they take the Juan de Fuca Plate for best team in British Columbia, but "best team in British Columbia" doesn't mean quite as much in 2012 as it did in 2011. Still, would it be too easy for me to say things are looking up for next year?