U17/18 Whitecaps in control of their destiny

Ben Fisk and the Vancouver Whitecaps under-17/18 team are in prime position for a playoff spot. Brandon Timko

The Vancouver Whitecaps are coming off a meaningful win in their last game on Dec. 17, a convincing 3-1 decision over the Seattle Sounders FC. The triumph sends a message about their strength to their rivals in the under-17/18 U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

Although the Whitecaps rose to 3-0-1 within the Northwest Division's West Conference and 8-1-2 overall, they still trail the Sounders (5-1-1, 7-4-3) and the Crossfire Premier (3-2-2, 6-3-5) in the division standings, largely because the other teams have played more games.

But with an earlier 3-0 shutout over the Crossfire to their credit, the Whitecaps of Canada are very much in control of their own destiny.

“We're a team that likes to play out of the back, and we like to build up with lots of possession,” said attacking midfielder Ben Fisk. “So I think that our key is to be pin-point on our passes and go to the opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them. We need to do that for the entire game, and when we do that, we have no problem beating anyone.”

Central striker Caleb Clarke has a team-high 12 goals, and front-line mates Yassin Essa and Spencer DeBoise have three goals each for the Whitecaps.

Fisk has contributed three scores, as have left-footed midfielder Bryce Alderson and midfielder Carlos Marquez, who also sees action as a striker.

Right winger Wesley Cain has contributed two goals, with one each from right midfielder Ben McKendry and right-footed defender Daniel Stanese, who plays mostly on the left side.

“We still play a 4-3-3 formation, which is a fluid system. So that means that they are not only staying in one position,” coach Richard Grootscholten said. “I like to play with fullbacks who come with overlaps on the wing side. I like the center backs to dribble or to run into the midfield.”

Stanese often springs through for scoring opportunities, even as he stabilizes the defense along with Tim Hickson, Adam Polakiewicz, Deckan Rodriguez and Jason VanBlerk in front of goalkeepers Callum Irving and Sean Melvin.

“We’re a team that likes to dictate the play. We like to maintain possession and break the other team down. We know that when we play our game, we can compete with just about anyone,” Fisk said.”So we just focus on ourselves, and whatever any other team wants to do, we take that in stride and try to come back at them with everything that we’ve got.”

The Whitecaps were on a roll throughout much of their first seven games, with an overall scoring advantage of 28-7. But after the 6-0-1 start, inconsistencies arose in their collective play. As a result, the Whitecaps are 2-1-1 in their past four games.

“We had some very good moments, and we had some really bad moments. It’s not only about winning. It can be about learning. Inconsistency is what youth brings, but it’s also about maturity,” Grootscholten said. “What we saw in those games is that we weren’t consistent enough. The players have to understand that if you want to reach your optimum highest level, it’s not easy, and we know that.”

On Dec. 2, the Whitecaps battled to a 2-2 draw with the Central Conference Texas Division leader FC Dallas (11-0-2), despite having enjoyed a two-goal lead. The Whitecaps rebounded somewhat the next day by scoring a 1-0 shutout over the South Conference Southeast Division second-place Concorde Fire (9-6-6).

“For me, the biggest thing we have to do as a team is to try to work on turning in a complete performance. We had periods in the game where we were dominating and we would keep possession, and then have lots of scoring chances,” Fisk said. “And then, we would have periods in the game where we would kind of drop off and let them come back at us. The big thing for us is to put in a full 90 minutes.”

That was the case again on Dec. 5, when, after holding an early one-goal lead, the Whitecaps were more or less drilled in a 3-1 loss to the Central Conference Texas Division second-place Texas SC Houston (8-1-5).

“We won games 1-0 when we should have scored more. You have to kill the game with that second goal, that’s how it works on the higher level. We had five, maybe six chances that didn’t go,” Grootscholten said. “So when you get so many chances, you have to score on those. And if you don’t score, then sometimes the counterattack can be a goal, which is why we also lost a game.”

The Whitecaps will try to regroup before playing back-to-back games on Jan. 21 and 22 against Chivas USA (6-3-1) and LA Galaxy (7-0-2), who are second and first, respectively, in the West Conference's SoCal Division.

“These are absolutely very good teams, but I don’t know anything about them. Of course, you will see their results and that’s it,” Grootsholten said. “But I do know some of the coaches over there, and they're doing absolutely well. So this will be a test for us to play against that high level of players.”