The young and the restless-The Province

Cream of Canada's up-and-comers anxious to prove themselves

Jim Jamieson
The Province

Friday, May 16, 2008

At 18, Ladner's Julie Armstrong already has seven caps with the senior national team and scored in her fourth game, a 2-1 win over Russia in March.

Stung by a talent hemorrhage for the second year in a row, the Vancouver Whitecaps women's team is trying a different type of transfusion this time around.

Last season, the Whitecaps were knee-capped by the loss of about a dozen members to Canada's national team -- a talent vortex caused by last September's FIFA Women's World Cup.

This year, it's Canada's recent qualification for the Beijing Summer Olympics that will effectively draw about the same number of players from the Whitecaps.

So instead of filling in with U.S. college players -- as the Caps did last year en route to missing the W-League playoffs -- the organization's braintrust has decided if the option is to go young, they might as well go young with the cream of Canada's up-and-coming players.

The decision dovetailed nicely with Whitecaps women's head coach Bob Birarda being appointed in December as the new coach of the Canadian Under-20 team -- the best of which will form the framework of the Caps this season.

Assessing the success of this experiment will begin Saturday at Swangard Stadium, when the Whitecaps take on the Ventura County Fusion in the W-League opener for both clubs.

Birarda, who's also been head coach of the U-15, U-16, U-18 and Olympic development national teams over the past three years, says greater familiarity with the players will be the obvious benefit over last year's group. In a two-month, 12-game schedule, there's not much time to get to know each other.

"I know all the players and they know me," says Birarda. "Last year it took me forever to get to know their strengths and weaknesses. We still have to figure out how we're going to be together, but we understand each other. Last year, just not knowing each other caused us some issues."

Birarda expects that 14 to 16 of the 24 national U-20 players will be involved in the Whitecaps roster this season. Numbers will change during the season, but he expects just three non-U-20 players in the lineup for Saturday's opener.

These include last season's leading scorer -- American star striker Tiffeny Milbrett, who's back for her third season -- and returning Canadian defender Emily Zurrer, 20, and forward Selenia Iacchelli, 21. Finnish forward Sanna Talonen and German defender Katrin Schmidt will arrive in town in late May.

The obvious upside is the invaluable experience gained by Canada's future national team players against older, more savvy opposition. The question is how competitive the Whitecaps can be in a very tough W-League Western Conference.

"The challenge is going to be in the penalty areas," says Birarda. "We're going to look at skilled forwards on other teams and we're going to make mistakes sometimes because we're kids. If you look at NHL hockey players, rookies come in sometimes and make bad mistakes, give away goals. As a team we're going to take some risks and probably give away goals when we shouldn't. We're going to have to live with that."

Another challenge for the Caps: They will lose their U-20 players for four games in June when the national team travels to Puebla, Mexico for the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. The eight or 10 players in the U-20 pool who don't make the travelling team will fill in for the Whitecaps, as well as a few veteran players.

The key veteran, of course, is Milbrett, who led the team in scoring last season by a mile, with 11 goals and six assists in 10 games. Milbrett, a soccer legend in her native U.S., will likely need to repeat that performance this year.

"It is the same as last year, in that we've got young players, but the different part is that most of these players have been together at least quite a few weeks as far as camp goes," says Milbrett, 35. "Or they have been playing together with the youth team. I think we're three steps ahead of where we were ending the season last year."
© The Vancouver Province 2008