VANCOUVER, BC – From a rocky start to a blazing hot streak, from offensive depth to all-star candidates, the 2014 United Soccer Leagues (USL) Premier Development League (PDL) season had a bit of everything for Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23.
Here are a few of the more captivating storylines from the season:
In terms of results, the ‘Caps didn’t get what they thought they deserved early on in the season. They were playing well, but with several new faces in the lineup, including key pieces like defender Jordian Farahani, midfielder Brett Levis, and striker Cody Cook, the cohesion wasn’t quite there at the beginning of the campaign. The result was a 0W-3L-3D record to start the year for the Blue and White.
However, the coaching staff, led by head coach Niall Thompson and assistant coach Steve Meadley, kept preaching that, as long as the squad played the “Whitecaps way," the results would come in time.
“We play from the back and play through the thirds of the field,” Meadley explained. “It’s a playing style that’s based on ball-movement, very similar to what the first team tries to do. Most of the older teams in the PDL that we played play a more direct, long-ball style of play, but our style is what works for us. We look to play a possession-based game, make our way to the thirds of the field, and move forward as a unit.”
As the players got more comfortable with the system, and with each other, the results started pouring in fast and furious. With a 2-1 win against Washington Crossfire in their seventh match of the season, the ‘Caps were off to the races.
Including the win over Washington, the Blue and White took the PDL’s Northwest Division by storm over the rest of the PDL’s regular season, winning their last eight matches to vault themselves from the division cellar to third and into an elimination match with Victoria Highlanders FC for a spot in the Western Conference semifinals.
It wasn’t just the wins that were impressive – the truly remarkable part was how the ‘Caps earned them. The Blue and White notched 24 goals over those eight matches, while only allowing four goals against.
The most impressive performance was a dominant showing against Puget Sound FC on June 20 – a 5-0 win that featured braces from Cook and striker Niall Cousens, with the fifth goal put up by midfielder Marlon Ramirez. On the defensive end, the ‘Caps didn’t even allow a shot on goal until well into the second half.
“Once everybody got what we were trying to do, and they trained together, they played together, the best part was that the boys bought in,” Meadley said. “As soon as they did that, we started having much better performances and getting the results that we wanted. It was always going to take those first few games of live action to see the style come together, and in the end it did. That’s a credit to the players for doing everything that we asked of them.”
The ‘Caps were led offensively by Cook and Cousens, who potted 10 and seven regular season goals, respectively. However, Whitecaps FC were buoyed by the depth of their offence, as 11 players scored at least a single goal during the 14-match campaign. Midfielder Reynold Stewart led the team with four assists, while 12 different players contributed at least one assist.
Compare that to the Northwest Division regular season champions Kitsap Pumas, who only had eight players contribute to their regular season goal total, or to Western Conference regular season champions FC Tucson, who also had 11 players with at least one goal.
For Meadley, this depth of scoring was a terrific indication of the young talent on the squad
“We are a footballing team and we encourage kids to get forward and in the goal scoring situations,” Meadley explained. “That’s what will happen - you’ll have goals coming from different parts of the field. It’s always great to see young players like [Marco] Bustos, Kianz [Froese], Mitch Piraux, Ali Musse, Jordan Haynes, and others coming in and contributing, whether it’s scoring, or setting one up.”
The Juan de Fuca Plate is a trophy awarded to the best British Columbia-based team in the PDL each year, based on their head-to-head matchups during the regular season.
Unfortunately for Vancouver, both of their regular season matches against Victoria, the only other team based out of BC, took place early in the season when the results did not reflect their potential. The ‘Caps ended up dropping both contests, and the Juan de Fuca Plate went to their rivals on Vancouver Island for the first time.
So, at the end of the regular season, when the chance came up to take on Highlanders FC to see which club would earn a sport in the Western Conference semifinals, there was a little extra motivation in it for everyone on the ‘Caps side.
“I’d be telling a tall tale if I said that it wasn’t in the back of my mind,” Meadley said. “And, I think I can say that the rest of the boys were thinking it too. All we knew going into that match was that we weren’t going to lose three times in a season to a rival like Victoria.”
The Blue and White used that extra motivation to the utmost, as they stormed to a 7-2 victory. Cook, Cousens, and Froese each had braces, and Victoria had no answer for a vicious offensive assault. The ‘Caps put up three goals within the first 17 minutes and never looked back.
The three-headed monster
The goalkeeping situation was fluid for the ‘Caps this year. With Residency products Marco Carducci, William Diaz, and Nolan Wirth all eligible to play for both Whitecaps FC Residency and the PDL side, coupled with Carducci’s commitments to the first team, Vancouver had to rely on each keeper to step in at any point and be ready to play.
Wirth carried the bulk of the load for the Blue and White, starting six matches. The Comox, BC native put up a 3W-3L-0D record on the campaign. After dropping his first three matches, the 6-foot-1 keeper found his stride and was excellent down the stretch, winning his last three games, while picking up two clean sheets and only allowing one goal against. Wirth was also in net for the playoff showdown with Victoria.
Carducci, a two-time Canadian U-17 Player of the Year, amassed a sparkling 4W-0L-0D record throughout the season. The 17-year-old Calgarian also picked up three clean sheets in the process, only allowing one goal in 360 minutes of action.
Diaz never lost a match during the regular season, collecting two early-season draws against Kitsap and Portland Timbers U-23, along with a win against Washington in July. However, with both Wirth and Carducci away with the Canadian U-20 national team, Diaz really shined in the Western Conference semifinal against FC Tucson. The young keeper made several excellent stops against a relentless Tucson attack, despite the 1-0 loss.
“I’ll speak to the professionalism of these young players," Meadley said. "It’s just so impressive, their ability to come in and come out and play so well when called upon. To get thrown in like they do, and to play as well as they do is a testament to this club and how these kids are being developed.”
The PDL recognized the Blue and White’s excellence this season on an individual level, as Cook and Farahani were named to the 2014 PDL All-Western Conference team.
Cook was not only the most dangerous offensive force on the ‘Caps this season, he was one of the most deadly players in all of the PDL. His 10 regular season markers led the ‘Caps and were good for the fourth highest total in the PDL. With his two playoff goals against Victoria, Cook definitely solidified his place among the league’s elite.
Farahani was the epitome of a stabilizing presence at centre back for the ‘Caps. The Regina, Saskatchewan native played in 12 games this season, picking up a goal and an assist in the regular season, while adding another goal against Highlanders FC in the playoffs.
“They’re both very different characters.” Meadley admitted. “Cody’s sort of withdrawn and quiet, and he lets his play do the speaking, while Jordian is outgoing and shows great leadership abilities with both his talent and his enthusiasm in the dressing room. They come from different backgrounds and different styles. Given that it was their first year with us, when they came in, we felt that they both needed to learn. They did everything we asked and the thing I’m proud of is that they’ve come out of this year as better players.”
Earning their rewards
After a fine season, several players from the 'Caps U-23 side have been invited to train with the first team. Included are young goalkeeper William Diaz, winger Brett Levis, and striker Niall Cousens. Other standout performers such as Cody Cook and Jordian Farahani have now gone home for a break before returning to prepare for another collegiate season.