Whitecaps playoff preview: Plenty of ways to put ball in net - The Province


Coach has several offensive alternatives as team preps for postseason

By Marc Weber

USL PLAYOFF OPENER: Carolina RailHawks vs. Vancouver Whitecaps

Thursday (Sept. 24), 7 p.m., Swangard Stadium

- - - - - -

A goal-scoring title doesn't buy what it used to — Charles Gbeke isn't even assured of a starting role when the Vancouver Whitecaps open the playoffs at home to the Carolina RailHawks on Thursday.

But that's OK, says the bulldozer forward, whose heat-seeking head for crosses and long throw-ins accounted for the majority of his 12 goals.

"Playoffs is really different and people need to be strong mentally," said Gbeke, who scored one more goal than Rochester's Johnny Menyongar and Portland's Mandjou Keita. "If you don't start then you have to be ready to make a difference and we're going to need everybody. I think everybody's going to be used and have a role to play."

It's not that head coach Teitur Thordarson has something against his 31-year-old target man. It's just that the Whitecaps have — by USL-1 standards — an embarrassment of riches up front.

Marlon James (nine goals in just 900 minutes) is healthy again and first-year forward Marcus Haber (eight goals) seems to improve weekly. Then there's residency striker Randy Edwini-Bonsu, who has played himself into consideration for 20-30 minutes.

Adding value to their goal totals is the fact each brings something different to the party. Gbeke is the muscle. Haber has pace. James has poise and can shoot from distance, and Edwini-Bonsu might be the most explosive player in the league.

And to think that the burning question heading into the season was: How will the Whitecaps replace Eduardo Sebrango's 12 goals after the prolific striker signed with the Montreal Impact?

Along with reliable Jay Nolly between the posts, scoring is the least of Vancouver's problems right now, which is good considering Carolina tied for the best defensive record in the league, allowing just 19 goals — 11 on the road.

"We have three strikers who are all scoring, so nothing is a guarantee," Thordarson said of starting roles. "A little bit it depends on how the game is going to be and we don't know that yet. We'll take a decision on who will start but we might quickly change if we're not happy with what's going on.

"We have alternatives — we can mix it as we want — and that's good. We didn't have that early in the season."

It's been an eventful, emotional season for Gbeke, who got married in December. He went scoreless through the first five games and pressure to produce mounted with James constantly hurt.

He disgraced himself and the club when he scuffled with Wesley Charles during a win over Miami on June 12, later punting the water bottles as he came to the bench.

He made amends with the home fans by running a lap around Swangard Stadium — Charles along side and both holding a giant Whitecaps flag — before his return from a two-game suspension.

Then, he caught fire.

Gbeke scored six goals in a late four-game span, and ended the regular season with seven goals in his final eight games.

"It was a funny, funny season," said Gbeke, last year's USL-1 championship-game hero with a pair of goals. "I learned a lot and it came out nicely for me, but I've always said it's important to win something. It's not going to be complete if we get knocked out in the first round. If we win a championship, this personal achievement will be greater and I believe we can do something nice in the playoffs."

Sebrango's scoring not really missed as 2009 Whitecaps tally by committee

Eduardo Sebrango scored 12 league goals for Vancouver last season and 16 overall before leaving for the Montreal Impact. The Caps have replaced his production by committee, led by the USL-1 scoring champ Charles Gbeke, while Sebrango has struggled this season.

2009 USL-1 STATS

GP Pts Mins Goals Shots

Charles Gbeke 28 25 2,048 12 73

Marlon James 17 18 900 9 51

Marcus Haber 30 20 1,990 8 37

Eduardo Sebrango 27 10 1,696 4 36

E-mail: mweber@theprovince.com