In my statistical preview at the beginning of the week I questioned issues around trying to produce a proper preview for MLS. While traditional sports leagues have most of their roster set at the beginning of preseason, in MLS the Vancouver Whitecaps might have added their most influential player a couple of days before the new season is about to begin.
The Whitecaps signed Chilean playmaker, and new DP, Pedro Morales to replace at least one skill set lost during the off season with Camillo leaving, and that is a proven free kick taker. This also means since the loss of Camillo the Whitecaps brought in four new players: Morales, Nicolas Mezquida, Sebastian Fernandez and most recently former Toronto FC midfielder Matias Laba. This will give Vancouver options and arguably depth, but it doesn't necessarily answer the question if the team is better, especially for a club who missed the playoffs and fired their coach after last seasonon.
David Ousted was a steady keeper while playing in his home country of Denmark and played comparably well to the other Whitecaps goalkeeping options last season. Although with the trade of Brad Knighton in the off season to New England, Ousted is expected to be a guaranteed selection for new manager Carl Robinson’s starting eleven.
To backup Ousted, the Whitecaps have brought in the former Chicago Fire backup keeper Paolo Tornaghi. However, you would think a smarter option instead of using international roster spots on two keepers, Vancouver could have tried to acquire a Canadian keeper with experience such as a Milan Borjan, Lars Hirschfeld or Kenny Stamatopolous, especially after not renewing Simon Thomas’ contract.
After two successful seasons in MLS, YP Lee has retired and to replace him Vancouver brought in Steven Beitashour from San Jose. Beitashour has been a good player, especially since the Earthquakes were paying him at the minimum salary. He is a willing tackler, while with the ball he adapted to San Jose’s style of play with a large number of long ball passes. I expect him to fit in with the Whitecaps, although in terms of long term future he will be expecting a significant pay increase.
Jordan Harvey is penciled in as the starting left back with new GA and highly regarded draft pick Christian Dean competing for the position, although both can also play Centre Back. Harvey played well last year and added an additional bonus of four goals, however the concern as a full-back might be how many times opposing wingers succeeded dribbling against him. With Dean’s size of 6’3/198, he might fit better as a centre back and due to depth he could get as many minutes on the left. His athleticism should make him effective in either position, although being only 20 may make him accessible to experienced forwards taking advantage of him.
Jay DeMerit returns after being injured most of last season. When healthy, DeMerit has shown to be a team leader and a good defender, but his age leaves questions regarding fitness as well as his influence on the game, especially when the Whitecaps have possession.
With DeMerit’s injury last year it gave an opportunity for both Johnny Leveron and Carlyle Mitchell to play last season. Leveron might have been the club's MVP and was a league leader in terms of clearances and interceptions per 90 minutes last season. While Mitchell was also very active and both could be playing for the role of partnering Dean and being the long term options at Centre Back.
Meanwhile, experienced European defender Andy O’Brien provides an option this season. He is another no nonsense defender who is willing to do whatever it takes to clear the ball from trouble, so the question becomes do you give the younger players opportunities in preparation for the future or do you start DeMerit and O’Brien in hopes for certainty in the back.
Like the defense, the midfield is also very deep including the defensive midfield position. With the addition of Matias Laba, Vancouver has what would be regarded as three starting defensive midfielders, although realistically will only play two.
Laba played well with his time in Toronto before getting hurt, passing the ball above 80% and averaging over five tackles and three interceptions per 90 minutes. Statistically he was better in all three categories than the current players in this position of Nigel Reo-Coker and Gershon Koffie.
So the question is can you start Laba over a player with English Premiership experience or a player who has been regarded as one the top prospect on the team? I do have slight concerns of a drop off from Reo-Coker, which traditionally has happened in the MLS regarding high profile players on lower salaries. So if Laba and Koffie can work well together you have the making of a very strong paring in the future.
Looking at new signing Pedro Morales’ past statistics, he certainly fits the role of an attacking midfielder with a large percentage of his offense historically coming from set plays. Through his career in Chile, Croatia and Spain, he has five direct free kick goals and 13 direct assists from free kicks and corners. He is also known for being a good passer and an ability to score from long range. The other stat I found interesting is he has never been a full-time starter, even when he was regarded as a key player for his side.
Not being able to secure a starting role has also been the issue of Vancouver’s other two South American signings in Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez, and when you add Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, and now Mehdi Ballouchy and Andre Lewis to the mix, the question remains how is Robinson going to utilize these options in developing a consistent team?
Let’s hope for the Canadian National team’s sake that Russell Teibert will not lose any momentum he gained last season and will be an automatic starter in 2013. Teibert had one of the highest direct assists and key passes per 90 minutes in the league last season. However, he can still improve in terms of defensive awareness and trying to be more involved in the offense, which should improve with Camillo no longer on the team.
Based on the midfield options I expect Vancouver to play a 4-2-3-1, opposed to two up top, and although it will be very difficult to replace Camillo’s 22 goals from last season, I didn’t expect him to duplicate that this season. In many ways, with him no longer in the team it can provide more opportunities for others both in playing minutes and more key touches on the pitch, which could make the club more enjoyable to watch.
Like the DeMerit-O’Brien debate in defense, up front one would assume the best option is a healthy Kenny Miller. In terms of salary Miller has been a disappointment, as he is being paid the equivalent of Marco Di Vaio. However, the truth is Miller was never a consistent goal scorer and is known as a better passer than most forwards and tries to involve others in the play, which gives you the impression he plays better in a 4-3-3 than as the lone striker up front.
The other pure striker options do provide a target man in Darren Mattocks, Omar Selgado and 2014 draft pick Mamadou Diouf. All three, when healthy, have great potential, although at this point of their careers you wouldn’t expect them to convert all of their chances.
In my statistical preview of the league I didn’t have the time to evaluate Matias Laba’s inclusion in the team, or the addition of Morales, so I had them scoring 39 goals allowing 48 goals for a goal difference of -9 and 7th in the West and out of the playoffs.
With these addition I now think they will improve from this earlier assessment. However, it’s difficult for me to call them a playoff team with LA, Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake, and even Dallas who also made a number of addition this off-season, in the same conference of the Whitecaps.
Much of this type of analysis is comparing teams player by player and evaluating each player’s personal history. Arguably one thing this system ignores is the importance of coaching and if you are a believer in Moneyball and other forms of analytics, the general view is coaching is way overrated and it’s the talent on the field that equals team success.
However, when I look at the Whitecaps I see a lot of talent but at the same time I see a new coach in Carl Robinson who had a hard man career throughout the lower leagues in England. His main attribute was grittiness and the question is trying to decide how will he utilize a number of unproven, but skillful players, and in what formation?
I wrote after the 2013 MLS season how Martin Rennie, based on expectation, was unfairly fired and I almost think now that Robinson was unfairly hired. The coach of this team should be Bobby Lenarduzzi and I don’t say this as a criticism to either man, I just feel the team better represents Lenarduzzi's vision.