Following a fairly nightmarish start to their Major League Soccer existence in 2011, the Vancouver Whitecaps rebounded commendably in 2012.
Under new coach Martin Rennie, the club went from the league’s worst outfit to near giant killers by season’s end, putting the scare into David Beckham’s LA Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs through an early goal from rookie sensation Darren Mattocks.
While known as a coach capable of putting together high-scoring teams, Rennie instead isolated the Whitecaps’ backline as the priority for immediate improvement.
Over the off-season the Scotsman brought in South Korean legend Lee Young-Pyo and Argentine central defender Martin Bonjour. The pair would play massive parts in the club’s early defensive dominance, in which the Whitecaps held their opponents scoreless in six of eight matches to begin the year.
Bonjour would eventually lose his spot to former Ireland international Andy O’Brien by season’s end – another strong signing by Rennie – but Lee in particular would prove an inspired acquisition. Despite being the club’s oldest player, he racked up the most playing time, playing 90 minutes in all but one regular season match.
By season’s end, Rennie would mention one of the biggest transitions from coaching at the lower levels to MLS level was the media spotlight – and all eyes were on him as he dealt with controversy in pre-season, as Lee Nguyen, a former U.S. international, uttered a homophobic slur on Twitter.
Whether he wanted to send a message or just felt Nguyen wouldn’t fit his plans (the official line), Rennie waived the attacking midfielder in an embarrassing situation for a player who stated his ambition in returning to MLS was to get back on the U.S. national team’s radar.
That sort of no nonsense approach came to define the Whitecaps in 2012. From off-field behaviour, to fitness – and yes, even style of play — Vancouver became very predictable. On the positive side of that, as a team, the players rarely let each other down defensively but that formulaic approach to the game seeped into the attack as well, with imaginative play in short supply.
Indeed, with only 35 goals scored, the Whitecaps were the lowest scoring squad to qualify for the 2012 MLS playoffs, with that miniscule total matching the output of their worst-in-the-league 2011 team.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. The club brought in three players in mid-season to try and add more goals. Jamaican winger Dane Richards had a few strong appearances, and seemed to thrive in front of the BC Place faithful in the early going. But away from home, he was a bit of a Houdini figure. He made the disappearing act complete by signing a pre-contract with English second-tier side Burnley, and once that deal became public looked disinterested to say the least.
The two high profile moves were the acquisitions of Kenny Miller and Barry Robson. The Scottish pair, both high-priced designated players, got fans excited, but quickly became public enemies as their arrival coincided with the Whitecaps going from contenders to win the Western Conference to a team that finished the season with a one win from 10 games.
Equally as upsetting for fans was the departure of Davide Chiumiento, one of the more talented creative players in the league. The Swiss-Italian playmaker wanted a raise and a long-term deal, but Rennie didn’t think he was worth it, so he sold him for what is understood to be a nominal fee to FC Zurich.
Perhaps Chiumiento was a player Rennie felt he couldn’t control. The former Juventus trainee is a bit of an independent thinker to say the least and doesn’t slot into a conventional formation, often wandering about a bit haphazardly. But if given a chance to do it over it’s difficult to imagine the coach letting what appears to be the team’s creative spark go so easily.
Of the players canned or shipped off, many proved to be the correct call, however. Getting rid of Eric Hassli was the right move despite his popularity, as he just didn’t seem to fit in Rennie’s system and certainly was not earning his designated player dollars.
If there is one positive that can be taken from Vancouver’s second-half stumble down the MLS standings, it was the emergence of Brad Knighton as the club’s No. 1 goalkeeper.
While Joe Cannon did little wrong and was one of the outstanding players in the first half of the season for the Whitecaps, Knighton provides a younger, cheaper, option, and is a better distributor of the ball.
Cannon was not the problem (this team couldn’t score goals), and Knighton is not necessarily better than him. But Knighton is a decade younger and seems just as capable, and should he maintain his 2012 level of play, it could mean Vancouver has its goalkeeping situation locked down for years to come.
The Whitecaps have some important moves to make going into 2013. Given the way they finished this past year, there’s every chance they could struggle without the addition of a couple of key pieces.
But equally important could be the growth of some of the club’s young players. Mattocks finished as the club’s top scorer with seven goals despite missing about a third of the season due to a cooking accident, and if he can get the service, could become one of the league’s deadliest scorers.
In midfield, Gershon Koffie seems to get stronger by the game – if he and Mattocks can continue their growth, and veteran players like Miller, Robson, O’Brien, Alain Rochat and Jay DeMerit provide more leadership than they did down the stretch, this team can compete for a playoff spot.
This team still needs to find more creativity as it stands, and if changes aren’t made will be scrapping just to make the playoffs. But after Year 2, the Whitecaps are tough to beat and that’s the first step toward becoming a contender.
Martin MacMahon is a Vancouver-based writer who covers the Vancouver Whitecaps FC for Goal.com. Follow Martin on Twitter