The Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23s had their most successful season in half a decade, but only a few of the college-aged players stood out for the right reasons.
The Whitecaps were, as usual for the end of a USL PDL season, shorthanded and brought a four-man bench down to Washington. So it wasn’t much surprise that the Timbers’ control of the game increased every minute. Regardless, Simon Thomas mostly kept the ball out of the net and, when Portland went up 1-0 in the first half, Bobby Jhutty was able to reply for Vancouver. Extra time passed with no winner and so the game was decided with kicks from the mark, whereupon Portland scored all five of their shots while Sam Adekugbe missed Vancouver’s fifth and last. That was it for the 2013 Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 season.
It’s been a decent year for the USL PDL in British Columbia, and I’m sure I’ll have something to say about the Victoria Highlanders when their season finally finishes (in their second ever playoff appearance the Highlanders are currently in the USL PDL final four going for the first piece of silverware in their history). But today let’s discuss the Whitecaps, both with the statistics and my eyes. USL PDL is a surprisingly rich store for underappreciated talent, college players who never had the benefit of an elite academy or were missed by the big scouts but who, regardless, have enough ability to at least be interesting. Moreover, the Whitecaps U-23 games were attended by only a hundred-odd fans at Thunderbird Stadium every week. Here’s a look at what you were missing.
Statistical note: one must always take official statistics in non-professional leagues with a grain of salt. To pick the key example from the Whitecaps U-23 season: I have it on the authority of multiple eye-witnesses that Derrick Bassi scored the Whitecaps U-23’s first goal in Victoria on May 31. The official United Soccer Leagues game sheet credits the goal to Harry Lakhan. I wasn’t at the game; I choose to trust the witnesses. It’s possible they’re wrong. There are other instances of conflict, some of which I address and some I doubtless don’t know about. So take all statistics with a grain of salt. Unless noted, all statistics are regular season only.
There’s disagreement about whether or how the Whitecaps U-23s should serve as an extension of the Residency program. Prior to last season the Whitecaps had primarily staffed the PDL team with their U-18 squad, bolstered by promising overage Residency graduates, and had some success. The 2010 team was a strong contender which missed the playoffs through bad luck, the 2008 team famously got to the USL PDL final where they lost to the Thunder Bay Chill. Certainly, on the field, reinforced Residency U-18s were competitive.
But the inauguration of the Whitecaps USSDA program starting in the 2011-12 season meant that the Whitecaps began signing more CIS and NCAA division II talent for their PDL team. This was partially driven by sheer practicality: with the USSDA games demanding so much of the U-18s’ time, there was no way for them to play both the USSDA calendar and a full USL PDL schedule. But it also deprived many of the U-18s of their best chance to play against men, prove their mettle at a higher level, and develop under tough but not overwhelming circumstances. Many of these players, including some of the best ones, had come out of the Residency program, so there was continuity, but many were new. This year, we also saw that promising Whitecaps Residency products who went to NCAA division I wouldn’t play PDL: Callum Irving and Ben McKendry were in town, training with the Whitecaps, but training was all they got.
Naturally in 2013 university-age players got most of the minutes. Only 1,470 of the team’s total 13,750 regular season minutes were played by U-18s (1994-born or later). Goalkeeper Sean Melvin and winger/forward Yassin Essa accounted for almost half of those, with Essa playing 400 minutes and Melvin playing 360. Players with MLS contracts (Simon Thomas, Adam Clement, and Aminu Abdallah) played 1,953 minutes. This was higher than 2012 (1,520 minutes) but this year the minutes were concentrated among three players. In 2012 Bryce Alderson, Michael Boxall, Etienne Barbara, Caleb Clarke, Russell Teibert, Long Tan, and Greg Klazura all got some PDL time but none got more than Clarke’s 536 minutes.
In my eyes, some of the university-age players show promise and are worth giving USL PDL experience. But so far none from this year or last have gotten a professional contract anywhere in North America. 2012 Whitecap U-23 Michael Marousek landed a pre-season trial with FC Edmonton, Gagandeep Dosanjh was linked to Edmonton earlier this year but nothing has been heard since March, and 2012 goalkeeper Lucas Menz has escaped to European semi-professional soccer, first with Ebbsfleet and now with VfR Wormatia Worms in the German fourth division. That’s as good as it gets. None of the 2012 or 2013 PDL players have yet gotten a sniff with the first team Whitecaps. A very few have gotten Reserves time but seldom significant minutes and only when other options aren’t available, with the club as a rule preferring U-18s or no-name trialists to domestic U-23s.
One presumes the Whitecaps hope to gain something from running all these university kids at the USL PDL level. But when we see the likes of Adam Clement getting MLS contracts while James Farenhorst, playing excellently at an equivalent or higher level in 2012, doesn’t get a preseason trial, it’s worrying. There are a few players from the 2013 team, including Farenhorst, who I hope get at least interest from a professional team before the summer of 2014. Farenhorst is a 1989 player; he’s running out of time if indeed he isn’t already out. Carolina’s Paul Hamilton was 23 when he made his league debut with FC Edmonton and he’s done well but you’d be a fool to push your luck.
The offensive players are always the most obvious in a review of this nature. Niall Cousens led the Whitecaps U-23 scoring chart with eight goals and four assists; in fact, eight goals was the best by any Whitecap at the PDL level since Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s nine in 2008. That tied Cousens for 17th in the USL PDL scoring race, which isn’t as unimpressive as it sounds when we remember that the Northwest Division vied with the Great Lakes as the best defensive division in the USL PDL. Cousens was also co-team leader in assists with four, tied for 19th in the league. He showed size, some pace, great poise over the ball for this level, and while he was never one for golazos or heavy shots he had a knack for running onto passes, getting into shooting positions, and finding his teammates when those positions weren’t available.
At his age and with his experience, you’d expect Cousens to be a high-calibre PDL player. He met high expectations, and we have to be careful not to assign too much significance to his scoring prowess, particularly given how short a single USL PDL season is. Still, no complaints about his work and he’s worth keeping an eye on. Cousens is attending the University of British Columbia for 2013-14 and a CIS campaign in that strong program will give us another chance to evaluate Cousens, but he’s cleared the first hurdle.
Speaking of UBC, maybe the biggest loss to the Whitecaps U-23s was that of Gagandeep Dosanjh to injury. Dosanjh was the Whitecaps U-23 captain in 2012 and after a slow start was arguably its offensive MVP. Though he gave up the armband to Derrick Bassi for 2013, Dosanjh was set to be a key player. Yet a leg injury limited Dosanjh to only 146 minutes in the 2013 USL PDL season, where he scored a goal and an assist, both away to division champions and USL PDL title contenders Victoria.
A third UBC member rounded out the top scorers with Harry Lakhan managing five goals. Lakhan predominantly played in central midfield and his totals were padded by three goals in two games against bottomfeeders North Sound, but he certainly had the audacity to shoot from range and, when the opposing midfielders laid off Lakhan, they could be punished. Lakhan’s goal against the Sounders U-23s on June 21 was a magnificent long-range strike and one of the goals of the season, though I would not consider him a key offensive prospect and he will have to work on his all-zones play to go much further.
One player from whom much was expected was Sasa Plavsic, ex- of the Abbotsford Mariners and Victoria Highlanders. Plavsic was entering his fifth USL PDL season, making him the most experienced player at this level on the Whitecaps, and had a career record of 13 goals and four assists in 2,335 minutes prior to this year. His 2011 and 2012 seasons, where he managed a combined 0.574 goals per 90 minutes on non-playoff Abbotsford and Victoria teams, showed some promise. However, Plavsic finished with only two goals in 2013 in 575 minutes, largely supplanted by Bobby Jhutty by mid-season, which given the stronger supporting cast in Vancouver did not quite meet expectations.
The most impressive non-Cousens attacking player was once again the University of Victoria’s Cam Hundal. Hundal tied for the team lead in assists and was third in goals playing on the wing, and there was not a cheapy in the bunch. He was probably the most talented of the Whitecaps U-23s with the ball at his feet, being both the most inclined to try and beat players one-on-one and the most able to pull it off. I never noticed great playmaking vision from Hundal, but his ability to overwhelm defenders let him open seams in the defense wide enough that it didn’t much matter. He’s another one of the players who should get a look from a team somewhere and who would certainly benefit from training at a higher level and learning how to read professional defenses. Indeed, on account of his skill, attacking ability, and youth, Hundal is the single player I’d put on an NASL roster from the Whitecaps U-23s if I had to pick one. He certainly strikes me as a stronger player in all respects except speed and sheer shot velocity than Erik Hurtado.
Bobby Jhutty won high marks for versatility and has improved leaps and bounds from the beginning of the 2012 season, where he frankly didn’t look like USL PDL material. Jhutty played every minute of the Whitecaps’ last five regular season games and went the full 120 in the playoffs, scoring Vancouver’s only playoff goal and burying his kick from the spot in the shootout. (That wasn’t Jhutty’s only shot from the mark this year: he scored a hat trick against Seattle where the third goal was a penalty he practically wrestled for the chance to take.) As a former doubter of Jhutty’s, I have to say he earned every minute he got. He’s done time at forward, in midfield, and fullback. He might be what baseball fans call a “AAAA player”: someone with a lot of virtues but who will never be good enough for the big leagues. Then again, given his improvement from 2012 to 2013 maybe patience would be a virtue.
The Whitecaps U-23s used three goalkeepers this year. It’s even more difficult than usual to evaluate them, since they play so few minutes that one or two bad games can throw out their statistics for a whole season. The leader, Simon Thomas, played 630 minutes which in statistical terms is nothing, so I report on their numbers for the sake of completeness rather than out of conviction they’ll be useful.
Both Thomas and U-18 Sean Melvin posted poor save percentages, for the nothing it’s worth. This was Thomas’s third USL PDL season, and in his first two he posted save percentages of 0.755 and 0.739. His 0.524 this year stands out in the wrong way, but unless Thomas left half his goalkeeping skill in Huddersfield we can only call it bad luck. In the games I saw Thomas was seldom spectacular but generally good. His aggression and skill in charging down the ball and cutting out crosses, in particular, stood out not only in comparison to his USL PDL competitors but the Whitecaps first team goalkeepers. While I hoped for more shot-stopping brilliance from a player of Thomas’s experience than we got, he did not fall behind.
Sean Melvin’s 0.533 save percentage was just as bad. This was Melvin’s second USL PDL season, and his first was only 270 minutes in 2011 with another disappointing 0.500 save percentage. It’s therefore harder to evaluate Melvin’s true calibre; he may have just hit the wall. Melvin was always a slightly forgotten ‘keeper between the excellent 1993-born Callum Irving and the younger duo of Nolan Wirth and Marco Carducci and never quite figured as a blue-chipper. That said, Melvin looked far better than a 0.533 as a U-18 and I think he had an unfortunate combination of inexperience and bad statistical luck. Melvin is off to NCAA Division I UNC-Wilmington for 2013-14 (alma mater of Whitecaps keeper Brad Knighton), so he will have ample opportunity to improve against older competition.
As for Marco Carducci, well, quite the opposite! A 1996-born keeper, Carducci was the youngest man to suit up for the Whitecaps U-23s this year and one of the best. His three matches included the best single game I saw any Whitecap play in PDL all season on June 28 when he more-or-less single-handedly won Vancouver the Juan de Fuca Plate with a magnificent goalkeeping display against Victoria, as well as the Whitecaps’ only clean sheet of the year (July 14 against Washington; four saves) and another excellent game against eventual playoff victors Portland. Those three brilliant games in just over two weeks gave Carducci a 0.882 save percentage, something so good I needed to go outside and get some air when I saw it.
If Melvin and Thomas were hobbled by bad luck, Carducci had it good. A 0.886 save percentage seems too high to be sustainable, particularly for a U-16 making his PDL debut. But boy, he looked brilliant, and given that he was up against players half a decade or more older than him Carducci deserves limitless praise regardless of how lucky he was. Last year, Nolan Wirth also played three PDL games at the same age and generally did well, but had moments where he looked in a bit over his head. Not Marco Carducci. I will say, without hesitation, that I don’t think Carducci’s save percentage would have been as good as 0.882 if he’d played a large number of games. I will also say that if he started every PDL game next year despite being a U-17, I’d be pretty damned excited. He may even be the best option available. This isn’t out of nowhere for Carducci: he was Canadian 2012 U-17 Player of the Year, everybody who watches the Residency play on a regular basis drools over him, and Whitecaps Residency supporters the Umbrella Academy named him 2013 U-16 Player of the Year.
You may have gathered from context that the Whitecaps U-23’s defense was questionable and you’d be right. The back line looked good on paper: Farenhorst was a favourite of mine last year, 2011 Residency PDL captain Derrick Bassi was returning, MLS-contract Adam Clement would play every game for which he was available, and there were a few versatile options like Lakhan, Michael Winter, former Fraser Valley Mariner Colton O’Neill, but expectations weren’t quite met. There was not enough depth to cope with the inevitable problems. Clement struggled even at the USL PDL level and was eventually released, Bassi missed most of the last third of the season, and the team found itself playing a 3-5-2 for much of the stretch drive. The Whitecaps U-23 defense was only average in the Northwest Division and was probably the single largest reason the team failed to get a home playoff game.
In the final games of the regular season Vancouver’s defensive situation was so desperate they brought in Jonathan Poli, long-time defender with the VMSL’s Columbus FC, Imperial Cup finalist, and multiple-time all-star. I can’t think of many examples of the Whitecaps pillaging the metro league for PDL talent! (I missed his appearances but by all accounts Poli handled 270 minutes well; those matches were among Vancouver’s better defensive efforts and included their only clean sheet against Washington.)
The much-touted Ethen Sampson was unavailable for most of the year, playing only 323 minutes. U-18 left back Sam Adekugbe, who would certainly have been a great help, also only got 118 minutes. This only increased the pressure on the remaining U-23 players. Indeed, although I ragged on Adam Clement’s quality earlier and will do so again, he was handicapped in many games by having to play out left where he put in a game effort but was clearly out of his comfort zone. There was just nobody else available.
There was still quality, though most came from the PDL-experienced players. After being a depth player early in the year Farenhorst wound up playing over 900 minutes and continued to look like a good bet. As one of the oldest and most experienced players on the team, getting his PDL start with the Abbotsford Mariners in 2010, you’d expect calm and quality from Farenhorst. He delivered it. I realize tall, calm, but technically unremarkable centre backs are not hard to find in North America but he remains the sort of player who should at least get a trial somewhere. (Not to belabour a point, but Farenhorst was certainly better than Clement, or other equivalent players who get MLS or NASL contracts because of perceived superiority in the NCAA system.) Colton O’Neill, another ex-Mariner and a younger, undersized fullback, was erratic but one can see the pace and élan which got him so much attention in the Fraser Valley as a U-18. I must say that Bassi, when he played, was a disappointment: not that he played badly, but he didn’t seem to have improved since 2011 and at his age that is essential. He may have been hurt by a lack of challenging competition in recent seasons.
The Whitecaps U-23s managed one of their best seasons and showed off some talent worth watching. Cam Hundal, James Farenhorst, and Niall Cousens all put their names forward again as potential future professionals. But there were also a number of missed chances, too many would-be-key players who were injured or had better things to do, and a lot of players who weren’t quite as good as they could or should have been. The season was certainly a positive, but my list of real prospects isn’t much longer than it was last year.
 — Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 2013 statistics from: United Soccer Leagues. “Full Schedule ** Vancouver Whitecaps FC U-23 – Premier Development League 2013 **.” USLSoccer.com. Accessed July 29, 2013. http://www.uslsoccer.com/teams/2013/8986445.html#SCHEDULE, except where modified for known inconsistencies. Pre-2013 statistics from personal archives except where noted. USL PDL leading scorers from http://pdl.uslsoccer.com/stats/index_E.html, but be aware this link will be stale by the time the 2014 season rolls around.
 — Sandor, Steven. “FCE reveals full training camp roster.” The11.ca, February 15, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://the11.ca/2013/02/15/fce-reveals-full-training-camp-roster-whitecaps-friendly-set-monsalve-out-cuban-keeper-in/.
 — Sandor, Steven. “FCE camp updates: Dosanjh to return to UBC after FCE trial, Miller on Hamilton, no interest in Stinson.” The11.ca, March 19, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://the11.ca/2013/03/19/fce-camp-updates-dosanjh-to-return-to-ubc-after-fce-trial-miller-on-hamilton-no-interest-in-stinson/.
 — Tucker, Craig. “Ebbsfleet United manager Liam Daish doesn’t want players to be downhearted after tough run.” KentOnline, September 5, 2012. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://www.kentonline.co.uk/kentonline/sport/2012/september/6/ebbsfleet_united.aspx.
 — VfR Wormatia 08 Worms. “Wormatia verpflichtet Torwart Lucas Menz und Mittelfeldspieler Jonathan Zinram.” Wormatia.de, July 1, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://www.wormatia.de/news/aktuell/news-detailseite/artikel/mit-zwei-weiteren-neuen-ab-ins-trainingslager.html.
 — Massey, Benjamin. “Welcome Back, Simon Thomas.” Maple Leaf Forever!, February 25, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://www.maple-leaf-forever.com/2013/02/25/welcome-back-simon-thomas/.
 — Clark, Travis. “Boys Commitments: Defenders making the jump.” Top Drawer Soccer, July 11, 2013. Accessed July 24, 2013. http://www.topdrawersoccer.com/club-soccer-articles/boys-commitments:-defenders-making-the-jump_aid28995.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “Carducci, Lawrence named 2012 Canadian U-17 Players of the Year.” CanadaSoccer.com, December 9, 2012. Accessed July 29, 2013. http://www.canadasoccer.com/carducci-lawrence-named-2012-canadian-u-17-players-of-the-year-p152806.
 — Vancouver Whitecaps FC. “Umbrella Academy Awards.” Via YouTube, July 12, 2013. Accessed July 29, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FAyyAsX8Qw&feature=youtu.be.