With new head coach Carl Robinson at the helm, the Vancouver Whitecaps will look to get back into the MLS Western Conference playoff picture. TSN soccer analyst Luke Wileman tells you everything you need to know about the 2014 Whitecaps, while TSN soccer analyst Jason deVos tells you how they will succeed or fail during the new campaign.
After missing out on the playoffs in 2013, Vancouver Whitecaps have re-tooled ahead of the new season. They lost their leading scorer, Camilo, in controversial circumstances, but the 'Caps will enter the 2014 season with a stronger overall squad.
The biggest change of the offseason was the departure of head coach Martin Rennie. After two years with the club, Rennie's contract was not renewed, and after a long search, the Whitecaps promoted Carl Robinson from his role as assistant coach to take the top job. I said at the time that Robinson was the perfect choice. He already knew the inner workings of the club from his time on Rennie's coaching staff, but has brought a fresh outlook.
Robinson is heading into his rookie season as a head coach, and it will be a steep learning curve, but there's little doubt he is ready for the task ahead. The way he handled difficult situations during the offseason was superb, and his leadership and communication with players through preseason has earned him plenty of respect within the locker room.
So what can we expect from Robinson's team? The Whitecaps coach has made no secret of the fact that he wants to play an attractive entertaining style of soccer. He has also said he won't be afraid to give youth a chance. Robinson's squad is young, but with experience in key areas throughout the team. In fact there is a strong veteran presence down the spine of the team with David Ousted in goal, Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien at the back, Nigel Reo Coker in midfield and Kenny Miller up front.
The Whitecaps have made some strong additions in the offseason but the biggest question mark is whether they will be able to replace the league-leading 22 goals scored by Camilo. There won't be one person who shoulders the responsibility of filling the void left by the Brazilian, it will need to be a team effort, and the way the squad has been built should help that to happen.
Uruguyan duo Sebastian Fernandez and Nicolas Mezquida have shown evidence of their creativity and technical ability during preseason, and the expected arrival of Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales from Spanish side Malaga will be a massive piece of the puzzle.
Vancouver already has quality in attack. Keeping Kenny Miller fit is key for the 'Caps. It will also be interesting to see the development of youngsters Kekuta Manneh, Darren Mattocks, Erik Hurtado, Omar Salgado and Russell Teibert. All five of those players have the ability to contribute significantly to the Whitecaps attacking play.
The Whitecaps added former MLS All-Star Steven Beitashour at right back to replace the retired YP Lee and have options in the central defensive positions with DeMerit and O'Brien likely to be favoured to open the season, but Carlyle Mitchell, Johnny Leveron and draft pick Christian Dean all capable of stepping in at any time.
With Carl Robinson likely to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, the two defensive midfield players will need to protect the back four but also start a lot of the Whitecaps play moving forward. On his day, Nigel Reo-Coker can be one of the top midfielders in the league, but Robinson will want to see more consistency from the Englishman this season dictating the play and getting box to box.
One of the Whitecaps big offseason additions was young Argentine midfielder Matias Laba who arrived from Toronto FC. He's a superb signing who will complement the qualities of Reo Coker. Laba is a destroyer. He breaks up the play and gets it going again in an effective manner. The defensive midfield pairing of Reo Coker and Laba could be particularly strong for the Whitecaps this season.
Despite my view that the overall squad is better than a year ago, the Whitecaps won't find it easy to achieve their goal of making the playoffs in a Western Conference that is packed with quality. Last year, Vancouver improved on their points total from a year earlier, but didn't make it to the postseason. They improved, but not enough because the other teams around them had made bigger strides. This time around, the Whitecaps have made some significant changes. It might take them time to settle into their new identity, but it should be a fun ride.
TSN Soccer analyst Jason deVos weighs in on how the Whitecaps will succeed or fail during the 2014 season.
Vancouver Whitecaps will succeed if…
…the young guns come out firing.
Rookie head coach Carl Robinson has a squad full of talented youngsters. Russell Teibert, Kekuta Manneh, Gershon Koffie, Omar Salgado, Darren Mattocks, Nicolás Mezquida, Matías Laba, Erik Hurtado, Andre Lewis and Sam Adekugbe are all under the age of 23.
With youth comes inconsistency; an amazing performance one week, followed up by a flat one the next. If Robinson can get the young players to find a measure of consistency, the Whitecaps will fare far better than many predict this season.
The reason for that is that this team is quick - and I mean, lightning fast. Mattocks, Manneh and Hurtado are whippets, and will win races against virtually every player in MLS. If the experienced players in the squad - Nigel Reo-Coker, Andy O'Brien and Jay DeMerit - can shepherd the young players along the right path, the Whitecaps are going to surprise a few people this season.
Vancouver Whitecaps will fail if…
…they show up one week and not the next.
Succeeding in professional soccer is all about finding a level of consistency from week to week. Reliability comes with experience - something that is severely lacking from this squad of players.
The onus is on Robinson to set the standards of performance that he expects from all of his players. Experienced campaigners like Reo-Coker, O'Brien and DeMerit won't be the issue - they know what they need to do to succeed in the game, and will rarely dip below a 7 out of 10 performance.
It is the young players that need to learn this. They need to learn that you cannot turn it on one week, then not bother showing up the next.
That will be Robinson's biggest challenge this season - getting a consistent level out of his talented crop of youngsters. If he can do that, this will be an exciting season for Whitecaps' fans. If not, the Whitecaps will again fail to make the playoffs.
2013 finish: 13-12-9 (seventh in Western Conference). Did not qualify for MLS Cup playoffs.
Who's In?: M Mehdi Ballouchy (Re-Entry Draft), D Steven Beitashour (traded from San Jose), M/F Sebastian Fernandez (loan from Boston River), M Matías Laba (trade from Toronto), M/F Nicolas Mezquida (transfer from Boston River), GK Paolo Tornaghi (signed).
Who's Out?: GK Joe Cannon (option declined), M Jun Marques Davidson (option declined), F Tommy Heinemann (option declined), F Corey Hertzog (option declined), D Greg Klazura (option declined), GK Brad Knighton (traded to New England), M Daigo Kobayashi (option declined), D Lee Young-Pyo (retired), D Brad Rusin (option declined), F Camilo Sanvezzo (transfer to Queretaro), GK Simon Thomas (option declined).
SuperDraft: D Christian Dean (1-3), MF Andre Lewis (1-7), F Mamadou Diouf (2-30).