Vancouver Whitecaps got the 2013 Major League Soccer season off to a winning start on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Canadian rivals Toronto FC at BC Place, and while the performance from the 'Caps left plenty of room for improvement, there were some very positive signs from Martin Rennie's team.
Former English Premier League midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker was the catalyst for Vancouver's win, replacing teenage draft pick Kekuta Manneh at half-time and making an immediate impact on the game. The Whitecaps' best spell of the match followed immediately after the break, and they were rewarded for their play in that period by getting the only goal of the match.
The goal scored by Gershon Koffie capped a lovely move from the 'Caps, which involved YP Lee and Daigo Kobayashi, and gave a glimpse of the type of attacking play Rennie will expect from his side on a regular basis as they grow together as a team.
While much of the talk in the buildup to the game was about the youth and speed added to the Whitecaps lineup in the offseason, the biggest positive for me was the way in which Koffie and Reo-Coker combined in midfield in the second half. That pairing has the potential to be one of the best in the league.
Reo-Coker bossed the middle of the pitch while Koffie was a perfect complement and will continue to take big strides forward in his development this season. It's also key that Reo-Coker has strong leadership qualities and will be able to help Koffie every step of the way. Reo-Coker isn't yet fully fit, but on Saturday for a 20 minute spell, he looked in a different class.
Jay DeMerit's injury (reportedly a ruptured Achilles tendon) put a dampener on the victory, but the Whitecaps off-season additions will allow them to cover their captain's absence without too much cause for concern. The commanding figure of Brad Rusin looked solid in his 'Caps debut after coming off the bench to replace DeMerit early in the match, and with the arrival of Honduran international Johnny Leveron, the Whitecaps have a couple of good options.
Options are more of a dream than a reality right now for Toronto FC's new head coach Ryan Nelsen. His newly built squad is far from a finished product, but there were some positive signs to come out of their loss at BC Place. Nelsen had the team well organized and defensively disciplined. They lacked an attacking punch, but with limited resources, the first few weeks need to be about a survival first attitude.
Robert Earnshaw showed some quality touches and will be a valuable addition once fully match-fit. Canadian draft pick Kyle Bekker has loads of potential, and the central defensive pairing of Danny Califf and Daren O'Dea looked solid. Goalkeeper Joe Bendik also showed he is more than capable of backing up Stefan Frei, making a couple of excellent saves in the second half.
The Reds added six new players in the build-up to Saturday's opener, and there are more on the way. Having had the chance to talk in depth with Nelsen on the weekend, I'm confident the club is in safe hands.
The former New Zealand international isn't willing to gamble the future for short-term success and hang a millstone around the club's neck. They are still dealing with inflated contracts from previous regimes, but Nelsen and club president Kevin Payne are determined not to make those same mistakes. Players have been brought in on short-term deals and will have to prove themselves.
As Nelsen told me on Saturday, he wants to "reward production not potential." I understand that fans are skeptical. They have heard promises and grand plans before and always seen failure. I do, however, think the new management team has a much better idea on how to execute their plan.
Payne is experienced in the league and very clever at getting the most out of the league rules and salary cap. Nelsen is a willing disciple who will lead by example. Even after the first few weeks in charge, players already talk about the respect they have for their new coach and the way he has transitioned from being a player.
There is no easy solution. It will take time, and there could be some ugly moments in the short-term, but I believe Nelsen is capable of getting the job done.
Toronto FC vs. Sporting Kansas City is live on TSN and TSN Mobile TV, Saturday at 1:30pm et/10:30am pt.