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Whitecaps Residency Leading from the Back

Sam Adekugbe of the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency U-16s marks a Seattle Sounder in Tukwila, Washington. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Sam Adekugbe of the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency U-16s marks a Seattle Sounder in Tukwila, Washington. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

We're all pleased the Vancouver Whitecaps are learning to play defense. But the senior squad could still take a lesson or two from the Whitecaps Residency.

Both the Whitecaps U-18 and U-16 teams are generating some interesting defensive players. The Vancouver Whitecaps U-16s are allowing less than a goal per game this season; nobody else in their division is even close to their pace led by possibly the best back four in the continent and two quality goalkeepers. The U-18s aren't so dominant but vie with the De Anza Force and the Seattle Sounders for the best defense in the division and boast clean sheets in three of their last four games.

The U-16s just sent two fulltime defensive players, Marco Carducci and Alex Comsia, to a Canadian U-17 training camp while 1995-born Sam Adekugbe is already posting appearances in the MLS Reserves. Players from the U-18 team have already represented their countries. And that's without considering the goalkeepers: they range from classical, sure-footed big men to undersized reflex keepers but all of them bring something to the field worth watching.

So much can change between this level and the professional ranks. But against their peers, the U-16 and U-18 defenders are proving worth the investment.

Few of the U-18 defenders are household names but you'll recognize some of them. Both left back Adam Polakiewicz and central defender Daniel Stanese have appeared for Canada's youth, with Stanese a recent finalist for U-17 Player of the Year. Both are 1994-born players with another year of eligibility left at U-18. Polakiewicz struggled last summer and has apparently been passed by Sam Adekugbe on the organization's prospect list, but his performances have improved with consistent playing time: he is third on the U-18s in minutes (behind only Ben Fisk and Stanese). He still turns the ball over from time to time but he's also a quick runner, a enthusiastic defender, and is making strides in his positioning. I continue to like the kid and have hopes for him as a future professional.

As for Stanese, he might be the Residency's best-kept secret outside Vancouver. He seemed to undergo a growth spurt over the winter and he's now almost hulking on a U-18 field; his game still hasn't got enough sandpaper but when he uses his body to block an opponent that opponent has a problem. His usual centre back partner, Tim Hickson, is a soft-spoken defense-first sort whose good headers help the team on set pieces. Hickson's gradual improvement over the season has been a major reason the U-18 defense has improved so much. And right back Declan Rodriguez, a converted winger, is a quality athletic player who's worked hard on his defending and is going to play soccer for somebody next year. For both Hickson and Rodriguez, this is their last U-18 year: hopefully a good USL PDL summer awaits that leads to either professional terms or a fat university scholarship.

All four of the U-16 team's starting defenders have looked absolutely dominant. Sam Adekugbe, born in mid-January 1995, is one of the oldest players at that level but takes advantage of his physical dominance. Over the course of the year, he's added an attacking facet to his game which has seen him rack up some quality assists and get invitations to play in U-18 and Reserve games. The right fullback, Quinton Duncan, turns 17 on Thursday and has already got 229 quality minutes in U-18 games, along with an assist. Both are quick and strong for their age and seem to love getting touches.

In the middle, captain Jackson Farmer is a big, tough, classic central defender who makes lives tough for attacking players. Alex Comsia isn't so big as Farmer but also plays a gritty game; neither really has the mean streak you look for from a physical central defender yet but they both have the tools. I've seen smaller 16-year-old forwards take a few tough tackles and spend the rest of the game within the centre circle. Comsia is only a 1996-born player, as well; the only '96 on the U-16's starting backline.

The U-18 goalkeepers are Callum Irving, the small 18-year-old who's vocal, experienced at the PDL level, and combines reliability with agility, and Sean Melvin, the more classic big man. I'm an Irving fan going way back, and his performance at USL PDL last year against attackers sometimes five years older than him was the best season of PDL goalkeeping I can remember the Residency getting. Irving posted a 1.38 goals-against average in 720 USL PDL minutes last year and is following that up with a 1.35 in 1330 minutes with the U-18s (USSDA does not track shots or saves, so save percentage statistics are not available). A knock on Irving's size comes up every time you talk about him but the kid keeps getting results; I certainly think he's ahead of the older and more highly-touted Brian Sylvestre.

But, for all Irving's quality, Melvin may be the surprise of the year. He's had a tough season in some regards: a serious knee injury on October 15 knocked him out until January, and in his second game back he saw a straight red card against the California Odyssey. But in the 333 minutes Melvin has managed, he's allowed only one goal (in the game where he was sent off; the answer to the trivia question is "Gregory Antongoli II"). That gives Melvin a 0.27 goals-against average, a spectacular number he's earned with some increasingly spectacular saves. Add that on to quite a good 1.33 goals-against average in USL PDL (albeit in a small number of games) and Melvin, who's still eligible for U-18 next year, looks like one to watch. He's big enough that you can't miss him.

The U-16s split minutes fairly equitably between Nolan Wirth and Marco Carducci. Wirth is a 1995-born player who, after Melvin got sent off, got into one-and-a-half unfortunate games with the U-18 team (five goals against in 137 minutes). I've never actually seen Wirth play, as Craig Dalrymple seems to schedule his starts for games I'm not at. But in 680 minutes he allows 0.93 goals per game, which is freak show good. Obviously he gets some help from his defense, but they're still just 16-year-olds in front of him and you don't post a number like that without making some saves.

Carducci, a year younger than Wirth, is the one I keep seeing. He's been on the bench for the U-18 team while Melvin was hurt but hasn't appeared; still, his 0.98 goals against average in 920 U-16 minutes tells a hell of a story. He has made some incredible saves. In a 4-0 loss in December to the Seattle Sounders, Carducci was still man of the match with his circus-style stops. He's leaped to the lower corners to save spectacular penalties. He sometimes challenges too hard on set pieces, isn't fully mature, and makes the mistakes a 15-year-old goalkeeper will always make, but he's the most exciting young goalkeeper to watch in the Whitecaps organization.

Like Wirth, Carducci benefits from an excellent defense so his gaudy goals-against numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. However, he's still a 1996-born goalkeeper who puts up man-of-the-match performances at a level where 1995-born attackers usually have the advantage. Wirth moves up to U-18 next year while Carducci will presumably remain with the U-16s. Both goalkeepers have boasted very similar numbers, but the younger Carducci seems to have more of the coach's confidence in spite of Wirth's obvious quality.

The U-18 defenders and goalkeeping are very good, and players from that squad could be making an impact on MLS within a couple years. But even the backups for the U-16 team are owning that league. It'll be years before these kids are getting on television but what a start they're making to their careers.