The Vancouver Whitecaps kick off their initial season in less than three days against Canadian rival Toronto FC at Empire Field. The buildup in the city for the opening match has been incredible especially the 30 Day Countdown campaign by the Whitecaps marketing department. Of course what matters is what is on the pitch and the following is a final breakdown of the roster the Whitecaps will start with and where they may finish by the end of the season.
Coming into the preseason this was the weakest position on the Whitecaps as many were questioning who was going to score for the team. It’s too early to say on the field after just one friendly but on paper the signing of French striker Eric Hassli has definitely improved the forward ranks. A very technically gifted player, Hassli will now have to get acclimated to a new league, city and teammates as soon as possible to justify the DP salary. The hopes for him is to contribute around 10 goals in his first season with anything over ten being a bonus but his size will allow others the space to contribute more. Davide Chiumiento will most likely be the other starting forward and play as a withdrawn striker behind Hassli. He needs to control the attack and be able to service the ball into the box for Hassli and other attacking players.
Atiba Harris will be a good safety blanket for the Whitecaps in case of injury or if Hassli struggles in the beginning. While he doesn’t fit in Teitur’s system, he may be able to contribute in the midfield as the majority of his career has been spent as a right sided midfielder. The future of the striker position lies with first overall pick Omar Salgado, whose first year may be delayed due to FIFA rules. In the preseason Salgado has been getting better, showing flashes of brilliance scoring goals in addition to also being frustrated with his own play. Recently signed Chinese striker Long Tan will provide cover as he is another skilled striker who has a tenacious side when attacking with or without the ball. The lone unsigned forward in camp is Camillo da Silva and his signing will depend on if the scouting staff discover a better international option.
The central midfield is led by two players that have led similar career paths, both having started with English academies, then toiling in lower leagues before moving returning to the North America. Canadian Terry Dunfield brings great poise offensively and ferocious tackling to the pitch while American John Thorrington brings MLS experience and speed in the centre. The first reserve player off the bench behind the two vets will be teenage Ghanaian Gershon Koffie who plays a similar style to Dunfield. While he can play multiple positions, 2nd round pick Jeb Brovsky will start his career as a physical holding midfielder. Homegrown signing Philippe Davieshas been switched, due to foot speed, from a wide position to a central role where he can take advantage of his crisp passing. The only trialist left in camp at CM is Alex Morfaw, from Cameroon, who had late start to camp and may be given time to get match fit.
The wide midfield positions have been hit by injuries in preseason with expansion draft pick up Shea Salinas out 2-3 weeks with a knee injury. He was to start on the right side where he makes good use his speed and technical skill to create chances. First round pick and left midfielder Michael Nanchoff has been injured all preseason and has yet to see any action. The two signed healthy players are Nizar Khalfan on the right side and Blake Wagner on the left side who both possess good crossing, speed and the ability to attack on the fly. The Whitecaps might be pressed to push academy product and unsigned product Russell Teibert who is a no brainer to sign as homegrown. He has been the most impressive youngster in camp and most feel he is very close to contributing on a bigger scale at such a young age. Another returnee from last year is Cornelius Stewart and Ridge Mobulu who at this point are long shots and may start the season in the PDL.
Led by Jay DeMerit the backline should be the strength of the Whitecaps in their inaugural season. The Whitecaps made DeMerit their main priority when the MLS offseason began and put on a full pitch press with a presentation that impressed the World Cup vet. He provides leadership and poise not only to the backline but to the entire team and there was very little doubt he was named the first captain. Starting alongside DeMerit initially will be former DC United and last year’s Division 2 defender of the year Greg Janicki. Expect to see Janicki in head bandages regularly as he often sacrifices to win balls in the air and while not fast, he is adept enough to defend in the MLS. The wildcard, centrally in the backline, is international player Mouloud Akloul who is recovering from a severe ankle injury. Once he is to full health, including match fitness, expect Akloul to see more and more starts at centre half. A pleasant surprise has been the play of Kiwi Michael Boxall who was the first the pick of the supplemental draft. The physical Boxall was rated by some to go in the first round of the Super Draft and is carrying a chip on his shoulder for all the teams that passed on him.
The Whitecaps will have no issues at left back as Canadian born Alain Rochat comes with a good set of skills and experience from Champions League in Europe. Rochat will be heavily relied on when the Caps are on the attack, in addition to the excellent defensive skills. Some in the media claim that the Swiss international will be the best left back in MLS by season’s end, if he isn’t already. The right side has been contested by expansion pickup Jonathon Leathers and Division 2 holdover Wesley Knight. Leathers has the MLS experience as well as being thought of as better defensive player and most believe he has the inside track to start in the opening. Knight has been with the team for a couple of years and is capable of playing at the right midfield position. He is a great crosser and possesses elite speed and has a higher ceiling in the long term for the organization. Teitur has experimented with third round pick, Bilal Duckett in the preseason as the more natural right back has been playing on the left side and centrally. In addition to Duckett, midfielder Blake Wagner can also provide cover for the left back position but would not be as strong defensively.
The Whitecaps selected two time MLS goalkeeper of the year Joe Cannon for his MLS experience, in addition to his ability to play goal. Cannon is recovering from an ankle injury which delayed his debut in the preseason until the Cascadia Summit where he made several spectacular saves. Once healthy Cannon should see the majority of starts for the Whitecaps in 2011 as they hope the veteran can regain his form quickly. The team have a solid backup in Division 2 goalkeeper of the year Jay Nolly who in three years with the Caps has been named MVP twice. After being drafted in the second round in 2005, Nolly spent three years in MLS seeing only 8 starts before joining the Caps in 2008. The Whitecaps recently signed academy product Brian Sylvestre to a homegrown contract to become their third goalkeeper. The Florida native should see the majority of his time starting games in the MLS reserve league for the 2011 season.
Many have the Whitecaps rated in the bottom two of the league and while they may struggle early, the Caps have built to become better as the season progresses. The starting eleven is a solid group when healthy, as they are stronger from the back to the front. The organization is hoping that the young players on the bench can develop quickly in order to give Teitur added depth to work with. The MLS transfer window is open until April 15th and the Whitecaps at this time have room to bring in an additional five international players. Based on a crude estimation of the salaries it also seems like the Caps would have space to a DP in the summer and may have enough room to purchase a third slot.
The Whitecaps could make the playoffs in the perfect situation where they stay injury free and the young players develop into solid MLS players. If they run into injuries, especially early, they will struggle to get results against MLS competition. They will need to survive a difficult stretch between April 23rd and May 14 which will see them criss cross North America and play 7 matches in 22 days. If they advance to the Nutrilite Finals it could be expanded to a stretch of 12 matches in 43 days before they get a full week off. I see the Caps starting slow and then start getting more results as summer passes by into the fall and the younger players get more experience. They should be in the thick of the playoff hunt, however I do see them finishing in 11th or 12th position overall. It will be a good start for the franchise and something that the team can build upon for the second year.