Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 are preparing for their biggest challenge yet – the United Soccer Leagues (USL) Premier Development League (PDL) Western Conference Championships.
The ‘Caps will be joined by FC Tucson, Kitsap Pumas, and Ventura County Fusion in the conference final four. The competition consists of two semifinal matches on Friday, followed by the conference championship on Saturday. All matches will take place at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Arizona and will be streamed live online from whitecapsfc.com
In the semifinals, Kitsap and Ventura County will meet at 6 p.m. PT on Friday, while the ‘Caps will take on hosts Tucson FC at 8 p.m. PT. The winners will move on to the PDL Western Conference final, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. PT on Saturday.
The final team left standing on Saturday will represent the Western Conference at the PDL Championships, which pit a team from each of the four conferences against one another to determine the league champion.
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS FC U-23
It was a tale of two seasons for Whitecaps FC U-23
For the first six matches of the 2014 PDL campaign, the ‘Caps couldn’t buy a break. Or a win. Their record belied their level of performance, and a combination of bad luck and last-second goals from the opposition left the club winless after their first six games, earning three draws along the way.
The whole time, they played a smart, fast-paced, possession style, and waited for the results to line up with their level of performance.
When the results finally started coming, they didn’t stop.
The ‘Caps strung together eight consecutive wins to close out the regular season, racking up 24 goals and allowing only four against over that stretch en route to a regular season record of 8W-3L-3D. Then, the Blue and White carried their phenomenal play into their playoff matchup with Highlanders FC.
The ‘Caps dominated Victoria, a club that had beaten them twice earlier in the season, to the tune of a 7-2 final score. Vancouver’s best players from the regular season found another level in the post-season showdown, as leading goals scorers Cody Cook and Niall Cousens each posted a brace in the rout.
The Blue and White will be without four players during the Western Conference Championships, as goalkeepers Marco Carducci and Nolan Wirth, as well as defender Jackson Farmer, and midfielder Kianz Froese will be with Canada’s U-20 national team as they prepare for the Dale Farm Milk Cup in Northern Ireland.
Head coach Niall Thompson sees the absence of four potential as more of an opportunity than a challenge.
“It gives other people a chance to step up, and if we look at our squad overall, we have a lot of depth,” said Thompson. “So, even if we have to put a sub out there, we’re putting out a good player. Fortunately, we’re getting Marco Bustos back [from the NTC Invitational Tournament with Chile’s U-20 team], so that should give us some options going forward. Really, I don’t think it’s weakened us at all.”
Goalkeeper William Diaz, 18, will start in goal for the ‘Caps, while defender Nicholas Prasad will likely suit up in place of Farmer on the back line. Bustos, who had four goals in six regular season appearances for Whitecaps FC U-23, will likely take Froese’s spot in the midfield.
FC Tucson earned the right to host the Western Conference Championships thanks to a dominant 11W-2L-1D regular season.
The Arizona-based club was brilliant on both sides of the pitch, putting up 35 goals in the 14-match season, while allowing just 11 tallies against.
The Mountain Division’s representative in the semifinals was led by a committee of offensive threats. Forwards Ricardo Velasco, Odaine Sinclair, and Connor Brandt led the club in scoring during the regular season with seven, six, and six goals, respectively.
On the back end, goalkeeper William Thompson ran the show for Tucson, playing all but 45 minutes over the course the season season. The workhorse keeper racked up 10 wins, five clean sheets, and posted a remarkable statline, with a goals-against-average of 0.833.
However, the matchup with such a high-level team doesn’t intimidate Thompson or the ‘Caps.
“We’re pretty confident, to be honest," he said. "We feel that we’re capable of beating them if we stick to our game plan and our strengths. I think we have a really good chance of getting a good result.”
Kitsap Pumas are an entirely different animal when compared to the other competitors in the final.
The greatest asset for the Northwest Division regular season champs lay in the back third of the pitch, if recent matches are any indication. Kitsap has only allowed a single goal in their past three matches, including a 1-0 elimination match win over Seattle Sounders U-23.
Pumas’ impressive 9W-1L-4D record was earned with much of the same stinginess on the back end – the club either earned a clean sheet or allowed a single goal against in 13 of 14 regular season fixtures.
The ‘Caps played Kitsap twice in the first month of the 2014 campaign and both matches ending in 1-1 draws.
VENTURA COUNTY FUSION
As good as both Tucson and Kitsap have been in their own ends this season, it’s Ventura County Fusion that are coming into the four-team showdown as the best defensive team in the conference.
As the ‘Caps can attest, momentum is key to success, and right now, Vancouver isn’t the only one riding the wave. Ventura County are on a remarkable streak defensively right now, as they come into their Friday night contest with Kitsap having not allowed a goal in over three full matches, a total stretch of 325 minutes.
Their recent playoff win, a 1-0 victory over BYU Cougars, demonstrates the exact style of play that earned Fusion an 8W-3L-3D regular season record: simple, sound defensive soccer with an opportunistic attack.
For now, neither Kitsap nor Ventura County are Thompson’s primary concern, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t prepared for any possibility.
“Right now, we’re trying not to get too far ahead of the next game,” said Thompson. “We have to take the same attitude that we’ve all season: one game at a time. That said, we’ve done our homework, and we have an idea of how Ventura play, we have an idea of how Kitsap play. Hopefully, we can get to that second game and play them, but right now, it’s all about the first game.”