Gershon Koffie, strong young midfield destroyer, chasing down balls at right back. It's enough to make your blood chill.
In the 2011 season the Vancouver Whitecaps gave five players more than half an hour at right back on the first team: Jonathan Leathers, Wes Knight, Jeb Brovsky, Bilal Duckett, and John Thorrington. Four of those players are gone; Leathers on the end of his contract, Duckett waived recently, Knight waived long ago, Brovsky lost in the expansion draft. Thorrington remains but his appearances at right back were basically emergency cameos and he'll be relied on at central midfield this season.
Everybody knew Vancouver needed a right back and now they've signed one. Bob Lenarduzzi and Martin Rennie were both very, very careful to spell it out even to dullards like me: Lee is here to play right back. Vancouver has plugged its biggest hole and it's not even the middle of December. So what's their second biggest hole? The greatest flaw remaining?
I'm going to say it's still at right back.
The Whitecaps entered 2011 with two experienced professional right backs in Leathers and Knight and it still wasn't nearly enough. Lee is older, he's never played a minute of soccer in a North American league, and we can't be sure how well he'll hold up over a tough MLS campaign. We hear many references to Vancouver solving their right back woes, the end of Tom Soehn's famous Right Back Roulette, but we're not nearly done yet.
Vancouver's depth chart at right back is a depressing sight. Here is my own opinion of where the organization's right backs stack up: Martin Rennie will have his own judgment but it can't be too different from mine.
Lee Young-pyo (34 years old, MLS contract): Vancouver's newest acquisition speaks for himself. There's been so much written about Lee's skills and liabilities as a player that it seems redundant to go into too much detail. The main concern being raised by fans of Lee's career is that, though he is a right-footer, he's always preferred to play left back because he likes to cut in and drill a cross. Watch the highlight videos of Lee's career and it's easy to see what they mean, although it's also easy to see that Lee's a pretty capable crosser from the right back position as well. He's spent enough time at both fullback spots that we can be confident he won't go all Brovsky on us.
Will Lee be up to the physicality, the erratic playing surfaces, and the tough travel of Major League Soccer? On the one hand we saw how Jay DeMerit sometimes struggled physically, but on the other hand Lee's played in Saudi Arabia, where playing conditions aren't great, and European import Alain Rochat was one of Vancouver's iron men in 2011. There are dozens of questions about Lee's potential impact and, frankly, I'm still not 100% sold on him.
Gershon Koffie (20 years old, MLS contract): In the post-season training camp he ran with the team, Martin Rennie experimented with using Koffie as a right back and said he liked the results. I can understand the theory, as Koffie is a compact but strong player who tackles well and holds the ball responsibly. I've never seen him cross competently but, other than that, his skills seem like they might transition well to the position. He doesn't always think on his feet quickly enough but that would be a problem anywhere on the park and anyway, he's twenty years old.
The biggest problem with playing Koffie at right back wouldn't be that he couldn't adjust, it would be that it would deprive us of having Koffie in the middle of the park. He was one of our few midfield bright spots last season and wasting him at fullback, where the best we could hope for is that he was defensively responsible, would be catastrophic. But if Lee goes down who else on this roster is going to fill in?
Declan Rodriguez (18 years old, Residency): We're down to number three on the depth chart and we still haven't hit a natural right back. Rodriguez spent the past year of USL Premier Development League soccer as the Whitecaps Residency's regular right back but he's actually been a winger for most of his career. Rodriguez handled the transition to fullback extremely well, earning a starting spot with the USL PDL and USSDA U-18 teams that has been largely unchallenged. He's certainly a bright young player and some of the world's best fullbacks spent much of their youth careers on the wing, but as the third-best option for the Whitecaps at right back I'm listing a Residency player who can't drink in this province and has spent one season at this position.
By comparison, let's look at Vancouver's situation at the traditionally-harder-to-fill left back position: Alain Rochat, Jordan Harvey, Lee himself, probably Russell Teibert filling the Gershon Koffie role as "oh god don't play him there but technically you could", and then La'Vere Corbin-Ong out of the Residency (who's both older and more experienced at left back than Rodriguez at right). I like Rodriguez, I hope the Whitecaps stick with him for a few more years, and with his athleticism, intelligence, and calmness under fire he has "future professional" written all over him. But he should not be number three on this depth chart and arguably number two. It should not happen.
Jason Van Blerk (18 years old, Residency): You know what, we're done here.
Short of more infuriating out-of-position innovations, this depth chart needs at least one more player. I'd argue the team could use two utility defenders capable of covering right back; they don't have to be expensive or high-profile, they just need to be competent.
I've suggested that the Whitecaps could chase Canadian all-time caps leader Paul Stalteri, currently without a contract and rehabilitating from arthroscopic knee surgery. Stalteri has spent a couple of years in the soccer wilderness and has an enormous amount to prove. Despite his Premier League and 1. Bundesliga pedigree, he was mostly recently seen in exile from Borussia Mönchengladbach, is getting old, is nowhere near the calibre required in a European first division. If the Whitecaps were wise, they would offer Stalteri a cheap (less than $100,000), one-year contract to cover on defense and get his legs back.
This may not be realistic, as Stalteri's a proud man who prefers playing in Europe. But there are plenty of journeymen out there who can provide assistance. Bringing Wes Knight back would be fine by me: he would come cheap, he wouldn't need to be re-introduced to the team, and he'd have the fans on his side from day one. The MLS Re-Entry Draft is a bit short on fullbacks but as long as we can find somebody with good experience to cover the position and not just another central midfielder or more SuperDraft fodder, we should be fine.
Please, there's no need to remind me "it's December 8; we have plenty of time." Of course we do. Martin Rennie has made it clear he's still trying to sign quality players rather than fill out the squad depth and that's the right approach. I just want to remind the Whitecaps world, as we celebrate Lee's arrival, that the work at right back is not over.