Yesterday, the Vancouver Whitecaps fortified their roster a little further with some typically unsurprising roster moves. By offering a Major League Soccer contract to central midfielder Terry Dunfield, the Whitecaps merely made official what every one of their fans suspected: that Dunfield was going to accompany this team into MLS and possibly in a core role. The signing of central defender Greg Janicki was less of a foregone conclusion than Dunfield's but also no real shock: Janicki was one of the best defenders in the second division last year, an iron man, and gives this team a nice change of pace from the athletic-but-small back four they're already putting together.
Of course I'm happy we'll get to see more of Dunfield and Janicki in 2011. In fact, just as I was settling down with a cup of tea and a smug smile, the Whitecaps announced three more roster moves: fullback Willis Forko, defender/midfielder Luca Bellisomo, and goalkeeper Simon Thomas have been cut.
It's no surprise that Thomas is gone. The 20-year-old Victoria native is a fine young goalkeeper but was caught in an awkward position: too old for the Residency team but clearly not good enough for Major League Soccer. The sum total of his professional experience so far is eight minutes of game action late last season relieving Jay Nolly. I'd have liked to see him get the chance to develop further in the MLS reserve division, but that's life.
I'm frankly delighted to see Forko go. The fast but useless full back mostly played on the left side last season and made me fall on my knees begging for the miraculous return of Takashi Hirano. I could have less wanted to see Willis Forko killing us in MLS next season. He was my new lightning rod of hate to replace Jonathan McDonald, and given that Teitur Thordarson played Forko extensively late last season I was worried the organization was high on him. Apparently, no reason for concern there.
But Luca Bellisomo? They're cutting Luca Bellisomo? How I feel about that could be implied from the fact that I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago urging the Whitecaps to sign him as soon as possible. I voted him the Whitecaps' Most Valuable Player. I'm stoked about Luca Bellisomo, and on top of everything else he's only twenty-four years old.
This team took two more steps forward yesterday. But there's no denying they also took a step back.
These moves are mostly positive ones for the Whitecaps... mostly. Terry Dunfield seemed like an automatic pick for Major League Soccer, but it was still a relief to see it finalized. Had Dunfield played a full season with Vancouver, he would almost certainly have been our most valuable player last year. Instead, he had to settle for virtually re-making our central midfield, improving this team's ability to distribute the ball so markedly it was almost jarring, providing a rough edge that none of our other midfielders could match, and generally playing as he saw fit against the inferior second division defenses. He earned an international callup to Canada's friendly against Honduras in Montreal and played well there to boot. He's not only a deserving Whitecap, he's a deserving candidate for the captaincy.
To us Canadian soccer fans, it feels like Dunfield has been around forever. But Dunfield will only be 29 at the beginning of the 2011 season; he's two and a half years younger than his new teammate John Thorrington. There are questions about his health, particularly a series of serious knee injuries that affected him as a youngster and have occasionally flared up during his career in England. But he was stable as a mountain in Vancouver's midfield last season despite running hard, playing enthusiastically, and sometimes tackling with both feet. Dunfield plays close to the edge in both the good and bad senses: during the Honduras friendly early this season, Dunfield helped concede Canada's only goal against with a reckless challenge that drew a yellow card. But he also ran rampant through the Honduras midfield and put the fear of God into their players every time they even thought about challenging him. Dunfield is more than athletic enough to keep up with his MLS adversaries and both strong and brave enough to win his share of balls. That's without even considering his ball distribution: he favours playing simple, short, unambitious passes, but he is second to none in placing them. Not even Martin Nash passed anywhere near as good as Dunfield did in 2010.
There's less to say about Greg Janicki, not that it's a slight against him. Janicki plays a very simple style of soccer. He's not the quickest, but he's tough, he's strong in the air, and he's not prone to making mistakes. The 26-year-old is just entering the best part of his soccer career and will hopefully wind up being more successful with Vancouver than he was with DC United: after two years and hardly any playing time in Washington, the United faithful practically ran him out of town on a rail. Of course, since then Janicki's had plenty more experience and picked up his share of plaudits, including the USSF D2's award for Defender of the Year. He clearly improved over the course of last season and deserves a Major League Soccer shot.
I don't expect Janicki to see a great deal of time in the starting eleven, but he'll be valuable all the same. I've wasted plenty of words in angst over the hobbit-ness of Vancouver's defense, and the 6'3" Janicki is no hobbit. He was our best aerial defender last year, and was physical enough that he made it difficult to beat him on the ground either. That said, Janicki isn't very quick on his feet. He could handle MLS's big strikers, but the small quick ones could give him trouble. That's probably why he'll only see spot duty (and why I wanted us to sign the quicker, but equally tall, Bellisomo).
Finally, the loss of Willis Forko is addition by subtraction. Forko was pretty good years back with Real Salt Lake, and he had a fine career in the Norwegian first division. He's 27 years old and in his absolute prime. He's certainly athletic enough for Major League Soccer. On paper, Forko should have been able to make this team, but when I actually saw him in person my only reaction was man, this guy sucks! Forget MLS, I wouldn't have taken him on my USSF D2 team!
Forko is quick. He was probably the quickest of the Whitecaps defenders last year, beating even Wes Knight. That's about the only positive thing I can say about him. He's small and doesn't jump high enough to make up for it. He doesn't challenge well and is easily beaten by quick players, while strong ones can pretty much just shove him around in a pinch. He can't complete a pass more than six feet long. His good defensive plays were so infrequent that when I saw one happen, I was actually surprised. "Hey, Willis won the ball! Good for him! Oh, hell, he passed it to a Puerto Rico Islander again." He could only have impressed me less if he starting kicking balls directly at my face. Or if he was Jonathan McDonald. Still, just because Forko wasn't McDonald terrible doesn't mean he wasn't terrible.
Now, for the step back. I'm sorry to see Simon Thomas go. Thomas was a solid young goalkeeper who suffered from the insurmountable flaw of playing for the same team as Jay Nolly for the past two seasons. When I saw him warming up at the beginning of the half at Swangard Stadium, he looked great. He kept a clean sheet for the Vancouver Southsiders in a penalty shootout against the Timbers Army, not that the Portland fans gave him much work to do. When the Whitecaps brought in 23-year-old Dan Pelc, a great giraffe of a goalkeeper who was the reigning Canadian Soccer League most valuable player, to compete for the backup job in 2010, Thomas thrashed Pelc so convincingly I think Pelc went into hiding. But there was no chance that he was going to get a second of playing time in Major League Soccer next season unless Nolly and Joe Cannon crashed their cars into each other.
Would I have kept him anyway? Probably. There's no such thing as too much goalkeeping depth. Thomas could have backstopped the Whitecaps in the MLS reserve division, gotten some game experience, and been ready if needed. The kid's twenty years old. That's practically infancy for a goalkeeper, an there's no reason he couldn't be a starter someday either physically or mentally. The Whitecaps are bringing up some promising young goalkeepers in the Residency system, but Thomas is a cut above them right now. He would have been worth holding onto for the future, as well as as a contingency for the present.
Last, and far from least, is the departure of Luca Bellisomo. I've sung his praises before so I won't repeat myself. I'll just ask, why would the Whitecaps let him go? Did he look Teitur Thordarson straight in the eyeballs? Did he choke Jeff Parke? Did he pay for a big Portland Timbers billboard to be put up in Burnaby? Did he get confused by the "Major League" in Major League Soccer and demand $2 million a season? I can't imagine why they would drop Bellisomo. He played big minutes for the Whitecaps last season, he fills a role we need filled, he's young, and he can't possibly have been that expensive.
There's just no reason at all for the Whitecaps to give Bellisomo his walking papers. None. I can't understand the logic no matter how hard I try. There was a place for him on this team and he was good enough to fill it, yet Tom Soehn has sent him away. I can only shake my head. Assets like Bellisomo don't come along every day, and hopefully another Major League Soccer team will be lucky enough to have him next year.