Heading to the first Vancouver Whitecaps Residency game of the USL Premier Development League season seems to be becoming an accidental tradition for me. Last year, the Whitecaps Residency opened their 2010 campaign in Victoria, where I watched them get beat by the Victoria Highlanders. Yesterday, the Residency began the 2011 season at Empire Field against the Kitsap Pumas, and since I had a few hours between night shifts at the office (sleep? what's that?) I naturally swung by.
I've always enjoyed Residency games, which provide great entertainment value for the dollar (in this case, admittance was free) and let you get a look at the future of the Vancouver Whitecaps. But they're also frustrating. The USL PDL is an under-23 league which allows some overage players; the Whitecaps Residency is an under-20 team which very seldom has anybody past their teenage years on the roster. Moreover, it's worth remembering that the job of the Residency is not to win soccer games, it's to develop young players. As a consequence, the Residency has tended to perform poorly in the league, but that's really not what they should be evaluated on anyway.
Yesterday's game fit the pattern. The Whitecaps youth went down 2-0 to Kitsap on goals from Matt Friesen and Kyle Johnson before about fifty lukewarm fans. As a team, they were pretty mediocre. But as individual players, a number of the Vancouver players showed some promise and even real talent. Is that a win for the organization? Or does the fact that the team slumped so such a poor result in the home opener outweigh any ephemeral "potential" the players might have shown?
Who knows? Not me. I might not know how to evaluate the game, but at least I took away a little bit about the players.
There were a number of familiar names in the Residency lineup. Cornelius Stewart, last year's Whitecaps newcomer of the year in the USSF D2, got the start on the right wing. A couple other players such as Dou-dou Toure and La'Vere Corbin-Ong have also made small professional cameos. Some of the players, such as Bryce Alderson, captain Derrick Bassi, and Ben Fisk are staples of the Canadian youth national setup. Also starting were three players with Major League Soccer contracts: midfielders Philippe Davies and Alexandre Morfaw, and goalkeeper Brian Sylvestre. It was nice to see Davies again, playing actual soccer, natural that we'd see Sylvestre (who, as the third goalkeeper, certainly has time on his hands), and a pleasant surprise to see Morfaw, who's been battling injuries all season.
In the early going, the Whitecaps did a reasonable job of pinning the Pumas back, but the Whitecaps struggled to get close enough to goal to create some decent chances. The problem was that the Whitecaps Residency players were, as ever, not playing well as a team. Kitsap defenders could swarm attacking Whitecaps knowing that the Whitecap would just try to get the ball through all of them and, almost invariably, being correct. It approached moments of high comedy: midway through the first half the 18-year-old Fisk tried to romp through four Pumas by himself. It didn't work, of course, and as the ball turned the other way and the Whitecaps ran back to defend against the counter, Morfaw gently chided Fisk for going one-on-four like that. Mere minutes later, coming through the middle, Morfaw tried to juke past three Kitsap defenders on his own with no more success. I don't want to single out Morfaw and Fisk: most of the Whitecaps attackers and even some of the defenders made that mistake once in a while. That was just the most entertaining example.
Kitsap's first goal came off a simple defensive mistake. Robert Christner, coming down the centre of the pitch, knocked a rather timid pass towards Matt Friesen on the right near the top of the box. Left back La'Vere Corbin-Ong was in position to intercept the pass, but he simply whiffed on it: he stuck his leg out for the ball and didn't get a piece of anything. It was impossible for him to recover quickly enough to catch Friesen, who simply stepped up and knocked a fine finish past Sylvestre. It's a pity his game was defined by such a mistake, because Corbin-Ong was generally one of the highlights of the team. Corbin-Ong turned twenty in late April and generally looked like the relative veteran he is: not very big, but tough and impossible for the Kitsap players to knock off the ball. He was quick to turn his possession up field and hardly ever caught out of position. Only his passing let him down.
The second Kitsap goal pretty much exemplified the second half. The Whitecaps were pushing up, looking for an equalizer, but allowed Christner far too much room to charge in. The defenders tried to get back, Daniel Stanese blocked a shot off the line, but Johnson tucked in an easy rebound. The Pumas actually carved open Vancouver's defense a couple of times in the second half and they could have had three or four goals on another day.
Stewart and Morfaw were probably Vancouver's two most dangerous players. Kitsap just had no answer for Stewart's speed or his ball handling: if the guy could cross worth half a damn the Whitecaps would have scored at least twice. Morfaw was less electrifying but more effective, firing interesting shots and distributing the ball well, even if he played himself into trouble once in a while. Philippe Davies had a bizarre game: playing in central midfield with Alderson, Davies spent most of his time sitting back more than I'm used to. When he went on the attack he didn't achieve too much, but defensively he was very good, which coming from Philippe Davies threw me for a damned loop. To be fair to Davies, when he went on the attack the Pumas keyed on him specifically: they had obviously been coached to watch #15 and he never had much room to operate.
Bryce Alderson didn't have any highlights either, but the more I see the kid the more I like him. He's seventeen years old. Didn't matter. He moved the ball with such confidence and élan that defenders in their mid-twenties backed off. He had a hell of a shot from distance that Kitsap goalkeeper Bryan Meredith just tipped over the bar. He was also probably the most accurate passer on the team even if he tried very few killer balls. I like Bryce Alderson. If the injury crisis hits the first team again, I'd definitely rather see him in central midfield than Jeb Brovsky.
The player I was next-most interested in was forward Doudou Toure. 19-year-old Toure (no relation to former Whitecap Ansu) is a big, lanky forward with a thundering shot. I've always been a fan of his, but he starved on the vine a bit yesterday. He got very few useful passes and is simply too slow a player to generate much himself. When Toure did get the ball, though, he was dangerous: he's not the most skilled player but he's big, tough, and knows his limits. He's a hard guy to strip the ball off of. What a pity he didn't get more of a chance to show off.
The USL PDL is a funny little league with some charming eccentric moments. Kitsap head coach Peter Fewing was thoroughly entertaining, for example: he spent the game just abusing the almost supernaturally patient fourth official. When what he was convinced was a goal kick for Kitsap was ruled a corner for Vancouver, Fewing spent a good five minutes mumbling most unsportingly. In the second half, the linesman and the referee called an offside against Kitsap. Fewing objected (loudly) and the fourth official interjected to say it was the right call. Fewing stepped to the top of his technical area and explained the fourth official's role to his team. "His job is to stand by that call no matter how terrible it was." I loved that guy. He was great.
By contract, Dutch veteran Richard Grootscholten, coaching his first ever USL PDL match, alternated between subdued and bewildered depending on the situation. Grootscholten was always active yelling advice to his players, even if he pretty much let the referees get on with their work. On occasion, a Whitecap receiving Grootscholten's admonishments would shout back why he couldn't have done what Grootscholten asked; the coach always seemed to take this well. Late in the game, Fewing left the technical area and ran onto the field to check on a player he thought might have suffered a head injury. Fewing suffered no punishment but Grootscholten was infuriated, demanding to know why Fewing was allowed to go onto the field and repeatedly saying that he'd never seen anything like that before. (Fewing had the courtesy to explain himself and apologize).
It was an entertaining game, if not always because of what happened on the field. As a team, the Whitecaps looked pretty poor. But that's not a team: it's a collection of individuals. And I have hope for a few of them.