New-look 'Caps ready to resume winning tradition - The Vancouver Sun

Only four players left from last year's opening day lineup

By Ian Walker, Vancouver Sun

NEXT GAME

Saturday vs. Charleston Battery

7:00 p.m. at Swangard Stadium

- - -

Yes, the Vancouver Whitecaps have a long and fascinating history. From the highs of Vancouver's improbable Soccer Bowl championship in the 1979 North American Soccer League season to the lows of almost folding more than once due to ownership uncertainty.

There was the sorrow that came with the personal loss of Whitecaps greats Alan Ball, John Craven and Domenic Mobilio and the profound joy that accompanied four straight Canadian Soccer League titles from 1988-91.

Indeed, many tears have been shed over the past three-plus decades, but there's also been more than a fair share of laughs, too. Speaking of that, next time you're at a game ask one of the team's longstanding fans about the time Willie Johnston reached over the guard rail and took a drink from a fan's beer before taking a corner kick that ended up in the back of the opponent's net. No joke.

But enough with all this back in the day stuff. It may be the 35th anniversary of the Whitecaps, but don't fool yourself, this isn't your grandfather's soccer team. The Whitecaps hardly resemble last year's United Soccer Leagues First Division champions, never mind one from yesteryear.

That's right, the future is now. Well, it will be on Saturday, when the Whitecaps open defence of their league crown against the Charleston Battery at Swangard Stadium. When Vancouver's lineup trots out to the pitch, it will run in a new era for the franchise. The Whitecaps return just four players from last year's opening game lineup, while captain Martin Nash and defender Geordie Lyall are the lone holdovers from the 2006 USL-1 championship side.

If anything, it should help drive program sales.

"I guess it's a good thing we all have our names on the back our jerseys," joked Whitecaps captain Martin Nash. "It's going to take a little bit of time for the young guys, they still have an amount to learn, but we still have a veteran presence to help make the transition smoother."

Charles Gbeke is one of those guys. The 31-year-old was the MVP of last year's championship game and the lone full-time striker left from 2008. New additions include St. Vincent and the Grenadines international Marlon James, who will miss the season opener with an ankle injury, and Canadian youth international Marcus Haber. Adding some depth is the residency program's Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Dever Orgill, both of whom saw minutes last season.

Veterans Nash, Vicente Arze and Justin Moose will anchor the Whitecaps' midfield, which has been injected with an abundance of speed and skill with the signing of Haitian international Kenold Versailles, USL-1 veteran Ansu Toure and Bermudian youngster Tyrell Burgess. Mason Trafford, a walk-on last season, along with a quartet of residency players give coach Teitur Thordarson a bounty of options in the middle of the field.

Lyall, Wesley Charles, Lyle Martin and Takashi Hirano will be looked upon to guide the new crop of defenders, which includes former Whitecap Justin Thompson and fellow Canadian Marco Reda, as well as MLS veteran Jeff Parke. College of Charleston standout Wes Knight is another new face, while local lads Luca Bellisomo and Trafford give Thordarson options, as they can play any position across the backline. Good thing too, with Lyall and Martin still sidelined with off-season injury concerns.

In goal, Jay Nolly was key to Vancouver's success last season and will be even more so this year. Brazil's Diego was brought in to apprentice under him.

Add it up and there are only seven full-time Whitecaps who played on last year's team that beat the Puerto Rico Islanders 2-1 in the championship game.

"There's a lot of new players and that should be exciting for the fan because there is a lot of energy in the room and they bring different talents than the players we had last year," said Thordarson, who is entering his second season. "I'm very excited to start this next chapter."

A new chapter in a book 35 years in the making.

iwalker@vancouversun.com
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun