Long road ahead for Whitecaps | Soccer | CBC Sports

SoccerLong road ahead for Whitecaps

Posted: Friday, November 2, 2012 | 09:56 PM

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Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie yells instructions to his players from the bench area during their playoff game against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Thursday. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images) Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie yells instructions to his players from the bench area during their playoff game against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Thursday. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

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The Vancouver Whitecaps, a second-year team with a first-year coach, stumbled into the playoffs looking a little lost and uncomfortable. They didn't stay long. Despite a valiant effort to prove they belonged, the host L.A. Galaxy eventually managed to put them in their place and persuaded them to leave.
The auditions have finished and the overture is complete. The curtain will now rise on act one of the 2012 Major League Soccer playoffs. 
 
The impending drama features an all-American cast as eight teams remain to battle it out for the coveted MLS Cup. Of the survivors only two - New York and Seattle - have never previously lifted the trophy. By and large the usual suspects are where they want to be. 
 
For a moment a foreign team threatened to crash the party. An upstart Canadian franchise had the audacity to challenge the status quo.
 
The Vancouver Whitecaps, a second-year team with a first-year coach, stumbled in looking a little lost and uncomfortable. They didn't stay long. Despite a valiant effort to prove they belonged, the host eventually managed to put them in their place and persuaded them to leave.
 
You can't blame them for trying. The Whitecaps' top brass is naturally disappointed but I suspect quietly content with the year's work. President Bob Lenarduzzi told me that by qualifying for the playoffs, albeit with the benefit of a revised structure, they have "set the bar higher".
 
It's a nice sound bite but is it a legitimate claim? Did the Whitecaps actually raise the bar or was the bar lowered to make them look good?
 
The answer, as so often in these glass half full/empty debates, is to be found somewhere in the middle.
 
There is no question Vancouver put a better product on the field in 2012. That said it is hard to imagine a worse scenario than the history books tell us about the expansion year. Nonetheless, there was a significant upgrade which can be attributed to two key points.
 
First and foremost the head coach had the courage of his convictions. Martin Rennie, a novice by MLS standards, had the guts to back his own judgement. This season was an audition for his coaching credentials and the Scotsman was able to set an agenda he believed in and his players were able to execute.

Solid unit
 
As a result Vancouver, a team which had shipped 55 goals in year one, became a solid if unspectacular unit. The additions of Y.P. Lee and Andy O'Brien brought depth to the back line and the emergence of goalkeeper Brad Knighton, whom Rennie had trusted in Carolina, at the expense of veteran Joe Cannon, was an added plus.
 
At the other end of the field, offensive options were added and subtracted with mixed results. Darren Mattocks justified his lofty Superdraft selection and blessed with scorching pace and a rookie season under his belt, the Jamaican striker could be a valuable asset for years to come. 
 
Barry Robson and Kenny Miller by contrast have yet to justify their inflated European salaries, but I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. The best of both is yet to come once they have fully adjusted to a summer league and undergone a complete pre-season in North America.
 
No one can deny the Whitecaps' place in history. Having become generally hard to beat in the regular season the Vancouver franchise was the first Canadian team to reach the playoffs. That it was achieved in Rennie's first season makes the landmark all the more notable. 
 
You can argue the newly adopted knock-out round doesn't constitute the playoffs being 'proper' but that's mere semantics. The Whitecaps' Canadian rivals, Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, would have happily traded places after 34 games had the opportunity been available.
 
The Whitecaps did what they had to do - but only just. It is a fact that they would have missed the wildcard berth by a country mile in the Eastern Conference and it is also a fact they won fewer games and scored less goals than the expansion Impact franchise. But because of a three-hour time difference none of that matters. 

Raising the bar
 
The bar may indeed have been raised. But that same bar was reset to a very modest height in 2012. Assuming it remains where it is next year Vancouver's progress and relative success should act as both motivation and encouragement - not only for themselves but also for Canada's other teams.
 
I am no fan of mediocrity. I am, however, a fervent fan of growing soccer and its profile across a continent dominated by other higher scoring, longer standing professional sports. MLS is still well short of its 20th birthday and, by definition, remains a work in progress.
 
Tweaks and adjustments will inevitably continue. If the league believes giving 10 teams a shot at the playoffs is a credible, marketable plan I don't have a problem with that. Vancouver has now been there, done that, but this is only the start. 
 
Unlike a good magician, the Whitecaps must repeat the trick in 2013. Soccer reputations are not built on one fleeting cameo appearance in the playoffs. They are earned over time out of consistency and respect. 
 
Now, on with the show.

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