Closing the curtain on the 2017 season: 'We can't go out with our heads down'

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VANCOUVER, BC – And that’s a wrap on 2017.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC saw their season come to an end on Thursday night with a 2-0 defeat to defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders FC in the Western Conference Semifinal.

It was a disappointing way to go out, there’s no doubt about that.

As Whitecaps FC goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic said following the match: “We felt like we sold ourselves a little bit short.” The ‘Caps believed they had a special group this season, one that could do some damage in the postseason. They sure got off to a good start, cruising to a 5-0 win over San Jose Earthquakes to earn the club’s first-ever victory in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

But in the end, they weren’t able to break down a Seattle side that – to their credit – was one of the best defensive teams in Major League Soccer this season.

“We just weren’t quite good enough to get over that hump and get to that next level, which was the final of the Western Conference,” said Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson.

So how should we look back on the 2017 season as a whole?

That’s something Kendall Waston spoke a bit about post-match on Thursday. Waston admitted that there are “obviously things we have to improve on,” as these past two matches against Seattle showed, but he also said the team is proud of what they accomplished over the course of the year.

“We can’t go out with our heads down,” Waston said.

The ‘Caps made club history in 2017, qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals and winning their first-ever playoff match. They finished with a 15W-12L-7D record and 52 points in the regular season, which was just one point off of first in the Western Conference and a 13-point improvement from a year ago.

A number of players enjoyed bounce back seasons, most notably Cristian Techera, who had six goals and seven assists, and the rock-solid centre back pairing of Waston and Tim Parker. This week, Waston was named a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year. And for good reason.

The new ‘Caps captain was among the league leaders in a number of defensive categories, including headed clearances (first), total clearances (second), and blocks (fourth). He also contributed four goals, the second highest total among all defenders, and one assist.

“He’s the type of guy you’d want on your team,” Sounders FC striker Clint Dempsey said after Thursday’s match. “You know he’s always going to bring it.”

Waston was surrounded by a number of new faces in 2017. Consider this: six players in Vancouver’s starting XI on Thursday were in their first year with the club.

There was Marinovic, right back Jake Nerwinski, who had five assists in an outstanding rookie season, midfielders Aly Ghazal, Nosa Igiebor, and Yordy Reyna, and of course, striker Fredy Montero. Montero’s status for 2018 remains uncertain, as he is on a one-year loan from Chinese side Tianjin TEDA, but that’s a quality list of players. 

Take Reyna, for example.  

The Peruvian attacking midfielder made a colossal impact for Vancouver down the stretch, recording six goals and four assists in just 11 starts after recovering from a fractured foot suffered in the preseason. Imagine having that sort of offensive production from the start of the season.  

And imagine having a full season with the option of selecting Ghazal and/or Igiebor in midfield. 

With Ghazal’s ability to shield the back line and Igiebor’s comfort on the ball – he led the team with 89 touches and 67 successful passes on Thursday, both season-highs for any Whitecaps FC player – this has the potential of being one of the best midfield partnerships in MLS.

The ‘Caps certainly have some pieces to build around heading into 2018, including Canadian Alphonso Davies, who turned 17 on Thursday.

And this offseason, they’ll be looking to find a few more.

“We know where we are,” Robinson said. “I won’t fault the players in there. Sometimes you have to accept where you are in football and we know where we are as a club, which is fine, but we did come up a little bit short. We’ll have to get our thinking caps on. We’ll have to go back to the well and see what we can do because we need to come back better next year.”