There was a ton of transition in the lower levels of North American soccer this off-season, and keeping up was just a bit more difficult for me. So today, as a preview of the match against our Northern Cascadia rivals I decided to ask one of the experts on said team. The following post is written by Andrew Bucholtz of Sporting Madness. If its happening in sports in Western Canada Andrew knows. Here are his thoughts on the team in transition, and who to watch for on the other side of the ball.
It's a season of transition for the Vancouver Whitecaps. For one thing, they're in a new league (the awkwardly-named USSF Division II, which is made even weirder by their team not technically falling under the jurisdiction of the USSF). The league isn't actually going to look that different in practice, though, as it still will contain most of the teams they competed against in the old USL Division I last season.
However, the organizational changes the Whitecaps have made are more likely to have a significant long-term impact. At the top, there's a new chief executive officer, former Tottenham Hotspur executive director Paul Barber. Barber (not the actorwho played Denzel in Only Fools and Horses) is a huge acquisition not just for the Whitecaps, but for the profile of North American soccer as a whole. He was Tottenham's executive director for four years and in charge of most of the key areas of the club; you don't see too many guys of that variety make the jump across the pond, particularly to a second-tier league.
Of course, the Whitecaps aren't going to be second-tier for long, as they're set to join MLS in 2011. Still, the organization isn't content to sit around until then. Last year saw a heavy focus on developing young talent, and coach Teitur Thordarsontold me early on that the team's goal was to try and prepare their young stars for MLS rather than focus on winning now. They were able to accomplish both goals, though, coming just short in CONCACAF Champions League qualification thanks to the Montreal Impact laying down in their final game against Toronto FC and then making it to the USL final against the Impact. They weren't able to come home with their second straight league championship, but they exceeded pretty much all expectations.
This year's Whitecaps will be very different, though.
There will still be the focus on youth and building for the future, and that's reflected in the new figures on board. In addition to Barber (who was recruited thanks to his friendship with Whitecaps co-owners Jeff Mallett (of Yahoo! fame) and Steve Nash (of NBA fame)), the Caps have brought former DC United head coach Tom Soehn on board as director of soccer operations. He'll work with president Bob Lenarduzzi and head coach Teitur Thordarson on putting the team's roster together and developing their young talent and other teams. The Whitecaps have also added former Canadian star Colin Milleras an assistant coach with the pro team and the interim head of the residency (elite youth training teams) programs. The Whitecaps have signed two guys who played in MLS last year, Greg Janicki (from DC United) and Blake Wagner(from FC Dallas), as well as several players from other USL teams, including defenders Nelson Akwari and Zourab Tsiskaridze and midfielders Jonny Steele, Chris Williams, and Ricardo Sanchez.
With the additions come departures. From an organizational standpoint, the biggest one is Thomas Niendorf, who headed up the residency programs. From an on-field perspective, the toughest losses are up front, with young star Marcus Haber leaving to join West Bromwich Albion and team-leading goal scorer Charles Gbekeheading to China to play with Guangzhou FC. Marlon James is back, and he was very effective in spurts last year, but beyond him, it will largely be up to young talent to fill the net. Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Dever Orgill were both effective in limited duty last year; we'll see how they do over a full season.
The Whitecaps have plenty of talent still on board, though, and they'll likely demonstrate that in today's match against the Sounders. In goal, they have Jay Nolly, who has consistently been one of the USL's top keepers; I've made the argument many times that he could compete for an MLS spot. On defence, they have two excellent wingbacks in the veteran Takashi Hirano and the brilliantly talented but still developing Wes Knight. Luca Bellisomo will likely take one of the inside spots, but the other one is largely up for grabs. The midfield has plenty of talent with Martin Nash, Ansu Toure, Justin Moose and Ethan Gage among others, and the forwards have tons of potential, if not the most consistent record.
Of course, Seattle still has the superior roster on paper. They're a strong MLS side, whereas the Whitecaps are a Division II side building towards MLS. However, I wouldn't be surprised if this one winds up reasonably close or in favour of the Whitecaps. Seattle beat Vancouver 3-2 on Feb. 11 in Arizona, and the Whitecaps lost 4-1 to Chicago during the same training swing, but they also topped Real Salt Lake 2-1. There's also a long history between these sides at both the NASL and USL-1 levels; they've played 111 competitive matches, with Seattle leading the series with 54 wins, 42 losses and 15 draws. The Whitecaps fans will be fired up for this one, and that might translate to the players as well. Beyond that, though, as Sigi Schmidt said, differences in talent are minimized in these one-off games. "Over a whole season, you would see a difference but on a given day, they will be competitive and give us a very good match."
For a different look at the match results check Sporting Madness after the match.