Vancouver Whitecaps U-23s have almost totally revamped for the 2014 PDL season, but Victoria is sticking with what worked. Will that finally bring the Highlanders the Juan de Fuca Plate?
The game is also the opening act of the short but punchy play that is the USL PDL season, and after rave reviews for 2013 this year’s set of players have a tough act to follow. The Whitecaps U-23s had their best campaign in years. Led by a rambunctious attack that tried to win every game 4-3 (and a backline you could take a wheelchair through), they snuck into the final playoff spot in the PDL Northwest Division before going out to the Portland Timbers U-23s on penalties. Victoria did even better. Boasting maybe the most well-rounded attack in the Western Conference plus a solid defense, the Highlanders under first-year coach Steve Simonson won the Northwest Division, brushed aside Portland, and beat the Ventura County Fusion (not far removed from a 1-1 draw with the senior Canadian men’s national team) in extra time. Only Canadian rivals and regular season champions Thunder Bay proved a match for Victoria in the league semi-final. A far cry from 2012, when British Columbia’s PDL teams were at best mediocre and at worst almost historically bad, leading to my writing one of the most hand-wringing articles about USL PDL in history.
After that neat 2013, this year sees a change of focus for the Whitecaps U-23 that should be welcomed by your average supporter. Vancouver will carry only seven CIS players on the roster, along with up to three first team loanees per game; the rest of the roster will be Residency players (plus, one suspects, one or two others). While some of the previous Whitecaps CIS players were obvious talents the large majority were, frankly, no-hopers, seemingly brought in just to cheaply fill a lineup card: seven is probably plenty to give blue-chip university players a chance to shine. More importantly, the best of the U-18s can now once again play valuable minutes against grown men, as was done prior to 2012 with such success.
The best CIS player from last year’s Whitecaps U-23s, forward Niall Cousens, is back, as is popular midfielder Harry Lakhan and 2012 U-23 standout Reynold Stewart (not far removed from a crack at the NASL combine). Attacking midfielder/forward Brett Levis is the biggest addition: a member of the 2013 Victoria Highlanders, Levis played magnificent soccer as a PDL rookie, finishing tied with Jordie Hughes for the team lead and joint eleventh in USL PDL with nine goals. This earned him a trial with the Whitecaps first team and 36 minutes of a single Reserves match, with an assist, in Seattle on August 26; I am convinced Levis has professional promise. New addition Cody Cook out of Cranbrook joins Vancouver from a Mount Royal University program that includes former Whitecaps U-23 man Tyrin Hutchings and Thiago Silva (not that Thiago Silva), while Levis’s Saskatchewan teammate Jordan Farahani will help returning diminutive fullback Colton O’Neill bolster last year’s shakey backline. The key missing names are those of Whitecaps-affiliated NCAA players such as Callum Irving, Ben McKendry, and Brody Huitema. Hopefully we’ll see a few pleasant surprises, but the presense of MLS-contracted professionals will make the NCAA players unlikely to appear.
There’s talent there. I’ve been wild about Levis for a year now. Not only was he arguably Victoria’s best player in the 2013 PDL season, he led Canada West in shots and shots per game despite scoring “only” seven goals (tied for sixth in the conference). Reynold Stewart had one of the best university seasons in the country: captaining UBC to the national championship, finishing tied for fourth in Canada West scoring with Cook, and being named Canada West Player of the Year and CIS First-Team All-Canadian. Cousens had a relatively disappointing campaign numerically at UBC, but his performances still looked good and he lit up the national championships enough to be named tournament MVP. Cousens, Stewart, Levis, and Farahani were first-team Canada West All-Stars. Lakhan was Second-Team, and Levis was also Second-Team CIS All-Canadian.
The team also has a new head coach, Niall Thompson. You talk about coaching instability, Thompson is the Whitecaps’ sixth PDL boss in six seasons, joining Stuart Neely, Craig Dalrymple, Richard Grootscholten, Colin Miller, and Thomas Neindorf. That said, in recent years the U-23 coaching job has seemed like a bit of a sideshow and Thompson is an admirably ambitious appointment. Best known as a former Whitecap and Canadian international (scoring twice) as well as one of the best players in the amateur ranks late in his career, Thompson comes from outside the program. His most recent success has been as head coach of the Surrey United adult men. Thompson led Surrey to the finals of the 2013 Canadian Challenge Trophy, losing a closer 3-0 game than the score suggests and winning, along with a cabinet-full of team awards, BC Soccer Adult Coach of the Year honours in 2012-13.
Then there are the MLS players. The selection will vary from week to week. USL PDL rules allow three MLS loanees in the eighteen per game, and you can almost count on one of those loanees most weeks being goalkeeper Marco Carducci. Carducci played a bit of PDL last year and, more than any other player, was responsible for securing the Juan de Fuca Plate for Vancouver in the final game, including an absolutely heroic double save off Jordie Hughes and Blair Sturrock. His save percentage last season was a frankly obscene 0.882 in three games; it’s impossible for him to keep that up, but won’t it be fun to see him try? Other first teamers will doubtless put in appearances: based on nothing at all I expect to see a bit of Sam Adekugbe, a bit of Christian Dean, a few others. More importantly, some U-18s will try to make the step up. Kianz Froese, a top U-18 midfielder, played some PDL in 2012 and scored a goal. Marco Bustos will (probably) get his first PDL experience this season and ought to bring some playmaking flair. Aspiring professionals like Nicholas Prasad, Dario Zanatta, and Jordan Haynes will get a big opportunity on a higher stage against stronger players. With seven CIS guys plus up to three MLS loanees making ten, that’s a minimum of eight other players in the lineup every game, and it’s great for development. As the 2008 Whitecaps Residency, who advanced to the PDL final on the backs of U-18s Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Philippe Davies, Simon Thomas, Antonio Rago, Gagan Dosanjh, and others could attest, the kids can be pretty competitive too.
The Victoria Highlanders lineup, with their greater success and different priorities, has had less of a makeover but features some big changes. Lower Mainland fans will recognize more than one Highlanders addition. They hit NCAA D2 Simon Fraser University for three new players, all with PDL experience. Forward Carlo Basso bagged the winner off a corner in a scrimmage against the Whitecaps Reserves earlier this week and has scored ten goals in 1,453 minutes minutes over 29 games with the PDL Ottawa Fury in 2012 and 2013. Basso also scored eight goals with Simon Fraser in NCAA D2 play last year, fourth on the team. A big, classic target man, Basso’s scored goals before and could be a handful for small Northwest Division defenses. Midfielder Alex Rowley was formerly with the Whitecaps Residency, and while he didn’t get the press of flashier comrades his improving all-round game drew the right sort of attention. He played about six hundred PDL minutes with Vancouver in 2010 and 2011 without scoring, and in 2011-12 had a (cracking) goal and a couple assists in 1,682 minutes with the Whitecaps U-18s. Goalkeeper Brandon Watson was Victoria’s starting keeper in their inaugural 2010 season, playing 1,170 minutes with a 0.731 save percentage and three clean sheets, and will fight the returning Elliott Mitrou for minutes between the sticks. A fourth SFU player, midfielder Tarnvir Bhandal, is a returnee from 2013 where he played 261 minutes.
Another well-known Highlanders addition is Cam Hundal. The Victoria native and UVic student played the last two PDL seasons with the Whitecaps U-23s, recording eight goals and four assists in 2,045 minutes, as well as 19 minutes of MLS Reserves action on June 5, 2013 against Chivas USA and three Canada West All-Star nods with the good Vikes team. He’s an attractive wide-right midfielder and hasn’t looked out of place against the Whitecaps first-teamers at UVic. With his hometown Highlanders Hundal will be alongside several UVic teammates, which can only lead to improved performances. We can argue about whether he squares the balance for the Whitecaps poaching Levis, but either way he’s a dandy addition who’ll bring flair to what was an effective but often workman-like attack. A few ex-Highlanders have turned out for the Whitecaps U-23s over the years such as Sasa Plavsic, Michael Marousek, and now Levis, but I believe Hundal and Rowley are the first to go the other way.
More casual Canadian fans will be most interested in one-time Canadian international Emmanuel “Manny” Gomez, who joined the Highlanders midfield earlier this month. Gomez has spent his entire professional career in Argentina so isn’t really a known quantity in his homeland, but came to national attention in a big way when he was named by Colin Miller to the senior national team’s January 2013 camp for friendlies against Denmark and the United States. Gomez did not appear in either game but it was enough to make him, along with captain Tyler Hughes, one of two Highlanders with senior international experience (Hughes appeared for Frank Yallop at two training camps in 2004 and 2005 while with the Toronto Lynx, also without a cap). While it’s hard for us unfamiliar with Argentine lower-division soccer to say what Gomez will bring, it’s reasonable to guess expectations will be high.
The Highlanders also return a strong core of playoff-hardened veterans including Riley O’Neill, former Football Leaguer Blair Sturrock, the Ravenhill brothers Andrew and Adam, Ryan Ashlee, and defender/captain Tyler Hughes. More than a few of their younger players are coming off high honours. Mitrou and Andrew Ravenhill were first-team Canada West, and forward Cam Stokes was second-team after tying, with Hundal and UBC’s Milad Mehrabi, for the lead in conference scoring. Ravenhill was second-team CIS All-Canadian, continuing a solid career progression for the excellent young defender that a year ago got Ravenhill a trial with the San Jose Earthquakes. They’ve also brought in a few new players about whom I am not well-informed, notably CIS First-Team All-Canadian and Cape Breton University captain Ian Greedy.
And of course, the team retains the pair of general manager Mark deFrias and head coach Steve Simonson which paid the Highlanders such dividends last season. Simonson wound out of the USL PDL Coach of the Year running (that went to Austin’s Paul Dalglish, which frankly was fair enough) but I think it’s fair to say everyone was thoroughly impressed during his first year as a high-level men’s coach. Last year’s Highlanders were exceptionally strong and earned their record, and while the loss of Levis is a titanic one, the additions of Gomez, Hundal, and Basso are a good shot at compensating.
Is it enough to win Victoria their first Juan de Fuca Plate? It’s hard to say. The Plate is just a two-leg series and anything can happen over 180 minutes. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will deny the Highlanders were a better team than the Whitecaps U-23s last year, but the Whitecaps won the Plate (thanks again, Marco and Niall). So a certain prediction in either direction is bloody rash. But Victoria does seem to be the stronger team, particularly in the early season when most Whitecaps U-23s will be adjusting to PDL pace but the Highlanders will already, by and large, be familiar with each other. And that matters, since the Juan de Fuca Plate ends May 23.
So yes, I have Victoria taking the plate, which is the one way to guarantee they won’t.
 — Green, Darcy. “Whitecaps FC U-23 suffer heartbreaking playoff defeat to Portland Timbers U-23.” WhitecapsFC.com, July 23, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2014. http://www.whitecapsfc.com/news/2013/07/whitecaps-fc-u-23-suffer-heartbreaking-playoff-defeat-portland-timbers-u-23.
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 — Nielsen, James. “Highlanders Sign SFU ‘Fantastic 4’.” Victoria Highlanders FC, April 7, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.victoriahighlandersfc.com/news.php?newsid=659.
 — United Soccer Leagues. “Ottawa Fury – 2013 Statistics.” USLSoccer.com. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.uslsoccer.com/teams/2012/22365.html#STATS. Change the “2012” in the URL to another year for a different season’s statistics.
 — National Collegiate Athletics Association. “Div II – Men’s Soccer – Statistics – Individual.” NCAA.com. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.ncaa.com/stats/soccer-men/d2/current/individual/573.
 — United Soccer Leagues. “Victoria Highlanders – 2010 Statistics.” USLSoccer.com. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.uslsoccer.com/teams/2010/13598696.html#STATS.
 — Nielsen, James. “Highlanders Welcome Hundal.” Victoria Highlanders FC, March 31, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.victoriahighlandersfc.com/news.php?newsid=657.
 — “Gomez signs with Highlanders.” Victoria Highlanders FC, April 18, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.victoriahighlandersfc.com/news.php?newsid=663.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “Canada MNT names young squad for January camp.” CanadaSoccer.com, January 18, 2013. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.canadasoccer.com/canada-mnt-names-young-squad-for-january-camp-p153022.
 — Canadian Soccer Association. “Yallop Announces Roster For Game Against Guatemala on November 17.” CanadaSoccer.com, November 10, 2004. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.canadasoccer.com/yallop-announces-roster-for-game-against-guatemala-on-november-17-p144938. And: Canadian Soccer Association. “Yallop Announces Florida Training Camp Roster.” CanadaSoccer.com, January 10, 2005. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.canadasoccer.com/yallop-announces-florida-training-camp-roster-p145016. Hughes was included on the roster for a dead rubber World Cup qualifier in Guatemala but did not play; Canada won 1-0 on a goal from Dwayne De Rosario.
 — “2013-14 Men’s Soccer.”
 — “Ravenhill Trials With Earthquakes.” Victoria Highlanders FC, May 28, 2013. Accessed May 1, 2014. http://victoriahighlandersfc.com/news.php?newsid=553.
 — Nielsen, James. “Highlanders Get Greedy.” Victoria Highlanders FC, April 3, 2014. Accessed April 30, 2014. http://www.victoriahighlandersfc.com/news.php?newsid=658.