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Had they been in the Eastern Conference, the Vancouver Whitecaps would have been just the seventh best team in the standings. But thanks to a weaker West, the Whitecaps sneaked into the postseason in 2012 with a 15-point improvement from their inaugural 2011 campaign. Once there they lost 2-1 in the wild-card knockout round to the Los Angeles Galaxy, the defending champions who would ultimately repeat. But though they were bounced early, it was a strong sophomore season for Vancouver.
However, though they reached the playoffs last year, the Whitecaps are closer in skill and stature to the bottom half of the Western Conference than they are to competing against the top four. Vancouver at least has a legitimate MLS-caliber head coach in Martin Rennie, the former midfielder from Scotland who shifted to coaching once he suffered a career-ending knee injury. The replacement for interim manager Tom Soehn, the Director of Soccer Operations who had to terminate longtime manager Teitur Thordarson’s contract midway through Vancouver’s first MLS season.
Rennie produced a major turnaround in his first year, qualifying the Whitecaps for the postseason and earning the team a measure of respectability. The key now will be sustaining that momentum in a conference where the clubs below them are itching for another chance to topple the Canadians in 2013. Can Rennie continue to get the most from a club that played beyond expectation last season and steer them to a second consecutive playoff berth?
Feb 2, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Houston Dynamo defender Jermaine Taylor (4) and midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson (10) and Vancouver Whitecaps forward Darren Mattocks (11) fight for the ball during the first half at Kino Sports Complex. Vancouver beat Houston 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Vancouver started their preseason on a tear and finished on a high note. Separating their time between Arizona and Charleston, the Whitecaps finished the preseason 6-1-1, getting hat tricks in their first and final games as their offense averaged more than two goals a game while allowing just seven in eight contests.
They opened their campaign with a 4-1 trouncing of the New England Revolution in Casa Grande, with Darren Mattocks notching a hat trick in the victory. Four days later they knocked off the Houston Dynamo in Tucson, Mattocks getting his fourth goal in two games to neutralize an early Dynamo advantage before Corey Hertzog scored the winner. They finished their time in Arizona with a 1-0 win over the NPSL Arizona Sahuaros, the youngsters and trialists showing off for the coaching staff and keeping the Whitecaps perfect through three preseason games.
Their good fortune continued at the start of the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, as 2013 SuperDraft selection Kekuta Manneh struck his first two MLS goals and Daigo Kobayashi added another to prevail 3-2 over the tournament hosts, the Charleston Battery of the third-tier USL Pro. In a midweek scrimmage between Challenge Cup fixtures, Paulo Jr. scored two goals in a 2-0 victory over the College of Charleston for the team’s fifth win in a row.
Vancouver had taken a first-half lead over the Houston Dynamo on a Hertzog goal, and it looked like the young free-agent signing had his second match winner of the preseason. But the Dynamo rallied in the second half, tying and then winning the game with a pair of strikes. The Whitecaps had to scramble to draw against Chicago in their final group-stage match, Mattocks converting a penalty kick for his fifth of the preseason as Vancouver finished 1-1-1 in the Challenge Cup. They concluded their time in the Carolinas with a 3-0 victory over the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks, Brazilian forward Camilo Sanvezzo scoring all three goals in the team’s sixth preseason victory.
ROSTER OUTLOOK FOR 2013
Joe Cannon, the primary goalkeeper for the Whitecaps since being selected from San Jose in the 2010 Expansion Draft, returns for his 16th MLS season to fight for the number-one position. But the 38-year-old will be pushed for playing time by fellow American Brad Knighton, who saw action in ten games last season and earned eight starts as the team’s keeper of the future. Simon Thomas, a 22-year-old native of British Columbia, offers insurance and a third option at the position.
Feb 2, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Vancouver Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton (18) and defender Jay DeMerit (6) shake hands before the first half against the Houston Dynamo at Kino Sports Complex. Vancouver beat Houston 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
Team captain Jay DeMerit returns to anchor a stout defense alongside late-summer acquisition Andy O’Brien from Leeds United. The pair will lock down the space in front of goal, providing fewer quality shots for the opposition on either Cannon or Knighton. They have plenty of depth behind them on the chart, with Brad Rusin, Greg Klasura and Carlyle Mitchell available off the bench. The fight for the fullback spot on the left is between Alain Rochat and Jordan Harvey; Harvey will likely get the spot, with Rochat pushing slightly forward into a lockdown midfielder role in Rennie’s 4-2-3-1 system. Korean fullback Lee Young-Pyo will lock down the right side with backup from versatile Johnny Leveron.
The defensive lockdown role in midfield will likely fall to Rochat and Nigel Reo-Coker. Jun Marques Davidson and Gershon Koffie could also get looks at the role, with Davidson more of a defensive type and Koffie providing box-to-box maneuverability. Teenager Bryce Alderson and English veteran Matt Watson provided valued depth in central midfield.
The wings will be tough to settle upon. Camilo Sanvezzo and Paulo Jr. have the inside track on locking down the left and right respectively, but they are receiving a strong challenge from 2013 first-rounder Manneh for a starting spot. The team is young and fast at the position, with Erik Hurtado, Omar Salgado and Russell Teibert providing three other options that are all 22 years old or younger. In the attacking midfield spot behind the striker is Daigo Kobayashi, the former J-League maestro who joined Vancouver in January; early preseason returns show that Kobayashi can capably fill that attacking role, though the depth behind him at the position is dependent on the versatility of players like Manneh.
Up front, Mattocks is the first-choice selection at center forward for the Whitecaps. Second overall in the 2012 SuperDraft, the Jamaican striker scored seven goals in his rookie campaign and had five during a strong preseason. Free agents Corey Hertzog and Tom Heineman will push Scottish veteran Kenny Miller for playing time behind Mattocks.
The Whitecaps must remain as vigilant through the regular season as they appeared during a strong preseason to maintain playoff position for a second straight year. Rennie has a crew that is deep enough at most positions to contend throughout the summer, though they still remain behind the West’s best from top to bottom. Though they will face stiff challenges from the teams behind them, 5th place in the West and the postseason berth that comes with it are Vancouver’s to lose in 2013.