Not to brag, but it takes a certain kind of insanity to head down to Seattle the weekend before Christmas and watch teenagers play soccer.
The Vancouver Whitecaps Residency's trip to Tukwila to take on the hometown Seattle Sounders Academy was the last chance a Vancouverite had to see high-level soccer in Cascadia before the CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifiers. The results were mixed: the U-18 team dominated Seattle almost from kickoff. Vancouver leading scorer Caleb Clarke, exhausted from Canadian U-20 camp and an illness, could have had a hat trick within twenty minutes if his sights had been straight while only a few mistakes on the final ball prevented the Whitecaps from knocking in several goals. Seattle showed something for the first ten minutes of the second half, including getting a goal that (from my angle, which wasn't the best) didn't cross the line. But the Whitecaps finally finished one off in the last ten minutes through Carlos Marquez, got another from Yassin Essa on the break as Seattle went for an equalizer, and it was over.
The U-16 team lost ugly, looking a step behind from kickoff, getting worse through the first half, and picking up a bit in the second while still being decidedly inferior. The Whitecaps looked exhausted; the Sounders were bigger, stronger, and older. Only the heroics of Vancouver U-16 goalkeeper Marco Carducci kept Seattle from winning by a converted touchdown, and so impressed was I by his magnificent saves that I make him man of the match despite conceding four goals.
I've seen this game referred to, and even referred to it myself, as a "rivalry match". The Sounders put the word out to the Emerald City Supporters to cheer their boys against the hated enemy (and a few dozen put on their usual "the sort of thing you'll like if you like that sort of thing" song and dance). However, the youth wings of the Sounders and the Whitecaps have almost no history against each other: the Sounders don't play USL PDL and this is the Whitecaps' first year in the USSDA. The only time I can remember the Whitecaps and Sounders youths playing each other was at March's Supporters Summit, where their U-18s beat ours on the same field.
It was, however, a fun time, two games that made two sets of supporters very happy at different times, and a demonstration of how far elite developmental soccer has come.
The games didn't play like a rivalry battle. The U-16s got a little physical, with a few tough clashes and Carducci in particular bowling over Sounders to track down the ball. Sounders U-18 forward Dominique Dismuke made himself famous with his diving to a degree that would have made Fredy Montero (or Camilo Sanvezzo) re-think their career paths. That was just about it.
At times the games begged us to stop taking them seriously. The most serious-looking injury was by friendly fire; late in the U-16 game Sounders goalscorer Denis Kalamar hammered an absolute rocket of a clearance into one of his midfielder's ribs (I didn't catch the victim's number). As the poor afflicted Sounder tried to get his wind back, the ball bounced back to Kalamar who, after dancing a bit, gunned an even fiercer drive into the same player. It was hard not to feel bad for the guy, who kept in the play but as soon as it went back into the Whitecaps half slowed down, grabbed his side, and winced like hell.
In the U-18 match I heckled the referee for his inconsistent handball calls; after letting a few ball-to-hands go, including on the Sounders in the box, he whistled one on Tim Hickson around midfield. "Oh, you call that one," I heckled. Whereupon the referee walked over to Whitecaps U-18 head coach Richard Grootscholten and gave him hell for questioning the officials. (This story gets funnier when you remember that Grootscholten has a thick Dutch accent and I do not.) Luckily the referee realized his mistake and actually apologized; surely a unique thing in refereeing annals.
The most glorious moment came early in the U-18 game. I'd met Alex Rowley's father around the U-14 field and, when he introduced himself, I was a bit at a loss for what to say about a good player who was playing well but hadn't really emblazoned himself on my memory. "Oh, he's having a good year," I wound up, lamely. Then, at around the six minute mark, Rowley had the ball some distance from the top of the box. He was being only loosely marked by the Sounders midfield; he took a half-step back, turned on the ball, and unleashed an oh-my-god-are-you-absolutely-serious shot from maybe thirty-five yards past Sounders goalkeeper Keenan Townsend. Well then.
The Whitecaps were, rightly, more concerned with the players' development than the results. They had a few walking wounded who weren't risked; U-17 Player of the Year Bryce Alderson sat on the bench without getting into action. Ben McKendry suffered a nasty ankle sprain with Canada U-20 and hobbled around on crutches. Leading U-16 scorer Brody Huitema missed his game with an ailment. Clarke played despite being sick but he was removed for Yassin Essa unusually early.
In addition, the Whitecaps gave their kids a chance; the U-16 game saw Vancouver start three 1996 players to Seattle's one, including starting goalkeeper Carducci, start one 1997 player (Francesco Saporito, who looked talented but physically out of his depth), then bring two more '96ers and two '97s on as substitutes. Almost all of Seattle's roster was '95 players; they started one '96 and substituted in two more while none of their '97s appeared. This difference in maturity showed dramatically on the field.
On the U-18 end, Vancouver got a tremendous nine-minute cameo out of 1995-born Quinton Duncan (he recorded a lovely assist on Yassin Essa's final goal) while none of Seattle's '95s played. Both Seattle and Vancouver had a fairly equivalent mix of '93s and '94s on the field apart from that: the physical parity would up leaving room for Vancouver's superior skill.
Seattle had a few chances around the beginning of the second half, but their goal probably shouldn't have counted: after Ben Fisk fouled Ike Crook lightly and got into a brief shoving match Seattle was given a free kick from distance. The kick was lobbed into the area, the Whitecaps struggled to deal with it, Ian Lange headed the ball over a leaping Callum Irving, but Declan Rodriguez seemed to get back in time to clear the ball off the line. Even the Sounders, except possibly Jordan Schweitzer, didn't seem to think the ball had gone in until the goal was given. I didn't think the whole ball had crossed the whole line, though my angle was terrible. This video, taken from a similarly lousy angle on the other side of the field, is equally inconclusive. The referee's angle was pretty poor as well, and Tim Hickson (one of the Whitecaps defenders on the spot) doesn't think it went in. Oh, well. It was scary for a few minutes but wound up affecting nothing but Irving's statistics.
It was the quality of play which most caught my eye. Even the trounced Whitecaps U-16s looked talented if overmatched. Seattle and Vancouver's senior and junior U-14s spent the morning kicking the holy hell out of each other at a high level. As for the U-18s, for all their injuries they could really put on a show. The Seattle teams obviously deserve lots of credit as well; they were by far the strongest USSDA opposition I've seen this year. The clubs have devoted resources to their academies, with foreign coaches barking instructions on all sidelines and Whitecaps director Tom Soehn taking in all the action. The Whitecaps have already proven their U-18s can form the nucleus of a competitive USL PDL team and I bet the Sounders could prove the same thing if they had a mind.
Developmental leagues have improved across the United States and Canada in recent years thanks to a renewed emphasis and an increase in attention and resources. However, the Whitecaps and the Sounders (as well as other professional organizations) have improved even more dramatically. It's not simply a matter of a big club being able to lure exotic players: eight of Vancouver's U-18 starters were from the Lower Mainland. It's just an improvement in scouting and, more importantly, in coaching. Not just the head coach but the assistants and the whole technical staff.
When you watch a U-16 team with as much quality as Vancouver's, even a 4-0 loss doesn't feel so bad.