The Vancouver Whitecaps’ first season in MLS ended as so many other “expansion” teams’ season have ended in U.S. leagues throughout the years: basement and struggling to build for the future.* After the near immediate success of recent MLS additions like Seattle and Philly, as well as the late playoff run by Cascadia rivals Portland, this season had to have been somewhat of a disappointment. Now, on their third coach in less than two years, the team is looking to build on a solid nucleus to begin their climb up the tough Western Conference standings and contend for an MLS playoff spot.
The Whitecaps kick off our “3 Questions” series for this offseason, where I will take a look at every MLS team (in draft order) and see what three questions will dominate their offseason. These questions and how they are answered over the next three months will go a long way to determining how or if they can contend for MLS Cup 2012, or whatever relevant goals they may have.
1. Third time’s a charm: how will the team fare under new coach and CEO?
To say there have been some changes in the team’s management is an understatement. As mentioned, Martin Rennie is the team’s third coach is a little over a calendar year, and his style has won acclaim in the lower levels of U.S. soccer. How he is able to implement his more cerebral coaching style on a team that has been at times a little mental (see Eric Hassli’s early run of red cards) will be a key to determining the improvement this club can make. In addition, the recent resignation of CEO Paul Barber casts some shadows over the club. While he will be replaced by in-house personnel, the absence of the man who helped move the team to MLS and into BC Place (as well as ultimately hired Rennie) adds a little uncertainty in the front office. How all of these new faces deal with this team remain to be seen. What we do know is that Rennie has been given the authority for personnel moves, so authority rests with him for the roster.
2. Can they stop allowing so many goals?
The ‘Caps offense was fine last season and at times even quite impressive, but their defense undid all of that good. Not surprisingly that is one area where Rennie and the front office have been focusing their player purge. While starting keeper Joe Cannon was re-signed after taking a pay cut, back-up Jay Nolly was shipped off to Chicago and North Carolina RailHawks keeper Brad Knighton was brought on as competition for the starting gig. Their biggest defensive acquisition, however, is probably Young-Pyo Lee from South Korea. The fullback is a World Cup veteran and played for clubs PSV Eindhoven and Tottenham Hotspur. The team hopes his veteran presence will stabilize the backline, and with his pedigree there’s no doubt it won’t help. The question is, will the players around him be good enough as well? And will John Thorrington be healthy enough to be a defensive force in the midfield?
3. Will Omar Salgado continue his rapid rise to stardom?
Reports from the Generation Adidas tour suggest that Omar Salgado is playing well and making a name for himself for the national team. The GA tour plus his training in England and time in the U.S. youth camp have given the young forward valuable playing experience against some top-flight competition. Now the question is can he take this experience back with him to Vancouver and translate it onto the MLS pitch? The ‘Caps have scoring options around him, so he is not going to be relied upon to make all of the plays. But a dynamic young scoring threat can make a difference for a team; look at how much better Kansas City was when Teal Bunbury was playing well or even Juan Agudelo for New York. Salgado taking the next step could be a huge factor for this team’s improvement in the new year.
*Note: I know Vancouver is technically not an expansion team in the traditional sense, but the principles apply.