The Vancouver Whitecaps will look to bounce back this season from the disappointment of missing the 2013 MLS Cup playoffs - and they will do so under new leadership.
Former assistant coach, Carl Robinson, is the club's new head coach, replacing Martin Rennie, who was removed from the post back in October. The appointment of Robinson has been received with widespread approval, despite the fact that he wasn't the club's first choice.
Former U.S. men's national team coach, Bob Bradley, was the man the Whitecaps were courting. But when that move failed to come to fruition, the club chose to appoint from within.
It is an appointment that I believe will work very well for the club. Robinson has a very bright football mind and is well-respected within the league. He has an excellent rapport with young players - of whom the Whitecaps have many - and it will be his ability to get the most out of those young players that will determine how far the ‘Caps will go in 2014.
While Robinson won't be afraid to utilize whatever tactical formation is best suited for each opponent, I expect he will begin the season lining up in a 1-4-2-3-1 formation, with the following players being first choice:
Goalkeeper - David Ousted
When David Ousted joined the club last season, many fans questioned the wisdom of adding a player in a position at which the club appeared to be reasonably solid; both Brad Knighton and Joe Cannon had played well over the course of their time in Vancouver.
But Martin Rennie felt the need for an upgrade, and it is fair to say that Ousted will be expected to perform as such this season.
He has had a few moments to forget in a Whitecaps' jersey, but by and large, Ousted is an upgrade over the previous incumbents. His distribution is excellent, he is a good shot-stopper and is comfortable claiming crosses. Ousted is also not afraid to be vocal - something that all teams need from their ‘keeper.
If Ousted performs up to his potential, expect him to play ahead of Paolo Tornaghi.
Right Fullback - Steven Beitashour
If you ask Carl Robinson, the Vancouver Whitecaps signed the best right fullback in Major League Soccer in the offseason - and he might just be right.
Beitashour was an MLS All-Star in 2012, and he has shown that he is willing and able to get forward to provide scoring chances for his teammates. His 16 assists over the last three seasons are ample evidence.
If Beitashour can carry on performing at this level for the Whitecaps, the problem of replacing the retired Lee Young-Pyo won't be much of a problem at all.
Left Fullback - Jordan Harvey
When the Whitecaps traded Alain Rochat to DC United last season - for an undisclosed amount of allocation money - the fans were up in arms. Rochat was a popular player, and fans felt that Harvey would be unable to fill his shoes.
Harvey responded by putting in the best season of his career. His four goals over the course of the season tripled his career production to date, and went some way to alleviating the fans' concerns over the solidity of the left fullback position.
Academy graduate, Sam Adekugbe, is one to watch for the future, but to start the season, the left back position is Harvey's to lose.
Central Defender - Jay DeMerit
The Vancouver Whitecaps' first-ever signing, Jay DeMerit has, in many ways, become the face of the club. In fact, one could argue that he and his wife, Olympic gold-medallist Ashleigh McIvor, are the poster couple of Vancouver sports.
Publicity aside, it will be DeMerit's play on the field that is most important. He showed tremendous attitude and work rate to come back from a torn Achilles tendon last season, and put in some solid defensive performances towards the end of the year. He set the standard with those performances, and if he is to stay in the team, he will need to match that standard.
Don't expect DeMerit to dribble the ball into midfield or play 60-yard cross-field passes - that isn't what he does best. What he does do is lead by example; he puts his body on the line week in, week out, and what he lacks in technical savvy he makes up for in tenacity.
Central Defender - Andy O'Brien
Some fans were surprised that the Whitecaps re-signed Andy O'Brien last season - but I wasn't.
O'Brien is quiet and soft-spoken off the field, but once he crosses the white line, he adopts a much different demeanor. He organizes and commands the back four, and along with DeMerit, leads by example.
His experience playing at the highest level in England is evident, as he reads the game well and sees dangerous situations before they develop. The only concern with O'Brien - and the same concern applies to DeMerit - is that he can remain healthy, given that he is on the wrong side of 30.
If either DeMerit of O'Brien go down with injury, expect Jonny Leveron and Carlisle Mitchell to be able deputies.
Defensive Midfielder - Nigel Reo-Coker
When he joined the Whitecaps last season, Nigel Reo-Coker put in some outstanding performances. It was to be expected, given the level at which he has played throughout his career in England.
Reo-Coker is outspoken and demands the very highest of himself and of his teammates. When those standards are not met, he can become frustrated. If Robinson is to get the best out of Reo-Coker, he will need to keep his midfield general in a good frame of mind - focused on the job at hand, not concerned with distractions in other areas of the team.
Reo-Coker can be the driving force in the middle of the park for Vancouver. If he has a strong campaign, the Whitecaps will be successful.
Defensive Midfielder - Matias Laba
As soon as Michael Bradley became available, it was inevitable that Toronto FC would have to move Matias Laba. It's a real shame for TFC, because I rate Laba very highly.
At times last year, he was a man playing alongside boys in Toronto. He has a very bright football brain, and he reads the game really well. Alongside Reo-Coker, the Whitecaps could very well have the strongest pair of central midfielders in MLS - the box-to-box power of Reo-Coker complimenting the positional discipline and tenacity of Laba.
Because he doesn't play a glamorous position, Laba will not get the credit he deserves for his play. But those in the know will see the value in the little things that Laba does so well.
Right Midfield - Russell Teibert
This is a very important year for Russell Teibert. He is currently out of favour with the Canadian men's national team, and the only way for him to work his way back into Benito Floro's plans is to play so well for his club team that leaving him out is not an option.
To do that, Teibert needs to produce - goals and assists, to be precise. He isn't going to supplant either Reo-Coker or Laba as a defensive midfielder, a position he played during pre-season. He isn't going to supplant newly signed designated player, Pedro Morales, as an attacking midfielder, either. So if Teibert is going to stay in the team, he needs to make the right midfield position his own.
He has plenty of good qualities; he is technically sound, has a great left foot and is the fittest member of the Whitecaps' squad. But his biggest asset is that he wants to learn.
He latched onto Nigel Reo-Coker when the Englishman joined the club last season, and has tried to soak up as much football knowledge as he could.
If Teibert doesn't perform, expect Kekuta Manneh to be given a run in the team. You will see plenty of Manneh this season, but I think Robinson is smart enough to know that the youngster needs time to continue his development, and cannot be rushed into a starting role.
Left Midfield - Sebastian Fernandez
One of two Uruguayans to join the club in the offseason, Fernandez looks to be a very exciting option for the Whitecaps, in either of the wide midfield positions.
Fernandez is comfortable with a ball at his feet, has strong technical qualities and has provided a creative influence for the team down the left flank during preseason. If he can develop an understanding with Pedro Morales, the Whitecaps will have the attacking midfield threat that has been lacking for the last three seasons.
There will be a period of adaptation for Fernandez - and this applies to Nicolas Mezquida and Pedro Morales as well - to the rigours of MLS. The travel and varying playing conditions, not to mention the physicality of the league, will require that he be adaptable. If he can do this, his technical ability will have a chance to shine.
Attacking Midfield - Pedro Morales
The Whitecaps have been in desperate need of a genuine attacking midfielder since they joined Major League Soccer. Not since Davide Chiumiento have the club had a player that could even remotely be called a ‘number 10'.
Pedro Morales will be that player.
Morales has spent the last year playing for Malaga in Spain's La Liga, and he has two goals in 11 international appearances for Chile. His touch is exquisite, his passing range and vision is superb, and he is not afraid to shoot from distance. He will be expected to slot into the Whitecaps' midfield almost immediately, and will be relied upon to dictate play when Vancouver is in possession of the ball, to create scoring chances and to score goals himself.
Forward - Darren Mattocks
Carl Robinson has a big challenge on his hands - to turn Darren Mattocks into the player that Darren Mattocks thinks he is.
The young Jamaican has a very high opinion of himself as a player - he said so himself in an off-season interview on Jamaican television.
Mattocks has so much to learn about the game tactically, though, and Robinson and his coaching staff will have their hands full trying to develop that aspect of Mattocks' game. It will be doubly difficult if they cannot get Mattocks' head out of the clouds.
It is a real test of the new head coach's man-management abilities. Succeed, and the Whitecaps will have a fearsome striker on their hands. Fail, and Darren Mattocks will be just another player who failed to live up to his potential.
If Mattocks struggles, the Whitecaps have options. The experienced Kenny Miller will be desperate to impress and earn an extension to his contract, and Kekuta Manneh is always a threat up front or out wide coming off the bench.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are a young, dynamic team who have added some South American quality in Laba, Morales, Fernandez and Mezquida. Their squad is deeper and more talented than the one that began the 2013 MLS season, and if Carl Robinson can get the young players to be consistent, the Whitecaps will surprise many people this season.