It's still very early in preseason but Vancouver Whitecaps are shaping up to be a younger, faster team than they were a year ago. There are, however, still many question marks about exactly what the 'Caps team will look like when the season gets underway against Toronto FC at BC Place on March 2nd, live on TSN.
SuperDraft picks Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado bring lots of pace, and with one of the league's quickest players, Darren Mattocks heading into his second MLS season, there's a real opportunity for the Whitecaps to frighten defences with speed this year.
Of course, raw pace is only one part of the equation. Those youngsters also need to produce quality finishing in front of goal. But the speed they possess is a tool that cannot be taught. Early indications are that both Manneh and Hurtado have the potential to be valuable pieces for the club in their rookie year and could certainly influence games off the bench if they don't start.
The big bonus for Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie is the fact he doesn't have to rush or overplay either of his SuperDraft picks. With the additions Rennie has made this off-season, he has plenty of options going forward. 2011 team MVP, Camilo has looked sharp in preseason so far and designated player Kenny Miller returned in good shape and hungry for success.
Miller could be utilized as a strike partner for Mattocks in a 4-4-2 formation, or as the link between midfield and attack. He played an attacking midfield role on a couple of occasions last year, and could be an option in that position where he would be able to use his great eye for the game to accentuate the pace brought by the youngsters. However, the attacking midfield role is also one that could be filled by Japanese newcomer Daigo Kobayashi, who has shown plenty of flair combined with a great touch on the ball during his early days as a Whitecap.
With the arrival of players such as Tom Heinemann, Paulo Jr. and Corey Hertzog, the 'Caps have depth up top, but I still believe the scale of their success in front of goal this season will hinge on the performances of Mattocks. As the 22-year-old Jamaican heads into his second season as a professional, he is certainly not short on confidence, proclaiming this week that he believes he can score 20 goals this season. He's started well in training camp with four goals through a couple of games, but managing to attain that level of performance consistently will be a big key to both his development, and his team's success.
It's very difficult right now to predict what Rennie's starting lineup will be for the season opener against Toronto FC, mainly because of the many options the Whitecaps have available.
As well as the different options in attack, there are also questions in defence as to whether Rennie will go with Alain Rochat at left back or the defensive midfield position, where he finished last season. One thing that does seem certain is that barring injuries, the Whitecaps will have their captain Jay DeMerit alongside veteran Andy O'Brien in the heart of the defence. That could be a valuable tandem given the younger look to the side further up the pitch.
If Rennie decides to go with Rochat as a holding midfielder, it could allow Jordan Harvey the opportunity to start at left back, although there are other possibilities, including giving a chance to young Canadian Russell Teibert or moving YP Lee across to the left. Barring injuries, Gershon Koffie's place in the lineup should be secure after an impressive 2012.
The other big decision for Rennie is who starts in goal. Veteran Joe Cannon was the first choice goalkeeper when the season kicked off last year, but was displaced by Brad Knighton towards the end of the campaign. Knighton will likely get the chance to start the season between the posts after impressing when given the chance in 2012.
There is still the strong possibility of more new faces joining the Whitecaps squad before opening day, but with the first game at BC Place just three weeks away, Martin Rennie's squad is taking shape.