The Vancouver Whitecaps will be looking to improve upon a 2012 campaign that saw the team make the MLS playoffs for the first time.
Every season has its question marks going in, and this campaign is no different for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It’s not quite the shock to the system that a new coach brings, which was the case last season with the arrival of Martin Rennie, but the group has changed significantly since the offseason.
Even a significant chunk of the starting lineup that ended the season weren’t necessarily players who held that role at the beginning of 2012.
Perhaps the biggest question is where the goals will come from. After a second consecutive year with just 35 goals as a squad, this is undoubtedly the area in the biggest need of improvement. The arrival of Daigo Kobayashi in the attacking midfield slot should make a difference – he’s capable of setting goals up and has shown an eye for goal at various stages of his career himself.
Beyond the once-capped Japanese international, Paulo Jr. is a player who looks set to start on the right wing. He’s got pace and technique on the ball, and the belief in the Whitecaps camp is that if he’s given a bigger role in Vancouver than he had with a very deep Real Salt Lake squad, he could make another big step in his career. Like Kobayashi, he’s also capable of adding goals from midfield which will be key in boosting the team’s offensive output.
If one or both of Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado can break into the starting lineup or contribute off the bench, that could be a big boost. Hurtado doesn’t have the raw skill Manneh has exhibited this preseason, but he might be a bit more ready physically for the professional game. He has an extremely muscular build in addition to pace.
Rennie has said during preseason that both players have exceeded his expectations – if the pair can carry that form into the season it will be a big boost for 2013 and seasons to come.
Perhaps the best part about this group is that there are lot of players capable, at least on paper, of contributing. Kenny Miller can’t surely do as poorly as last season, Camilo is capable of more than he delivered last season, and the likes of Omar Salgado, if he gets over his lingering foot problem, looks poised to continue his development.
In essence, a number of individuals in this attacking bunch had a bit of a low ebb or didn’t hit their optimum levels – even the club’s star attacker, Darren Mattocks, missed big chunks of the season due to injury or disciplinary issues.
The centre of midfield will likely suffer from the departures of John Thorrington and Barry Robson – both had their issues, to be sure – Thorrington was a constant fitness worry and Robson didn’t deliver as expected -- but they were established professionals in perhaps the most important position on the pitch.
Looking to fill the veteran void in the midfield is newcomer Nigel Reo-Coker, who while still only 28 boasts a wealth of experience. Reo-Coker joins Vancouver after a long career in his native England that brought him to the fringes of the English national team, and he'll be expected to provide the sort of leadership that led to him captaining Bolton Wanderers in his lone season at the Reebok Stadium.
Gershon Koffie will need to continue to evolve – which he likely will – and Alain Rochat looks set to shield the back four in the holding role.
The place with perhaps the least concern is the back line. At centre back, Rennie will have his choice of three high-quality players in Andy O’Brien, captain Jay DeMerit, and new arrival Johnny Leveron. Brad Rusin, also an offseason signing, will likely be the fourth man, but he could also see some time in midfield.
Some observers no doubt worried for Vancouver with O’Brien and DeMerit as the starting pair – not due to their quality but both missed games with injury last season -- but Leveron’s recent arrival will surely ease those worries.
In goal, Brad Knighton looks as if he’ll be the No. 1. He’s never had a full season as an MLS starter, but he looked as if he’s got the quality to be a very good one down the stretch. Yes, it was a small sample size, but it was a very tough situation he found himself in, entering a lineup with some serious issues, and he made some vital stops along the way.
Expect that to continue, and for him to establish himself as Vancouver’s main man in goal for seasons to come. But should he falter, Joe Cannon is very capable of winning the job back. He’s not a long-term option but he showed last season that he’s still got the cat-like reflexes that has made him one of the best all-time shot stoppers in MLS history.
It will take time for this group to gel and hit peak form – and Rennie will need a grace period of sorts to figure out what his best XI is after all the turnover – but once again this team should compete for a playoff spot, and if the club can consolidate their position as a playoff team two years on the hop, that will be a massive achievement.