Much has changed for Carl Robinson’s Vancouver Whitecaps FC this offseason. In terms of the roster, the gaping hole in the shape of a goal-scoring striker was finally filled, but a fan favourite centreback did not have his contract renewed. The ‘Caps were also able to field a USL team for the upcoming season playing at UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium, after a dramatic stadium application process with the New Westminster council was rejected.
The Whitecaps started out 2015 strong, winning their annual friendly against the UVic Vikes 6-0, defending their title in Portland by winning the Simple Invitational, and finishing the Desert Friendlies with a 1-1-1 record against MLS competition. If the preseason has been any indication, 2015 may just be the year that BC Place gets to host its first playoff game.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
Whitecaps supporters had moments of celebration and shock this offseason, as the recently re-signed Robinson and his staff wheeled-and-dealed to improve the team. One of the moments of celebration was when the supporters received their Christmas present: Uruguayan goal-scoring striker, Octavio Rivero. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all joy this winter, as shock swept across Whitecaps nation when fan-favourite Andy O’Brien wasn’t re-signed. Below are all the players that came in or went out of the team this winter.
|Marco Bustos (Homegrown Player)||Carlyle Mitchell|
|Octavio Rivero||Bryce Anderson|
|Diego Rodriquez (On Loan)||Omar Salgado|
|Pa Modou Kah||Mamadou Diouf|
|Ben McKendry (Homegrown Player)||Sebastian Fernandez|
|Deybi Flores (On Loan)||Johnny Leveron|
Goalkeepers: For the second year, the Whitecaps are spoiled for choice in goal. They enter the season with the same trio they fielded last year containing number one choice, David Ousted, the Italian backup Paolo Tornaghi, and young Canadian Marco Carducci. However, it is obvious that barring injury, Ousted will be the keeper who gets the bulk of the MLS minutes. Ousted managed to not only lead the league in clean sheets last season, but played every minute of every MLS game. Ousted has proven he has the stamina to go the entire season, but Tornaghi will look to take some minutes this year. Despite falling 2-1 against the Timbers reserve team, Tornaghi showed talent in his two wins this preseason against the University of Victoria and Stabæk. He earned a clean sheet in Victoria in a 6-0 victory against the Vikes, while only allow two goals against Stabæk, one a penalty and the other an own goal. Expect Paolo to challenge Ousted for minutes this season, and possibly get some Champions League games too. Finally, Marco Carducci should not be forgotten going into this season. Expect to see him play the bulk of the USL games, and make appearances in the Voyageurs Cup again this season.
Centrebacks: Despite the offseason departures of Johnny Leveron, Carlyle Mitchell, and Andy O’Brien, the ‘Caps still maintain depth in the centreback position. To replace the departing defenders Robinson pulled three new players from various sources. Pa-Modou Kah joined after finishing his contract with the Timbers (see ‘Players to Watch’ for more information on Kah), Tim Parker from the SuperDraft, and Diego Rodriguez on loan from Uruguayan side Juventud. The three new players will be joining the incumbent ‘big men’ Kendall Waston and Christian Dean. Expect to see the majority of the MLS minutes coming from Waston, Kah, and Rodriguez, while Dean and Parker hone their craft in the USL.
Left Fullbacks: Robinson will most likely look to the experienced Jordan Harvey to take up the left side of his backline this season. Young Canadian Sam Adekugbe should be expected to come on as a substitute often during the MLS season, while also picking up USL minutes to gain more experience and help fill the mandatory Canadian quota. However, if Harvey does not play up to his regular standards or if Adekugbe gets hot, don’t be surprised to see the Canadian starting MLS games.
Right Fullbacks: Iranian international Steven Beitashour will enter the season as the starting right-back for the Whitecaps, but young South African Ethen Sampson will want to have something to say about it. Despite that, the situation with the fullbacks will likely mirror each other this year. With the experienced Iranian unlikely to give up his position and no World Cup duty this year, look for Beitashour to get the majority of the minutes this season. Sampson will earn similar substitute minutes as Adekugbe, with the majority of his minutes coming in the USL.
Defensive Midfielders: If Carl Robinson decides to go with the familiar 4-3-2-1 formation, there should be no surprises in the back half of the ‘Caps midfield. Canadian international Russell Teibert and Argentinean Young Designated Player Matias Laba are obvious favourites to quarterback the midfield. While the two starters from 2014 should be expected to play most of the MLS games this season, homegrown Canadian Ben McKendry and young Honduran Deybi Flores will most likely make cameo appearances in some games. Last but certainly not least, Gershon Koffie should not be forgotten about. He will most likely play as the third defensive mid in the depth chart behind Laba and Teibert, and will pick up many minutes not only as a substitute, but also a starter.
Attacking Midfielders: The ‘Caps enter this season with amazing depth in the attacking portion of their midfield. It is no surprise that captain and 2014 leading goal-scorer Pedro Morales will again be one of the main features of the attack. He topped the ‘Caps scoring charts with ten goals and twelve assists last season, in route to being named the MLS Newcomer of the Year. But beyond the Whitecaps’ skipper, there are many options to choose from for the three attacking midfielders in Robinson’s favourite 4-3-2-1 formation. Former Designated Player Mauro Rosales should be expected to gain significant minutes again this season. The former Chivas USA player is Robinson’s best choice to flank the right wing for the majority of this season. However, one of the biggest questions is who will flank Morales on his left wing this season. While his best position is as a striker, speedy Kekuta Manneh will most likely play many minutes on the left. Nevertheless, outside of the top three choices, the Whitecaps still have plenty of options left. Uruguayan Nicolas Mezquida will want to challenge for minutes in the midfield for the ‘Caps after a successful 2014 and preseason. Finally, homegrown players Kianz Froese and Marcos Bustos will provide depth for the club while playing in the USL this season. Expect to see the two talented Canadians to feature in the Voyageurs Cup.
Strikers: If the Welsh manager decides to start the season with another 4-2-3-1 lineup, he will have many choices to make for his striker. Obviously, new Designated Player Octavio Rivero will be the main threat on the front line for the Whitecaps, but there are many players looking to upstage him. This preseason Rivero has enjoyed filling opposition goals and shown he is the goal-scoring striker the ‘Caps have been looking for. But veteran Jamaican Darren Mattocks is looking to earn himself some minutes this year, off of a dominating preseason. Despite struggling in front of goal in 2014, Mattocks looks to have found his form again this preseason. Meanwhile, while Manneh will be expected to earn minutes in the midfielder he is another strong choice for Robinson, while American Erik Hurtado provides further depth in an already deep position. Finally, off his loan with FC Augsburg II in Germany, the Canadian Caleb Clarke will look to become a strong striker for WFC2 this year.
Three Players to Watch:
While players like Ousted, Waston, and Morales will be obvious stars over the course of the season, the real players to watch are the wildcards whose individual performances in games will decide whether or not the ‘Caps make the playoffs this season. Below are the top three players to watch when the season kicks off tomorrow.
Octavio Rivero: Rivero is one of the highest-risk, yet highest-reward players on the Whitecaps this season. The team is in desperate need of a goal-scoring striker since the departure of Camilo Sanvezzo, and Robinson hopes Rivero is the player to fill that hole. However, the biggest question regarding Rivero is if he’ll turn out to be another Golden Boot winning player like Camilo, or if he will fizzle out like Jermain Defoe with TFC last season. Rivero will be the player who makes or breaks the ‘Caps this year. If last season is any indication, Darren Mattocks is not a goal-scorer the team needs, and Sebastian Fernandez left at the end of his loan. Will Rivero be the player that puts the Whitecaps over the top and fills the net? I believe he will, but the answer will be clear by mid-season.
Russell Teibert: Teibert is a definitely a wildcard for the team this year, with supporters not sure if he’ll be a starter in the MLS, a super-sub, or a starter in the USL. There is a large gulf between MLS starter and USL starter, and his start to this season will be what decides which league he will be playing in this year. With Gershon Koffie pushing hard to steal Teibert’s spot in the Starting XI, the Canadian will need to have a top-quality season to earn his spot. Expect either a breakout or unremarkable season from Russell.
Pa-Modou Kah: The former Timbers FC centreback will be interesting to watch this season. Kah is a very physical player and will match Waston for yellow and red cards over the course of the season. He has had a strong performance in the off-season, but will most likely start the season on the bench. Provided any breaks in form from Rodriguez or inevitable suspensions for Waston, he will look to earn that spot and not give it back. He is nowhere near a super-star player for the ‘Caps, but his performances will be important in the final result at the end of the season.
End of Season Predictions:
Despite the extra playoff spot in both conferences this year, the Whitecaps will need to contend with two strong newcomers to the West this year, the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City. The newly moved summer Voyageurs Cup as well as the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League add further challenges to an already difficult season.
Regarding the MLS season, I expect the Whitecaps to squeak into the playoffs with a fifth or sixth place finish in the West. The West is far more challenging than the East, and the addition of Sporting KC and the Dynamo, alongside the dissolution of Chivas USA further strengthen the conference. While Robinson improved the team this offseason, the other team in the West did the same. Nevertheless, after just making the playoffs, I believe the boys in blue and white will make it past the knockout round of the playoffs on the road, to earn their first playoff home game. However, the long season will catch up with the team at that point, and they’ll be knocked out in the first double-legged series of the playoffs. Despite the loss, it will still be the best MLS finish in club history.
In the Voyageurs Cup, the ‘Caps will easily reach the final. The gulf in quality between their roster and the rosters of the NASL clubs, the Ottawa Fury and FC Edmonton, will allow the club to regain their spot in the final that they lost last year in penalties to TFC. In the final, where the Whitecaps will be the top seed, expect another matchup against Toronto. Carl Robinson is not afraid to start younger Canadian players, and unfortunately that can lead to the Whitecaps’ downfall again. While experience for Carducci is important, giving Tornaghi the two games in the final will give the team the best chance of winning the Cup for the first time in club history. The final results of the Amway Canadian Championship will come down to who Robinson puts out on the field; if he relies too heavily on young Canadians the team will come short yet again, but if he adds more foreign veterans to the mix the Cup will be coming home to Vancouver.
Finally, the CONCACAF Champions League is a new venture for the team, after finishing as the top Canadian team in the MLS last year. How the boys do however, comes down completely to how kind the draw is to the ‘Caps. Preferably, the team would meet Real Salt Lake or DC United in their group for the best chance of making it through to the quarterfinals, but the statistical chances of meeting either of those two teams is only twenty-five percent. The Whitecaps can also come up against the Sounders or Galaxy, alongside Club America, UANL, and the two top finishers in the Mexican Clausura. I do not believe the Whitecaps have the quality to take down top Mexican opposition yet, but I hope they can prove me wrong if they are handed a difficult draw.
The first match of the Whitecaps’ MLS season is tomorrow, Saturday, March 7th at 3:00 PM in BC Place against Toronto FC. It will be a good test for the ‘Caps to start their season off with, as it previews a potential Voyageurs Cup final, and gives the team their first game against stars like Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.