By Ridge Mahoney
Whitecaps' management admitted after the 2012 season that perhaps too many changes were made to a successful team, but the few misfires that resulted haven't staunched an aggressive approach.
The signing of English Premier League veteran Nigel Reo-Coker this week marks one of the few times in league history an MLS team has acquired a player with extensive top-division experience on the young side of 30. Reo-Coker, 28, has played more than 200 English games though he comes to MLS after a three-month stint with Ipswich Town in the League Championship (second division).
A month ago, Vancouver cut ties with Barry Robson, who’d been signed as a Designated Player well before the start of the 2012 season, and upon arriving in July showed that he certainly wasn’t worth the wait. No one in the Whitecaps’ front office would say that subsequent moves were partially triggered by Robson’s lackluster performances, but a team that looked certain to make the playoffs in midseason struggled through a seven-game winless streak (while scoring just three goals) that dragged into early October.
A fifth-place finish matched Vancouver against the defending MLS Cup champion in the wild-card game, and despite taking a 1-0 lead the ‘Caps ended up 2-1 losers to the Galaxy. Robson was the most prominent of nine players cut loose by Coach Martin Rennie, and Reo-Coker is one of several international products to come aboard.
Where he’ll play hasn’t been determined; in England, he played a lot of midfield but the ‘Caps will try him in several positions, including right back, where Young-Pyo Lee reigns as one of the league’s best.
The Caps posted encouraging victories during preseason as Darren Mattocks, the No. 2 selection in the 2012 SuperDraft, banged in a few goals. Also hitting the net were 2013 first-round SuperDraft picks Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado, and ex-Red Bull Corey Herzog. Last year Vancouver scored the fewest goals, 35, of any playoff team, and Rennie wants options so as not to waste the opportunities set up by Camilo, the team leader in assists with a very modest seven.
KEY PLAYER MOVES. The newcomers include Japanese playmaker Diago Kobayashi, signed on a free transfer from Shimuzu S-Pulse, and yet another Honduran, defender Johnny Leveron, who takes the centerback roster spot vacated by the waiving of Argentine Martin Bonjour. Rennie believes that Kobayashi’s energy will better suit a higher-tempo game, which prompted the coach to draft Manneh at No. 4 in the SuperDraft as well as Hurtado (No. 5), and pick up Paulo Jr. from RSL in the Re-Entry Draft.
WHY BE OPTIMISTIC? The late-season fizzle left fans disappointed; still, a playoff appearance in the second year after joining as an expansion team is an achievement that escaped Toronto FC (debuted in 2007), San Jose (2008), and Portland (2011), and TFC still hasn’t made the playoffs. Unlike a few of the midseason moves of last year, the offseason changes make a lot of sense, and after a rough inaugural season during which the head coach was replaced after a dozen games, the ‘Caps matured into a competitive unit.
WHY BE PESSIMISTIC? The goalkeeping situation is cloudy: Joe Cannon (1.34 goals allowed average in 26 games) and Brad Knighton (0.81 in 10 games) shared the job last year and neither stamped themselves as a clear No. 1 in preseason. Captain Jay DeMerit has been hobbled for the past three weeks by an Achilles injury, and at 33, is falling behind in fitness and sharpness as the regular-season opener draws near. A team that managed just 10 goals and three wins on the road needs to get tougher physically and mentally to grind out points away from B.C. Place. Kenny Miller is on a DP salary (about $1.39 million last year) that isn't producing much and rumors of a move back to Scotland persist.
WHY WATCH THIS TEAM? Camilo is one of the smoothest movers in MLS, and with speed added up front and in midfield the ‘Caps should be entertaining as they bomb forward to feed on his through balls and chips. Lee should also benefit from runners carving out space for him to exploit, and all eyes will be on Reo-Coker to see if the teams in England and elsewhere that passed on him had it right, or got it terribly wrong.
MLS PREVIEW SERIES:
Eastern Conference: New England | Philadelphia | Toronto FC | Montreal
Western Conference: Chivas USA | Colorado | FC Dallas | Portland