It's hard to believe we're so close to another Vancouver Whitecaps Residency winter campaign. Over the past two weeks players have been filtering back to Vancouver from their summer vacations and today, the Whitecaps released the first rosters for the U-18 and U-16 squads for the United States Soccer Development Academy season.
The 2012-13 season kicks off for Vancouver on September 8 against old rivals Pateadores in California; the first game within driving distance is on October 20 against Crossfire Premier at Redmond High School and the first home match is not until December 15, against the Portland Timbers at Simon Fraser University. It's a long wait for a home game, but the good news is that so far every scheduled match is a weekend kickoff.
This will be the Residency's second season in the USSDA league, and by now most of the opposition should be familiar. The California Development Academy has withdrawn, replaced by San Juan Soccer Club out of Mather Soccer Complex in California. And of course our old friends the Portland Timbers are making their USSDA debut, with their home games to be played at the Timbers training facility in Beaverton.
The release of the rosters doesn't determine too much, as players will move between U-14, U-16, and U-18 all season as demand and their own talent indicates. According to the Whitecaps even the coaching assignments aren't yet finalized, with Craig Dalrymple having run both the U-18 and U-16 teams last year. But the time remains ripe to look at those departing and those yet to come.
Many big U-18 names have graduated. Caleb Clarke and Bryce Alderson are off to Major League Soccer, although as a 1994-born player Alderson is still young enough for U-18. Tim Hickson is with FC Edmonton. Alex Rowley and Jason Van Blerk will spend the year at Simon Fraser University, while a plethora of other ex-Residency players are in NCAA programs around the United States. Some 1994 players are also leaving: left back Adam Polakiewicz has been passed in the depth charts by young Sam Adekugbe and has been given his walking papers, Wesley Cain is with the University of Northwestern Ohio with his brother Travis, and central defender Daniel Stanese surprised pretty much everyone by moving to college in Florida a year early.
There are few surprises among the 1995-born players graduating to the U-18 team. Defenders Sam Adekugbe, Quinton Duncan, and Jackson Farmer were all leading lights on last year's U-16 squad, with Farmer wearing the armband; right back Matthew Van Der Eyden played less than some of the others but got into more games as the season wore along and certainly earned his chance.
Leading U-16 scorer Brody Huitema moves on to the U-18s, of course, as does attacking midfielder/forward Titouan Chopin. 1995-born forward Carlos Patino also graduates, but given that he played semi-regularly for the U-18 team at the end of last season I'm not sure he counts. Other graduates to the U-18 program include late-arriving Halifax midfielder Liam Elbourne, attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward Mitch Piraux, and of course goalkeeper Nolan Wirth, who played 137 U-18 minutes and played at the USL PDL level this past summer. Wirth will presumably split keeping time with returning U-18 and USL PDL veteran Sean Melvin, giving the Whitecaps an all-Vancouver-Island tandem in their U-18 goal.
The biggest name missing from the list is forward Sadi Jalali. Jalali joined the Whitecaps U-16s at the end of March and was a considerable force up top for them, even seeing spot action and chipping in a goal for the U-18 team at the USSDA playoffs. He was a Canadian U-17 international at the World Cup and came with considerable promise, as well as not a little bitterness as FC Edmonton had a verbal agreement with Jalali's agent. But he also had well-established interest in a European career with North America as a clear second choice.
The opposite of Jalali is a surprising name present on the U-18 roster: 1996-born Ontario winger Jordan Haynes. I say surprising because of Haynes's youth, not because of his quality: arriving mid-season with the U-16 team last year he immediately became one of their strongest players. He didn't get a shot at the U-18 level last season but certainly has the quality to step in a year early.
Despite losing Caleb Clarke and Ben Fisk, the U-18s should have plenty of goalscoring punch. Indeed, the return of Yassin Essa means the Whitecaps are bringing forward a 20-goal scorer who averaged more than a goal every 90 minutes during the regular season; not bad for a '94! Left winger Spencer Deboice is also back after a great improvement in the last half of 2011-12 that saw him score in four regular-season matches from March onward. Eight-goal forward Carlos Marquez is also back, the oldest man on the roster.
Most of the 1996-born U-16 players return. Elijah Adekugbe, younger brother of Sam, is gone but his departure is not news. Parker Ellis joined the U-16 team midway through last season and saw some time but is not listed on this year's roster; they are the only 1996-born players from last year who are missing. The roster is heavy with 1997s, eleven in all, of whom ten are from British Columbia and the other (diminutive but highly talented midfielder Francesco Saporito) is from Edmonton.
The U-16s will need to get offense from different places with Huitema, Cabrera, and Patino all graduating. Attacking midfielder Marco Bustos out of Winnipeg returns and great things will be expected. Late-season acquisition Matthew Chow also showed some nice offensive chops after his arrival splitting time between forward and the wing.
The good news is that the U-16s have great returning talent on defense and in goal: Marco Carducci was excellent last year splitting duties with Nolan Wirth and returns this season, as does solid centre back Alex Comsia. However, Comsia is the only veteran on the back four, meaning there may be some growing pains for the '97s.
The '97s are said to show promise, although I have only seen them play in U-16 matches. The oft-repeated assertion is that last year's U-18s were good, the U-16s were better, and the U-14s were even better than that: as you went down the pyramid, you saw players who'd spent more time in professional environments and it was showing on the pitch.
Of the 1997 players, I'm most interested in Saporito, who showed a boatload of talent and ambition in his U-16 cameos last year, and centre back Evan Libke, a startlingly tall player who has unusual pace and intelligence for a player of his size and age. Both will be counted upon to fill holes in attack and defense, and neither looked at all out of place when they stepped briefly into the U-16 team last year.