Goal.com's Martin MacMahon takes a look at the Vancouver Whitecaps season, which started promisingly, before slowly faltering to a playoff finish.
It’s been a season of change and largely a year of growth for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The club may have fallen at the first hurdle in the 2012 MLS Cup playoffs, but given a nightmare debut season, there’s no other way to look at the campaign other than as one of serious progression.
After the write-off of 2011, Vancouver’s second MLS season got underway with cautious optimism, with many pundits and observers suggesting the team would narrowly make the playoffs or just miss out – a prediction that eventually came to fruition with one match to spare.
Those predictions were largely fuelled by a near universal media infatuation with new head coach, Martin Rennie.
Articulate, thoughtful and with an impressive record in North America’s lower tiers, the young coach’s enthusiasm in discussing his team and his plans gave people the sense that anything was possible.
But it wasn’t just talk.
Rennie seemed to pick up on where the weak spots were, and addressed some of the most pressing concerns before the season kicked off.
Perhaps his most important off-season acquisition was the signing of Lee Young-Pyo. The right full-back spot was one of the club’s weakest positions in 2011, with Jonathan Leathers, Jeb Brovsky, Bilal Duckett and John Thorrington all played there with little success.
By season’s end, that position which was an area teams regularly exploited in Year 1 was arguably one of the strongest spots on the team, with Lee earning ‘Caps Player of the Year honours, and deservedly so.
Depth at centreback was also an issue – with Jay DeMerit the only player of starting MLS quality on the roster. So in came Martin Bonjour.
Those two signings proved instrumental in the team’s remarkable defensive start to the year, with the club shutting out the opposition six out of the first eight matches in league play.
Although none of the ex-Carolina RailHawks made a season-long impression, three of five proved worth the gamble, with Brad Knighton, Matt Watson and Jun Marques Davidson all making meaningful contributions at various points in the campaign. Etienne Barbara has not been able to make an impact, while Floyd Franks was released after struggling to adapt to playing a support role.
Up top, the club's most significant offseason attacking acquisition -- although nobody knew it at the time -- was the decision to draft Darren Mattocks with the second overall pick in the SuperDraft. Mattocks' seven regular season goals were a big reason why Vancouver made the playoffs, and his tidy finish against the Galaxy is an indicator that the Jamaican is more than just a runner and could have the makings of a top striker if given the time to develop.
Sebastien Le Toux was the big name off-season offensive signing. The French striker had finished 2011 strongly with the Philadelphia Union and couldn’t come to a deal to extend his contract, hoping for a big pay day.
That meant Rennie acquired Le Toux for allocation money – the deal was largely hailed a coup, leaving most observers wondering how a player who finished last season with 10 goals in his last 12 games was acquired for seemingly minimal compensation.
Le Toux never quite worked out as planned in Vancouver – his touch was clumsy at the best of times and he wasn’t productive enough for a player in the attacking third – though he did play a key role in the team’s strong start to the season, however, pressing opponents and scoring in three of his first six games.
After that things largely dried up and by midseason, with Rennie perhaps unwilling to commit to Le Toux long-term, he swapped the workmanlike attacker for Dane Richards, another player with a contract set to expire.
Presumably the New York Red Bulls had issues re-signing the Jamaican, and perhaps wanted to give a trial run to Le Toux to see if he’d complement Thierry Henry at the tip of that club’s attack.
This was a deal that had mixed results – while Richards showed sparks of quality at BC Place, he seemed to disappear on the road – while Le Toux rarely looked dangerous, he at least helped break up attacks before they began, home or away.
The Richards-for-Le Toux swap was probably the least controversial of the midseason moves.
The big upset would come with the arrival of the high-priced pair of Kenny Miller and Barry Robson. While Vancouver’s progress to that point in the season had been impressive, these were the two that promised to push the club from simply a team trying to make the playoffs, to one seriously pushing for an MLS Cup.
Much has already been written about those two, so it’s not worth going into great detail here, but the pair has not made contributions commensurate with their paycheques. There have been glimpses of their quality and experience, yes, but in a league with only three spots for so-called designated players, glimpses aren’t good enough.
Getting rid of Eric Hassli was an unfortunate necessity. While the enigmatic Frenchman was a fan favourite, he simply didn’t fit into Rennie’s system and shipping him off was largely understood as the correct decision.
The decision to sell Davide Chiumiento to FC Zurich rather than make a concerted effort to keep the team’s most imaginative player, however, makes less sense. There aren’t many true playmakers in Major League Soccer and Chiumiento had as much raw talent as anyone in the league. Did it always come together? No. But when it did, he had both the ability to delight and deliver.
Following his departure the team became more predictable and easier to defend against.
A player who has been worth the money, however, is Andy O’Brien. The former Newcastle and Leeds United defender has been steady since his arrival, and didn’t appear to miss a beat despite missing a couple of weeks with an adductor complaint.
He’s added leadership and quality, and was one of the standout performers in Vancouver’s sole playoff game.
So Rennie’s midseason shuffle wasn’t the total blunder some have made it out to be – but the two biggest moves at this point have been disappointments.
The Scottish tactician has made the point that the circumstances were difficult for the players to arrive – two large stretches of road matches – nine away from home during a 14-game spell would have taken a toll on any team – add in the fact the two big money men didn’t have a proper preseason and there are plenty of excuses to pick from for the club’s disappointing run in, in which the ‘Caps picked up a solitary win from their final 10 matches.
Just as at the end of the 2011 season, many questions remain following the 2012 campaign.
But unlike last year, the question now is “how do the ‘Caps make a good thing better?” Not simply, “how do we fix this trainwreck?”