'Compete, compete, compete': Whitecaps' men's, women's teams sweep up in L1BC as winning mentality takes hold
You're an academy player at the Vancouver Whitecaps program, and you've got a shot to play for silverware at BC Place, just like the senior-team pros you aspire to one day join; the perfect way to cap off a strong League1 British Columbia season.
This, having also just won the Juan De Fuca plate as the L1BC club(s) with the highest combined point total between their men’s and women’s sides, gives you a chance to complete a unique treble of sorts, too.
So you step out onto the field at BC Place and take your shot.
First, in the women’s final, the Whitecaps made it two-for-two in terms of L1BC championships over the past two seasons, as they downed Unity FC off the back of a strong second half. After entering last year’s final as underdogs and doing well to nab a surprise win over Nautsa’mawt FC (then Varsity), they handled the pressure of being favourites in 2023 and finished the year as deserved winners.
Despite being the youngest team in the women’s division by a significant margin once again, the Whitecaps rose to the challenge when it mattered most, allowing them to lift a trophy by the end of the day.
Then, in the men’s final, the Whitecaps managed to pull off a bit of a surprise. Despite playing a more heavily-favoured Victoria Highlanders side – the team that finished first in the regular season – the third-place Whitecaps didn't back down from the challenge.
Instead, even after going down in the first half of the game, their confidence never wavered, allowing them to grab a crucial equalizer before taking care of business in the penalties to also win a trophy.
The Whitecaps' young stars enjoyed a perfect day out at BC Place, marking a big moment for the club.
"It's fantastic," Whitecaps men’s L1BC coach Rich Fagan offered afterwards. "As a club, we put so much into the community, we put so much into youth development, so for us to bear the fruits the way that we did today, on the male and female side, it's fantastic."
Yet, for those paying attention to the Whitecaps, this isn’t anything new from them.
In recent years, they’ve really stepped up their commitment to youth development, wanting to become the team to watch in that regard in Canada, for both men and women.
Eager to push players through their system to then go play professionally, either within the club or elsewhere, it’s become a big part of the club’s ethos in recent years.
Of course, they’ve always been a side who has wanted to operate that way since their inception, but have struggled to do so, for a myriad of reasons.
Now, however, they’ve really seemed to strike a nice balance. Able to draw from a pool of players from pretty much anywhere across Canada except for the Greater Toronto Area and Québec, which belong to Toronto FC and CF Montréal, respectively, the Whitecaps are leaving no stones unturned in their search for talent, either.
"It’s just that, we’ll do anything," Whitecaps women’s striker Kaylee Hunter explained. "We all have been brought in from all over the place, and we’ve just come together as a family, and we’ll battle to win championships."
And that has helped create a unique atmosphere within the club, one that’s not going unnoticed.
Take men’s defender Nik White, as an example. Currently at Harvard, White returned to the Whitecaps this summer after not being with the club since 2020, having most recently played for the TSS Rovers last summer.
In his return, White has noticed a huge culture shift from when he was there before, one that’s pushed both the women’s and men’s sides, one that perhaps has helped explain the team’s results this season.
"Honestly, I think the club as an organization, on both the men's and women's side, is awesome," White said. "When coming back, I didn't know what I was going back into, I'd been gone for a few years at school.
"But it's an amazing place, the staff, the coaches, the women's team, who play top football, everybody cares so deeply. There really is a great culture at UBC at the training center, and then you come to the games, and it shows in the results as they're doing fantastic."
As a result, the two teams' finals were just a continuation of the environment that has been created.
For example, there was a moment in the women’s final where it looked like the Whitecaps were up against the ropes, having gone down 1-0 in the first half.
Given that they were up against an experienced Unity side, one that had frustrated a favoured Nautsa’mawt side a week earlier in a commanding 4-1 win in the semi-finals, it was not the sort of team that they’ll want to have been trailing against, either.
Instead of letting that fluster them, however, they just kept at it. Thanks to that, they had an equalizer within minutes, and then they didn’t look back from there.
It didn’t matter the opponent, the occasion, or what was at stake, the goal was clear - ride that wave, stick to the plan, and get the win.
Showing maturity beyond their years, this young Whitecaps side stuck to that philosophy with extreme precision, and were rewarded for it in the end.
"Our mentality is just compete, compete, compete," VWFC women’s midfielder Jeneva Hernandez-Gray said. "That’s our mindset, to come out and win every time."
"When I started last year, the messaging was that this is going to be a development league," VWFC women’s head coach Katie Collar added. "It's great for the kids, and since they’re so young we don’t really expect anything from them other than to go out and make themselves better. And I think from that point to now it's been a little bit surreal.
"It really speaks to the quality that we have within the group. It speaks to the connectedness that we have. I think at any time we deal with adversity, we say to look to the person next to you, the person behind you, they've all got your back. I think having that connection and having that trust in each other allows them to continue to work through those hard moments when it's not going their way."
Then, in the men’s final, the Whitecaps showed a similar fight.
Despite going down in the first half against a Highlanders team that hasn’t really made it a habit to concede goals, especially not when they have a lead, the Whitecaps never lost sight of their end goal.
For the neutral fan, it seemed like the game was over once Vancouver went down 1-0, but they certainly didn’t get that message, continuing to chase after an equalizer.
To their credit, they’d find it, and then they just never looked back from there.
"I think we came in a half and I was telling the boys not to worry as I thought we were playing an excellent first half," White stated. "I think we were getting a little bit emotional, I got a yellow card maybe I shouldn't have gotten, but then we settled down and we played fantastic for 90 minutes.
"This team's culture and the spirit and the mentality is that we never say die, we showed up, and we showed up for 90 minutes, which is great."
Knowing how important the occasion was for several players, too, such as White, who admitted after the game he won’t be returning next year for a League 1 BC threepeat (he also won the League 1 BC title last summer with the Rovers), that added to the motivation of the group, as well.
"I love this group of boys. It's top guys on and off the field," VWFC L1BC men's goalkeeper Cohen Park said. "And really, I'm just excited that for some of the guys it's their last game, and that we won this for them and for everyone."
For the second year in a row, the L1BC Men’s Championship Final is settled by penalty kicks after being tied 1-1 at the end of regulation time!— League1 British Columbia (@League1BC) August 6, 2023
Congratulations to @WFCAcademy , the 2023 League1 BC Men’s Finals Champions 🏆 #L1BC | #RiseAsOne pic.twitter.com/zE0sa9rM2M
But while someone like White or others will now look at next year as an opportunity to make the step up to play professionally in the Whitecaps system, be it in MLS Next Pro or MLS, the women don’t have the same opportunity.
For them, unless they choose to go abroad, they’ll have to go the university route to live out any professional dreams, if they don’t want to stay in League 1 BC forever.
Considering a lot of them are already going up against those sorts of players and thriving in this league, it’s an unfortunate reality, as one can only imagine that a few of them would be primed to make a jump up to a higher level given how they’ve played despite their age.
The good news? The landscape is shifting. The Whitecaps may not have a women’s team today, but they’re pushing for one, having joined Project 8 Sports as a founding member, which is huge given that Project 8 is aiming to launch a professional Canadian women’s league in 2025.
There, that will allow several of these Whitecaps players to fulfill those professional dreams, but without having to go abroad as they did before.
That’s huge, and long overdue, something that should hopefully alter the landscape of the women’s game in Canada, one that could certainly use a refresh.
"It's incredible thinking about what's coming in 2025," Hunter enthused. "And we're just so fortunate to have a league like this to build up to that, so we're just super excited to be part of this."
So while the Whitecaps' success with their League 1 BC women’s side signifies their commitment to youth development for the players of tomorrow, they’re also looking to ensure that those players get to pursue those future dreams in their backyard.
Having begun to establish a true academy-to-professional pathway on the men’s side, one that is slowly starting to show fruit, they now want to replicate that on the women’s side.
And that’s the key missing puzzle piece, so once that’s in place, watch out, especially as the Whitecaps look to build off this special League 1 BC treble triumph.
"The opportunity for them to play professionally at home is huge," Collar finished. "I said it to them before the game, you are on this stage, in this stadium, in this locker room, you have earned all of this, and I think they have every right to play in a place like this.
"It's part of the process. It's not the destination to get here today. That was the 90 minutes doing the hard work and winning the game, and it continues to grow.
"You reach that mountain, and there's always another peak, and the next one is a professional league."