Struggling USL-1 team starts to search for answers
BY MARC WEBER
The Vancouver Whitecaps ended their last practice, boots off, shoulder-to-shoulder, working with a posture expert.
While their spines might be better aligned of late -- promoting healthier, more efficient movement and improved balance -- the collective backbone of this team is what's really on trial in the second half of the USL-1 season.
Correcting a 5-7-3 showing through 15 games was going to be challenging enough. Now they have to do it without starting central defender Wesley Charles, who was released Tuesday after his second confrontation with a teammate in a month.
And they have to do it with more questions hanging over their heads about chemistry and conflict.
"The team's got to rally around each other now, big time," said captain Martin Nash.
"I don't think we can lay everything on Wesley, but things have happened and the coach has dealt with it in the way he felt he had to.
"Obviously we're losing a very talented player who was huge for us winning a championship last season. He's a very nice man and it's a shame that it's come to this."
Nash has sympathy for Charles and not because he condones his former vice-captain's actions -- last month scrapping with forward Charles Gbeke; and then Tuesday giving defender Jeff Parke the elbow-headbutt combo. Nash simply understands the frustration Charles was feeling about the state of their season.
"We've been struggling for our identity all year," Nash said. "He wants to win like everyone else, but he's very emotional, he's so into it. It's a fine line and he crossed the line, twice."
Charles was also playing through pain in his knee and hip and with the weight of a family matter that he earlier denied was affecting his mood.
His release provides some measure of relief to rookies who weren't used to being barked at in such a harsh manner, but it creates a void in central defence that could be felt as soon as Saturday when the Whitecaps host the Puerto Rico Islanders.
Parke continues to struggle with his turf-toe injury and Marco Reda has been in and out of the lineup, too, with various ailments. Both are expected to start.
"I don't feel there is a panic," said head coach Teitur Thordarson, whose third option is the versatile Mason Trafford. "But with Wes going we have to try and replace that experience, that is obvious. I'm just starting to look around and see what is possible."
Thordarson's had three centre backs on trial this month, but recently released York University's Gerard Ladiyou.
Tanzanian national team member Nadir Haroub remains along with towering, tongue-twisting Nigerian Michael Ndubuisi Onwuatuegwu. Neither fits what the coach is seeking as a replacement for Charles, which isn't to say the club won't sign one or both as depth or future players.
The Whitecaps will try to bring in a veteran centre back before the international transfer window closes on Aug. 14 and they've opened up an international roster spot with the release of Charles, a St. Vincent and the Grenadines native.
Thordarson doesn't like to sign players he hasn't seen in person, but he's done so before. He signed Charles after watching him play a World Cup qualifier against Canada on TV.
And despite the events of the past month, the coach won't shy away from signing another strong personality.
"I like to have strong characters in the team," he said. "This is a physical sport and you have to be very committed. You have to be a winner-type. You do not accept losing -- not only games, but duels, tackles on the field. Strong characters usually have that instinct.
"It would be easy to avoid these ones, but very often those guys are the best players. It's more about them controlling themselves."
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