And then there were eight.
Among the 78 teams that competed in the United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) this season, Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-18 Residency are one of only eight teams remaining.
After finishing atop the Western Conference, Northwest Division and advancing through the round of 32, the U-18 ‘Caps will look to cap off their spectacular first season in the USSDA with a league championship next week at Academy Finals Week in Houston, Texas.
“It’s obviously a great achievement for the program and the club,” Residency head coach Craig Dalrymple told whitecapsfc.com. “It’s important for the club to showcase what we’re doing in terms of youth development and I think qualifying for the final eight teams in North America is a testament to what we’re doing with our Residency program.”
The eight qualifying teams have been divided into two groups of four, with the winner of each table moving on to the championship final July 22 at BBVA Compass Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.
Despite suffering a heartbreaking 3-2 defeat to Pateadores in their USSDA playoff opener, the ‘Caps earned their Academy Finals Week berth after finishing group play with back-to-back clean sheets against Weston FC and Texans SC Houston.
Playing without striker Caleb Clarke, who scored a team-leading 24 goals during the regular season, midfielder Ben McKendry stepped up to the plate last month in Frisco, Texas, scoring in each of the team’s three playoff contests.
McKendry is one of six members of Whitecaps FC Residency, along with goalkeeper Callum Irving, defender Daniel Stanese, midfielders Ben Fisk and Bryce Alderson, and striker Yassin Essa, who recently took part in the Canadian U-20 men’s national team camp in Mexico. But they will each be available next week — as will Clarke, who has returned from his trial in Germany.
“We obviously look to Caleb for goals but what was pleasing for us as a club is in [Frisco, Texas] we got goals from different areas, from other areas we didn’t get goals from before,” Dalrymple said. “The team will be boosted with Caleb’s presence but we’ll find ways to score goals with or without him.”
Although they are known for their attack – having scored a conference-leading 88 goals during the regular season – the ‘Caps have not conceded a goal in 180 minutes thanks to some sound defensive play and timely goalkeeping from Irving.
Whitecaps FC were placed in Group 1 alongside North Carolina Fusion, De Anza Force, and Colorado Rapids. Each side won their respective group at the USSDA playoffs last month in Frisco, Texas.
North Carolina Fusion (July 16 at 6 p.m. PT):
If there is a Cinderella story in Group 1, it is North Carolina Fusion’s unexpected run to Academy Finals Week. The Fusion finished fourth in the South Conference, Atlantic Division and qualified for the USSDA playoffs as a wild card team. But the Fusion should not be taken lightly, as they are unbeaten in eight matches dating back to May 24 and scored more goals than any other Atlantic Division squad during the regular season.
De Anza Force (July 18 at 7 p.m. PT):
The San Jose-area club finished second to Whitecaps FC in the Northwest Division this season. The Blue and White won both meetings against the Force by identical 3-2 margins. Four of the team’s previous five matches have ended in shutout victories, including a 1-0 win over top-seeded LA Galaxy during the USSDA playoffs. Their last loss came to Vancouver on April 21 in Cupertino, California.
Colorado Rapids (July 20 at 6 p.m. PT):
Unbeaten in seven straight matches, the Rapids booked their ticket to Houston with a stoppage-time goal in their final group game. The Rapids finished second in the Central Conference, Frontier Division this season, posting a 12W-3L-9D record overall.
Meanwhile, Group 2 consists of FC Dallas, Chivas USA, Solar Chelsea FC, and Baltimore Bays FC. After group play concludes, Whitecaps FC will meet one of these four teams on July 22 on “placement” day. Should the ‘Caps win Group 1, they will play the Group 2 winner for the USSDA championship.
“For the players, it’s a fantastic opportunity to go to an elite tournament against good quality opposition and learn how to win games in an away environment such as Houston,” Dalrymple said. “Climate will be a factor again and unfamiliarity with the environment is another factor. It’s just a great opportunity for them to go in and learn how to win games in that type of tournament.”