MLS Season Preview: Vancouver Whitecaps aiming to be a legitimate MLS Cup contender

After a disappointing end to a season of progress in 2015, a solid core and some key attacking additions make Vancouver a club to watch out for this season.
VANCOUVER — If one spoke to Vancouver Whitecaps supporters, some would say 2015 was a successful campaign, while others would suggest that more could have been achieved.

As coach Carl Robinson heads into his third season in charge of the Whitecaps, the former Wales international will surely point to last season as a big step forward in building the foundation of a successful MLS side – a process that started when he took over the reins from Martin Rennie before the 2014 campaign.

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Some firsts were achieved last season. The Whitecaps won their first Canadian Championship title; there was also the club’s debut in the CONCACAF Champions League. Though the Champions League was not met with same level of enthusiasm, it was no less important for the Whitecaps to know the rigours of juggling two competitions at the same time during the business end of an MLS regular season schedule.

What most Vancouver followers will remember of last season is that the team tarted the season strongly and weathered the summer months well. In previous seasons, they struggled through the summer period. This year's summer schedule included an extended road trip in June, as the Women’s World Cup occupied their BC Place home, plus a gruelling eight-match month of August, which brought the club’s first Voyageurs Cup title as Canadian champions.

Yet, it was in late August that the Whitecaps season took an unexpected downturn. Lack of form, lack of goals, and key injuries had Robinson’s side far from its best come playoff time, despite Vancouver’s best finish to a regular season as an MLS club (second place in the Western Conference and third place in the MLS Supporters’ Shield standings). Eventual MLS Cup champions Portland Timbers brought Vancouver’s season to an end in the Western Conference semifinals.

The end-of-season analysis was that progress had been made, but moves were needed to make the Whitecaps a true MLS Cup contender. Defensively, Vancouver was one of the best in MLS last term, prompting Robinson to lock down goalkeeper David Ousted, centre back Kendall Waston, and defensive midfielder Matias Laba to contract extensions.

There are questions marks with Vancouver’s back end, however. After trading the experienced Steven Beitashour to Toronto FC, Robinson will use raw talent in the form of Canadian international Fraser Aird and Costa Rican import Jordan Smith to fill in at right back. There is also concern regarding the Whitecaps’ goalkeeping depth, with homegrown youngster Marco Carducci the only other MLS-contracted shot stopper behind Ousted.

The biggest need for the new season was the ability to produce more goals. After a modest improvement on their 2014 regular season goal totals last term, Robinson signed Japanese striker Masato Kudo, experienced Costa Rican international Christian Bolaños, and former nemesis Blas Perez from FC Dallas, in a bid to fulfill the team’s target of 65 total goals this season – a mark Robinson wanted his side to reach last year.

“I’ve tried to bring in different pieces of the puzzle rather than having two or three pieces that are the same.” Robinson said. “We have a different dynamic now, depending on the situation within a game. We’ve never had that since I’ve been here. Whether it’s Blas coming in as a target man or Masato as an attacking 18-yard box player after losing Earnie (Robert Earnshaw), plus we have Octavio (Rivero), Darren (Mattocks), and Erik (Hurtado) still. We’ve got fantastic options in the forward areas, which is something we’ve haven’t had before.

“We had a number of forwards last year that were good running on to things, but we had no threat in the box. The additions of the two that we’ve got in Masato and Blas, we now have a threat in the box. We’ve added the creativity of Bolaños to the two young ones we’ve already got in (Marco) Bustos and (Kianz) Froese, as well as (Nicolas) Mezquida.

“We’ve got different options, and it’s important that you find different solutions to problems, because in games, there’s lots of problems. Last year, we didn’t quite have enough solutions to the problems that we were faced with. Hopefully this year, we’ll be able to change that.”

What is certain is that the Whitecaps are blessed with depth in most areas of their squad, with at least two players contesting for the starting XI role in each position.

“We’re still a work in progress. We’re still trying to get better each day,” Robinson said. “We’re developing competition for places all over the field, which I think is important in any team. We’ve got a number of younger players fighting the senior players for the roster spots, which is always good.”


VANCOUVER WHITECAPS SEASON PREVIEW

2015 FINISH: Second in Western Conference (16-13-5), eliminated in conference semifinals

NOTABLE ADDITIONS: F Masato Kudo, M Christian Bolaños, D Fraser Aird, F Blas Perez

NOTABLE LOSSES: D Steven Beitashour, F Robert Earnshaw, M Gershon Koffie, M Mauro Rosales

TOP NEWCOMER: Christian Bolaños. Having decided not to bring Argentine veteran Mauro Rosales back for 2016, the Whitecaps returned to Costa Rican giants Deportivo Saprissa to acquire the vastly experienced Bolaños in late January. Having played in Europe and in two World Cups for his country, the 31-year-old offers a creative dynamic that may see him become one of the club’s best players by season’s end.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Pedro Morales. Heading into 2016, the Whitecaps look particularly strong through the spine of their starting lineup. How that translates on the pitch will be dependent upon performances, especially from the likes of club captain Morales, who is looking to bounce back to form after a disappointing, injury-riddled 2015 campaign.

Even with the new additions, Robinson still needs the Chilean to play a decisive role for Vancouver, if the club’s aspirations are to be realized this season. A strong midfield partnership with Bolaños will be essential.

2016 OUTLOOK

Still one of the youngest squads in the league, the Whitecaps have blended experience and leadership well with its youth, most of whom have at least a season or more of MLS under their belts.

With a solid core in place, Robinson’s new additions have the potential of making the Whitecaps a dangerous attacking force, even in the competitive Western Conference. Should Vancouver make considerable improvements on last season’s efforts, 2016 may indeed be a memorable year for the Blue and White.

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