2012 will be remembered as a year of firsts for Vancouver Whitecaps FC in Major League Soccer (MLS): getting our first away victory, winning a game by four goals for the first time, and of course becoming the first Canadian club to make the MLS Cup playoffs.
The ‘Caps also set a record for the longest shutout streak to start an MLS season and collected the most regular season points ever by a Canadian MLS team.
So why should we expect 2013 to be even better?
There are plenty of positives to look forward to, but the challenge will be even greater. Having made the playoffs last season, the Blue and White will now be viewed as a more dangerous team, so they certainly won’t have the ability to sneak up on anyone this coming season.
With that said, I was really impressed by Martin Rennie’s first year in charge. He and his coaching staff did a tremendous job last year improving the team and building a winning mentality.
While his squad will be in tough this year, I can see them building on last season’s success and taking another step forward.
And I will give you my reasons why.
1. It starts at the back, Part I
From a goalkeeping standpoint, right now we are stronger than last year. You may be asking how since we have the same guys in net. The difference is that we now have two guys who have both proven themselves more than capable of getting the job done.
Joe Cannon has been a great goalkeeper in this league for some time and was outstanding when called upon last season. Late in the season, Brad Knighton stepped in and showed that he too is a quality starter, consistently coming up with solid performances down the stretch. With two guys that they know they can count on, the ‘Caps can’t go wrong.
2. It starts at the back, Part II
On defence we saw Jay Demerit and Andy O’Brien establish a rock solid partnership down the middle, which looked great against eventual MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy. With Martin Bonjour also gaining a great deal of experience as a starter last year, and Carlyle Mitchell now with a number of games under his own belt, the centre back position looks quite strong.
It was also great news when Young-Pyo Lee signed on for another year. With more emphasis on keeping him fresh for the whole year, I expect him to be even stronger than last season – when he was named team MVP. Throw in the consistent play of Alain Rochat and the ever-improving performances of Jordan Harvey at left back and the ‘Caps are set to have a very reliable backline.
3. Hungry young talent
Our talented younger players are a year older and will be looking to establish themselves as legitimate MLS players, recognizable around the league. Gershon Koffie (21), Darren Mattocks (22), and Omar Salgado (19) will be leading the youth brigade. With the talent they have and their willingness to learn and to be the best, it can only bode well for our ‘Caps.
And right behind them we have Russell Teibert (20), Caleb Clarke (19), and Bryce Alderson (18) chomping at the bit to get on the field. These are three very talented homegrown youngsters and with the right mentality, each of the three is capable of making a big step up in 2013.
Unlike last year, Martin Rennie goes into his second season in MLS with less tinkering to do, and a more established squad. There were many players that were playing in MLS for the first time last season, all while making a new home in Vancouver. Making things harder for some of those players was the fact that they didn’t join the team until midseason.
Going into preseason this year, there will be much more of a settled squad that knows what MLS is all about and will not be surprised by the travel, time change, and climates that this league will throw at you.
And let’s not forget the stability of the coaching staff and technical staff, all of whom will be back again this season with a full year of MLS experience. They now all have a much more comprehensive understanding of the wants and needs of a grueling season.
5. Home Field Advantage
The ‘Caps improved greatly on their home record from 2011 to 2012 and will look to continue that trend in 2013. Last year’s improvement was partly due to the fact that the team had a full season at BC Place, but the biggest reason was the raucous, intimidating atmosphere created by fans.
As the team continues to improve, so too has the fan support. Ultimately, that will always be one of the biggest keys to success.
With only two months until the season kicks off against Toronto FC at BC Place, there are many genuine reasons to be excited once again. The first two years have been a rollercoaster ride, but I am predicting a Whitecaps FC team that will give us many thrills that will top anything we have done in MLS so far.
Whitecaps FC 2013 MLS season tickets start at $349, plus applicable tax and a $10 processing fee per order. To secure a seat and for additional information about Whitecaps FC MLS season tickets, including Pitchside Club and suites, call 604.669.9283 or visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.
(Photo provided by Toby Gorman/NEWS BULLETIN)
If you’ve read my blog before then you have surely heard me mention the vision that the ownership group of Vancouver Whitecaps FC have for the club and for the game of soccer here in Vancouver, and in fact across the province and country.
They are very passionate about the direction they want the ‘Caps to go in, and one of the main goals for the club is to continue to develop the grassroots level of the sport.
These are certainly lofty goals and ones that will take a great deal of collaboration. Yes, Whitecaps FC can take a leadership role in this, but it is impossible for the club do this on our own.
There has always been a belief in the ‘Caps organization that in order to be successful we need to be developing our own young players, and that means building partnerships around British Columbia and beyond.
Last week I had the pleasure of going to Nanaimo for the announcement of a new Whitecaps FC Island Academy Centre in partnership with Harbour City FC. There was certainly a buzz surrounding the announcement and a ton of enthusiasm from locals that there was now support and collaboration from the ‘Caps.
Creating these academies means the club is building relationships in these communities and hopefully becoming an asset, as well as providing some leadership in player development.
Vancouver Island joins the ‘Caps academy centre network that includes Vancouver, the Okanagan, and the Kootenays, with more to be added in the near future. Make no bones about it, Whitecaps FC are intent on branching out near and far to help grow the game to nurture young players who could one day star for the Blue and White.
There are many challenges for those who live outside of the Lower Mainland. It’s sometimes hard to get high level coaching or the competition they need week in and week out. These academy centres will not solve every problem, but it will establish a clearer pathway to achieving soccer success.
These communities now have a firm belief that their young players can not only dream about taking their soccer to the next level, but will have an opportunity to do so.
Remember, I too was once a boy who closely followed his favourite team and dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player.
Now there are many more kids in BC who can have good reason to hold that same dream.
The 2012 MLS Cup (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PT on TSN and TEAM 1410 radio) will be contested by the same teams as 2011, at the same venue. But don’t expect the same game.
Yes, once again LA Galaxy will host Houston Dynamo at The Home Depot Center, with the Dynamo hoping to overturn last year’s 1-0 defeat to the Galaxy.
There are many storylines coming into this final, but none bigger David Beckham’s last game in Major League Soccer. This will be the final chapter of his playing days in MLS – a league which he’s done a great deal to help grow.
The ultimate question, however, is not so much about Beckham, but rather if Houston can turn the tables from last year and win this MLS Cup rematch.
A different Dynamo
Houston will go into this MLS Cup a more confident team than the last time they were here. A year ago the Dynamo had to deal with the absence of their most influential playmaker, midfielder Brad Davis. Not only do they have Davis ready to play this time around, but they can go into this game knowing that they can field a more potent offensive lineup.
Last year Houston sat back and allowed the Galaxy to carry the play, hoping they would catch LA on the break. It never really worked and the Dynamo never really looked like scoring, but they did keep the game close, which gave them the best chance to win.
Houston are now a more comfortable team in possession of the ball. Players like midfielder Boniek Garcia offer something different from last year, using his dribbling skills to attack defenders or make quick runs to get in behind the defence.
Another key player will be striker Will Bruin, who has continued where he left off in the regular season by finding his scoring touch with four goals so far in the playoffs.
It’s quite clear to me that the Dynamo now have players to compliment the skills of Brad Davis, and this should change their approach from last year to be more of an attacking threat.
Motivation or distraction?
As for LA Galaxy, they will go into the game as clear favourites, however they will have to contend with the distraction of it being David Beckham’s last game in MLS. That being said, they’ve had to deal with intense spotlight ever since Beckham joined the team, so this should be nothing new for them.
The Galaxy have been the best team in MLS during the second half of the season and they are playing like a team that believes they are the best team in the league.
Facing a more attack-minded Houston team could end up playing right into their hands, as they have shown that they’re a very devastating team on the break, especially with Landon Donavon on the team.
There is hope for Houston, and they need not look further than LA’s last game. It was evident in the second leg of the Western Conference final that Seattle did not fear the Galaxy counterattack, as they committed players forward to overcome their 3-0 deficit. Mind you, they were at home.
However, Seattle probably would not have been so bold had Donovan been in the lineup. He is the most important player to LA’s counter with his speed and decision making in the final third.
His partnership with Robbie Keane has been, at many times, unstoppable.
In the end, the key to the match will be whether or not Houston can contain the Galaxy counterattack. They definitely can’t sit back like they did last year, or they’ll be inviting trouble. On the other hand, they’ll need to be selective about when to push numbers forward or else they’ll be cut apart by the speed of Donovan and skill of Keane.
It’s a delicate line that Houston will need to toe if they have any chance of spoiling the Beckham finale known as MLS Cup 2012.
In the end, I think that LA are just too strong. They’re the best team in the league, they’re at home, and they’ll have the buzz of Beckham’s last game spurring them on.
PREDICTION: LA Galaxy 3-1 Houston Dynamo
Martin Rennie and his coaching staff will be racking up the air miles as they continue to look for that special player, that diamond in the rough, that player that could take them to the next level. To do so, they will be using all their contacts and scouts to get good leads on potential players that could make their mark with the ‘Caps in Major League Soccer (MLS).
I had the chance to sit down with assistant coach Carl Robinson who had six successful years playing in MLS and now has the chance to scout and help bring the right kind of player to Vancouver.
Carl has built up a great number of contacts around the globe through his playing days, which he relies on now to keep tabs on players throughout the world.
“We get maybe 50 players a week sent to us as foreign players realize more that North America is a great place to live and MLS is a good league to play in,” explained the Welshman. “We will go and watch a player four or five times before we make a decision.”
Building a team
When Whitecaps FC coaching staff head out to scout players they obviously have a plan. This isn’t just a one-off plan, its part of an overall map for the club’s success.
Robinson talked to me about their short, medium, and long-term plans.
Last year they worked off a short-term plan of getting the ‘Caps turned around from a last-place finish in the club’s inaugural MLS season. The goal was to make the playoffs. Mission accomplished.
Now they can move forward with their medium and long-term plans as they look to make the ‘Caps a team that makes the playoffs every year and starts challenging for the MLS Cup.
To do that, you need the right players, and that’s where scouting comes in.
What does it take?
Aside from the obvious requirements of talent and soccer-playing ability, many off-the-field factors determine whether a foreign player will have success here.
The first thing Robinson mentioned was the adjustment players have to make in coming to North America. It has been said before that MLS is very different to many other leagues around the world. It’s been called a very athletic league, and when you combine that with other challenging factors, you can quickly see why there are a number of good players that have had trouble adapting to playing in this league.
It can take players up to six months to settle down. First off, they’re in a new country with new teammates, and if they have a family, that adds another level of adjustment. From there players must conform to a different playing style, travel, time change, and different climates that they will play in.
So before deciding on whether to bring in a player, coaches will want to feel comfortable that he’s capable of making these adjustments.
To find that out, Whitecaps FC coaching staff will first talk to the manager of whichever team their targeted player is playing for. This allows them to do a background check on a player to see what his attributes and character are like. After all, Rennie has always preached that he wants to bring in character players.
What’s on the horizon?
With the offseason providing a window of time away from training and preparing for matches, Robinson will be doing some traveling as he continues to scout for talent, having already been to South and Central America.
A possible trip to Africa could also be on the cards. Robinson would hope to find another gem like Gershon Koffie, who had a solid 2012 season for the ‘Caps.
“You find that the young African players are usually very raw, but if you can find a player that is willing to listen and work hard to reach their potential you can find that special player.”
And if he and the rest of the coaching staff are successful in finding a diamond in the rough, it could help make the ‘Caps a cut above the rest of the competition.
The 2012 MLS Cup final will be a rematch of last year’s final: LA Galaxy versus Houston Dynamo at the Home Depot Center, the same venue as last year. If that’s not remarkable enough, then consider that these two teams finished fourth (LA) and fifth (Houston) in their respective conferences during the regular season.
What does this mean? Well for one, it turns out that home field advantage wasn’t much of an advantage at all.
Sporting Kansas City in the East and San Jose Earthquakes in the West won their conferences by five and nine points respectively, giving them home field advantage right to the final. Both teams had strong regular seasons, especially at home, which they would be relying on come playoff time. However, both SKC and San Jose would lose their first round matchups to much lower seeded teams in the playoffs and see their season come to an abrupt end. Kansas City had 10 more points than Houston and San Jose had 12 more points than LA.
When you see what LA and Houston have done it is easy to discredit the regular season. Of course, here in Vancouver we painfully remember the eighth-seeded LA Kings powering past everything in their way to win the Stanley Cup.
So what does home field advantage mean in a two-leg series? Well, you get to play the second match at home, which means you know what you have to do to win in front of your crowd, and if it goes to extra time or penalties you have the advantage of playing on your home field.
The problem with this is that you really need to get a favorable result on the road in the first game so you don’t have too much of a mountain to climb in the return leg (see DC United and Seattle).
You also have to consider that the team that has home field advantage has to travel twice. First to their away match, then back home. The lower seeded team gets to stay at home for the first match, without traveling, and then embark on a single trip for the second game.
DC United were a strange exception this season. They were the higher seeded team, but due to Hurricane Sandy they ended up hosting the first game in DC, with the return leg moved to New York. And guess what? That ended up working out just fine for United, as they had a 1-1 draw in the first leg before winning a thrilling 1-0 game in the second leg.
In the end, DC would fall in the Conference final when the tables were turned and they hosted the second leg after being faced with a 3-1 deficit from the first game in Houston. It proved too much to overcome.
Same thing happened to Seattle. They fell 3-0 to LA Galaxy on the road. A valiant effort saw them pull within a goal at 2-0 in the second leg, but a penalty kick awarded to the Galaxy broke their backs.
You could say that Houston is a team built for the playoffs and that the Galaxy have the best talent in the league, and that’s why they are preparing to battle for the MLS Cup again.
But the results of the MLS Cup playoffs are sure make teams think about how they approach the long and hard MLS season and what is the best route for progressing into the postseason.
While the players are departing all over the globe to begin their offseason break, it is certainly no time off for our coaching staff. They have lots of work to do as they look to put next year’s team together, which will mean scouting trips across North America as college tournaments get under way, and trips around the world to unearth that next gem of a player.
Scouting through the college ranks will be very interesting this year since we have two first round picks in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft (#5 and #10) that could really fit some of the team’s needs for next year. The NCAA Division I men’s soccer tournament begins this Thursday evening as 32 teams will begin their quest for a spot in the College Cup, taking place in Hoover, Alabama, on December 7 and 9 – the weekend after MLS Cup.
When you think about the last couple of MLS SuperDrafts it is exciting to think what type of impact players we could draft with our two first round picks. We’ve already seen great young prospects join our own team in the form of Omar Salgado and Darren Mattocks. However, while those picks were number one and number two overall, there are often diamonds in the rough that can be found outside of the top couple of picks.
Look no further than this year’s Eastern Conference finals where two young draftees have been key figures for their respective teams. Will Bruin of the Houston Dynamo (11th overall in 2011) has scored four goals already these playoffs, while Nick DeLeon of DC United (7th overall in 2012) has come up with a pair of timely goals to lead his side.
These playoff performances are no surprise either.
DeLeon played in 28 games this season, scoring six goals and adding four assists for United. Bruin, meanwhile, had a solid rookie season in 2011, playing in 25 games and scoring five goals while adding one assist. This past year he showed that he’s taken his game to another level by scoring 12 goals and adding four assists in 32 games to establish himself as a regular starter.
It’s not just midfielders and strikers who are valuable in the draft. Chicago’s ninth overall pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft, defender Austin Berry, started 28 games for the Fire and chipped in three goals.
These are the types of players our coaching staff will be looking for as they scout the NCAA tournament. With a year in MLS under their belt, Martin Rennie and the rest of his coaching staff now have a better understanding of what they need to help take Whitecaps FC to the next level.
Having two picks in the first round is a big opportunity for the ’Caps and they’re working hard to ensure that no stone is left unturned.
So while the players get a well deserved rest, our coaches are putting in more air miles to ensure we get the most out of the offseason.
A familiar face to Whitecaps FC fans was appointed to an important role in Canadian soccer on Tuesday, as Tony Fonseca was named the Canadian Soccer Association’s new Technical Director.
The former Portuguese international, who was a Whitecaps FC player and head coach (2002-2004) during the club’s United Soccer Leagues First Division days, has been tasked with overseeing ‘the technical growth and development of soccer in Canada’. No small job…
The timing of Fonseca’s appointment is important, as Canada look to chart a new course after last month’s qualifying exit from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. His understanding of the Canadian soccer landscape will be invaluable to addressing the many challenges of his new role.
With the responsibility of establishing new technical policies for Canadian soccer, Fonseca’s influence on player development - particularly at the elite level - will be closely scrutinized by the media and Canadian soccer supporters alike.
Canada’s three Major League Soccer clubs are currently in the business of elite player development and have expressed a willingness to strengthen their relationship with the CSA on this key issue.
Creating a productive player development system through strong collaboration will be essential to Canada’s ability to produce top players at the professional and international level.
Fonseca knows the good work that Whitecaps FC Residency, Toronto FC Academy, and Montreal Impact Academy have been doing in recent years, and is keen to establish a strong partnership between these elite soccer stakeholders.
Where the biggest challenge may lie is in further educating those involved in grassroots soccer across Canada that a different player development pathway is desperately needed. In other words, making those individuals rethink the way they see grassroots soccer in their own communities.
The CSA and Canada’s professional clubs know they have a role to play in this regard and that making such changes will be difficult. However, what should excite Canadian soccer fans is the strong desire that now exists to implement real change.
Congrats Tony and best of luck!
The second year in Major League Soccer for Vancouver Whitecaps FC was marketed as Round 2. We had a new coaching staff, some new players, and lots of optimism going into the new season.
Preseason had gone well in Arizona and Florida and everybody wanted to get the season started. Martin Rennie – in his first year coaching in MLS – liked the look of his Whitecaps FC squad and felt his team could challenge for a playoff spot. Getting there would be no easy task though.
The season began in fine fashion as our ‘Caps won their season opener at BC Place with a 2-0 victory against expansion side Montreal Impact. Optimism was high, but we all certainly knew that an opening day win does not make a season (see 2011 opening win vs. Toronto FC).
The next game, however, provided further proof that this would be a historic year. The boys got their first away win in MLS by beating Chivas USA 1-0 on a Jay DeMerit header. This was a sign that the mentality of this team had changed; Rennie was slowly but surely building a winning culture.
The next two games would end up as 0-0 draws, which meant the ‘Caps remained undefeated and had shut out the opposition in every match. The run of form continued as the team achieved an MLS record for longest shutout streak to start a season.
It was a great start for the team, but this was only the beginning. Much work remained.
Proving their mettle
April saw the ‘Caps hit with their first taste of adversity. A blown lead and first loss on the season at San Jose and a home loss to Sporting Kansas City could have sunk the ship early, but Vancouver persevered. The Blue and White grinded out a pair of 1-0 wins, at home to FC Dallas and on the road to Columbus Crew.
The early season success altered expectations. Suddenly fans and media were dreaming big, how good could this second year team really be?
The season was steadily moving along until the ‘Caps faced off against Toronto FC in the Amway Canadian Championship finals. A 2-1 aggregate loss to the team that would end up finishing dead last in MLS was nothing short of a massive disappointment.
Having been brought back down to earth, it became easier to reflect and evaluate. Clearly there was still work to be done.
Rome was not built in a day
Despite the positives from the first portion of the campaign, questions also remained from fans, media, and the club itself. What is the ultimate goal for this team? Is winning the only thing that matters? What about entertainment value, many asked? Was the team scoring enough goals? What about the young players, shouldn’t they be playing more? Why aren’t there more Canadian players?
These are all important questions that need to be posed and each of them are part of the values that the club is looking to instil moving forward. But it can also be easy to lose sight of the big picture. This remained only the second year for the club in MLS. All of these questions will be answered over time, but only so many aspects can be managed at once. Building a winning team, an entertaining team, a team filled with Canadian talent on the field – it’s all a process. For now, the most important thing was to allow coach Rennie to put his own stamp on this team. He has built a winning culture at every club which he’s coached, but that takes time and patience. If he could get this team to the playoffs in his first year, it would be a massive achievement and a big step in the right direction.
Many coaches would not tinker with a team that was picking up points fairly regularly, but Rennie had made it clear that he was not just building for this year; he was looking at a team that could be one of the best for years to come.
Tough decisions had to be made before the season, and it was felt at the midway point of the season that more changes were needed.
This was not an easy time for players to come into the team. It’s never easy to adjust to a new team, a new city, a new culture, and a new league. It’s especially difficult to do it in the middle of the season during a stretch of nine out of 13 games on the road.
Results were mixed, but sometimes it takes one step back to take two steps forward.
With 39 days away from home and a rough winless stretch, it would have been easy for the team to fall apart and look for excuses, but you never heard that from the coaches or players. The team showed great resiliency, and in the end the season’s body of work achieved the main goal at the beginning of the year – a first ever playoff spot for a Canadian MLS club.
Their reward? A date with the defending MLS Cup champions, the star-studded LA Galaxy, on the road no less.
In the end the boys gave them the fright of their lives – probably much more than they expected. Not only did we score an early goal, but we also nearly doubled the lead to 2-0 with 20 minutes to go. Unfortunately it was not to be, as the Galaxy eventually came back to win 2-1.
I was so proud of the performance in our first playoff game and it just reinforced what I already knew: we belonged in the playoffs after competing all season long in a tough Western Conference.
We have a coach in Martin Rennie who is not afraid of making big decisions. Of course not everyone will agree with every decision – you can’t please everyone. And not every decision will be correct either. As a coach you make some choices that will work and some that will not. The key is that everyone learns from the process. That is why I am really excited for next year.
This team has come a long way from last year and has shown it can compete with the best teams in MLS. Now Rennie and his coaching staff have a season under their belt and are more familiar with what works in this league. They will also have a squad of players that are also more accustomed to playing in North America, with the physicality and the travel.
Of course there will be more changes, but having made the playoffs this year, expectations will again be raised. There will be highs and lows again next season, as there always will be, but I’m confident that the best is yet to come.
So that was the season that was…
The build-up to last Thursday’s inaugural MLS playoff game had that familiar postseason buzz that ‘Caps fans know all too well. What was also exciting to see was the amount of attention that Whitecaps FC drew from being in the playoffs.
Of course, the Blue and White filled a certain void (no NHL hockey) for Vancouver sports fans last week, and although it did not result in a win in LA, the performance of Martin Rennie’s side left some good feelings.
The feedback from media and supporters after Thursday’s game was one of pride, as most were aware of the tall task that faced the ‘Caps against the star-studded Galaxy.
The contest required spirit and commitment from Vancouver, and that was seen in abundance at The Home Depot Center. By giving the defending MLS champions a severe test of their credentials, Whitecaps FC might have even played a key role in the destiny of this year’s MLS Cup title.
Traditionally, playoff exits leave an empty feeling. In this case, however, there was an acknowledgement to the efforts made by Rennie’s side in LA and indications by observers of how it offered a glimpse into a promising future.
Vancouver Sun sports columnist Iain MacIntyre was particularly struck by what he witnessed on Thursday, as he drew comparisons to where the club was in 1977 and how it built towards an NASL Soccer Bowl title by 1979.
There was also an intriguing - some might say prophetic - tweet from former ‘Caps and Seattle Sounders FC head coach Alan Hinton (@alanhinton11): “Whitecaps FC will within two years be the number two franchise behind Seattle in MLS…I know, I have been there!”
As for yours truly, the 2012 season was one where every match offered an opportunity to Whitecaps FC. Building and growing as an MLS outfit were, in many ways, the club’s objectives this season. In other words - 2011 was about establishment; 2012 was about strengthening.
Clubs that have shown steady growth in MLS are usually amongst the league’s elite. While that challenge lies in front of Whitecaps FC, this second season suggests Vancouver are now following a similar path.
While it would have been nice for the playoff journey to continue, much was achieved this season. What is really exciting is how things can improve even more, starting in 2013.
Hunger and desire are bedrocks of successful sides, and it would not surprise this soccer scribe if those are the driving influences behind a memorable Whitecaps FC campaign in the New Year.
As we enter the quiet of this offseason, we take positive vibes from a season that gave strong glimpses of very bright days ahead.
Time to prepare for the next chapter of this great journey!
Till we reconvene in the spring…