The Vancouver Whitecaps and Austin Aztex queue up for the ball August 29, 2010 at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
It's been so long since the Whitecaps were back at Swangard. Too long.
A lot has changed. The team, mostly. A million new faces, a thousand new names to wrangle with. The starting lineups were announced and we Southsiders gave it gusto as ever... number one, Jay "Nolly!", number seven, Martin "Nash!", number eleven, Ridge "who's that again?" But if there was unfamiliarity there was also excitement: who knew what these exciting players, these young men full of promise and these veterans from leagues overseas, could be capable of? What would the Whitecaps be like with them on board?
Well, after witnessing one game back at Swangard Stadium, I'll tell you. A little quicker, a little cleverer, and hopelessly unfamiliar with each other. They took on the best team in the league but one tired after tangling with Portland mid-week, one resting its two leading scorers at kickoff, and played them even. But no more than that. One thing hasn't changed about the Vancouver Whitecaps: they can get draws with the best of them and they did again tonight. 2-2. A credible result against a magnificent team, and yet not what we hoped for.
The Whitecaps came out gangbusters. They took one lead and then another. There was just a remarkable amount of skill on display from some of the new boys. If they ever learned to play together, they could take the USSF D2 by storm. Instead, just as they might get to mesh a little bit, some of them will be moving up to Major League Soccer where they'll get to do it all over again at a higher level. It's enough to send one into despair that we'll ever actually get to see the Vancouver Whitecaps be all that they can be.
The unavoidable question is "how were the new guys?" Terry Dunfield and Ridge Mobulu started, while Cody Arnoux and Willis Forko came on as substitutes. I was actually impressed by Dunfield. His pace, at a USSF D2 level, doesn't let him down and after Martin Nash was substituted off Dunfield handled most of the dead balls with surprising aplomb and accuracy. He's actually a fairly competent distributor in general, which I hadn't expected, and he has the ability to hold the ball even under pressure long enough to usually make the right pass. He actually put a couple really nice probing balls through at points. I'm not saying he's an MLS-quality player, but he was kinda a young Martin Nash on a team that actually has Martin Nash on it.
I made my feelings on Dunfield pretty much crystal clear when we signed him. I don't think he's an MLS player. I still don't, not really, but he looked better than I would have guessed. What I'd heard about him and seen the few times I'd caught a glimpse is the sort of defensive midfielder who tackles hard and makes guys regret playing against him but hasn't got as much ability as you might like. To see his (pretty impressive) ball touch was a nice treat, and the physicality was plenty in evidence as well (he got his yellow card more on reputation than the actual foul, I think: he didn't even hit the guy but slid very hard into the ball and the Austin player pretty much tripped over it). To be fair to Dunfield, he did miss quite a nice chance in the first half: Martin Nash set him up with space but he hit it right to the goalkeeper. That was the only flaw in an effective game.
Willis Forko came in as a half-time substitute for Takashi Hirano. Odd, to me, given that Hirano had actually played a blinder of a first half, but perhaps it was simply the old man's fitness letting him down. In any case, Forko had little enough to do as most of the attacks came down the right or through the middle. Annoyingly for my evaluation, he spent his entire share of the game in the opposite end of the field from where I was, meaning there wasn't a tonne for me to see. I certainly didn't see anything that horrified me, but neither did I see anything terribly exciting. For a fullback, that's not exactly criticism but I'd have preferred it if he got a little more involved in the play. Still, he's newer than Dunfield so perhaps understandably a little rawer.
Ridge Mobulu scored a goal, so it can't be all bad. The goal was actually both brilliant and hysterical and terrifying, which is a heck of a combination. Cornelius Stewart (who, in spite of my constant criticism of the lad, put in a fantastic performance) put a superb through ball to Mobulu in the area. Austin goalkeeper Miguel Gallardo inadvisably tried to race Mobulu for it and Mobulu side-stepped him neatly, giving himself the open cage. But he dallied on it rather than releasing immediately and the Austin defense intervened, forcing Mobulu to the side as Gallardo tried to recover. Austin's Leonard Griffin had Mobulu out almost to the touch line, but Mobulu managed to cut back in, elude Griffin, and tap the ball into the goal just before Gallardo got back into the play. Bloody hell, that was close, but it counted all the same.
Apart from that, Mobulu's pace and game sense terrified the Aztex and his finishing set them back at ease. He and Stewart had a good thing going but Mobulu struck most of his chances wide or into Gallardo. If both Whitecaps strikers had their sights lined up it could have been 5-2 on the chances, but they didn't and the opportunities passed.
Pretty much the only Whitecap to whom I will give an outright negative review is Cody Arnoux. I had high hopes for Arnoux: his reputation in the United States is very high, he had a good career at Wake Forest, and anyone who catches the eye of Everton for even just a reserve stint is someone to be reckoned with. One could tell that he has the intellect of a skilled striker. He knew exactly when to get forward, stayed onside at all times, and found his way into the lanes so Dunfield could play him a marvelous ball. And then with the ball at his feet he'd completely blow it, misplaying it so heinously it was like we were worse off for having had the chance.
He could kick it into defenders, he could kick it into the keeper, he could send a shot thundering over the bar and just about decapitating a guy by the fence near the running track who thought himself safe from flying soccer balls, Arnoux could do everything except laying an accurate pass onto a teammate or putting the ball in the goal. Again, physically he was fine and mentally I was supremely impressed by how well he saw the field. But it didn't do him a damned lick of good and if anything he made the team worse by being there.
I don't expect that's usual for Arnoux. Towards the end he was clearly frustrated with himself, as if knowing that he wasn't playing his best and utterly infuriated about how badly it was going. But the simple truth is that, in my first look at Cody Arnoux, the results weren't even close to being there and that's how I have to judge the guy.
I still bet he's better than Jonathan McDonald, though.
Game Ball: midfielder Terry Dunfield, for all the reasons I mentioned above. Believe me, nobody could be more surprised about this than I am. But the truth is that Dunfield played his socks off and if he keeps that up I might get a little less pessimistic about the guy.
Other contenders were Cornelius Stewart, who scored the first goal, assisted the second, was constantly dangerous, but also finished as poorly as ever and sometimes dallied getting back into his own half when Austin was on the break, and Takashi Hirano, who probably would have taken the honours had Thordarson not substituted him out after forty-five minutes. Luca Bellisomo was also a candidate, and you could have sold me on Zurab Tsiskaridze. It was a strong all-round game.
Most Disappointing: Well, Arnoux, obviously, but beyond that Wes Knight had a bit of a rough outing. It wasn't just his newly-shaven head which made him look a little too much like Marcus Haber for my liking. But he dallied more than we're used to on the ball. Both Austin goals came down his flank, including Edward Johnson's well-headed equalizer, came off Knight's flank and he simply wasn't playing the talented Aztex attack hard enough. Even his vaunted bloody long through wasn't in evidence.
Next Game: the men host the Puerto Rico Islanders at Swangard next Sunday, September 5. The next game this website will be covering, of course, will be the Canada friendly against Peru at BMO Field September 4 - good seats still available!