Martin MacMahon: Thursday a win for Whitecaps no matter what

No matter what happens in Thursday's playoff game against the LA Galaxy, simply making the playoffs is a major accomplishment for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
No matter what happens at the Home Depot Center Thursday night, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ first round knockout match with the LA Galaxy should be treated as a celebration for the club, its fans, and for professional soccer in British Columbia.

Head coach Martin Rennie has helped deliver in one season what seven coaches in six years have failed to achieve at Toronto FC – a chance to compete with Major League Soccer’s best in the postseason.

And make no mistake, it was no easy task. The side he inherited, the worst in MLS in 2011, was absolutely diabolical, with few pieces of genuine quality to work with upon his arrival. Even the players capable of making an impact on the roster had their flaws.

But, through some savvy offseason work Rennie addressed some key issues early on.

Lee Young-Pyo has perhaps been the most important pickup, solidifying the right fullback position which was a merry-go-round in Year 1, playing so well so often he was named club Player of the Year – not an honour bestowed upon many fullbacks in world football.

Martin Bonjour, too, was an excellent addition at centre back. While in recent weeks he’s been dropped in favour of Andy O’Brien, another astute defensive pickup from Rennie, Bonjour played a crucial part in the club’s strong start, forming a reliable central defensive partnership with Jay DeMerit en route to a remarkable six clean sheets from the first eight league matches to start the campaign.

Rennie’s ex-Carolina RailHawk contingent of Brad Knighton, Matt Watson and Jun Marques Davidson has had an important part to play too, and at bargain prices salary-wise given their respective contributions. Etienne Barbara and the since-released Floyd Franks didn’t pass the test, but as a whole that group has been quietly effective.

Knighton in particular has been hugely important in helping the club reach the MLS Cup playoffs with some fine individual performances en route to the club’s strong defensive finish, backstopping the team to three clean sheets over the final four matches. At age 27, he could be the ‘Caps starting goalkeeper for many years to come.

Even in the MLS SuperDraft Rennie seemed to get it bang on, selecting Darren Mattocks with the second overall pick. The Jamaican hit MLS by storm with six goals in his first eight league matches after a cooking accident, before hitting a dry spell over the past two months with no goals scored.

Injuries and international call-ups have played a part in that but Mattocks is a blue chip prospect now regardless of his postseason contribution.

But, while the season will rightfully be viewed as a success, there are still questions that will inevitably be raised with regard to Rennie’s judgment regarding the signings of designated players Barry Robson and Kenny Miller.

Perhaps in the fullness of time the pair will vindicate the tactician – perhaps Thursday will be the night one or both of them shows the critics where to put it.

Alternatively, it’s not unreasonable to think one or both could make a bigger contribution next season after settling properly and undergoing a full preseason as members of the squad.

Ultimately, Thursday is a bonus. It’s already mission accomplished.

The ‘Caps have 15 more points than last season, they’re the top MLS team in Canada and are tied for the third-best team in the league with 12 clean sheets.

These are not minor accomplishments. Yes, there still is a long way to go. The team seems to lack much of a creative spark and that won’t suddenly be resolved in the postseason.

If the team does overcome the Galaxy, it will win ugly – in fact the most stylish aspect of Vancouver’s game will probably be the tailored suit Rennie trots out in – but the team at least has a chance, and perhaps more importantly, believes it has a chance.

And really, a chance is all anyone can ask for, and finally, thanks to their Scottish coach, they have just that.