Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2016 Season Preview
Despite a finish that disappointed many Vancouver Whitecaps FC supporters, as the ‘Caps were eliminated from the MLS Playoffs by eventual champions Portland Timbers, 2015 can be considered the best season in Vancouver’s MLS history. With a club record 53 points, their first ever Voyageur’s Cup, and their first appearances in both the MLS Cup conference semifinals and CONCACAF Champions League, 2015 was a historic year for Vancouver soccer.
The past is in the past, though, and the players, head coach Carl Robinson, and Whitecaps supporters around the country are ready to jump into the 2016 season full force.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
Looking forward to 2016, Robinson made some important tweaks to an already successful line-up, cutting unsuccessful players, trading players deemed to be excess to the needs, and signing additions to upgrade the team. While the Whitecaps were not joined by a new Designated Player this off-season, both experience and youth were brought together in Robinson’s improvements. Young players such as Canadian Fraser Aird, a right-back on loan from Scottish Championship side Rangers FC; Masato Kudo, a Japanese international; and Cristian Techera and Deybi Flores who were purchased after successful loans in 2015, joined experienced players like MLS veteran Blas Perez and Costa Rican international Christian Bolanos to bolster an already strong team.
However, with new players also comes cuts and trades. Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw decided to hang-up his boots and take a coaching role with the ‘Caps this season, while Robinson chose to not re-sign unsuccessful youth products Clarke, Sampson, and draft pick Lewis. Finally, the Whitecaps also shocked many supporters by trading away three veteran MLS players. Mauro Rosales was moved to FC Dallas in exchange for Blas Perez, Steven Beitashour was sent to Toronto FC for a draft pick, and Gershon Koffie, one of the two players on the Whitecaps remaining from their original MLS roster in 2011, was exchanged for general and targeted allocation money with the New England Revolution.
|Erik Hurtado (Loan Return)||Diego Rodriguez (Loan Return)|
|Masato Kudo (Free Transfer)||Caleb Clarke (Option Declined)|
|Cristian Techera (Undisclosed)||Andre Lewis (Option Declined)|
|Deybi Flores (Undisclosed)||Ethen Sampson (Option Declined)|
|Christian Bolanos (Undisclosed)||Robert Earnshaw (Retired)|
|Fraser Aird (Loan)||Mauro Rosales (Trade)|
|Cole Seiler (SuperDraft)||Steven Beitashour (Trade)|
|Blas Perez (Trade)||Gershon Koffie (Trade)|
Although the ‘Caps were not able to win their third straight Simple Invitational championship, Vancouver’s pre-season was very successful. During their training camp in Tucson, Arizona, the Whitecaps won all three of their games, downing rivals Seattle Sounders FC 2-1, defeating the New England Revolution 3-2, and ending the camp with a 2-0 victory against the Houston Dynamo in a marathon game that feature four 30-minute quarters. Striker Darren Mattocks scored a brace against the Sounders, new signing Masato Kudo scored along with Deybi Flores and Kekuta Manneh against the Revolution, while Bustos netted one along with a Dynamo own goal for the win against Houston.
Prior to this pre-season, the ‘Caps had never lost a game in the Simple Invitational, Portland’s annual pre-season tournament, as Vancouver reigned victorious in the 2014 and 2015 editions of the event. However, poor discipline cost them, as they gave up two penalties to the Chicago Fire in route to their 3-2 loss. The Whitecaps responded well though only three days later, as they once again took down the Timbers in their own stadium 2-0 on the backs of goal from strikers Blas Perez and Octavio Rivero. Finally, Carl Robinson’s men claimed second place in the competition after a 3-1 win over NASL, and future MLS expansion side, Minnesota United, thanks to a brace from the captain Pedro Morales and Rivero’s second of the tournament.
|Seattle Sounders (Tucson Training Camp)||2-1 W|
|New England Revolution (Tucson Training Camp)||3-2 W|
|Houston Dynamo (Tucson Training Camp)||2-0 W|
|Chicago Fire (Simple Invitational)||3-2 L|
|Portland Timbers (Simple Invitational)||2-0 W|
|Minnesota United (Simple Invitational)||3-1 W|
Ousted spoiled Whitecaps supporters last season as he shared first in the league in clean sheets with Portland’s Adam Kwarasey at 13. Ousted’s heroics led the ‘Caps to their first home playoff game in club history and he finished second in voting for Goalkeeper of the Year. One of Ousted’s highlights in 2015 was a miraculous performance against the New York Red Bulls where he stopped two penalty kicks in route to the win. Whitecaps supporters should expect great things from their goalkeeping duo this year as the Great Dane continues to be a brick wall in goal, while Carducci flourishes under his tutelage. Expect Ousted, barring injury, to play every MLS minute again this season, and Tornaghi to star in the Voyageur’s Cup and Champions League. In the event that either keeper picks up an injury, Spencer Richey and Sean Melvin are both capable backups waiting in the USL. Yet again, Whitecaps fans should have no fears when it comes to goalkeeping.
Centrebacks: For another season, the Whitecaps have an indulgence of centrebacks to choose from heading into 2016. Defender of the Year runner-up Kendall Waston is joined again by the experienced Pa Modou Kah, and high-potential young American duo Christian Dean and Tim Parker. Joining the quartet of centrebacks that assisted Ousted to a record number of shutouts last season is 16th overall draft pick, Cole Seiler from Georgetown University. Waston was an obvious star for Vancouver right out of the gate in 2015, but draft pick Tim Parker fought hard to earn himself a spot in the starting eleven. Expect Waston and Parker to star for the ‘Caps again this season, while Kah mainly serves as a sub and picks up a few starts over the course of the season. Dean will most likely serve as a rotational player, while Seiler hones his craft in the USL. Left backs: The left back duo of the experienced American Jordan Harvey and young Canadian Sam Adekugbe served the ‘Caps well in 2015, and Robinson has opted to go with the two again. Adekugbe starred in the MLS several times last season when Harvey was playing poorly and the former Residency star performed well. From pre-season performances so far, however, it is apparent that Harvey and Adekugbe will be battling for the top spot all year. Both are incredibly capable fullbacks and if one is unable to play to his usual standards, expect to other to step in and fight to keep the starting position. Barring any catastrophic injuries, Vancouver supporters should have no worries when it comes to left fullback. Right backs: If there is one position that should make Whitecaps fans uneasy, it is right back. With experienced veteran Steven Beitashour being shipped off to Toronto, Robinson is hedging his bets with Canadian international, Fraser Aird on loan from Rangers FC, and another loanee, Jordan Smith, who only made seven appearances with the Whitecaps last season. Aird is expected to be the main starter this year, but with two young and very untested players filling a position where ‘Caps supporters have come to expect experience, through former players Y.P. Lee and Beitashour, it’s unknown how things will go for Vancouver at this spot.
The popular 4-2-3-1 formation was used heavily by Robinson in 2015, but with the dawn of a new season it is very possible that the Whitecaps will switch to a new formation such as a 4-4-2 to facilitate their abundance of strikers, or a more defensive 4-1-4-1, just to name a few possibilities. However, it is just as likely that the ‘Caps will remain with their traditional 4-2-3-1 that has brought them success in the past. With the departure of Gershon Koffie, Russell Teibert will be expected to fill his spot in the midfield, while the spot in the starting eleven left by Mauro Rosales will likely be taken by new signing Christian Bolanos, who will be challenged by Cristian Techera throughout the season. Barring any injuries such as those that plagued the captain last season, Pedro Morales should be expected to be a mainstay in the line-up throughout the year, while fellow Designated Player Matias Laba will look to have another very successful season. A trio of young stars in Kekuta Manneh, Deybi Flores, and Nicolas Mezquida, will also compete for a spot in the game day line-up over the course of the season, and with such talented players competing for spots, the Whitecaps midfield looks very strong heading into 2016. Finally, the three young Canadian homegrown players, Ben McKendry, Marco Bustos, and Kianz Froese, are big question marks for the team. Will they be snubbed in 2016 leading to accusations that the ‘Whitecaps hate Canada’ or will they find places in the line-up? Only Robinson knows for sure, but if these young future stars do not find a place with the senior team, expect them to tear up the USL with WFC2.
With the potential shift to another formation on the horizon, outlooks for the Whitecaps strikers change this season. While super-sub and experienced veteran Robert Earnshaw retired, he was replaced with the youthful Masato Kudo and experienced veteran Blas Perez. Erik Hurtado also returned from an unsuccessful loan with Norwegian side Mjøndalen, where he scored only one goal in 11 appearances, but now joins 2015 strikers Octavio Rivero and Darren Mattocks back with the ’Caps. With Robinson’s striker cabinet well-stocked, it remains to be decided if the Welsh manager will decide to go with a two striker formation this year, move one or both of Hurtado and Mattocks out on loan or transfer them at some point in the season, or face 2016 with incredible depth. Expect Rivero to remain as the ‘Caps main striker with Perez playing a similar role to Earnshaw last year as a super-sub. Do not count out Kudo however, as he can challenge Rivero for first team minutes over the course of the season. Many questions remain with the Whitecaps attack, but it cannot be denied that it looks to be one of the strongest in the team’s MLS history.
Whitecaps FC 2
While Whitecaps FC 2 and the USL was not discussed much in this season preview, the Whitecaps’ reserve team is entering their second year of existence at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium. WFC2, affectionately known as the Thundercaps to some supporters, brought back a large part of their core from 2015 and added some key additions for the upcoming season.
With the future of Marco Carducci in question, former Whitecaps youth product Sean Melvin was brought in to support Spencer Richey in goal. Both European and domestic talents were also added to strengthen the team, with Dutch and English defenders, Sem de Wit and Elliot Green, respectively, being joined on the team by Canadians Giuliano Frano and international player Daniel Haber. Finally, two Residency products in 18-year-old Canadian defender Matthew Baldismo and 15-year-old Liberian-Canadian forward Alphonso Davies, the youngest player in the history of the USL, were added as part of the Whitecaps development system.
With head coach Alan Koch fielding a much stronger and more developed team this season, WFC2 will be aiming to improve upon their 30-point season in 2015 (8W-6D-14L), continue developing players of the senior team, and possibly look towards their first USL playoff game.
In 2015, the Whitecaps set two big goals: winning the Voyageur’s Cup and hosting a home playoff game. With their 4-2 aggregate win over the Montreal Impact and second place finish in the West securing a home game, the ‘Caps accomplished this goal in a big way. But this season, the future is much less clear. With the strengthening that took place in the Western Conference this year, such as the addition of players like Nigel de Jong, Jelle Van Damme, and Ashley Cole to an already strong LA Galaxy side, and many strong MLS veterans like Jack McInerney, who joined 2015 champions the Timbers, and Mike Magee, who moved to the aforementioned Galaxy, moving from the East to the West, 2016 will be far from a cake walk from the ‘Caps. Despite this, Vancouver’s season should be considered a disappointment if they do not qualify for the playoffs, at minimum. With only four of the 10 teams missing the playoffs and weak teams such as the Colorado Rapids in a state of stagnation, the Whitecaps need to make the playoffs to be considered a success. While they will most likely not finish as high as second, like they did last season, a top six finish should be considered likely. What will come in the playoffs is still unknown, with the ‘Caps still yet to win a playoff game, but you can confidently hedge your bets that the blue and white will be in the postseason.
After hoisting their first ever Voyageur’s Cup in 2015, the ‘Caps will be itching for a taste of success again. With their successful MLS season last year granting them the first seed in the tournament, Vancouver will start their campaign against one of the two NASL sides, FC Edmonton or Ottawa Fury FC. While the Fury had an incredibly successful 2015 NASL season winning the Fall season and finishing second to the powerful New York Cosmos in the final, many key players departed in the offseason, leaving the Fury a shell of what they were last year. Edmonton or Ottawa should not cause the ‘Caps problems, and Vancouver should be expected to have a spot in the finals again. However, key additions to Toronto FC have created an incredibly strong team. If the Whitecaps face TFC in the final, which should be expected, the ‘Caps will need to be at their best to win the Canadian Championship again this year. Vancouver has the quality to win, but it will come down to key performances from big players on each team. No matter what the final result is, the Canadian Championship will certainly be entertaining this year.
CONCACAF Champions League
The 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League was not the most successful of campaigns for the ‘Caps as they finished third in their group behind rivals Seattle Sounders FC and Olimpia of Honduras. A long season forced Vancouver to play depth players in these games, as they finished with a record of 1W-1D-2L. The Whitecaps’ results in continental play in 2016 will come down to how seriously Robinson takes the competition. If he is willing to rest key players in MLS games for a chance at continental success, the ‘Caps have a lot of potential to come out on top. But if MLS play is made a priority again this season, the Whitecaps’ quarterfinal hopes will most likely be very slim to none.
When it comes to reserve and developmental teams, the age old battle between development and results is always a main topic of conversation. From a purely results-based standpoint, 2015 cannot be considered a success by any means for WFC2. However, looking at it from a developmental point of view, outside of the success of draft pick Tim Parker with his jump from the USL to MLS, it is far too early to determine if WFC2 is fulfilling that role well. Head coach Alan Koch has stressed in the past that he aims for a mix of both results and development with his team. If this is the case, the Thundercaps should be expected to do far better than last season where they only finished one point above last place in the West. With key additions like Frano, Haber, de Wit, and Green, the baby ‘Caps will likely have a far more successful 2016 season. Whether or not they will make their first appearance in the USL playoffs or not is still unknown, but it would be a shock for WFC2 to finish as low as last season again.
What 2016 truly holds for the Whitecaps is still far from decided, but if nothing else, it should be another great season at BC Place.
The Whitecaps season starts on Sunday at 2:30 against the Montreal Impact at BC Place. A rematch of the 2015 Voyageur’s Cup final faces the ‘Caps, but with Impact star Drogba avoiding artificial turf, Vancouver should be expected to start their season on a successful note.