Friday, March 18, 2011

Vancouver Whitecaps 2011 MLS Season Preview

AP Photo/Elise Amdendola

One of two expansion teams in 2011—and the second team in Canada—the Vancouver Whitecaps seem to have a squad set-up for more success in the future than right now.
Only three players are in their thirties, and only five more are over the age of 26. The Whitecaps held the first overall selection in the MLS Super Draft and chose a player they were familiar with, but cannot play with them until he turns 18-years-old in September. Also, only five players played in MLS last season.

If Vancouver is going to be competitive, let alone surprise the league and sneak into the playoffs, they will rely heavily on veterans on defense: goalie Joe Cannon and defender and captain Jay DeMerit.

DeMerit has enjoyed a Cinderella-like soccer career. After being turned down by MLS he moved to England and briefly joined teams in the ninth and seventh-tiers of English soccer, until in 2004 he impressed Watford coaches in a scrimmage and was invited to a trial with the team. He signed with the club and was a regular in the lineup until this past summer. He also was a starter for the USMNT during the previous World Cup.

Named team captain, DeMerit brings valuable soccer experience, toughness, determination and will anchor the backline.

Cannon is a 12-year MLS veteran. He became the face of the San Jose Earthquakes the past few years and got them off to a hot start last season, but an ankle injury ended not only his season, but his tenure with the club. He will be a stabilizing force when he is fit to play, but currently he is still recovering from that ankle injury. Jay Nolly will hold down the fort for him.

A lot of players will really need to step up for Vancouver to win games. The corps of forwards is extremely thin. No. 1 draft pick Omar Salgado—who trained with Vancouver last year—has played well in the preseason and is an exciting prospect, but due to FIFA age restrictions will not be able to suit up for the team until September.

The Whitecaps management made Frenchman Eric Hassli its first-ever Designated Player. The forward came from FC Zurich in Switzerland and has a strong build (6’4”, 200 pounds) and seems to be a physical force to be reckoned with, but his ability to score goals is suspect. In the past two seasons he only scored seven goals, which is pretty poor for a forward, let alone one signed as a DP.

John Thorrington and Shea Salinas are midfielders that bring a lot of MLS experience and are solid players, however, like Cannon, have long injury histories that make what kind of impact they have on the field questionable.

The team has retained 11 players from its USSF Division-2 side—including defender Wes Knight, midfielder and former Juventus product Davide Chiumiento and 18-year-old midfielder Russell Teibert—and it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the new league.

With a tremendous lack of experience and the large potential for injuries, opportunities for playing time will be wide open. Will the young guys step up and compete hard for the chance to get on the pitch, or will it be a situation where someone is playing by default because there is no one else?

The learning curve must be quick, or the Whitecaps first season—despite the great support from its fans—could be a rocky road.

Omar Salgado talks after being selected No.1 overall to the Whitecaps. Video from YouTube.

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