By Jeff Paterson
Their first outing may not have been the best evidence that the Vancouver Whitecaps have undergone a major overhaul. In many ways, this city’s top soccer club strongly resembled the group that had trouble scoring throughout much of last season, as it kicked off the new United Soccer League First Division campaign with a 1-0 win over the Montreal Impact on April 12.
But a closer look reveals that the ’Caps are, indeed, a new group led by a new head coach who’s armed with a new outlook on the way the game should be played. They plan to entertain crowds at Swangard Stadium this year by pushing balls forward and going to the attack as often as possible. And that will be a welcome difference from the squad that last year scored only 12 goals and won just four times in its final 21 games before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.
The swoon cost Bob Lilley his job after three years as head coach and a USL championship in 2006. He’s been replaced by Teitur Thordarson, a native of Iceland with plenty of coaching experience in his homeland and in Norway. He is also the former head coach of the Estonian national team. While Thordarson adjusts to life in this city and this country, he’s right at home patrolling the sidelines of the soccer pitch. And throughout an extensive training schedule and preseason, the 55-year-old preached to his players the importance of scoring goals.
“That’s the most important; it’s absolutely the most important,” he told the Georgia Straight before the ’Caps’ season opener. “But as we all know it’s not that easy. In the preseason and in the games we’ve played, we’ve scored lots of goals. But now that the season has started, we’ll see how that works out. The style of play we’ll use is very attacking-minded.”
The Whitecaps had success putting the ball in the back of the net early last season, when they scored 15 of the 27 goals they scored all year in the first seven games on the schedule. It was no surprise that they won five of those contests and drew the other two.
But significant injuries to strikers Eduardo Sebrango and Jason Jordan put too much strain on the Whitecaps depth chart. The ’Caps continued to control games and generate offence, but they had no one to score goals. Sebrango led the team in goal-scoring with seven, and he suited up in just 16 of the team’s 28 games. No one else scored more than four goals for the ’Caps last season.
“We just didn’t finish our chances,” veteran midfielder Martin Nash says. “There were games where we outshot teams 17-2 last year and lost. That was the story of the year. I think in the first half of last season, we were leading the league in points and goals, [then] we lost a few players and things went downhill. A few of the players we brought in were strikers and proven goal-scorers and they didn’t score any goals. We had two of them, and between them I think they had two goals. You can’t have that out of forwards that you’re relying on.”
As a result, the Whitecaps scored more than one goal in a game just once in their final 21 games last season (24 games if you include their two playoff outings and their scoreless draw in November’s visit from David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy). And only two teams in the 12-team USL First Division scored less than the ’Caps did.
But that was last year, and the Whitecaps are hoping to leave their scoring struggles in the past, even if they didn’t show it on opening night. Both Sebrango (who scored the ’Caps goal on April 12) and Jordan, the USL’s leading scorer and most valuable player three years ago, are back and in good health. And the Whitecaps feel they’ve bolstered their attack with the addition of 26-year-old Jamaican Nicholas Addlery, who spent last year with DC United of Major League Soccer.
“The signs are positive,” Nash says of a preseason that included a 4-0 win over Portland and a 2-1 victory against long-time rival Seattle. “Hopefully, the style of play will allow us to get forward a little bit more and score a few more goals. If we play the style of play that we can play, I think we can be a dangerous team.”
Between the starting lineup and the players coming off the bench, 11-year veteran Steve Kindel expects the ’Caps to bounce back after last year’s disappointing showing. And he’s excited about the changes he’s seen in the off-season.
“I don’t think we sat back too much last year, but we are going forward a lot more this year,” Kindel says. “When an opportunity presents itself anywhere on the field, whether it’s through injury or someone not performing well, you need your depth guys to come through. Unfortunately last year, our two major long-term injuries were up-front, and we were going three-, four-, five-deep down the list for guys to come through, and it just didn’t happen for us.”
Helping the Whitecaps’ crusade to score more goals this season is the fact that they’ll have two additional games to do so. The USL’s First Division has been reduced by a franchise, but each remaining team’s schedule has been increased to 30 games.
With a new coach and a new philosophy, the Whitecaps will have plenty of time to work on their game, since they only play twice in April (the next game is April 26 at Swangard versus Minnesota) before their season kicks into high gear with nine games in a 21-day span in May. That stretch includes another clash with Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy—this one at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on May 13.