Canadian Championship: Vancouver Whitecaps youth impresses in battling loss to Toronto FC
Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson was true to his pregame word and went with a young starting lineup against Toronto FC, fielding a team with an average age of just 21.7 years old for the two teams' clash in the first leg of the Amway Canadian Championship semifinals.
Robinson's young side repaid his faith in them, battling to a 2-1 first-leg defeat as Kekuta Manneh's stoppage-time away goal gave the Whitecaps a real chance of advancing to the final in next week's return tie in Vancouver.
"I'm so proud of the young guys in there and based on the second half performance we deserve to still be in the tie by just being a goal down," Robinson told Vancouver's TEAM 1410 radio after the match. "That's credit to the young boys in there, but it's credit to us a group because we have a never say die attitude.
"Two down with two minutes to go, we could easily say we'll shut up shop or whatever and lose 2-0, but we kept going, and I think we got our deserved reward in the end."
Following a run of three straight defeats, Toronto decided to go with eight of their starters from Saturday's home loss to New England including all three of their Designated Players (Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe and Gilberto), all of whom played the full 90 minutes.
There were a lot of disparities in terms of age and experience between the lineups the two coaches chose to field, making for something of a David-and-Goliath cup tie between two teams who play in a parity-friendly league.
One of the biggest was between 17-year-old Whitecaps Residency product Marco Carducci (above), and the DPs he was trying to keep off the score sheet. The game marked the young goalkeeper's professional debut and, although he let in a goal from two of those players on the night, it was an occasion Robinson felt was key to the two-time Canadian U-17 Player of the Year's continued development.
"Marco, to come in to an environment like this, is never easy at the best of times," Robinson noted. "After the first three or four minutes, I thought he was a little bit hesitant and I said to him, 'Just go out and enjoy it.'
"They put him under pressure. They were playing a lot of straight balls, they're a big team. They tried to bombard him and I think he handled it well. Second half, I thought he looked awesome."
Carducci was one of three players born in 1996 to start for Vancouver, alongside Residency midfielders Marco Bustos and Kianz Froese. The trio was in turn part of a group of five Canadians who started the game for Vancouver, with a further three on the bench from their Residency set-up.
All three teenagers have played together for a couple of years for the Whitecaps in the youth ranks and were part of Canada's team at last year's FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Bustos and Froese have been pushing hard to follow Carducci onto a MLS Homegrown contract and their play in the match didn't do their chances any harm at all.
"If they continue going in the right direction," said Robinson, "they continue to get their opportunity and they play like they did today, then not only Vancouver Whitecaps but Canadian football is in good hands."