One of these two might have a disconcertingly large role with the 2011 Vancouver Whitecaps. And unfortunately, it's not Taka Hirano. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Big news as the Vancouver Whitecaps are once again rumoured to be interested in an English-based striker. This rumour is even flimsier than most of what we've previously held onto: Hull City striker Caleb Folan seems to be in line for a move to Major League Soccer. Not the Whitecaps particularly, just "Major League Soccer" thanks to his injury crisis and mediocre performance meaning that Hull is quite happy to stop paying his contract and Folan is just as happy to leave. Folan is said to have worked out for Major League Soccer bosses and drawn some interest, because any time you can get a 28-year-old who's suffered neck, ankle, and hamstring injuries in the past three years without much production to show for it and is being run out of the Championship on a rail, you have to do it. Anything linking Folan to the Whitecaps is strictly in the realm of conjecture, notwithstanding Marc Weber's hopeful-looking tweet and, of course, Whitecaps right back Wes Knight's sly rumour mongering.
Would I take Folan for the Whitecaps? I might, depending on the contract, but he's an awful risk. He's also clearly not a solution to our scoring woes, which are too considerable to be fixed by any single player short of Giuseppe Rossi. With kickoff six weeks away, it's time we girt ourselves for the possibility that we might not be getting much more than we already have. The truth is that the Whitecaps have a number of scoring options available to them, even if you might not want to go to war with most of them. So after the jump, one man's analysis of the best ten forwards currently in the Whitecaps organization.
A few ground rules for this list. Actually, there's only two: the player in question must be with either the Whitecaps senior or Residency teams and he must be eligible to sign an MLS contract. This rules out players I like, such as Alex Semenets (who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth) as well as players I dislike (hello, Cody Arnoux). Other than that, you count. No matter how crappy you might be. Although I will stop counting after a certain point, because if we're counting on Ben Fisk to crack our lineup then we should just relegate ourselves.
Atiba Harris isn't actually a forward. Not really. He's been more of a winger so far in his MLS career, but everybody lists him as a forward and he's played there a bit so that's what I'm calling him. In our friendly against Real Salt Lake, Harris got the start as the lone man up top, so one presumes he's the guy Teitur Thordarson will be counting on so far. Understandable, as he's the only forward in the system who's ever played a Major League Soccer game. With fifteen career goals in the league for his career, he's by far the most productive striker we've got.
Being a big, lanky, powerful man in front of goal, Harris gives the Whitecaps a physical option they haven't had since Teitur Thordarson decided he wasn't going to play Marlon James any more. Vancouver's would-be scorers last year were either little dynamite so-and-sos or Marcus Haber, who returned on loan from his time in England apparently convinced that he was going to score on these USSF D2 plebs as easily as 1-2-3 (and didn't). Given that Vancouver's most effective scorers under Thordarson have usually been larger players - James, Charles Gbeke, Eduardo Sebrango, even Haber when he had Gbeke running interference for him - Harris might be unusually effective at the top of the Whitecaps' system. He's never been a bad scorer in his MLS career, not really. I'm trying to talk myself into the Atiba Harris era and I'm almost succeeding, but that doesn't mean I'm happy to see him doing it alone.
Omar Salgado would be at the top of this list if he were actually allowed to play for us. As it is, this 17-year-old won't be eligible to play for the Whitecaps until September (assuming Arsenal hasn't signed him by then) and falls down to second.
Why yes, you probably should read a guy who can't even play for the Whitecaps coming in second as a damning indictment.
There's no need to go back over the merits of Omar Salgado, since it's all still fresh in our minds from the MLS SuperDraft. He's tall, strong, quick for his size, and has a right foot that would make a Boeing 747 think twice. By most accounts, he'll be a fine professional striker someday. The catch is that he's young and inexperienced: though he has a goal in nine caps with the United States U-20 team he still hasn't been blooded with a professional club. And, again, he's really young. He'd have to be an awfully special young player to make an impact in 2011. Er, September 2011.
Cornelius Stewart, nicknamed "Cornhole" by pretty much just me, is the Whitecaps' best option if Teitur doesn't want to strap the shin guards back on. He was the Whitecaps' joint-leading scorer among strikers last year and picked up his share of assists. He's also only twenty-one and probably deserves to make this team in some capacity. Now, remember that he tied for the team's leading forward with two goals, so take the number for what it's worth. All the same, he's proven he can at least be a contributing professional player despite my earlier skepticism and has earned a chance at the bench.
Speaking tactically, Stewart is also a nice contrast from Harris and Salgado. Stewart's a 5'9" and plays smaller; I'm not even sure he can jump. What he can do is outrun any Whitecap not named Edwini-Bonsu, turn on a dime, play the ball surprisingly well on his feet given his limited professional experience and training, and force defenses to play him honestly even when he's not scoring (which is usually). He's not a great passer in the long-balls-right-where-they-have-to-be sense but he has good vision and notices when a teammate gets open. His actual striking is iffy but improving. Having joined the Whitecaps system in 2009, I believe Stewart may also count as a home-grown player (but feel free to correct me since I don't know shit).
My main problem with slotting Kyle Porter at striker is that I don't think Kyle Porter is a striker. He's played there a bit, both during his brief time in Germany and his stretch with the Whitecaps in 2010, but that's never seemed to be his best position. Porter has mostly played in midfield, particularly in an attacking role, and has seemed to be most comfortable there. The kid has a nice leg, it's true, but not much in the way of forward instincts and is better off using his size and pace to set up others rather than doing it himself (this kid can cross). He can play serviceable professional-grade, although probably not MLS-grade, forward when nobody else can. I just really hope somebody else can.
Randy Edwini-Bonsu has long been a significant preoccupation of this site. To put it bluntly, I never thought he's been given enough of a chance with the senior Whitecaps team. When healthy and playing he was perhaps Vancouver's most effective striker last season (not high praise), and he's still just twenty years old with a senior international cap under his belt. The Whitecaps apparently think enough of him that he's being kept in the organization, albeit with the Residency and not even training with the first team. He's basically a jackrabbit: small, faster than anybody, and kicks harder than you'd expect. He's also still relatively raw and isn't going to beat anybody off the dribble. His skill probably isn't up to MLS level, at least not yet. But he's a better choice than most of the other USSF D2 Whitecaps.
As far as I'm concerned, Nizar Khalfan is a midfielder. Sorry, Teitur. The Whitecaps ran that Khalfan-at-forward experiment into the ground last season when Edwini-Bonsu was injured, James was in exile, and Haber was back in England. But Khalfan, for all his assets (very shifty, good positional awareness, makes surprisingly few mistakes) is neither a natural scorer or a natural playmaker. His performances up front last season ranged from "uninspiring" to "oh god what the hell are we doing", and it was doubly disappointing given that Khalfan had shown some nice signs in midfield over the past two seasons. Frankly, I see him as a glorified Ansu Toure. You run him off the bench onto the wing for twenty minutes when you need a goal, he runs around, shakes and bakes with the ball, churns defenses up, but you don't count on him to do too much of the heavy lifting or you'll just get frustrated. You definitely don't rely on him for goals.
Back into the realm of players who'd be a bit out of position, we have the man pictured above, Ridge Mobulu. Mobulu is quick, good with the ball at his feet, still a teenager, and scored what might have been the Whitecaps' goal of the year in 2010. That was also Mobulu's only goal. He's not a natural shooter and had a nasty habit of taking time off on the pitch. He's a midfielder with some offensive flair who played forward just because nobody else could do it. He absolutely should not be playing forward in Major League Soccer unless we have such an injury crisis that guys' legs are falling off.
Jeb Brovsky is not really a striker, he's never played professionally, he's twenty-two years old, and he wasn't exactly a scoring phenomenon in college. No. Just no.
When we reach Long Tan, we're officially in "and the rest!" territory. You don't know who Long Tan is? He was the future considerations we got from FC Tampa Bay when we traded them two former USL-1 MVPs in Jonny Steele and Ricardo Sanchez. You still don't know who Long Tan is? Fair enough; he was Tampa Bay's fourth-leading scorer last season behind, among others, Ricardo Sanchez. And you're saying "wait a minute, Tampa Bay really sucked last year; how good could their fourth-leading scorer possibly be?" Exactly.
Long Tan plays some midfield but is mostly a forward. At 22 years old, he's one of the older players I've listed so far. He was a reasonably good scorer as a youth with Pudong Zobon in China (haven't heard of them either?) before coming to North America and scoring a few times with a crappy USL PDL team. I only watched a few Tampa Bay games last season and wouldn't have been able to pick Long Tan out of a police lineup, but seriously, can this guy possibly be any good?
And, finally, one Residency name for the road. Doudou Toure is a big, tough son-of-a-gun with a foot like a cinder block and more speed than is really reasonable for a 19-year-old 6'3" striker. He's played two first-team games for Vancouver, one against Montreal in the Voyageurs Cup and one against Rochester, he has three games experience in the Mexican first division, and he's Mauritanian which is awesome in of itself. He's still a very raw player, but athletically Toure is superb and he's being counted upon to be a major part of the Residency team. Frankly, I'd expect him to get more of a taste of the Whitecaps' first team than Long Tan. At least, he better.
There's no way to sugar-coat it: this is pretty poor. If Harris stays healthy and finds his scoring boots, maybe he's an adequate solo striker at the top of a 4-3-2-1 hoofing some of Thordarson's trademark long balls combined with first-class playmaking on the floor from the likes of Terry Dunfield and Davide Chiumiento. I could live with Cornelius Stewart as an impact substitute without killing myself: he's small, quick, and improving as a player. Maybe he becomes the St. Vincentian Jeff Cunningham someday; he's got that sort of skillset but more speed.
But it all comes crumbling down with the slightest touch. Atiba Harris tweaks a hammy and all of a sudden you're relying on Stewart and Kyle Porter to do against MLS defenses what they couldn't against USSF D2 ones. It becomes awfully tempting to get the old Ligue 1 scoring phenomenon Teitur Thordarson to strap on the ol' shin guards and give it another run out, because he'd pretty much be our best option. You're playing guys out of position and scrambling for inadequate solutions to serious problems, and all because you grabbed one guy from St. Kitts and Nevis in the expansion draft and say "yeah, that'll do."
I don't doubt that Tom Soehn and company are working hard to bring in a big, established international-grade scorer to shoot out BC Place's new lights. Unfortunately, they're overlooking the value of picking up a solid journeyman or two along the way. They brought in more former MLS players outside the expansion draft last year (Greg Janicki, Nelson Akwari, and Blake Wagner) than they have this season (nobody?), they mostly used the expansion draft to get allocation money, and they ignored the re-entry draft all together. Even the SuperDraft was spent getting somebody who literally cannot play for most of the season. How much would a Collins John or, hell, even a Khano Smith be worth to this team right now?
They still have six weeks, but the clock is winding down awful fast.