It was a whirlwind 24 hours for Vancouver Whitecaps youngster Marco Bustos. On Tuesday night, Bustos made his Canadian National Team debut against Ghana, coming on for the last 20 minutes of the match. He then flew to Fort Worth to join the Whitecaps for Wednesday night’s match, making his Whitecaps debut, this time playing 30 minutes. It is likely that he will make his CONCACAF Champions League debut, and first start, Thursday evening in Honduras. While Bustos has been a young rising star in the Whitecaps academy for the past few years, his breakthrough with the first team this season may have not been possible without the development of the Whitecaps USL team, affectionately referred to here and elsewhere as the ThunderCaps (as they play at Thunderbird Stadium at UBC). Sure, the recent injury woes were a contributing factor for Bustos call-up to the Whitecaps first team, but recall that Bustos was sidelined the first half of the season with his own injury. No, the confidence to play him in Dallas (and at the national level) was rooted in his strong play to conclude the ThunderCaps inaugural season.
On Friday evening, the Rochester Rhinos defeated the LA Galaxy II (Los Dos) 2-1, to capture the USL championship. Comparatively, the ThunderCaps finished the 28-game season with a record of 8-14-6 (30 points), second last in the Western Conference. The ThunderCaps ended the season with 39 goals for, sadly, 53 against, and a 5-4-5 record at home. Hey, they at least bested Montreal and Toronto’s USL farm clubs.
While the team statistics of the ThunderCaps does not paint the best picture, it is important to remember, those statistics were never the point of this club. Sure, winning is good and it is important to create a winning mentality, but the Vancouver Whitecaps were clear in their objective: provide a bridge from the academy to the first team. In their first season, 34 players suited up for the ThunderCaps. These included local kids like Sahil Sandhu (25 games), unknown products with FC Barcelona academy experience (Victor Blasco; 24 games), SuperDraft picks like Andre Lewis (14), Craig Nitti (18) and Spencer Richey (13), and academy graduates such as Mackenzie Pridham (20) and Caleb Clarke (25). However, most importantly, the ThunderCaps did provide a linkup with the first-team. Whether it was to provide minutes to rarely played first teamers such as Robert Earnshaw (3) or Erik Hurtado (3), rehabbing regulars such as Nicolas Mezquida (1), new foreign players such as Deybi Flores (3) and Diego Rodriquez (7), developing products such as Marco Carducci (9) or Marco Bustos (17), or drafted players getting used to the pro level, such as Christian Dean (10), the ThunderCaps was invaluable. In total, 11 of the 34 players that saw time with the ThunderCaps, also saw minutes with the Whitecaps. In Tim Parker’s (7) case, it acted as a transition league before coming a regular with the first time. For Kianz Froese (6), it provided the fringe first-teamer with quality minutes in the few moments during the season where the Whitecaps regulars were all healthy. For others, such as Ethen Sampson (12) and Sam Adekugbe (2), it provided a place for young players to go after getting a few starts with the first team and realizing that they needed a bit more learning. After Jordan Harvey re-staked his role as the Whitecaps starting left back, Adekugbe needed some playing time. In past season, there were few options for cases like these. It is clear that Adekugbe is an important part of the Whitecaps going forward. He just was not ‘needed’ at this moment.
On paper –the team statistics– it may appear that the ThunderCaps inaugural season was not that successful. However, when you look under the hood, you see that it did what it was intended to do and that is what matters most. Does that mean it was perfect? Hardly. There are always places where it can be improved. For example, you could argue that too many players saw time with the ThunderCaps, limiting the ability for players to build any chemistry. Maybe that is something that is addressed this off-season. Maybe, I suspect, it was meant to be a training ground and the chemistry was not as vital to success. Whatever happens, this first season should be examined by the team and fans as a great success, despite what the standings may say, and it has situated the Whitecaps well going into the future.