Vancouver Whitecaps season preview: Time for growth | Soccer | CBC Sports

Vancouver Whitecaps season preview: Time for growth

Posted: Thursday, March 8, 2012 | 02:10 AM

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Vancouver Whitecaps FC's Alain Rochat, left, along with teammates Camilo Sanvezzo and Eric Hassli during their inaugural MLS season. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images) Vancouver Whitecaps FC's Alain Rochat, left, along with teammates Camilo Sanvezzo and Eric Hassli during their inaugural MLS season. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

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The expansion MLS birth pangs can be brutal. On one hand, you're bringing something beautiful into the world. It inspires cheering, it reduces grown men to tears and there is a certain amount of euphoria around that first season. On the other hand, it's likely going to be a sticky mess that won't walk, talk or doing anything on its own for years.
The expansion MLS birth pangs can be brutal. On one hand, you're bringing something beautiful into the world. It inspires cheering, it reduces grown men to tears and there is a certain amount of euphoria around that first season. On the other hand, it's likely going to be a sticky mess that won't walk, talk or doing anything on its own for years.

And for the Vancouver Whitecaps, after finishing only a hair above the bottom of the MLS table in 2011, the growing up that comes with season two can't come quick enough.

Charged with maturing this Whitecaps MLS squad into the force it once was during its NASL days, is new head coach Martin Rennie, a man who built his reputation in division two football and someone who hasn't been shy about building his new squad in the likeness of his old.

And after last season's front office power struggle - one that saw Teitur Thodarson unfairly lose his job early the season and then CEO Paul Barber wash his hands of the mess at its conclusion - there should be little doubt left whose team this is now. Joining the Scottish coach in Vancouver will be five players from his former club, the Carolina Railhawks, a pair of assistants from the NASL side and a division two carryover who has now made a name for himself in MLS.

So will a new coach and a new approach mean a new result?

CBCSports.ca looks at what Vancouver will have to do to change its fortunes this season.

QUICK FACTS:

2011 record: 6-18-10, 28 points (9th in Western Conference, 18th in MLS)
2011 result: Didn't make playoffs, Voyageurs Cup finalist
Key additions for 2012: Martin Bonjour, Young Pyo Lee, Sebastien Le Toux, Bryce Alderson, Barry Robson, Etiene Barber
Draft picks: Striker Darren Mattocks
Key losses: Jay Nolly, Phillipe Davies, Lee Nguyen

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP FOR 2012:

GK - Joe Cannon. D - Young-Pyo Lee, Martin Bonjour, Alain Rochat, Jay DeMerit. M - Davide Chiumiento, Jun Marques Davidson, Atiba Harris, Camilo Sanvezzo . F - Eric Hassli, Sebastien Le Toux.

GOALKEEPING

Last season's argument of who was the better keeper - Joe Cannon or Jay Nolly - was settled in short order upon the season's completion. Cannon was re-signed and Nolly was shipped off to Chicago for a Supplemental Draft pick - which, in MLS, is to say nothing.

And whether you think Cannon benefited from having a healthier defence in the second half of the year, where Nolly was left out to dry by an injury-plagued backline during the early campaign, really no longer matters. Cannon, an MLS veteran who had been starter quality his whole career, will have the nod from the First Kick this season.

But what does matter is if the 'Caps No. 1 can now stay healthy.  Less than two seasons removed from a serious ankle injury and 10 years deep into an impressive MLS career, Cannon is no longer the spring chicken he once was when he won multiple MLS goaltender of the year honours. He will still get down to make that outstretched save and throw himself in front of the onrushing striker but this is the point in a player's career when the travel of playing on a big continent and the wear and tear of playing on the terrible turf catches up with him.

Rennie has brought in a capable backup in Brad Knighton, a former Carolina Railhawk who has bounced back and forth between MLS and NASL during his five-year pro career.

He has yet to hold down a starting position in the top flight division but if Cannon picks up a knock, or even falters off the top of year, especially under what Rennie deems to be a revamped backline, don't be surprised if Knighton gets a look.

And if that happens you can bank on the Knighton vs. Cannon debate to pick up right where the last one left off.

DEFENCE
 
lee-young-pyo-get-11.jpgExpect Young-Pyo Lee to join the Vancouver Whitecaps attack from his right fullback position. The South Korean adds experience and quality to the second-year MLS club.(Oleg Popov/Reuters) To say that Jay DeMerit's injuries last season were devastating to the Whitecaps would be an understatement. Their first-ever designated player and captain left a gaping hole in the middle of their backline when he went down with abductor and groin injuries last season.  

And while DeMerit has even admitted that he isn't back to full stride yet, the Whitecaps have made a pair of moves that will help shore up a defence that was the third worst for conceding goals last season.

The first signing was the addition of Young-Pyo Lee. At 34-years-old, the South Korean legend still moves shockingly well for his age and will be able to get up the right flank with ease. The former Tottenham man displays a calmness on the ball that last season's after thoughts Jonathan Leathers and Mouloud Akloul never could. And while some have toted the signing as nothing more than a marketing move, aimed at attracting the sizable South Korean community in B.C., Lee has shown that he will still be able to throw himself into the tackles that every striker's ankles fear.

And while Lee's signing has received the bulk of the attention, the quiet addition of Argentinian Martin Bonjour should not be overlooked. At 26-years-old, DeMeritt's new centreback partner brings an aggressive aerial game and some youthful cover that should compliment his captain's play well.

Depth past the starters is still an issue but couple those signings with the return of Alain Rochat and Vancouver's weakness last year suddenly looks far less glaring.

MIDFIELD

If there is one place where Vancouver is surely going to struggle this season it will be in the middle of the park.  Even with the slated arrival of Scottish standout Barry Robson in July, the Whitecaps will have little linkage between their back four and their front line.

Forget any pre-season play that might have shown otherwise - although it should be mentioned that homegrown player Bryce Alderson and former Carolina man Matt Watson have certainly proved they can hold their own - the Whitecaps are going to have to once again rely on the distribution of Davide Chiumiento. And there is nothing wrong with that, Chiumiento is a talented midfielder who can spray the ball to near anywhere on the pitch, but the question of who is going to turn the play back up field remains.
chiumiento-davide-220-get-111022.jpgDavide Chiumiento dribbles the ball upfield during MLS action last season. The crafty midfielder will be relied upon for his creativity and superior ball distribution. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
John Thorrington, the veteran central midfielder who spent most of last season watching from the sidelines due to injury, went down once again this pre-season. And while indications are that his quadricep tear isn't as bad as first feared, he will be lost for at least the first few weeks of the season.

That doesn't leave Rennie with many pleasant options. He can turn to Gershon Koffe, who at 20-years-old, still has lots of learning to do in a role that often requires a veteran presence. Or, Rennie can bank on Jun Marques Davidson, a Japanese midfielder yet to establish him as a consistent option in top-flight football.

Neither player is ideal and either will be liabilities, so Robson's arrival mid-season, which should serve to inject a level of quality not there presently, can't come soon enough.

FORWARDS

It was a move that few saw coming but most agree was the coup of the MLS off-season. When Sebastian Le Toux returned from the Bolton Wanderers after a failed trial, he expected he would pick up where he left off - scoring goals for the Philadelphia Union.

What he didn't know was that Philadelphia was busy making other plans during his absence, so when the trial didn't work out, they had to find a way to make room on the salary cap. That left Le Toux on the outside looking in, but squarely in the plans of the Vancouver Whitecaps. While he didn't exactly ingratiate himself to the city by tweeting about his unhappiness over the trade, actions speak louder than words and all is forgiven when you're scoring goals.

But where Le Toux's addition solves one problem, it creates another. The largest of which is what to do with Camillo Sanvezzo or Eric Hassli - both potent strikers last season. The simple answer is to drop Camillo back to the midfield and let him play in a supporting, attacking role but how that's going to sit with the temperamental Brazilian, who led his team in goals last year, is anybody's guess.

The other option is to rest Eric Hassli, the French star, who despite scoring one of the best goals ever seen in MLS, struggled down the stretch in 2011 and stopped performing as defenders cottoned to his turn and shoot approach. And while Hassli didn't exactly assure himself of a position during the pre-season either, with some less than stellar performances, the big man probably still gets the starting job.

The Whitecaps need a strong target man if there is going to be little reliable linkage through the midfield.

And with Camillo, Hassli and Le Toux all on the pitch, the Whitecaps are potentially sitting on three double digit scorers - which, in MLS, goes a long way to making a playoff run.

OUTLOOK

Last season was rough. And while expansion births are never easy, power struggles in the delivery room led to more chaos around the club than there needed to be.

No one around Vancouver will say it on the record but it's pretty clear now that Tom Soehn, the Whitecaps Director of Soccer Operations, had aspirations to return to a head-coaching role and that those motivations likely led to the premature firing of Teitur Thordarson.

While one win in two months of play might have seemed like reason enough to get rid of the Icelandic coach, Soehn brought in a new approach, favoured new players and enforced a new style on a team that had been playing pretty much route one football for the past three years. The move only further served to toss the club asunder.

A few months back, perhaps seeking to head off another season of power struggles, the Whitecaps quietly gave permission to Soehn to pursue opportunities elsewhere - for him that meant applying for a vacant coaching position in Colorado. Soehn didn't get the job and is now back with the club in his old role. But in doing so, the Whitecaps have made it clear who is in charge.

This is Martin Rennie's club, his experiment - any success, or failure, will be laid squarely at his feet.

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