In his time as a Whitecap, Zurab Tsiskaridze certainly looked like a professional footballer. In every sense of the word. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
From now until the first kick of the MLS season, when the Whitecaps make a roster move, it's going under the microscope. Tuesday afternoon, Vancouver announced they would not renew the contracts of six pretty minor players. But pundits from the professional media down to the humble bloggers. As somebody who has never met a story idea he didn't like, I'm only too happy to leap on this latest reporting bandwagon.
So, farewell then Nelson Akwari, Zurab Tsiskaridze, Chris Williams, and Alex "How the Hell Many 'T's are In Your Last Name Anyway?" Elliott. And good riddance to Jonathan McDonald and Dan Pelc. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, these amazing young men have officially been told that their contracts will not be re-signed and that therefore they will not be coming into Major League Soccer with the Vancouver Whitecaps. They are merely the first of what will be a long list of Whitecaps becoming ex-Whitecaps as Teitur Thordarson and Tom Soehn pare the roster down.
There are no surprises here. Dan Pelc came over from the Canadian Soccer League's Serbian White Eagles, the CSL's reigning Goalkeeper of the Year. At 24 years old he seemed ripe to enter his prime, and at 6'5" he certainly was a tall, cool drink of water. Oh, how the CSL fans smiled when Pelc got a professional contract. "See? Our little third division is pretty serious after all." Instead, he lost the backup role to 20-year-old Simon Thomas, who is not so tall but is much cooler and only twenty years old as well, not to mention a veteran of the Pacific Coast Soccer League's Victoria United youth system. If you thought Pelc had a chance of coming into Major League Soccer as a third goalkeeper, you are probably related to him.
I have no ill will towards Pelc, even if he came up short. It happens and I wish him the best of luck whereever he lands next. Jonathan McDonald, on the other hand, I am actively delighted to see go. If I had a car I might give him a ride to the airport. Wow, what a bundle of uselessness that so-called striker turned out to be. At twenty-two years old, he was old enough to not be a kid. In five years, he scored seventeen goals for Costa Rica's Club Sport Herediano, which isn't a strike rate that makes me say "this man is the next Goran Pandev". At 5'8", he was in Jeff Cunningham territory, only without anything that made Jeff Cunningham decent. He seemed to be signed entirely on the basis of a YouTube highlight reel that shows him posting up more-or-less inert Caribbean defenders. It all looks very impressive until you actually watch the calibre of opposition and think to yourself "come to think of it, when was the last time Costa Rica got a half-way decent defender out of their domestic league?" His play pretty much matched this paragraph: it was miserable and unpleasant, and you couldn't help but wonder if it was a deliberate joke.
Williams was never going to be MLS material either, and everybody knew it. A perfectly capable second-division journeyman, a no-frills player who's done a tour of duty seemingly everywhere, and a fine, no-frills bench player who can do a perfectly respectable job at a million positions. He's got a veteran head on his shoulders, he plays tough, no-nonsense defense, he won't cost you a tonne of money and he won't kill you no matter what position you put him in. A useful player to have around, but clearly not Major League Soccer quality. This isn't the first time Williams has been found surplus to requirements, and no doubt he'll once again land somewhere in the second division, plug whatever gaps they have, win absolutely no fans but earn not a single enemy, and move on to some other port of all. That's what the Chris Williamses of the soccer world do.
I feel at least a little bad for the last three, though. The release of Elliott is the most understandable. Elliott was once a standout with the Canadian U-20 team, he can play both sides of the midfield and some striker, he's certainly a strong athlete and by all accounts a nice guy. But he never settled in with the Whitecaps system. Though he was always active and seemed to have a good head on his shoulders, both his striking and his passing were horrendously wasteful and his ability to slam the simplest cross or shot ninety feet past its target became a running joke. At twenty-three years old he was by no means still a pure prospect. His work rate was always extremely high but he never gave the impression he was doing all he could with the tools he had. Elliott certainly showed flashes of potential brilliance, and he also demonstrated a quality of play that should get him more professional playing time somewhere in North America. But he was never good enough for Vancouver's second-division team, to say nothing of MLS.
Nelson Akwari's release is almost spectacularly unfortunate for him. He was named the Whitecaps' defender of the year at the end of the regular season and played very well indeed. For most of the year he was literally omnipresent in Vancouver's lineup: he played every minute of every game until August 19 against Tampa Bay. But he suffered a few ill-timed injuries while the rest of the team started to get healthy. Greg Janicki played marvelously, particularly in the playoffs where the team needed most, and Luca Bellisomo came back from midfield to hold down the fort superbly in central defense. When Mouloud Akloul came back as well there was just nowhere for Akwari to go.
Having played 71 MLS games and still being only twenty-eight, Akwari certainly had the professional pedigree to compete for an MLS spot. In his time with the Whitecaps he also demonstrated the quality, and was a major reason our defense was the league's best. But the Whitecaps were never going to bring up
Zurab Tsiskaridze also lost his starting job, but you'd have a hard time finding anyone who'll say he was outplayed. The arrival of former Real Salt Lake left back and Norwegian league veteran Willis Forko soon condemned Tsiskaridze to the bench, and a foot injury suffered in training ended his Whitecaps career for good. But what did Forko show to take Tsiskaridze's job away so forcefully? He was constantly flat-footed and his defense was tenuous and uninspiring. Offensively, he provided almost nothing whereas Tsiskaridze was a solid linking force down the left-hand side. For too many of the games in which he appeared Forko was Vancouver's weak link on defense. Even after Wes Knight went down and Ethan Gage was forced to pick up the slack at right back, the right side was far stronger than the left in no small part thanks to Forko. It's true that, as an international player, the odds were stacked against Tsiskaridze from the start, but of Vancouver's other internationals only Gershon Koffie, Ridge Mobulu, and Davide Chiumiento even hint at MLS potential.
This isn't to say Forko is a useless player. The Whitecaps signed him, briefly, in 2008 and he's been a long-time favourite of Teitur Thordarson's. Athletically he's fine, and he's gotten results at levels a lot higher than the USSF Division Two. But the drop-off from when Tsiskaridze was manning left back to when Forko was doing it was absolutely stunning, both offensively and defensively, and to let Tsiskaridze go outright seems like an error. It may be that Forko was promised an MLS spot when he signed mid-season and there was no room for Tsiskaridze. But at only twenty-three years old and with a tremendous season under his belt, surely there'd be a place for Tsiskaridze at least as a reserve. He already spent time in the Kansas City Wizards reserve system in 2007. Frankly, of all those cut loose by the Whitecaps so far, Tsiskaridze is the one I'd pick to have a nice, long professional career. There's always room in this sport for fullbacks who can run, pass, and play intelligent defense and Tsiskaridze is young enough that he'll only improve. This might be a man who the Whitecaps will later regret allowing to get away.