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Vancouver Whitecaps: 2013 season preview

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Vancouver captain Jay DeMerit, top, led the Whitecaps to an MLS playoff appearance in 2012 — the first ever by a Canadian-based club. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

By Ben Rycroft – Tuesday, February 26, 2013

As a rookie MLS coach last year, Martin Rennie did what he was expected to do — get his team to the playoffs. The Vancouver Whitecaps were bumped from the dance shortly after their arrival, but they can take some consolation from the fact they played the L.A. Galaxy, the eventual champions, as well as anyone who faced them in the post-season.

Vancouver’s 2-1 loss to David Beckham and company in the knockout round is the farthest a Canadian MLS team has made it to date. But with success comes greater expectations heading into 2013. For the Whitecaps’ supporters, there can be no going back from what the team has done.

Here’s a look at who may play a key role in ensuring the Whitecaps find their way back to the post-season and improve upon their performance from 2012:

Quick Facts

  • 2012 record: 11-13-10, 43 points (5th in Western Conference).
  • 2012 result: First Canadian team to make MLS playoffs. Lost 2-1 to L.A. in knockout round.
  • Key additions: Midfielder Kobayashi Daigo, midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker.
  • Draft picks: Forward Kekuta Manneh, midfielder Erik Hurtado.
  • Key losses: Midfielder Barry Robson.

Goalkeeping

On a squad where players will be competing for positions all over the field in 2013, perhaps the most interesting battle will be in net. At 38 years old, Joe Cannon played the majority of games last year for Vancouver before losing his starting position to back-up Brad Knighton down the stretch.

Knighton’s performances, while adequate, did little to secure him a starting role going into the 2013 season. The Whitecaps stumbled towards the playoffs, and with Knighton in goal they managed only one win in their final seven games. That was good enough to make it to the post-season, but Rennie will be looking for more consistent performances out of both his keepers this season.

For the veteran Cannon, this year could be his last go-round. Very few keepers of his age can handle the grind of an MLS schedule. But Knighton showed last year that he’s not ready to handle the starter’s role. Look for both men to get equal playing time during the early part of the year, at least until one establishes himself as the clear favourite — or the clear back-up, as is often the case in these scenarios.

Defence

When Young-Pyo Lee arrived last season, there were plenty of questions asked of team president Bob Lenarduzzi. Was this a PR signing, intended to reach out to Vancouver’s large Korean population? Can a player of his age still compete on an increasingly competitive level? How was he going to handle the language barrier?

Lee answered all those questions resoundingly — or, at least, his translator answered them resoundingly for him. He was a force on the backline for Vancouver in 2012 and any questions about his age (he turned 35 in April) and fitness were erased when he played in and started every game but one. He quickly established himself as someone who was capable of getting up and down the wing with ease and one of the better flank defenders in MLS.

Captain Jay DeMerit also answered questions about his play in 2012. After struggling through an injury-plagued 2011 season, he returned to establish himself as one of the league’s best centre backs and led his squad throughout the entire campaign.

While the pieces around Lee and DeMerit could be interchangeable at times in 2012, the pair’s consistency gives the Whitecaps a good starting place for improving on last year’s result. And the late addition of Honduran Jhonny Leveron will go a long way to helping establish that consistency.

Midfield

The Scottish Experiment came undone as quickly as it began. Last year, coach Rennie brought in Barry Robson and Kenny Miller to much fanfare. The pair was supposed to jump-start a lackluster Whitecaps offence and give the team the extra punch it needed to be a top-level MLS squad. Instead, Robson struggled, often looking lost in the offence he was supposed to be leading. And his recent departure was seen as an inevitability based on his performance — even if it was presented as a family-related decision.

Where Robson failed to live up to expectations, Jun Marques Davidson exceeded them. There was really no consensus on what the defensive midfielder might be capable of when he made the jump from the J-League, but Davidson established himself as a consistent player. Still, he was riding the bench by season’s end. You could make the case that the downturn in the team’s play coincided with Davidson’s poor run of form and then eventual absence, but the reality was the squad as a whole was underperforming by that point anyways.

Unfortunately for Davidson, he will likely see limited time now that Vancouver has finalized the deal to bring former West Ham and Aston Villa midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker to the Whitecaps. Reo-Coker, who could find time in the back four as well, is a man motivated to get his career back on track. And Vancouver has structured his contract as such. He’ll be on a small salary this season, but if he performs well there could be a designated-player bump for him in the near future.

Omar Salgado, the striker turned midfielder, will be back on the wing again this season, and with the addition of Reo-Coker the upside is large for the American. He has never really found his scoring touch since going No. 1 overall in the 2011 SuperDraft, but with Robson now gone the midfield is wide open for Salgado to find his lane.

Forward

The onus is now on Kenny Miller to ensure that Rennie’s gamble to bring in a pair of his countrymen won’t be a complete flop. The Scottish national team captain has showed flashes of what he is capable of, but with only two goals to his name following the 2012 season the clock is ticking on his tenure as well.

He may not even get a chance at redemption if Rennie opts to go with a lone forward up front again in 2013. If the Whitecaps do select the 4-5-1 formation, it will surely be sophomore Darren Mattocks who gets the starting nod. In his rookie season Mattocks showed why the Caps took a risk on the athletic striker by picking him No. 2 overall in the 2012 SuperDraft. Time and again he exposed slow defenders on the break but showed a shade of mental weakness by allowing himself to get sucked into card trouble.

As long as he stays out of the referee’s books, he should continue to develop into a well-rounded threat up front.

Outlook

The expectation will be that Vancouver will make a run for the playoffs again this season, and there is nothing to suggest that they are not capable of that, with a few other teams in the Western Conference looking to remake their squads. But the Whitecaps too are going through a transition. Their Scottish imports have not worked out and have left big gaps in their lineup, as well as swallowing up more salary than they should.

With Robson now gone, Vancouver needs to find a consistent midfield leader to help transition the attack. Salgado is capable of more than what he has shown so far, but he is still not ready to be that main piece. The same goes for Mattocks. In a few years, both will be a formidable partnership, but for right now they simply offer potential that Reo-Coker could help fine-tune.

If Vancouver is going to maintain the momentum it built last year, the team will need to get the most from its midfield reinforcements and hope that Miller can come off the bench and provide some much-needed offensive spark. If the Whitecaps were to stumble this season, it wouldn’t be as devastating as some are making it out to be. No one wants to play the “one step forward, one step back” game, but the worst thing they could do is panic and bring in players that solve only short-term problems.

Rennie showed himself capable of building a solid MLS squad in 2012. If left to his own devices, without the immediate pressure to again show returns, he will surely position the Caps for a period of relevance in the years to come.

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