Robbo Munir Saleh
Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Commentary: Club unity shines bright at U-16 playoff match

Wednesday night was another big moment in the progression of our club. It didn’t happen at BC Place, StubHub Center, or Gillette Stadium. It happened on Field #4 at Simon Fraser University as our Whitecaps FC U-16 Residency team hosted an Academy Playoff match for the first time.

In the end, the young ‘Caps fell to defeat in penalty kicks against Georgia United. While the loss stings, the evening was very much a success in all three of the club’s core values.

UNITY

If ever there was a moment to demonstrate the unity within the club, this was it. The club has long emphasized the importance of the Residency program, and the proof was on full display.

Among those in the crowd was president Bob Lenarduzzi, MLS head coach Carl Robinson, assistant coach Gordon Forrest, goalkeeper coach Marius Rovde, WFC2 head coach Alan Koch and assistant coach Steve Meadley, U-18 head coach Rich Fagan, and a number of players from past and present. Residency grads such as Sam Adekugbe, Marco Carducci, Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, Mitch Piraux and Ben McKendry were joined by the likes of Kekuta Manneh, Christian Dean, Andre Lewis, Gershon Koffie, Victor Blasco, and Craig Nitti.

Overall, it was a fantastic crowd. What a joy it was to see several hundred fans on hand to support our rising young prospects, creating a vibrant atmosphere on Burnaby Mountain. Among them were members of our supporters groups who were proudly waving flags, drumming, singing and chanting. As they say, Support Is Always, and they once again proved that on Wednesday. They’re the lifeblood of our organization, and their support was very much appreciated by the boys on the field (more on that later).

It was a big occasion for the club and still a day to remember.

WINNING

Sure, the ‘Caps were eliminated. But winning is more than just the result. Players throughout the club are being taught how to play the game the right way, not only here in Vancouver and BC, but in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

For all the criticism of Canadian soccer, you need not look further than this Residency group to see how bright the future can be. Every player in the Residency program is Canadian, and 18 of the 24 players on the U-16 team are from British Columbia.

Wednesday was a win for development and the future of the club.

I saw them play their first match of the season – and they were no slouches to begin with – but it was great to see how far they had progressed throughout the campaign. The speed and intensity that they played the game was fantastic. It was obvious to see a well-coached ‘Caps team. Each player demonstrated great tactical understanding and technical ability. At any given moment you found yourself saying “what a move," “what a pass," or “what a tackle."

You could see them playing “the Whitecaps FC Way." High pressure, crisp passing, stout defending, and flashes of individual 1v1 brilliance (shout out to Terran Campbell for several superb runs).

These young players have developed physically too. This was a group that looked their age at the start of the year. Now they look like men, more prepared for the next level.

This particular match provided a great test against Georgia United, an athletic and motivated team. The visitors had USSDA leading scorer Patrick Okonkwo, who had scored 32 goals in 36 regular season games. He was an imposing figure, with a body that already looks MLS ready at such a young age.

But the effort was phenomenal to not only shut down Okonkwo, but to battle for every 50/50 ball. Every player gave their all for the club, for the city, and for the fans. And it’s that level of effort and motivation that will be needed game in and game out to make it to the professional level.

If Wednesday was any indication, these players have the ability to make it.

HONOUR

Carl Robinson has made no secret that he loves working with young players. He has the youngest team in MLS.

A few weeks back, he met with Residency players and parents about the commitment that the club is making to them. There is a pathway, and nothing would make us more proud than seeing more players come through that pathway.

After Wednesday’s match, he made a point of not only talking to the group, but shaking the hand of every player on the U-16 team. He put his arm around a number of players and gave words of encouragement. He’s been there. He knows how they felt at that moment, and what they need to do to keep improving.

It wasn’t only Robbo. Goalkeeper coach Marius Rovde and MLS keeper Marco Carducci were there to console U-16 keeper Luciano Trasolini as soon as the final whistle blew. And Sam Adekugbe was there to talk to promising defender Kadin Chung.

Role models. That’s important for these young players.

And the young players get it too. Mid-way through their teens, these boys are mature beyond their years. After the match they made the rounds to applaud the big crowd that came out to support them. In turn, the crowd gave them an ovation for giving their all.

Our all. Our honour.

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