Last year, Vancouver Whitecaps FC attempted to defy convention by taking two steps forward, and one step back. With a new manager, new philosophy, and reinforcements flying in from around the world, confidence was at an all-time high. The players bought into Martin Rennie’s system, and it worked. They raced out of the gate, leading the League for three weeks, and earned their first away victory of the MLS era. Vancouver had arrived as an international destination for footballers.
They turned losses into draws, and draws into victories. It was a far cry from the disastrous 2011 campaign, where they spent the last twenty-eight weeks of the season in the bottom four. No, this squad had ambition. Lee Young-Pyo and Lee Nguyen took pay cuts to play here. Montreal was kind enough to let the Caps have Darren Mattocks and Etienne Barbara. Sebastien Le Toux was brought in from Philadelphia. And Barry Robson, then Captain of Middlesbrough FC, signed a pre contract during their promotion challenge. Firepower was not an issue. But the backline might have been.
Things don’t always work out as planned. Lee (Young-Pyo), Martin Bonjour, and Jun Marques Davidson joined Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, and Joe Cannon to form one of the League’s best defences. Vancouver shaved 14 goals from the previous year. But their 'goals for' remained the same. Some of this was beyond their control, and some of this was their own doing. There were injuries, on and off the field. If 2011 was the year of the flip flop, then 2012 would be the year of the jerky. Who knows what domestic delights 2013 will bring? My money’s on something involving an MP3 player.
It was not until the final stretch, over the last ten matches, that the wheels started to come off. Over the previous two months, Barry Robson, Dane Richards, Kenny Miller, and Andy O’Brien came in, while Davide Chiumiento, Sebastien Le Toux, and Eric Hassli left. Add Jordan Harvey and Brad Knighton to the mix, and half the starting eleven changed mid-season. But there was a method to this apparent madness. One has to remember that Martin Rennie inherited a last place club. He made some changes during the off season, brought in some new faces, but for the most part, it was the same group of players who finished eighteenth in an 18 club league.
While speaking with Rennie Wednesday at the 2013 schedule release, he said that "looking at the season as whole, I think that our team has become a solid team that can compete well in MLS, but we need to keep improving, especially on our creation of chances and our goal scoring, we need to keep defending well, but we need to be more of a threat going forward. I think we’re working on that, trying to improve on that, and we’ll hopefully see the benefit of that in the new season."
Although he recognises that there are few "that stand out in the draft as players in the final third," he knows that "there’s definitely some that can do well" in that regard. With "two good picks early in the draft," expect him to select "players we think can help our squad. We’ll just judge it based on who we see as the most likely players who can help our team based on the players we already have."
Although he’s hoping "that the two things combine, that it’s the best player, but its someone who can come in and play for you, and hopefully even start for you."
Not one to rely on the League’s reports, Rennie admitted that "we do our own scouting. We have a whole network within the college system and we have a lot of information in the combine and others that are graduating. I think we’re well prepared for the draft."
Oakville, Ontario’s Kyle Bekker is a possibility, having been coached by Rennie "for a little while in Carolina. He came to our under-23, stayed there, and worked out with us. I’ve watched him a lot because he played in the ACC Conference, which had a lot of their tournaments right there in Carolina where I worked. So I’ve seen him play a lot and I think he’s a good player. But with the draft you just never know who’s going to be available when you get the chance to make a decision."
Over the coming days and weeks, the Whitecaps plan to be active in the transfer market:
"As always, nothing gets announced until its signed and sealed. But we’re looking to add some quality to our squad. We feel we’ve got a solid foundation to build from. We know that it needs to improve, but we feel like we’ve got a few pieces almost in place that we think will really help us with that. I think the fans will be pleased and excited about whom those players are and obviously we need to get them tied up. We’ll be pleased and excited when that’s done as well."
As to the future of football in North America, Rennie had this to say:
"I think it’s growing very well and it’s continuing to become a big sport in the country. All the signs indicate that soccer’s getting right up there with the big sports, and that’s going to continue to happen. "
"The crowds that you see at the games are incredible. Last season, we had games with Seattle, for example, where there were nearly 60,000 people there. Consistently we sold out our stadium here at BC Place."
"I think soccer’s growing and will continue to grow. There’s so many people playing and as time goes on those people are now becoming parents of kids who love the game, and that’s going to continue to make the game bigger and of more interest to everybody."