VANCOUVER — The list of reasons for the Vancouver Whitecaps’ dismal showing in 2016 is a long one.
An atrocious home record, discipline, lacklustre defending and scoring woes are among the culprits, but one word kept creeping up Wednesday as players and management met the media to pick over the carcass of a lost campaign — leadership.
"It’s easy to find your leaders when things are going well. They take care of themselves," said Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson. "It’s hard to find them when your back’s against the wall. That’s where I find out about my players, and I found out a hell of a lot about my players this year."
Vancouver set all kinds of franchise records in 2015, finishing second in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference with 53 points and hosting a playoff game for the first time, but when things started to spiral out of control this season, no one stepped up.
"We needed somebody to get a grip at that point and say: ‘Hey, let’s not feel sorry for ourselves,"’ said Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi. "At the very least you need to compete, and I think there were times this year when that didn’t happen."
Vancouver was out of playoff contention by the beginning of October, finishing with a 10-15-9 record, and fingers were already being pointed by pockets of supporters at the club’s captain and highest paid player long before the final whistle blew.
It would be unfair to pin all the season’s problems on Pedro Morales, but it’s pretty clear there was something missing in 2016.
And while no one would come out at say it Wednesday, the Chilean designated player seemed like a man resigned to the fact that he won’t be back.
"I don’t know what’s going to happen," said the 31-year-old midfielder, who thanked fans on three separate occasions during his availability. "I’m very happy to play here, but I don’t know what happens in the future."
Morales, who makes in the neighbourhood of US$1.25 million annually, was named MLS newcomer of the year in 2014 following a 10-goal, 12-assist campaign for Vancouver, but he was slowed by injuries in 2015 before a frustrating third season in North America.
He wound up with a team-high nine goals, however six of those came from the penalty spot, and Morales too often looked like a passenger instead of an emotional leader.
"Since the day he’s walked in he’s been a consummate professional," said Robinson, who signed a deal to remain at the club through 2020 on Wednesday. "I’ve enjoyed working with him.
"We’ll just take our time. We’ll see where both parties are and then we’ll move forward."
The Whitecaps were 16-13-5 in 2015 thanks to a stingy defence that tied for the fewest goals conceded in MLS with just 36 in 34 games. By contrast in 2016, Vancouver had already surrendered that number by mid-July and wound up with the second-worst goals-against mark in the West at 52.
The club managed to equal the 45 goals it scored last season with a 4-1 victory over Portland in the season finale, but finding the back of the net was a struggle most of the year.
Striker and designated player Octavio Rivero never really found his footing during his season-and-a-half in Vancouver and was sold to a Chilean club in the summer. The Whitecaps didn’t fill his spot with another DP, instead relying on Giles Barnes, who was acquired from Houston in a trade, Erik Hurtado, Masato Kudo and Blas Perez — with all four failing to impress.
There have been calls for Vancouver to finally open its pocketbook like some of the league’s other teams, especially for a goal scorer, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards this off-season
"Our organization is our organization," said Robinson, who added the club plans to bring in a few fresh faces. "We work within certain parameters and we will continue to work within those parameters."
Discipline was also a major issue for the Whitecaps, who saw eight players either sent off or retroactively red carded. No other team in MLS had more than five.
Home form was a problem despite making the West semis 12 months ago, and things got even worse this year. Vancouver was 9-6-2 as a host in 2015, but won just six of its 17 games at B.C. Place Stadium this season (6-5-6).
"It’s about simple basics — rolling your sleeves up and running and fighting and tackling," said Robinson. "Whether you’re in Scotland, England, Brazil, Argentina or MLS, it’s the same concepts. The team that usually works the hardest is the team that wins, and we’ve got to get back to that."
While there wasn’t a lot to get excited about in 2016, it wasn’t a total loss.
Vancouver finished with a perfect record in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage to move onto the quarter-finals in late February and early March, and 15-year-old Alphonso Davies burst onto the scene as an emerging star.
"I’m disappointed across the board," said Robinson. "Having said that, we were only two, three wins from getting into the playoffs.
"We’re not far away, but the little things make the big differences."