When Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson last week compared his new playmaker Pedro Morales to Major League Soccer standouts Diego Valeri and Federico Higuain, he was setting a very high standard for the club's new Designated Player. On Saturday, in just 25 minutes of action as a second half substitute, the Chilean midfielder showed exactly why his new manager has such high hopes.
On a day when almost everything went right for Vancouver, Morales short but extremely influential performance capped a wonderful afternoon for the Whitecaps as they opened the 2014 season with a 4-1 win against the New York Red Bulls at BC Place.
Robinson was quick to dampen expectations for his new look team following the victory, but the rookie head coach couldn't have asked for a better start to his managerial career as his side showed the attacking qualities he wants to be the trademark of his club.
"We'll be free-spirited and exciting," Robinson said in the buildup to the season opener. "I want players who can lift me to my feet." On Saturday, he certainly got that, as the Whitecaps turned on the style in the second half.
Of course it's far too early to draw any conclusion about how Vancouver will fare this season based on one result against a New York side that looked poor, but the initial signs are extremely encouraging.
Morales started the match on the bench after a hectic travel schedule and only a couple of training sessions with his new team, but it didn't take long for the Whitecaps fans to get a glimpse of the fantastic technical ability their new signing possesses. There were a few fancy touches as well as a superb through ball for Kenny Miller's second goal of the game, and then Morales scored himself in the closing stages to complete the rout. It was an impressive debut.
It wasn't just Morales. There were quality performances throughout the team.
Young Uruguayan Sebastian Fernandez played on the left side of the three attacking midfielders in the Whitecaps 4-2-3-1 formation and was influential throughout. He took his goal beautifully and was a creative spark, but he also worked very hard defensively.
Darren Mattocks had one of his best games as a Whitecap. He didn't score, but the Jamaican international finally showed he is capable of playing the lone striker role. He has a point to prove after a disappointing 2013 season, but if his attitude is right, he has all the qualities needed to be a success.
Veteran forward Kenny Miller scored twice, the second a lovely chip over the goalkeeper. Like Mattocks, Miller is playing for his future in Vancouver. The Scottish striker wants to stay with the club when his current contract expires this summer.
While he won't grab the headlines for his goal-scoring performances, one of the biggest off-season upgrades for the Whitecaps has been the signing of Designated Player Matias Laba from Toronto FC. Described by Robinson as "a destroyer," the young Argentine was superb in breaking up play, protecting the back four and starting moves with excellent vision and distribution. He's a player who will make the jobs of those around him much easier.
Central defenders Jay DeMerit and Andy O'Brien will benefit greatly from Laba's presence, as will his midfield partner Nigel Reo-Coker who will now be able to get forward more. We saw near the end of the game what Reo-Coker is capable of when he has license to attack, assisting on the goal scored by Morales.
Another big strength for the Whitecaps this season will be the depth within the squad. Along with Morales, Saturday's substitutes included attacking options Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado and Nicolas Mezquida, midfielder Gershon Koffie and Honduran international defender Johnny Leveron.
"It's important to start off on the right foot," said Robinson. "It's important that I keep pushing them to those standards. We did well, but there are still 33 more games to go."
Now as the Whitecaps begin preparing for their first road game of the new season at Chivas USA in California next weekend, Robinson has some interesting decisions ahead. He will want to get Morales into the starting lineup as soon as possible, but after Saturday's performance, it will be difficult to leave anyone out.
Vancouver Whitecaps at Chivas USA on Sunday, March 16 is live on CTV BC 2. Kickoff is 4pm PT.