With the 2007 USL First Division championship final set for Saturday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC men were left to reflect on a disappointing defence of their 2006 title.
The celebrations of being crowned the best team in USL-1 this time last year were a distant memory for the players and coaching staff earlier this month, as Portland Timbers’ 3-1 aggregate success over the Whitecaps in the playoff quarterfinals capped what proved to be a difficult 2007 campaign for the Whitecaps.
The subsequent fall-out from the team’s seventh-place finish in the USL-1 regular season standings, and their swift exit from the postseason was immediate, as Bob Lilley was relieved of his duties as head coach after the club opted not to renew his contract. The decision ended Lilley’s three-year term in charge of the men’s side, with the highlight being last season’s triumph as league champions.
Having been Lilley’s assistant throughout the past season, interim coach Todd Wawrousek is now keen to move things forward. “It’s been a tumultuous time,” he told whitecapsfc.com. “Anytime you experience change in the coaching position, it requires some adaptability to the change from the management standpoint right down to the core of the players. I feel quite honoured that I’ve been given the reins to move forward with the team, even if it is for the interim, and I’m fully confident to accept that challenge. From my perspective, there’s no time to come off the throttle right now. We need to forge ahead with preparations for a huge event that we’re putting on here in the LA Galaxy game. We’re actively making preparations to ensure the team will be performing at peak capacity for that event, which will be sometime in November.”
Few may have seen the season turning out as it did when things began in late April, as the Whitecaps put together an undefeated run of seven games to start the campaign. “Your results early on can be largely attributable to what your preparations were going into the season,” Wawrousek said. “Sometimes, you catch teams that are not at their peak and catch some breaks along way, and we experienced those at the time. Eddy Sebrango is a player who has the ability to be in the right place at the right moment, and he cashed in on a lot of opportunistic goals. That put us in good stead of getting some early results and momentum.”
As late June and the team’s extended six-game road trip approached, the Whitecaps were dealt a blow when experienced goalkeeper Tony Caig departed the club to return home to England for personal reasons. Wawrousek admits the team struggled to fill the void left by Caig’s sudden departure. “Tony Caig was a goalkeeper that provided consistency,” Wawrousek said. “He carried himself well as a professional and was well liked in the team. However, after allowing Serge Djekanovic an opportunity to pursue his dream in Major League Soccer with Toronto FC, we hit a path of goalkeeper dysfunction with Tony’s departure. The difficulty we had was finding a replacement that could provide that type of stability in goal. Richard Goddard was put in a tough spot, but to his credit, I thought he did better than what some people expected, while Matt Nelson did well for us down the stretch.”
The team’s struggles continued after their road excursions, as the Whitecaps went on to set an unwanted club record of 12 games without a victory. Even a blockbuster four-player trade that saw last season’s USL-1 MVP Joey Gjertsen and midfielder David Testo move to Canadian rivals Montreal Impact for Surrey, BC, native Alen Marcina and Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto failed to bring the desired change in fortune, as Lilley’s side also set a record for draws in a season with 12.
There was optimism for the playoffs, however, as injury problems among players started to clear and performances had improved by the time the Whitecaps had played their 28-game regular-season schedule. Their quest to retain the USL-1 title saw them face a two-leg tie with Portland, but the run that was enjoyed in 2006 failed to materialize this time around. “What transpired in Portland was hugely disappointing for all of us,” Wawrousek said of the 3-0 second leg defeat on September 16. “We knew we would get into a slugfest down there. They have great supporters and the surface is difficult to play on. One for our most dominant players in the air in Adrian Cann was not available, while Geordie Lyall broke his lower tibia in the game, so that put us in a difficult spot that day.”
USL-1 soccer may be at an end for the Whitecaps this year, but Wawrousek is fully focused on carrying things into the club’s Los Angeles Galaxy friendly game and the 2008 season. “My first responsibility is to the players and to the mission of putting on a quality performance to give a challenge to the Galaxy,” he said. “Our mission is to win that game and to do it in convincing fashion. Right now, we’re just taking stock of the player personnel. We have conducted meetings throughout the week with all of those individuals and we’re nearing conclusion with that. We’re getting feedback from them and making timely and appropriate decisions to move forward.”
With the appointment of a new head coach expected in the near future, Wawrousek hopes he will have a role to play under Lilley’s successor. “I’ve been with the team for a year and feel I have a good handle on the qualities that the players bring,” he revealed. “Despite the disappointment and underachievement of the 2007 campaign, we retained remarkably good team chemistry through all of that. Obviously, there’s going to be changes to the player personnel, in addition what we have experienced with the coaching change. The new appointment will want to have certain preferences and qualities that may be divergent from what I feel are the qualities of players, but we are trying to establish a strong core of players for next season.”