Whitecaps practice starts earlier than ever - The Province

By Marc Weber

The big step to Major League Soccer is still another season away, but the Vancouver Whitecaps continue to make small steps in developing the club.

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi confirmed Wednesday that the team is moving to more year-round training.

Following Saturday's championship loss in Montreal, the players have a short break, but will return to training in early November and practice for five or six weeks before a Christmas holiday.

They'll be expected to return in early January, too, well before the April league start.

"We're still meeting with the players this week, but that's the plan," said Lenarduzzi. "It's about individual training. Working on positional play and strengthening areas of their game that may not be what they could be. It's an opportunity to be away from the day-to-day season grind and really be able to focus the training."

It's also about keeping an eye on their assets and having more control over fitness.

Vancouver's big signing, forward Marlon James, played just 900 league minutes this season due to a variety of leg injuries that began in the preseason.

For head coach Teitur Thordarson, who will surely be signed to a one-year deal after back-to-back championship appearances, it's a chance to work even more with the young talent he was so impressed by this season.

Rookie of the year winner Marcus Haber and rookie award finalist Wes Knight are the obvious ones, but there's also high hopes for wingers Tyrell Burgess and Nizar Khalfan, not to mention residency players like Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Dever Orgill and Ethan Gage.

The Seattle Sounders brought six USL-1 players with them to MLS this season. The Whitecaps want to take more.

"With Portland coming in, too, [in 2011] the expansion draft is going to be diluted compared to what Seattle had," said Lenarduzzi, "so hopefully we can do our work ahead of time."

Player meetings wrap up this week and Vancouver has only five currently on guaranteed contracts: James, Burgess, Knight, Kenold Versailles and Ansu Toure.

The 6-3 aggregate loss to Montreal in the final reaffirmed what was clear for the much of the season: the Whitecaps need more depth in central defence and central midfield.

Lenarduzzi wouldn't say officially Wednesday that his Icelandic coach will be back in 2010, but he paid him a big compliment.

"If you look at the tournament-type formats, which are very much more results-oriented," he said, "we won the playoffs last year, we were successful in the Nutrilite [Canadian Championship] this year and we had another successful run in the playoffs.

"That tells me when he needs to, he knows what it takes to have success.

"Next year, we'd like to finish higher than seventh [in league] and have a more consistent season, but he's done a good job."

Thordarson said the bitter way in which the USL-1 final played out -- Shaun Pejic's harsh sending off in the 29th minute ending any hope of a comeback -- wouldn't be his lasting memory of this season.

"It doesn't take away from the excitement of what the group has done," he said. "The experience they got through the playoffs, it's just excellent for them to build on and the work these guys have put in has been tremendous."

Now they're being asked to put in even more. Considering what's at stake in 2011, it shouldn't be a hard sell for most.

mweber@theprovince.com
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