By Drew Olsen (@drewjolsen)
For a team that entered 2014 with middling expectations, securing 50 points for the first time in MLS club history and making the playoffs was no small success for the Whitecaps. But this is a team that has finished with between 43 and 50 points each of the last three seasons and been eliminated twice as the 5th seed in the playoffs. Vancouver is beginning to take on the same role Costa Rica occupies in CONCACAF qualifying; both are good teams that can be counted on to pose a challenge to any opponent, but are not contenders to finish near the top of the standings.
To try to change that reputation the team is building a young, talented roster led by 2nd year coach Carl Robinson. It is a roster that is unlikely to win MLS Cup in the next season or two, but has lots of promise for the future. With eight homegrown players 22 or younger plus the addition of Young DP Octavio Rivero, the future looks bright in Vancouver.
Expectations are tempered for 2015 and it will be difficult for the Whitecaps to make the playoffs again in a competitive Western Conference, but that does not mean this season won't be a success. With an average roster age less than 24, this year is likely to be a stepping stone towards eventual success in Vancouver.
There is plenty to build on from last season, beginning with the Whitecaps' stingy defense. Allowing only 1.17 goals per game last year kept Vancouver in many games, and our expected goals metrics suggest they actually got a bit unlucky by allowing as many as they did. In other words, the quality of this defense was no fluke.
David Ousted was an exactly average keeper last year, and it's unlikely much will change for him in 2015. Jordan Harvey started every game last season, and he will again join Steven Beitashour at fullback. The question mark comes from the center of defense, where last year's starters for much of the year, Johnny Leveron and Andy O'Brien, have both moved on. If the quality on the backline of 2014 is to continue, it will have to come with a new centerback pairing. Kendall Waston looks likely to take one of the starting spots, with newcomers Pa Modou-Kah and Diego Rodriguez fighting for the other starting position. The 34 year old veteran Kah comes from Portland, where he has been in and out of the starting lineup for two seasons. Rodriguez joins from Uruguay, by way of La Liga side Malaga. It is not an understatement to say the Whitecaps' season may depend on the ability of its defense to mesh.
Anchored by DPs Pedro Morales and the now officially signed Matias Laba, the midfield will again be one to be reckoned with. Morales' 20.75 xG + xA was 4th in the league last season, and he will continue to be relied on to create for the young attacking corps. Laba isn't afraid to get stuck in, and should provide a valuable bit of protection in front of the new centerbacks.
Russell Teibert returns on the left side after a disappointing 2014. A lot was expected from him after two goals, nine assists, and 35 key passes in 2013, but he managed no goals and just two assists and 24 key passes, despite playing 2000 more minutes last season. Erik Hurtado may end up on the right, and also might compete against the aging Mauro Rosales for playing time. Rosales started the final 10 games of the season after coming over from Chivas USA, but at age 34 he set a career high for most minutes since coming to MLS. Whitecaps mainstay Gershon Koffie will also try to regain a foothold in the midfield after missing the end of last season with injuries.
Despite the hype surrounding young strikers Kekuta Manneh (20 years old) and former Rookie of the Year Darren Mattocks (24), scoring proved difficult last season. The 42 goals Vancouver netted were 6th worst in the league and six fewer than any other playoff team. To bolster their attack, Young DP Octavio Rivero was signed from Chile, where he scored 10 goals in only 18 appearances last season. Rivero looks ready to contribute from day one, having scored a brace in his preseason debut.
Vancouver has a very young team that looks to be both fun and frustrating to watch this season. While the attack has been improved, a drop-off in defensive quality is likely. It will be difficult to return to the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but if the defense can meld and Rivero can score, the sky is the limit.