New season. New players. New opportunities.

After a record-breaking 2015 campaign, Vancouver Whitecaps FC are set to open the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season on Sunday, March 6 against longtime Canadian rivals Montreal Impact (2:30 p.m. PT at BC Place | TSN 1/3). Limited tickets are still available. 

This is where you jump for joy.

Last year was fun. Lots of fun. But it ended on a bitter note after falling to eventual MLS Cup champions Portland Timbers, who also happen to be one of our biggest rivals and expansion cousins, in the Western Conference semifinal. Can the young ‘Caps build on last year's heartbreak and take the next step in 2016?

We’re about to find out. 


THE ARCHITECT

Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson.

The architect of Whitecaps FC’s success is a Welshman named Carl Robinson. This is his third year as head coach of the club. Prior to that, he spent two years as an assistant. Last year, Robinson was one of three nominees for MLS Coach of the Year after leading Whitecaps FC to their best-ever point total and first-ever Canadian Championship. Now, he has bigger goals in mind.

“We’ve got an exciting squad in there,” Robinson said. “Twenty managers will get interviewed this week and they’ll all say they have aspirations. I’m no different. We're assembling a good squad to make the city and club proud. Then what we accomplish in the season will be down to us.”

Robinson, 39, is a former professional player himself with over a decade of experience at the top levels in England.

Oh, he also has really nice sweaters and his nickname is “Robbo.”  


THE NEW BOYS

The ‘Caps didn’t make a ton of changes in the offseason – certainly fewer than in years past.

However, they’ve still bolstered the roster with some exciting additions including Costa Rican midfielder Christian Bolaños, a two-time FIFA World Cup veteran, Japanese striker Masato Kudo and Panamanian striker Blas Perez – the former villain.

Notice a theme? Each one of these players were brought in to help improve the ‘Caps attack. 

“I’ve tried to bring in different pieces to the puzzle, rather than having two or three pieces that are the same,” Robinson said last month. “We’ve got a different dynamic now depending on the situation of the game, with Blas as a target man, with Masato as a box player, with the creativity of Bola out wide, and with the [existing players]. We’ve got fantastic options in the forward areas, which is something we haven’t had before.”

Robinson also added Canadian right back/winger Fraser Aird and centre back Cole Seiler in the offseason. 

The newcomers each proved their worth in the preseason – Aird forced two own goals with his crosses into the box, Bolaños looked like he has played in two World Cups with some of his adept touches and passes, and Kudo and Perez each had a goal.

Now, it’s time for the real test.  

“I think on paper we have [a stronger squad],” Robinson said. “But on paper means nothing. It’s what you do on the field when you cross that white line.”


ON THE RISE

Whitecaps FC have increased their point total every year since joining MLS in 2011.

Last year, they finished second in the Western Conference and third in all of MLS. And experienced defender Jordan Harvey, who has been with the ‘Caps since that inaugural season, sees no reason why they can’t continue improving in 2016. That said, he still feels this club has “a lot to prove” around MLS.

“Our expectations have definitely risen,” he said. “We expect more. I think we expect more consistency throughout the year. With this depth, I don’t see any drop off through injuries or national team call-ups and things like that. People can fill in and the level will still remain high. That’s what we’re expecting.”

That, and more.

“Each year the expectation gets higher and higher,” he continued. “Making the playoffs was a huge one. Now, getting to the Western Conference championships, getting an MLS Cup, I think is definitely attainable with the roster we have here. That’s the goal without a doubt.”


YOUTH SERVES

Last year, Whitecaps FC had the youngest team in MLS.

And it’s looking like they’ll be right up there again in 2016. In fact, Robinson said one of his biggest takeaways from the preseason was the number of youngsters who are already fighting for spots on the first team – something he didn’t necessarily expect so soon.

“They’ve come on leaps and bounds,” he said. “I’ve got to plan out the season, which I will, with all the competitions we’re in. You’ll get to see some of the even younger faces during the season in different competitions. They deserve a lot of credit for the hard work they’ve put in to this point.”

Part of the excitement around this club right now is the number of young Canadians coming through the system. The ‘Caps have seven Canadians on their roster right now. They’re all under the age of 24. And six of them came through the club’s Residency program.

“We’re obviously coming from the Residency so we’re trying to show how great this Residency program is,” said 19-year-old Winnipeg native Marco Bustos, who will be pushing for first-team minutes after a strong preseason. “Hopefully the younger guys come up and do the same thing.”

The future looks bright for Whitecaps FC – and for Canada, too. 


HISTORY: SINCE 1974

The Whitecaps franchise (named after Vancouver’s whitecaps on the ocean and mountains) has been around since 1974. In 2014, we celebrated our 40th anniversary. People dressed up and busted out some ‘70s moves. It was a par-tay.  

The most memorable moment in Whitecaps history came in 1979. That’s when the ‘Caps upset the heavily-favoured New York Cosmos en route to the NASL Soccer Bowl title. In the process, the ‘Caps became the city’s first pro sports team to win a major North American championship. Upon return to Vancouver, as many as 100,000 people lined Robson Street during a championship parade.

Following the NASL era, the 'Caps were reborn as the 86ers, who established themselves as a powerhouse in the Canadian Soccer League by winning four straight championships. The Whitecaps added two more titles in the USL before joining Major League Soccer in 2011. 

This is the club’s sixth season in MLS. They've qualified for the playoffs three times, including a first-ever home playoff game last season. The result in that match was a disappointment, but the 28,373 fans in attendance made it a night that will forever be etched in the club's history books

"I've been in the game 18 years, and played in six countries including the Premier League, and that for me was one of the best atmospheres I've ever been involved in," said retired striker Robert Earnshaw, now the club's U-14 Pre-Residency head coach. "BC Place was rocking. I looked around after about two or three minutes and thought, 'Wow, this is where you want to be. This is how you want to play football.'"

The rest has yet to be written.

- article by Farhan Devji, photos by Bob Frid and USA Today Sports Images