This offseason and accompanying preseason has been the complete opposite for the Vancouver Whitecaps when compared to the previous year. In fact, this offseason can be likened to sitting on a beach in Bora Bora when you look back at the drama that took place just over a year ago.
Things got off to a good start when veteran winger, Mauro Rosales signed a new contract. Rosales is the definition of a true professional and the perfect mentor the club badly needed for its young roster. The addition of young designated player Octavio Rivero meant the club finally has a natural goal scorer.
Unfortunately, the club and fan favourite Andy O`Brien were unable to agree on terms for a new contract, which left a hole in the defense. Head coach Carl Robinson, signed Pa-Modou Kah after he was released by Portland and then followed up with adding Diego Rodriguez on loan. Robbo would have liked to add a pricy left winger but he may have to wait until the summer. The best news of the offseason came when it was announced that Robinson and his entire coaching staff had signed new multi-year contracts with the club.
Players to Watch:
Signing Rivero was the worst kept secret of all time. Officially announced on Christmas Day, supporters on Twitter knew of the impending arrival of the Uruguayan striker several weeks before. The only question that remained was when would the ‘Caps would make it official. Rivero has some big shoes to fill and if he doesn’t immediately consistently find the back of the net I’m afraid to say that pressure will be mounting swiftly.
The 24 year old, signed from O’Higgins in Chile, has the body strength to succeed in MLS. He started the preseason on fire as he bagged two goals against the Revolution in his first 45 minutes of action. Since then he has failed to score, except in a friendly against the University of Victoria. The fans are already restless. Chemistry with his teammates and getting used to MLS will be the only things holding him back.
Head coach Carl Robinson spent much of the preseason experimenting with Nicolas Mezquida in the playmaker role. He and Rivero should signs of being a deadly duo. However, this may prove to be a tactical mistake by Robbo as it means that Rivero and Pedro Morales have not created as strong of an understanding as they could have. Regardless of who starts in the playmaker role, Rivero will need to produce goals in 2015. Has Robinson found another incredible young talent who will rise to the occasion? Vancouver fans sure hope so.
Signed late in the 2014 season the graduate of the Whitecaps academy was not officially added to the first team roster until 2015. The Winnipeg native is a natural playmaker.
Possessing vision and tricky feet, these are just some of the weapons at his disposal. Bustos has been touted by many in the Canadian soccer community as the top prospect in the Whitecaps academy. At just 18 years of age, Marco still has much to learn but his raw talent is impossible to deny.
He is currently 3rd on the depth chart for the central midfielder/playmaker role but the lad has had a strong preseason and if Robbo alters his starting XI to incorporate Morales and Mezquida, then Bustos could find himself becoming a regular second half substitute. The beauty of the addition of the USL Whitecaps farm team will mean that Bustos will likely be seeing action with both the USL and the senior team.
Another academy graduate, Adekugbe has oodles of promise. If I had to compare him to someone I would choose ex-Sounder defender DeAndre Yedlin. Adekugbe has made several MLS appearances in a backup role for Jordan Harvey over the past few seasons and during that time he has been on a steady incline for developing his talent. Sam went on an offseason training stint with Liverpool where he impressed.
Adekugbe has been one of my favourite Canadian youth internationals for a few years now and I believe this year will be a crucial time for him to take the next step in his career. Jordan Harvey should be glancing nervously over his shoulder because while he currently hangs onto the starting RB position, if he succumbs to injury or misses any action for whatever reason, when he makes his return he could find himself permanently on the bench. Robinson made several comments last week in Portland that leads me to believe that Adekugbe is closing in fast on claiming a spot in the starting XI.
When it comes to tactical formation it is safe to predict that Robbo will continue to favor the 4-2-3-1 diamond midfield. However, Robbo has been experimenting with Morales in a deeper role and slotting Mezquida in at the top of the diamond. Personally, I think Morales needs to push higher up the pitch and I believe Robbo would agree with me. This means that Robbo could be looking to change his formation. I worry that if he chooses to make alterations that this will cost valuable points.
Mezquida deserves minutes but let’s see how he does in a role as a substitute, running at tired defenders, before he is added to the starting XI. This discussion of how to set up the midfield also brings into question who will start in the defensive midfield? Laba has a firm hold on one of two central defensive midfielder positions. The other spot is being contested by Russell Teibert and Gershon Koffie. The latter arrived in camp lacking fitness so Teibert currently has a slight edge. This battle between Koffie and Teibert will be intriguing to watch and
I cannot say with confidence who will win the marathon. However, since Laba is first and foremost defensively minded, Robbo would like his partner to be slightly more attack oriented. When Teibert or Koffie receives the ball, it will be their job to begin the transition to attack. Based on this preseason I have been happy with the driving runs that Teibert has made into the attacking half. It is the second reason why he could have the edge on Koffie. Teibert is tricky and he can work himself into places to shoot at the top of the box. Now I would like to see him pull the trigger. If he does this, then he will likely claim the second defensive midfielder spot all for himself.
Set pieces will be a cornerstone in Vancouver’s attack this year. The intimidating mass of bone and muscle of Kendall Waston and Pa-Modou Kah will be present every time Vancouver can send a cross into the opponent’s 18yr box. Posing a threat on set pieces has been non-existent for far too long. Carl Robinson swiftly rectified this problem since taking command of the Whitecaps.
After leading MLS keepers with 13 clean sheets in 2014 David Ousted begins the 2015 season with an iron grasp on the Whitecaps starting keeper role. The Dane is consistent, lightning fast and has superb positioning skills. Ousted will need to continue his fine form this year if the Whitecaps are to make waves.
His backup, Paolo Tornaghi, had a very impressive preseason. He will not be taking the starting position from Ousted anytime soon but he will definitely see action this season.
Canadian keeper, Marco Carducci, is the ‘Caps 3rd keeper who will be pushing Tornaghi for the backup role. He will likely see action in the Canadian Championship and could make a CCL appearance. With 34 regular season MLS games, the Canadian Championship and the CCL to go around, all of the goalies will get minutes.
In defense, Carl Robinson has decided that the best way to be competitive in MLS is to have tall central defenders who have a bit of a mean streak. Kendall Waston, Pa-Modou Kah, and Diego Rodriguez are all over 6 foot and I expect to see frequent rotation between their pairings due to the fact that yellow card happy refs will have a field day. That’s right. Expect a fair amount of suspensions for these three this season. Just in case, Robinson has young Americans Christian Dean and Tim Parker.
Both youngsters have put in strong performances over the last month so Robinson has depth at center back but it remains to be seen how effective they are. Right-back is home to Steven Beitashour and Ethen Sampson. The former had an off and on 2014 season and Sampson is keen for minutes so Beitashour will have to stay on his toes this season. On the other side of the park, we have an even closer battle between Jordan Harvey and Sam Adekugbe. As I already discussed in my “Players to Watch” section this will be one of the most interesting battles on the ‘Caps roster. Adekugbe has acres of talent and he will be giving Harvey a real run for his money this year. Adekugbe will soon claim the RB position for himself. It is more a matter of when, not if.
Captain Pedro Morales runs the show from the midfield. The Chilean DP returns to Vancouver for his second season in MLS refreshed and ready to slice open defenses across the league with ease. Morales won’t be the only weapon Robinson can field. Much to the pleasure of fans, Mauro Rosales signed a new contract with Vancouver and will spend much of his time on the wing sending in crosses to Rivero. Rosales is incredibly fit for his age and his role will be that of a leader and a Jedi Master, training a new generation that will eventually replace him.
I included Manneh with the striker/forward category since that is his natural position but was torn in doing so, since he will likely start on the wing in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Robbo has Matias Laba to act as a last form of defense for the defensive and Laba really needs no introduction. The ‘Caps practically stole him from Toronto FC last year when TFC found themselves over the DP limit and ever since it has become clear that it was the heist of the century. Laba will likely be partnered with Russell Teibert or Gershon Koffie. Both are strong candidates to be Laba’s partner and they will both get time beside him this season.
Nicolas Mezquida performed well during the preseason and he could very well become a regular member of the starting XI, but where he fits in is a bit of a problem. The midfield is rounded out by Canadian youngsters Macro Bustos, Kianz Froese, Ben McKendry. All three of these young Canadians will be spending time with both the senior and the USL team. Froese made his debut in Seattle last season when Vancouver pulled off one of their biggest victories since joining MLS and he did not look out of place.
Octavio Rivero will lead the charge for Vancouver. The Uruguayan comes with a hefty price tag so the pressure will be on his shoulders since opening day. He showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason and once he gets used to MLS he could become one of the league’s top goal scorers. Mattocks was a pleasant surprise in the month of February. The front man lost his way and the fan favour in 2014 but the Jamaican international could be close to becoming a serious goal threat for his team. Normally serious and reserved, I was pleased to see Mattocks laughing and joking with teammates over the past month. This behavior tells me that he could have undergone a big attitude adjustment which could go a long way to improving his performance on the pitch.
Speedy youngsters, Eric Hurtado, Kekuta Manneh, and Caleb Clarke round out the strike force. Manneh is the clear frontrunner for getting MLS minutes but Hurtado and Clarke will be close behind him.
Last year in my season preview, I asked Vancouver fans to sit back, withhold passing judgement on Carl Robinson and just watch to see if Robbo could take this club in a positive direction. In the end that is exactly what he did. I consider the 2014 campaign a success but now the honeymoon period is over for Robbo. Fans have seen what he can do and now they want more.
Hosting a home playoff game and winning said game is the next logical step to show the club is making progress. With six teams making the post-season in 2015 it may seem like Robbo`s job got easier. However, this is false. With NYCFC and Orlando joining the Eastern Conference the Dynamo and Sporting KC have moved to the Western Conference. Both of these teams deserve respect and the western battle will be in full swing from the moment the teams take to the pitch on opening day.
Not only will Vancouver be looking for post-season action they will also be taking their appearance in the CCL very seriously. How this affects squad selection remains to be seen, but thankfully for Robbo, he has the deepest squad to ever wear the Whitecaps jersey.
Predicting where any team concludes their season on the league table is never an easy task when it comes to MLS. With the current squad I think it is safe to say Vancouver will find themselves 6th or 5th in the west come late October. If the salary cap increases and Robbo is able to add a DP winger or another forward then this team could easily push for 4th or higher. As always, the IF factor is ever present.
(image courtesy of Reuters)