07/13/2013 05:33 EDT | Updated 09/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Whitecaps residency squad hopes to get back to USSDA championship game

VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps under-18 residency team will carry Canada's hopes at the United States Soccer Development Academy finals for the second straight year.

The Whitecaps advanced through a competition that began with some 80 teams at the start of the season.

"It's been a great experience, first and foremost for the players," said Vancouver coach Gordon Forrest. "We've had a very good conference, especially with the number of fixtures we've played. We've had a very good playoffs, and we're back to the finals."

The Whitecaps won the Northwest Division title during the regular season and went 3-0 in the playoffs to earn a birth in the finals. Just eight teams have qualified for the championship tournament in Houston. Vancouver's opening match is against Seattle on Sunday.

Forrest, a former Scottish men's pro head coach and New Zealand national women's side assistant, has taken some unique steps to prepare his team for the heat of competition. He had his players wear their full gear, including pants and jackets, in hot conditions in Vancouver during the week.

The move was designed to help players deal with the warm temperatures in Texas.

"Heat is going to be even hotter and more humid," said Forrest. "We're trying to provide some mental preparation for the boys."

Forrest said the tournament will serve as a test of his players' physical and psychological conditioning and also provide international experience as the Whitecaps organization grooms talent for the parent Major League Soccer side and Canada's national team.

The Whitecaps lost to the FC Dallas residency team in last year's championship game. Forrest suggested the return to the finals demonstrates the Whitecaps' organizational model, based on the European pro system of having younger squads within the entire club, is working.

"It's good for the team, good for the club," said Forrest. "It just shows we're expanding (the talent) core and making progress. The club's looking at developing young players."

He also praised his players for their strong desire and performances in getting to the top stage again. The Whitecaps have four returnees from last year, and Brody Huitema led all USSDA scorers this season with 28 goals in 25 games.

But the Whitecaps will have a difficult time getting back to the championship game. The other teams in their group, the New York Red Bulls and Albertson, S.C., have both only lost once this season.

After meeting Seattle on Sunday, the Vancouver will take on New York on Tuesday and Albertson on Thursday.

Some of Vancouver's U-18 players have excelled in games with the Whitecaps reserve team and could be called up to train with the MLS squad after this tournament. Vancouver's strong play in the USSDA circuit is also timely for Canada's national squad as it launches a youth movement with new coach Benito Floro ready to take over from interim coach Colin Miller after the Gold Cup tournament.

But Forrest said it's difficult to say who is close to being ready for MLS.

"There's a long way to go," said Forrest.