Luke Wileman, TSN.CA
|TSN.ca has asked the soccer experts what fans can expect from Canada's MLS franchises in 2012. Coverage continues today with Luke Wileman's look at the Vancouver Whitecaps. Can the team take the next step in its sophomore MLS season? Which of the team's new additions are primed for a breakout season? Can head coach Martin Rennie turn the team into a playoff squad? Read on for Luke's take and be sure to check out TSN's previews of Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact.
The Vancouver Whitecaps inaugural season in Major League Soccer was one of disappointment. The team fell well below the standards expected on the pitch, finished bottom of the Western Conference and had one of the worst defensive records in the league, conceding 55 goals. However, heading into the new year, there is a sense of confidence, optimism and expectation running throughout the club and its fans.
It all comes from the remarkable transformation that has taken place since the arrival of new Head Coach Martin Rennie late last year. He has addressed the weaknesses in the team, added some key pieces, and built a squad that appears to have enough depth to deal with the gruelling MLS season. He has assembled a young, energetic coaching staff around him that will complement his own strengths and unique ideas.
The Whitecaps deserve credit for acting quickly to correct problems. Even though he didn't take charge until the end of the season, they appointed Rennie last August, giving him plenty of time to assess the squad and begin planning for 2012. They allowed Rennie to address the issues within the squad, even if it meant spending big money as in the case of releasing Designated Player Mustapha Jarju or acquiring Scottish midfielder Barry Robson.
In the space of four months, the Whitecaps have gone from being one of the basement dwellers in MLS to a team capable of challenging for a place in the MLS Cup Playoffs. There are obviously still many questions to be answered - they have a coach who is heading into his first season in MLS, and are in the tougher Western Conference, but all signs point to a much improved year for Vancouver.
2011 Finish: Ninth in Western Conference (6-18-10). Did not qualify for Playoffs.
Key additions: F Sebastien Le Toux (trade with Philadelphia), D Lee Young-Pyo (Int'l signing), M/F Lee Nguyen (weighted lottery), M Matt Watson (signed), D Martín Bonjour (signed), G Brad Knighton (signed), M Jun Marques Davidson (signed).
Key subtractions: Jay Nolly (trade with Chicago), M Nizar Khalfan (waivers), D Jeb Brovsky (expansion draft: Montreal), D Bilal Duckett (waived), M Alexandre Morfaw (waived), M Shea Salinas (trade with San Jose), D Greg Janicki (option declined), M Pete Vagenas (option declined), D Jonathan Leathers (option declined), D Geinier García (trade with Montreal), F Mustapha Jarju (contract terminated), M Philippe Davies (option declined).
SuperDraft: F Darren Mattocks (1-2), D Chris Estridge (2-21).
|Goal: Brad Knighton, Brian Sylvestre
Defence: Michael Boxall, Jordan Harvey,
Greg Klazura, Carlyle Mitchell
Midfield: Bryce Alderson, Davide Chiumiento, Matt Watson,
Michael Nanchoff,John Thorrington, Russell Teibert,
Forwards: Etienne Barbara, Darren Mattocks,
Omar Salgado, Long Tan
Plan of Attack: With Martin Rennie at the helm, the future looks very bright for Vancouver. When talking with Rennie it is easy to see that he has a clear vision of what he expects to achieve and how he is going to get there. Having had the chance to spend some time around the Whitecaps squad in preseason, there is certainly a much different feel. They are focussed but relaxed. The squad is brimming with confidence and the players are enjoying turning up to work every day.
The Whitecaps admit they maybe got a little too carried away with expectations for their expansion season after a 4-2 win against Toronto FC on opening day last year, but they appear to have learnt from their mistakes both on and off the pitch and are a stronger club because of what they endured.
Rennie wants to create a winning culture, but is also very aware of the need to entertain. He has the opportunity to play a major role in the development of soccer in British Columbia, but understands the need to put an attractive product on the pitch. That's been evident by the fact that he has assembled one of the deepest attacking line-ups in the league.
With Hassli, Camilo, Le Toux, Harris, Mattocks, Chiumiento, Tan and Salgado amongst the options, the Whitecaps should have no trouble scoring goals. The main question is to what extent they have managed to plug the holes at the back that were so evident last season. Injuries will also play a key role. Vancouver will hope captain Jay DeMerit and midfielder John Thorrington will spend more time on the pitch than they did last year.
Home and Away: Two players for Whitecaps fans to watch this season - one home grown and one imported from overseas.
Two-time Canadian U17 Player of the Year Bryce Alderson has a big future ahead of him. Because of the depth of the 'Caps squad, he's unlikely to see a great deal of first team action this season, but he has all of the qualities necessary to take the step up from the Whitecaps Residency program. If called upon, Alderson is ready to answer. He played a key role as Canada's youngsters did so well to qualify for the FIFA U17 World Cup in Mexico last year and captained the team during the tournament.
One of the most important acquisitions of the off-season is Lee Young-Pyo. The South Korean defender brings a wealth of experience to Vancouver having played the game at the highest level. He has represented his country at three World Cups and spent time with big European clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and PSV Eindhoven. Lee is a big star within his own country and has already been under the spotlight in Vancouver with big crowds from the local South Korean community turning out to see him at appearances. On the pitch, he has also made an impressive impact. During preseason, the 34-year-old has looked calm and composed in possession, defensively sound and also ready to push forward and attack when the opportunity arises.
||Home and Away
WILEMAN SAYS: "ALDERSON IS AN INTELLIGENT, TALENTED PLAYER WHO WILL BENEFIT FROM TRAINING AND PLAYING ALONGSIDE THE WHITECAPS FIRST-TEAM SQUAD"
WILEMAN SAYS: "LEE WILL LEAD BY EXAMPLE AND MAKE OTHER PLAYERS AROUND HIM BETTER. HIS ADDITION ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF DEFENCE IS A BIG UPGRADE FOR THE WHITECAPS HEADING INTO THIS SEASON."
Supporters' Shield: Which Whitecaps player is destined to become a fan-favourite in 2012?
The arrival of Sebastien Le Toux in Vancouver sent a massive signal to the rest of Major League Soccer that the Whitecaps mean business. The last couple of years have seen rejuvenation for a player who was left unprotected by Seattle Sounders in the 2009 MLS Expansion Draft. He was named an MLS All-Star in his first season with the Union and also named to the league's Best XI after finishing the year with 14 goals and 11 assists. He followed that up with 11 goals and nine assists in 34 matches for Philly last year.
There's no doubt Le Toux will score goals, but it's his strong work ethic that will also endear him to the Whitecaps fans. He's a rare breed of forward who enjoys getting back to defend and is a valuable piece on set pieces for and against. The Frenchman will contribute greatly to the 'Caps cause in all areas of the pitch. He can also be relied upon from the penalty spot. With the Whitecaps wealth of attacking options, Le Toux's versatility is also a big benefit. As well as taking up a position as a main striker, he can also play on either wing or as an attacking midfielder.
Strength of Schedule: Vancouver has an advantageous start to the season, opening at home against the expansion Montreal Impact. From there, they could continue to pick up points as the team's next pair are against teams that failed to make the 2011 MLS Playoffs (Chivas USA and D.C. United). If the Whitecaps are in the hunt for the playoffs in the closing stages of the season, they could benefit from the fact that four of their final five games will be played at BC Place. Two of those final four home games are against Cascadia rivals Seattle and Portland, so there will be lots to be decided.
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