It's been a disappointing season for the Vancouver Whitecaps Women. Disappointing, but far from wasted.
The Whitecaps take their women team seriously, both as a development tool for Canadian soccer and as a competitive entity. They're probably the major way for the team to build the Whitecaps brand outside Vancouver, as the Women are heavily involved in the community and play their home games at a variety of venues around the lower mainland. Greg Kerfoot is a long-time patron of women's soccer. Yet this year's been almost awful.
With three games left in their season the Vancouver Whitecaps Women are fifth in the Western Division on a 3-4-4 record and in no danger of meeting some lofty pre-season expectations.
The team has more than one hole but has struggled worst for goals. Losing last year's leading scorer Sydney Leroux to the US national team and the Seattle Sounders has hurt the team's attack, but the team has actually gotten more-than-fair production from its forwards. Unfortunately, there's been little offense through the midfield and the team is desperately short on classical ball movers. Big names, signed during the offseason, who could have filled this role haven't been available. The appointment of new head coach Jesse Symons and a short W-League season can't be helpful, as the team has been learning on the fly.
Still, it's not all bad news, and even the problems the team face can be explained and, hopefully, corrected.
The Whitecaps Women signed a number of prominent Canadian women's national team players this past spring; while everyone knew their focus would naturally be on the Olympics most have still appeared in a startlingly small number of games. Shannon Woeller has made a credible nine appearances but Kaylyn Kyle, Desiree Scott, and Chelsea Buckland have all appeared in only one match each. (Buckland scored and had an assist in her single game; the opener in Victoria). Melanie Booth, Chelsea Stewart, and Brittany Timko haven't played at all.
Everyone knew there'd be some availability issues. For most of those women it's the national team that puts food in their mouths and the Olympics are a much bigger deal than any number of W-League championships. Nobody will criticize the Whitecaps women for putting country before club; whatever you feel about the matter in the men's game that's unquestionably the proper order for the women.
However, given that the national team has just left for London and had only a handful of friendlies this summer, I think the Whitecaps probably expected more time with their players than they got. John Herdman had the women training in Vancouver but usually kept a monopoly on the ones the Whitecaps had signed. Argue over whether Canadians were better suited training together or playing separately: either way, it hurt Vancouver on the field.
This misfortune has given an opportunity to some quality young midfielders. Jaclyn Sawicki, a 19-year-old out of the University of Victoria, has been a pleasant surprise with a couple of goals and real offensive ambition. She shoots from anywhere; a useful trait in women's soccer when smaller goalkeepers mean you can get the occasional cheeky one, and is constantly looking to push the ball forward. Another 19-year-old, Nicole Setterlund, is a tough customer and a very useful ball-winner but one who looks more comfortable defending. Good prospects who've contributed to what success the team has enjoyed, but you can see exactly where Symons would picture Kyle and Stewart launching killer attacks down the flanks. The Whitecaps just haven't been able to effectively get the ball forward.
It's funny since Vancouver actually has some quite good forwards. Veteran Mele French has been a joy to watch. She's American, more's the pity because we could use her. She has a poor-woman's Melissa Tancredi to her: get forward, slam the ball home, and damn the consequences. If she's less adept at holding the ball up and making plays than Tancredi she's probably a better pure finisher. Her five goals lead the team and, with more service, she'd certainly have more.
The other major attacker is Jenna Richardson, a lanky 5'7" striker out of White Rock who turns 20 on Friday. Richardson scored five goals on the more offensively-gifted 2011 'Caps and has four so far this year. A regular with the U-20 national team, Richardson finishes with less panache than French but is a superior all-rounder with good speed and an ability to retrieve her own balls out of midfield.
Defense has been much of the same. The steady presense of national team regular Woeller at centre back has helped, of course. The team has benefited from other quality veterans such as omnipresent fullback Danielle Johnson and former Swedish league standout Brittany Galindo as a defender/defensive midfielder. Gurveen Clair, the regular goalkeeper, hasn't stood out but isn't the problem. It adds up to a back line that's been perfectly average and certainly not good enough to redeem a disappointing year.
The Whitecaps have three matches left with only one at home (this coming Sunday at Minoru Park in Richmond against Victoria). They are unlikely to redeem what's been a disappointing, though not disasterous, season. But the team has its share of promising young players. A club achieving what it has when its most interesting talents are mostly 19 years old is a pretty good sign, both for the club and country. And if you're looking for more good signs, the Girl's Elite team is winning the PCSL regular season again.
Many Canadian women's national team regulars have come through the Whitecaps. Kaylyn Kyle, Sophie Schmidt, Candace Chapman, Melissa Tancredi, Erin McLeod, and of course the greatest of them all Christine Sinclair. And I could go on. The team's having a mediocre year but we can count on another formidable list of Canadian talent coming from it.