No need to look back, Philippe Davies. You're in Major League Soccer now. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
The Vancouver Whitecaps love nothing more than a little publicity. They announced a press conference at their new store in the Metrotown shopping centre in what passes for downtown Burnaby to announce three new player acquisitions. Three new players? Wow! Sounds like the must-see event of the season! Then it got out that they were just adding three players from the USSF Division Two roster. So it's three old player acquisitions. Not quite as exciting. I, for one, stayed in bed (although I was also on the verge of throwing up most of the morning; that helped).
The signings of midfielder Philippe Davies, defender Wes Knight, and goalkeeper Jay Nolly are, as such, not terribly significant. In the 2010 season, Nolly played every minute but eight for Vancouver: regular season, playoffs, and Voyageurs Cup. In the regular season, Knight played 2,276 minutes, first among full-time defenders on the team. And Davies, who at nineteen years old is as good a young player as there is in Canada right now, played a pretty considerable 1,622 minutes himself. None of these players were surprises. It would, frankly, have been both shocking and disappointing if they hadn't been signed.
Davies, as the only one to go through the Whitecaps Residency program, joins the MLS team as a home-grown player. Knight signed with the Whitecaps out of college and has only ever played in Vancouver professionally but does not count as home-grown, whereas Nolly has of course journeyed to the ends of North America in his professional career. They are three very different players, playing different positions, at very different points in their career. The 19-year-old Davies is still a prospect, regardless of his professional experience. Knight is 24, entering his third professional season, and fast approaching his prime as an athlete. And Nolly, who will be 29 by the start of next season, is the elder statesman of the crew, even if he looks like a spring chicken compared to Joe Cannon. You can tell Nolly is the veteran because he's the only one of the three who doesn't have Twitter.
But they were all key to the Vancouver Whitecaps last year, and they could all play a big role with the team in 2011. I am unquestionably pleased these three have signed, even if I'm a little concerned by the players who haven't.
Of these three players, Wes Knight is going to have the easiest time breaking into the starting lineup. Indeed, he's being penciled into it by some of us already. A quick right back with good defensive awareness and decent aerial ability for his size, Knight can also move the play up the pitch fairly well considering that he still hasn't scored a goal in two professional seasons. He was one of the more reliable Whitecaps on a very, very good defensive line last season, and when injury forced Ethan Gage to take his place you could see why Knight was so highly thought of. He can also play some midfield and happens to be one of the unquestioned fan favourites on the roster. Moreover, the current Whitecaps roster is short on quality at full back: it's Shea Salinas, then nobody. Knight not only has the skill but the opportunity to grab a starting job in his first MLS season. The only concern with Knight is his injured shoulder, which required surgery during the offseason and might damage his famous bloody long throw. This isn't to say Vancouver shouldn't sign some veteran coverage for Knight in case he struggles, but I'd like to see Wes get a fair chance in 2011.
Jay Nolly, on the other hand, might not get off the bench. It's a strange thing to say about a goalkeeper who played every minute in 2009 and missed so few in 2010 he hardly had time to make a sandwich, but Nolly might become a bench warmer. This is due, of course, to the acquisition of Joe Cannon in the expansion draft. Cannon is a veteran of Major League Soccer and would seem to make Nolly superfluous in the starting lineup. Nolly was actually coached by Whitecaps' director of soccer operations Tom Soehn during his stint at DC United, and presumably Soehn was sufficiently worried about what he saw to make getting a veteran starting goalkeeper a priority.
Of course, it's never that simple. The Whitecaps kept Nolly around, and he almost certainly wanted a fair bit more than the MLS minimum, so there must be some reason for that. Moreover, Cannon has had serious injury problems in the last year and lost his starting spot in San Jose because of them. There's a good chance that Cannon will either struggle or be hurt once again and Nolly will be called into the fold. Given their choice of starting goalkeeper, it was doubly important that the Whitecaps have a reliable backup. I might not trust Nolly to start for my MLS team, but as a backup you can hardly do better.
Davies is much more of a question mark. He clearly deserves more than a one-way ticket to the MLS Reserves: his performance last season in division two proves that. He's a native central midfielder who spent the entire season on the right side just because the team's central midfielders were Martin Nash, Luca Bellisomo, and Terry Dunfield, and Davies wasn't going to take any of their jobs. This had the effect of maximizing his most obvious flaw (lack of pace) and minimizing his greatest asset (sublime ball distribution that could even make Martin Nash look a little overwhelmed). He's good taking corners and can cross fairly well for a player his age, but Davies was always at his best hitting through balls, timing passes, and running the offense in the way only a central midfielder can. Right now, Davies is competing for a job in central midfield with Terry Dunfield and John Thorrington: I'm sure that he can elbow his way into that mix.
But on the other hand, Davies is only nineteen. His inexperience did show at times last season, much as we might like to hope it doesn't. If we add Davide Chiumiento (another native central midfielder who got very few minutes last year due to fitness concerns) to the discussion, Davies will suddenly have a much harder time getting off the bench. There's a good argument for taking Davies along slowly, giving him a half-hour here and twenty minutes there. MLS is a fast league and Davies is not a fast player. He'll surely take some time to adjust; it's just human nature. I really don't know what I'd like the Whitecaps to do with him. But he's clearly such a bright part of whatever success both Vancouver and the Canadian national team will have in the future that it's important to get it right. Toronto FC fans will argue with me when I say that Davies is the best teenager in Canadian professional soccer today, but just the fact that he's in that conversation is an indication of how important Davies is.
We can't look at the players the Whitecaps have taken without looking at those who, so far, they haven't. First, a warning not to read too much into the names that haven't been signed. The Whitecaps have only been grabbing players who were with the team at the beginning of the 2010 season. An unknown number of players signed during 2010 (certainly Alain Rochat and Cody Arnoux, very likely Davide Chiumiento, and quite possibly Terry Dunfield and Willis Forko) already have MLS contracts: the Whitecaps are just being their typical silent selves and not telling us who. Other neglected names such as Russell Teibert are still Residency age: Teibert is one of the best young players in Canada but I'd be stunned to see him get an MLS contract simply because he still has something to prove in the PDL.
There are a few more disturbing implications in who are being left off the roster. The Whitecaps career of forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu, for example, seems to have come to a close. Edwini-Bonsu is only twenty years old, runs like the devil, has a cap for the senior Canadian national team under his belt, strikes the ball effectively, and had the best strike rate per minute among Vancouver's (admittedly underwhelming) forward corps. There seemed to be a great deal to like in Edwini-Bonsu, but he's had a couple of injuries and Teitur Thordarson never seemed to be all that enamoured with him. Surely, at the very least, he would be worth signing to MLS terms and giving time with the reserves or on loan to an NASL team. Yet so far Edwini-Bonsu goes unsigned, and there's no indication that is going to change. The Whitecaps may send the 20-year-old back down to the Residency program, but that would be highly unusual.
Secondly, where the hell is Luca Bellisomo? Bellisomo is only 24 and was omnipresent in the Vancouver first team last season, playing 2,351 minutes, running third on the team in minutes played, and splitting his time between defense and midfield depending on where he was needed. He's exactly the sort of utility player Major League Soccer teams need with their limited roster spots and the salary cap. He won my vote last season for the team's most valuable player. Not to take anything away from Knight, Nolly, and Davies, but Bellisomo deserves to be on the MLS team every bit as much as they do. Unlike with Edwini-Bonsu, the team certainly had plenty of faith in Bellisomo and even removed team Defender of the Year Nelson Akwari from the lineup to play Bellisomo instead. I hope there's just some hitch in negotiations with him, because otherwise that would be a bizarre and, indeed, indefensible omission.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are off to a good start in building their team for 2011, and they've taken some decent players today who will help them in that. Let's just hope they aren't finished with the familiar ones quite yet.