By Aaron Nielson (@enbsports)
As a Canadian the struggle of the Vancouver Whitecaps is probably more personal than someone who follows MLS from elsewhere. After Toronto FC became the joke of the league mainly through the miss-management of ownership, the Whitecaps expansion to MLS was a huge hope for Canadian soccer. Because of their past NASL, CPL and USL success, as well the Vancouver region being known as a Canadian hotbed for soccer, expectations were high. Whitecaps president Bobby Lenarduzzi might also be the biggest name in Canadian Soccer for his success with a number of Vancouver soccer teams and the Canadian National Team.
Despite some early success on the field, there has always been concern that the task of fielding a competitive MLS side is beyond the capabilities of current Whitecaps management. This was most noticeable during the 2016 MLS season as the club failed to make the playoffs, incoming transfers all looked like busts, and moves within the leagues brought players who did not want to play with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The core that remain do seem motivated to play for the Whitecaps, although the question is if they are good enough to be successful.
The Whitecaps core players are Goalkeeper David Ousted, Defenders Kendall Waston, Tim Parker and Jordan Harvey, holding midfielder Matias Laba and attacking players Christian Bolaños and Kekuta Manneh. Despite a lot of trust in their defense by manager Carl Robinson, the Whitecaps struggled in 2016, having second worst xG allowed as a team and the worst goal difference. In 2016 most of Vancouver's defenders were a liability either through defensive mistakes or disciplinary issues. Ousted is regarded as one of the top keepers in the league, but wasn't able to save Vancouver as he did in 2015. Waston is a player who looked to have great potential value in the center back role, although his aggressive style of play and red cards have cost the Whitecaps more than it has been effective.
Meanwhile Laba and Parker, two MLS players with a good reputation, might be overrated. Like Waston, Laba has a tendency of getting in disciplinary issues and other than minutes played may provide the least value of a DP in the league. Meanwhile Parker, who is regarded as a future US National team player hasn't shown the progression of other highly regarded defenders such as a Walker Zimmerman or Steve Birnbaum who he's been compared with. The rest of Vancouver's defensive core including Harvey are perceived as average and success has depended on the quality around them.
Vancouver likes to see themselves as an attacking team first, although this has also been a struggle even more so than the defense. The Whitecaps are comfortable in playing four and sometimes five players in attack, although only Bolaños and Manneh in 2016 provided real hope. Bolaños was the Whitecaps best signing of 2016, the Costa Rican midfielder scored five goals and had seven assists and brought some stability for an offense that was very inconsistent. Part of this inconsistency was caused by injury to Manneh, who was on pace to score 10 goals for the first time in his MLS career.
The rest of the attackers are probably not good enough for today’s MLS. Be it the now departed Pedro Morales, Octavio Rivero, Masato Kudo, Blas Perez or players still with the club Russell Teibert, Cristian Techera, Nicolas Mezquida, or Erik Hurtado, goals have been hard to come by. Vancouver thought they could fix some of this late last season in acquiring of Giles Barnes, although so far it doesn't seem he wants to be with the club. Though he has a decent career in MLS, his style of play is not one that leads an offense and as he's been getting older even his individual play has suffered. Vancouver does have some nice prospects in Canadians Marco Bustos and Alphonso Davies although both have some years until they will be impact players in MLS and like Manneh will be most likely sold to an European club if they ever reach their potential.
To fix their problem Vancouver made a conscious effort this summer to improve the team this winter. That had been mostly unsuccessful until the late signing of former Seattle Sounders forward Fredy Montero. Montero scored 60 goals in 160 games with Seattle and has since moved to Portugal and China where his goal ratio has been equally effective. Montero is very effective at generating opportunities for himself, which will be needed in Vancouver and he should work well with Bolanos and Manneh in creating opportunities via a counter attack. Montero should score double digits goals this season although he still may not actually make Vancouver better.
Vancouver's other offseason signings were less notable. Yordy Reyna has some good potential but was also shopped around to a number of MLS side who didn't pull the trigger on him and a preseason injury could effect how quickly he adapts to the MLS game. Sheanon Williams was an average defender with Philadelphia and Houston and isn't a major upgrade for the departed Fraser Aird. Top SuperDraft pick Jake Nerwinski is unlikely to contribute anytime soon.
It is hard to see Vancouver making the playoffs in 2017 unless Montero scores 25 goals and the rest of the side play to their top potential. Due to the Whitecaps core players' experience in the league they should be a difficult team to play, although they've repeated the same issues of Houston and San Jose where their veteran MLS players are not up to the standard of the new signings in the league. Vancouver have expressed an interest in signing further players although I think they need to replace a handful of starters instead of just adding one or two.
The core Vancouver fans are getting restless, but that was calmed a bit by the signing of Montero. Still, another non-playoff season in Vancouver could see the end of Lenarduzzi in charge, the firing of Robinson, and a new era of Vancouver Whitecaps Soccer. Which may be for the best long term.