What a difference a year makes. At this point last year WFC2 were still searching for their second win of the season, while looking every bit like a hastily put together young team en-route to finishing second last in the Western Conference.. A year later however, Alan Koch’s squad find themselves in a drastically different position. Undefeated through six games (4-0-2) and riding near the very top of the competitive fifteen team USL Western Conference.
From the get go last year, WFC2 found themselves fighting from behind. After the late November announcement of the team’s creation, the ‘Caps only had a matter of months to scramble together a squad that would compete against well established professional teams. The result was a mix of recent NCAA draft picks and residency grads with a limited amount of time to come together as a team, let alone as newly minted pros.
“Last year we only had a four week preseason,” said Alan Koch at halftime of the MLS squad’s match against Portland. “Obviously we started from scratch, and it’s not easy to start a brand new professional team.”
Under rushed conditions, the ‘Caps did well to get a team together for the 2015 USL season, but it became apparent very quickly that the collection of college players and residency graduates that made up the roster would be in tough against experienced professional teams.
“We had a very late start, we only found out a couple months before that we’d be playing in the USL, so it was a scramble to pull the team together” said Whitecaps President Bob Lenarduzzi. “We went to Seattle [in the first game of last season] and got spanked 4-0.”
Despite the circumstances WFC2’s first season was still considered a success by many. The team was able to string together stretches of excellent form and a number of young players saw significant growth in their games over the year. However in order for these youngsters to continue to develop, gaining traction from last season was a must. With the hope that the more high intensity, meaningful games they can play in, the quicker these young players will grow up in mind, the ‘Caps offseason provided a healthy amount of new faces.
A common theme of the new additions is professional experience, while still staying within the boundaries of the team’s youth development mantra. Of the seven new faces that were brought into the club, only goalkeeper Sean Melvin had not played professionally prior to this season. Each of the acquisitions were young, with Kyle Grieg being easily the oldest at 26, but had at least a season of prior experience in the pros. Centre backs Sem de Wit and Elliot Green had both seen time in the professional ranks of Europe, while Fatawu Safiu, Guliano Frano, and Grieg all played last season in the USL and Daniel Haber came over after playing the last two years in Cyprus and Israel.
The new additions have had an immediate impact as well. Grieg and Haber are 1-2 on the team in goal scoring while de Wit has played every minute so far for the team, leading a vastly improved back line. However the team as a whole has shown significant growth which can’t be solely attributed to sound personnel decisions. The ability for the new faces to blend with the old ones, as well as the continued maturity of returning players such as Kadin Chung and Brett Levis can be traced back to the proper offseason that WFC2 never had in the lead up to last season.
“I think what helped our team grow a lot in the preseason was having an eight week preseason, I think you can tell we’re a team,” said Koch. “Last year we had four weeks to prepare and we weren’t a team when the season started. [The longer preseason] allows our core group to be stronger, which when guys drop down from the first team or young guys come up [from the residency team], they are instantaneously part of our group. We have a much better group right now.”
The collective spirit and maturity of the team has been evident all season, but most notably when faced with adversity. Last season Vancouver had a tendency to wilt as games progressed, often worn down mentally and physically by their opposition. This year has been drastically different however as WFC2 have scored a league high 10 second half goals this year and have notched come from behind wins against Swope Park and Tulsa as well as a gutsy 2-2 draw in Los Angeles after falling behind 2-0.
As impressive as WFC2’s start has been, adversity is never far away in a league as competitive top to bottom as the USL. Especially for a team that regularly starts a 15 year-old (Alphonso Davies) and a 17 year-old (Chung), ups and downs over the 30 game season are going to be inevitable, however this team has already shown in its short history that adversity can be embraced and used to grow,
“I’m sure we’ll have ups and downs as the season goes along,” said Koch. “It’ll be a roller coaster that’s for sure but we’re very very pleased with where we are right now.”
Image: WhitecapsFC/Bob Frid