VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Whitecaps have stood in front of reporters over the last three seasons insisting the goals would eventually come.
It didn’t matter how often a striker looked skyward after blasting a golden opportunity into the 20th row, or buried face in hands following another scuffed effort. Teammates, coaches and management were convinced next time would be different.
It seemed like they were trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else, but there’s reason to believe the Whitecaps’ sputtering offence is set to finally turn a corner in 2017.
Vancouver finalized a season-long loan on Feb. 15 for Fredy Montero, a 29-year-old Colombian striker in his prime and without a doubt the purest goal-scorer the Whitecaps have had since Camilo Sanvezzo forced his way out of town following the 2013 campaign.
“It brings the hope,” veteran goalkeeper David Ousted said of what Montero’s arrival has done for morale. “He looks very sharp out there. Good guy, comes in the locker-room and brings a lot of charisma.
“Everybody’s looking forward to seeing him out there and playing with him.”
A three-time Major League Soccer all-star, Montero scored 47 goals and added 34 assists in 119 regular-season appearances with the rival Seattle Sounders from 2009 to 2012.
“Quality,” Vancouver head coach Carl Robinson said of his prized acquisition. “It brings an excitement into the attacking end of the pitch for us.”
After finishing second in the Western Conference and hosting their first-ever playoff game in 2015, the Whitecaps took a step back in 2016.
They were eliminated from post-season contention with a month left on the schedule, and if not for a four-goal performance in the finale, would have failed to match their total of 45 from the previous year.
Montero — who played in Colombia, Portugal and finally China after leaving Seattle — said he’s ready to shoulder the offensive burden where Octavio Rivero, Masato Kudo, Darren Mattocks and Blas Perez, among others, have failed.
“As long as I have opportunities to score, I will,” said Montero. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career.”
But while putting the ball in the opposition net has been the focus of fans, keeping it out at the other end was also problematic last season.
Vancouver gave up 52 goals in 2016 — second most in the West after allowing just 36 in 2015 — and won just six of 17 home games while finishing 10-15-9 overall.
Discipline also hamstrung the Whitecaps, who had eight players either sent off or retroactively red carded. No other MLS team had more than five.
“For us, this season is about having expectations and meeting those day in, day out,” said defender Jordan Harvey. “I think too often (last season) we rested on our laurels sometimes and dropped those standards.”
Vancouver never really filled the hole at right back after Steven Beitashour was dealt to Toronto FC, but hope to have steadied things with the acquisition of veteran defender Sheanon Williams from the Houston Dynamo.
“I’m somebody that’s been around the league and I know it really well,” said Williams. “I know what it takes to win games. I’m going to work as hard as I can to make this team successful. I want our backline to be one of the best in the league.”
One positive for the Whitecaps in 2016 was qualification for the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Vancouver played the New York Red Bulls to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the two-game aggregate series last Wednesday, with the rematch set for Thursday at B.C. Place Stadium.
The Whitecaps spent 11 days in Wales to ramp up training quicker than normal, but have been hit by injury woes to a large chunk of their forward-thinking players with the first game of the MLS regular season also set for Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Union.
Yordy Reyna, Christian Bolanos and Nicolas Mezquida are among the walking wounded for Vancouver, which cut ties with captain and playmaking midfielder Pedro Morales in December after three up-and-down seasons.
Apart from Montero, the Whitecaps have Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, 16-year-old phenom Alphonso Davies, Kyle Greig and Brek Shea — acquired in a trade for Giles Barnes from Orlando City SC over the weekend — as attacking options.
Kendall Waston and Tim Parker look set to anchor the centre of defence along with Harvey’s calming presence on the left side, while the reliable Matias Laba and Andrew Jacobson will be there to patrol the midfield.
“Hopefully we come in smarter with the knowledge of what we did wrong last year,” said Ousted. “It’s going to take 100 per cent. I’ve said all along this is a team that needs to show how strong we can actually be.
“If we’ve got 11 guys out there giving maximum effort, I believe the quality’s there.”