VANCOUVER – Both of Vancouver Whitecaps FC's Residency squads have plenty to look back on and take pride in after seeing their United States Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) campaigns come to an end last month.
Both seasons were filled with positives, from individual performances to team achievements, from goal totals to win totals.
Here are a few of the highlights for both squads:
WHITECAPS U-16 RESIDENCY
Where no team has gone before
After missing out on the USSDA playoffs last season, the U-16s were determined to go into the 2014 campaign and prove that they belonged.
Out of the 72 squads that play at the USSDA’s U-16 level, Whitecaps FC fought their way through to the final eight, further than any U-16 club has ever gone since the Whitecaps FC Residency program joined the USSDA prior to the 2011-2012 campaign.
U-16 staff coach Carl Valentine cites the players’ experience and willingness to learn as key factors for their deep playoff run.
“A lot of the players came from pre-residency and U-16 head coach Rich Fagan was working with them earlier,” Valentine said. “Last year, they were a very young team and found it challenging, but the experience prepared them for this year and they really bought into it. They were ready and focused with another year to prepare for this calibre of play at the U-16 level. The attitude of the players was phenomenal and they took every challenge as a learning experience, which helped greatly.”
Throughout the season, the U-16s played a brand of fast-paced, counter-attacking soccer and that style translated brilliantly to the scoresheet. The ‘Caps put up a Northwest Division-leading 62 goals in only 28 games, a 2.2 goals-per-game average.
According to Valentine, the secret to their success on the offensive side of the ball stems from relentless pressure and intensity all over the pitch.
“Rich [Fagan]’s philosophy was to really have a high-tempo team, and that really showed in the number of goals,” stated the assistant coach. “It wasn’t just the way the team played in opening up the opposition, but they created a lot of goals because they pressured the other side as high up the field as possible, which created turnovers in their end. Using a quick counterattack, a lot of those turnovers were capitalized on because the team managed to strike before the opposition could get re-organized.”
The team's style of play helped create plenty of opportunities, and Dario Zanatta took advantage. The U-16 striker potted a remarkable 26 goals in 28 matches, a total that was good for third overall amongst players at the U-16 level.
Zanatta’s ability to finish was impressive to say the least, but Valentine asserts that the Victoria-born striker is very much a multi-dimensional talent.
“He’s really grown as a player,” Valentine said. “Obviously, his standout traits are that he’s lethal in front of the goal, but to be a quality striker, you have to have all the abilities there, and he does. As a striker, he's holding the play, bringing other players into the game and playing with his back to goal. His movement off the ball has also been very, very good. Players like him have been challenged to make other players around him better and I think he’s continuing to grow within that role. The results have shown on the pitch.”
WHITECAPS FC U-18 RESIDENCY
As much as the offence was key to the success of the U-16s, one of the U-18s’ greatest strengths lay in the back third of the pitch. The older of the two Residency squads allowed just 39 goals in 27 matches this season, or 1.44 goals-against-per-game.
Assistant coach Steve Meadley is quick to point out the talent on the team’s back lick, including centre backs Jackson Farmer, who was rewarded midseason with a call-up to USL PRO's Charleston Battery, and Nicholas Prasad, who made “the most improvement of anyone on our roster this season," according to the assistant coach. He also made special note of Chris Serban, who joined the club around Christmas, and “has played virtually every minute since then.”
However, as much individual talent as there was on the back line, Meadley found that the biggest reason for the group’s success this season was a synergy between the entire unit.
“Everybody understands how we want to play,” Meadley said. “There aren’t any individuals doing crazy things back there. Everyone gets the system, see the success we have with it and are willing to buy in. Because of that, their performances have been great all year.”
On the offensive half of the pitch, two players in particular left their marks on the U-18 squad.
Midfielder Kianz Froese, raised in Brunkild, Manitoba, and midfielder Marco Bustos, a Winnipeg native, were front and centre for the Blue and White all season long. Froese controlled the pace of play from the midfield all season with his combination of physical strength and excellent timing, while Bustos used his quick first step and deadly accurate shot to torch defences all year. On the season, Froese put up 12 goals in 22 appearances, while Bustos racked up 19 tallies in 24 appearances.
As for what made the pair so successful this season, Meadley leaned towards their mindsets rather than their physical talents.
“It’s their dedication and desire to get to the next level,” Meadley said. “They’ve made the decision on a personal level that, as young men, they want to be professional footballers. I think that the fact that they’re with us in our system and they’ve seen young players have success and make it through, it makes them believe they can be professional footballers. That’s what drives them, and makes them work so hard.”
Getting a taste
During an interview earlier this season, Meadley summed up the larger goal at hand when it comes to the Residency program: ”At the end of the day, developing the players for the first team, that’s what it’s all about.”
This season, the first team got a glimpse of the young talent that’s emerging in the system, as Bustos and Froese each played in the first leg of the Amway Canadian Championship. Bustos put in an impressive 64 minutes, while his partner-in-crime Froese lasted 77 minutes before being subbed off.
There's also first-team and Residency goalkeeper Marco Carducci, who played in both the first and second leg against Toronto FC. The 17-year-old keeper earned a 2-1 regulation win in the second leg with a performance that belied his age.
For Meadley, this type of experience is invaluable when it comes to the development of the Residency players, because it gives them a tangible end goal.
“I think it’s great, because it makes it real," he said. "All of a sudden, boom, they’re out there with a first-team shirt on and it’s real. We can tell them day-in and day-out about the hard work that’s needed and what it takes to be a pro, but when they actually get a taste of it and feel it for themselves, that’s a real driving factor for them.”
The possession-based, fast-paced style of soccer that the ‘Caps employed didn’t go unnoticed by USSDA, as the Blue and White were named the Western Conference winners of the Under-17/18 (1995-96) Style of Play award.
While Meadley is happy with the award in and of itself, he also says that it’s indicative of the bigger picture for the organization.
“We’re pretty happy with that, because it shows that people are seeing what we do and what we preach,” Meadley said. “We maintained all season that our performance was just as important as the result and this award shows that our performance all season demonstrated a brand of play that is exciting and successful. This is great news for the club because that proves that our boys are growing and learning how to play the Whitecaps way.”