VANCOUVER – As the Vancouver Whitecaps enter their third Major League Soccer season, they are planning to make fewer of the mid-season changes from last year that team president Bob Lenarduzzi suggested might have been “rash.”
That didn’t stop them from making significant moves in the off-season.
Notable newcomers include top MLS SuperDraft picks Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado and midfielders Nigel Reo-Coker, a former English Premier League star, and Daigo Kobayashi, a relative unknown from Japan who has shown signs that he can control play with his adept passing skills and vision on the pitch.
“There’s been quite a changeover of the personnel,” said defender Andy O’Brien. “The new players that have come in have added that enthusiasm to the energetic side of things and, hopefully, we’ve got a good balance of experience and youth players.”
Heading into Saturday’s season opener at home against Toronto FC, the third-year Whitecaps are looking to improve on an 11-13-10 season in which they became the first Canadian side to make the Major League Soccer playoffs.
Reo-Coker, who could also see action at defender, and Kobayashi will help make up for the departure of Scottish international midfielder Barry Robson, who parted ways with the Whitecaps in January. Robson, who now plays for Sheffield United in England’s third tier, was among the mid-season changes that included the arrival of fellow Scotsman Kenny Miller, who remains with the club.
As part of the moves, star striker Eric Hassli, an extremely popular figure in the Whitecaps dressing room, was shipped out via trade to Toronto. (The Frenchman has since been dealt to Dallas.) In addition to an attempt to build on a strong start to the season, the moves were designed to help the Caps develop a championship culture, while also increasing offence and overall play.
However, Robson and Miller did not score as expected, and the club struggled down the stretch before backing into the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“We made those changes on the basis of wanting to improve where we were at, and we were probably a little rash in doing so,” Lenarduzzi said. “So I think you’re going to see less player movement at the halfway point of the season.”
Second-year striker Darren Mattocks, who shows signs of being a world-class player with his breathtaking speed and an uncanny ability to sidestep defenders, will again be the prime fixture in the offence. After being forced to sit out the start of the 2012 campaign due to arm burns sustained in a cooking accident, he should benefit from a full season, and has a chance to add to the team-leading seven goals he scored as a rookie.
Manneh and Hurtado excelled with him at times in the pre-season, and the speedy trio could be productive, depending on whom coach Martin Rennie elects to deploy in a 1-5-4 formation.
Miller, the Scottish national team captain who is expected to line up as a withdrawn striker in midfield, will be under close scrutiny at the outset as fans look for him to produce more goals now that he has a training camp and exhibition season under his cleats. He was not in top fitness upon arrival in the summer, which used to be his off-season.
“He’s doing really well,” said Rennie. “He’s leading the young guys well. He’s teaching them a lot of things, and he’s working hard, and I think he looks really sharp.”
Miller was limited to just two goals last season while being used as a reserve at times, a situation that did not sit well with him. He vowed after Vancouver’s 2-1 playoff loss in Los Angeles to be a better player.
“With the fact that he’s here now, he’s more settled, he’s had a pre-season behind him, I think he can grow and build on what he did last season,” Rennie said. “We want him to be scoring goals, but also to be creating chances and working hard for the team. He’s done all those things in pre-season and, hopefully, we’ll see all those things once the season starts.”
Brazilian midfielder-forward Camilo is looking for the Whitecaps to repeat their strong start of a year ago while making sure they do not falter this time.
“We started very well last year, and in the mid-season we didn’t do the same,” said Camilo. “Now, we have to start good and continue through the mid-season, too.”
Camilo is also looking to rebound from a sub-par 2012 season in which he scored just five goals while battling a thigh injury and a loss of confidence after ranking among league leaders with 12 markers in 2011. He is slated to be used primarily as a right-winger while Omar Salgado patrols the left flank.
Salgado, 19, who found his niche on the left side last season before he was felled by a broken foot, will be another player to watch. But he aggravated the foot injury in the off-season and will need time to get into top form.
The Whitecaps as a unit will also need time to develop cohesion, but Salgado, a third-year Whitecap, likes what he has seen thus far.
“I think we’re going to be really good this year,” he said. “Personally, I think, out of every pre-season, it’s the best one I’ve seen.”
The Whitecaps will be looking to produce more goals after scoring just 35 in each of the past two seasons. Defensively, Vancouver should be strong again, thanks largely to a veteran back line that includes captain Jay DeMerit, who is recuperating from Achilles tendinitis, Young-Pyo Lee and O’Brien.
In goal, Brad Knighton is looking to retain the starting job that he took over from Joe Cannon near the end of last season. Cannon, 38, has indicated he will accept a backup role, but is still expected to battle for the No. 1 position.
As for the culture change attempted last season, it is continuing, said Rennie.
“We’ve made more progress on that than people think, in terms of getting the kind of people we want and building the character, he said. “Now, we just want to protect that and continue to grow that.”
Notes_The Whitecaps have moved into a new temporary training facility, which is part of the National Soccer Development Centre that is under development.