2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
The only thing worse than having a poor season is having a poor season while watching your rivals taste success.
For the Vancouver Whitecaps, 2016 was bad enough given that the club regressed in the standings over the previous two seasons, resulting in an all-too-early elimination from the playoff race. To make matters worse, some of Vancouver's biggest foes enjoyed successful campaigns last year, culminating with a nightmare scenario for 'Caps fans as the Seattle Sounders defeated Toronto FC to claim the MLS Cup.
It was tough to watch for players and fans alike.
But 2017 presents the opportunity to start anew, and the Whitecaps hope to use the recent success of the Sounders, TFC and the 2015 MLS Cup champion Portland Timbers as incentive to erase the failures of the previous season.
The added pressure of keeping up with their rivals may be exactly what the 'Caps need to get back on track.
"You want to do just as well as your rivals and you hope that that motivates and pushes us," Whitecaps defender Tim Parker told Goal. "I think the pressure [to succeed] comes from within, and I think we just want to do our thing and hit the right strides at the right points in time to put ourselves in successful areas."
To that end, most of Vancouver's core has returned, despite calls from some quarters for an offseason overhaul. The Whitecaps' low spot in the standing was due mostly to a swoon over the second half of the season, in which the club only managed to secure three victories. Prior to that downward spiral, the 'Caps were in a relatively good position and playing competitive soccer, even if they weren't exactly setting the league on fire.
"Obviously 2016, looking back on it we had our disappointments," Parker noted. "I think the way the club went about the offseason, I think they did a great job. I think they brought a lot of the guys back that we wanted to have back and I think this is a group of guys that we want to fight for one another, and that's what we want within this locker room."
In addition to keeping much of the core together, the Whitecaps looked to shore up some obvious problem areas. The club found itself wanting in front of goal in 2016 — indeed, goal scoring has been a problem for the 'Caps dating back to the transfer of Camilo Sanvezzo to Liga MX side Queretaro in early 2014 — and brought in a couple of South American additions this month in an attempt to alleviate the headaches in the final third.
While Peruvian attacker Yordy Reyna will look to add some creativity to the Vancouver front line, in Fredy Montero the Whitecaps feel they finally have a proper replacement for Camilo.
Of course, Montero is a familiar face to MLS fans as he starred for the Sounders for four seasons, scoring 47 regular season goals in that time. That Montero is a legend at a rival club isn't lost on the Whitecaps' brass, who hope that the Colombian will be able to replicate his goal scoring prowess while representing a different side of the three-way Cascadian competition.
"Seattle are a fantastic club — they're our neighbors, they're our rivals, we know that," Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson explained. "They had Fredy Montero a couple of years ago and he'd done great for them — to be their all-time leading scorer is a fantastic achievement — and they then decided to sell him and moved on and he went and played for two other clubs before he wanted to return to Major League Soccer.
"I think the Seattle fans will respect what he'd done for them and appreciate what he'd done for them. He's at the next chapter of his life now."
Montero won't have much time to get ready for that next chapter, as the Whitecaps will start the season earlier than usual with a pair of CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal games starting Wednesday. The continental championship is one part of the 2016 campaign where the 'Caps can boast more success than their Cascadian and Canadian rivals — especially given that Portland crashed out in the group stage — but the early start to the season offers its own challenges.
"If I told you it was ideal I'd be lying, it's not ideal," Robinson said. "We're trying to fast-track [the players'] fitness. We're probably playing players in [preseason] games longer than I would like based upon the start of the MLS season, so you set out for one or two things without the key detail that you want to put in. You can take it as an advantage or a disadvantage, we're taking it as a positive."
Parker added: "I don't want to say it changes the seriousness of preseason, but it changes the timeline, for sure. And obviously it makes for less mistakes, it makes for tighter boundaries and everyone wants to make sure that they're doing the right things right away, because that game [Wednesday] is going to be coming quick. From day one we wanted to address that, and obviously make sure that everyone's head was right for that game coming up."
The Champions League provides an early opportunity to erase the bad memories from last year, but MLS teams are ultimately judged by how they fare in the postseason. Whether a club is deemed a success or a failure in North America is heavily weighted by playoff performance, and the 'Caps — who missed out on the postseason in 2016 — are looking to replicate the achievements of its two closest rivals sooner than later.
"It's just about hitting those playoffs and running with it," Parker said. "I think that's really important for us this year, to just make sure that hitting that playoff spot and having that momentum behind you that you can run with through the playoffs [is achieved], just like Seattle did this [past] year and Portland did two years ago."