By Marc Weber
1. Can Marlon James stay healthy?
He was the Whitecaps biggest off-season signing. He hurt his calf. He tantalized fans with a May hat trick in Minnesota. He hurt his hamstring. He fought his way back into the lineup after a month. He hurt his calf again.
The big question when the Whitecaps signed St. Vincent and
the Grenadines international Marlon James was, 'Does leading the Malaysian Super League in scoring mean he'll pump in goals by the bushel in USL-1?'
With four goals in six games there's little doubt about that. The question now is, 'Will he play enough to make an impact?'
"We're already halfway through the season and he hasn't played much, so it's definitely a concern," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, "but I really hope we can get him on the field as soon as possible."
Vancouver is 0-4-2 without James in the lineup and 4-1-1 with him. He won't play tonight.
James, 33, is not alone with his injury woes.
Through 16 regular-season and Nutrilite Canadian Championship matches this season, the Whitecaps have lost 67 man-games to injury with a total of 10 players missing at least one game.
In 2008, after the same number of matches, the total was 32 man-games lost between five players.
There's a larger issue here, too, which has to do with the Whitecaps training on field turf every day. Thordarson confirmed that the club is seeking alternative practice arrangements on grass but said it hasn't been easy.
2. With an eye on 2011, can success come in 2009?
Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said at the beginning of the year that the focus was as much on winning now as it was on readying for MLS launch day in 2011. But is that possible?
The club hasn't simply thrust its residency players upon the senior squad in the name of development, but management has gone with a more youthful roster, jettisoning veterans Alfredo Valente, Steve Kindel and Jeff Clarke.
The Whitecaps have also diversified quickly and will have 10 international players in the mix if they sign their newest Tanzanian arrivals.
Have there simply been too many personnel changes — half the team and half the starting lineup — for this team to jell into a championship contender?
There is evidence from Vancouver's I-5 rivals to both support and rubbish this theory.
The Seattle Sounders topped the standings and won the 2007 USL-1 title. In November that year, they were awarded an MLS expansion team for 2009, and they finished their final USL-1 season 10-10-10, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Portland, though, has offered a different perspective so far this season. The Timbers, like the Whitecaps, were recently awarded an MLS expansion team for 2011. Portland returned only five players this season and they're 7-1-6, fighting for first place.
"The club is obviously looking forward, trying to get ahead of the game," said captain Martin Nash, "but at the same time we've got to be professional and perform. Everyone gets along well, but when you don't get the results the confidence isn't there."
3. Where will Jeff Parke end up?
With international transfer windows opening this month, Jeff Parke's future with the Whitecaps is in doubt. The veteran central defender, who played five years for Major League Soccer's New York franchise, spurned an offer from the Seattle Sounders to join the Whitecaps on a flexible deal in late March.
The Caps agreed not just to let Parke test European waters, but also to help him in his search for a club.
His nagging turf toe injury, though, has complicated matters and Parke said at training this week that his focus was simply on getting healthy and fit.
He's been pushing himself, trying to play catch-up before the transfer window closes in mid-August, and he could start tonight.
Parke has been outstanding for the Caps, and with Justin Thompson quitting last month and Marco Reda dealing with a series of injuries, his value to the club has increased.
Not that the Whitecaps would wish the worst for Parke, but it could work out in their favour if he's forced to stick around for a playoff run.
4. Is Charles Gbeke a changed man?
"So that's the new Charles — more chill, more encouraging."
Those were the words of Whitecaps forward Charles Gbeke on June 6, days after a calm, focused and dominant performance against Toronto FC. He said his dad, Noel, scolded him for all the arm flapping and air punching and yelling at teammates.
But the new Chill Charles lasted about a game-and-a-half, and his intense ways were partly responsible for the disgraceful June 12 in-game fight with teammates Wesley Charles that resulted in fines and two-game suspensions.
Tonight is his first game back and all eyes — from management to fans — will be on Gbeke. Can the big friendly giant off the field keep his emotions in check on it? The leash for Charles and Gbeke is obviously a short one.
"It's tough, but I notice when I'm calm and worried about my duties on the field then I play much better," said Gbeke, who has three goals and an assist in 10 league games. "I have to be less demonstrative and it starts in practice."
The 31-year-old looked very composed in a pair of training sessions this week.
5. Can they cut out the costly mistakes?
The Whitecaps are the fourth-worst defensive team in USL-1, having allowed 17 goals in 12 games. The troubling part is they're in that position despite giving up relatively few chances and with goalkeeper Jay Nolly playing well.
"Just lapses in concentration from everyone," said captain Martin Nash. "Misreading situations and misreading each other."
"Almost every game we've had some sort of mistake that we didn't make last year and it's cost us more than one goal in some games."
Over Vancouver's recent six-game league skid (1-4-1), they've outshot opponents 91-54, have a 53-24 edge in corners, and have forced twice the saves from opposing keepers (38-19).
"The efforts been there and everyone's been working hard," said Nash, "but our mistakes have probably cost us 10-12 points."
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