Long Tan was a mediocre second division player, but he's adjusting to Major League Soccer awfully well so far. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Both Wagner and Tan are USSF D2 veterans but still relatively young players: Tan is 22, Wagner is 23. They both bring professional experience from other leagues, with Tan having gotten his start in the Chinese League One and Wagner playing 40 games with FC Dallas over four seasons from 2006 to 2009. They're both only modestly valuable players with some ability but by no means core guys who the Whitecaps should heavily rely upon.
And, once upon a time, I would have been surprised as hell that either one got an MLS contract.
Last season, Long Tan was a relatively minor player with FC Tampa Bay of the USSF Pro Second Division. Tampa Bay was a very poor team and Tan certainly wasn't helping, switching between forward and midfield, coming off the bench regularly, and adding only a little to Tampa's anaemic offense despite allegedly being a specialist offensive player. The Whitecaps acquired Tan in a trade of cast-offs: Tan was the future considerations in the trade which saw midfielders Ricardo Sanchez and Jonny Steele head to Tampa Bay, and joined the Whitecaps training camp after the 2010 season. Given that Sanchez resurrected his scoring touch in Florida while Steele was at least as useful as Tan had been, it seemed that Tampa Bay had gotten the better end of that deal. But then Tan showed up with the Whitecaps and looked... well, surprisingly useful.
Blake Wagner, meanwhile, signed with the second division Whitecaps at the beginning of last season and was all set to be our starting left back until he injured his foot in the pre-season. The injury ruled him out for the first months of the campaign, by which time Zurab Tsiskaridze had eaten his lunch at left back and Wagner settled into left midfield. He bagged a lovely hat trick at Swangard Stadium against Miami FC on July 14, every goal a fine one and showing what Wagner can really do. But that was his only real moment of glory and for the most part he was an adequate but by no means exceptional presence on our left flank: good enough, certainly, but you couldn't see him moving up a level. Apparently he showed something too.
Neither of these guys are going to be counted on for big minutes in 2011. They've exceeded expectations just getting this far.
Neither of these players are likely to be spectacular members of the Vancouver Whitecaps, but ultimately they're both reasonable enough and they both fill a position of need.
Tan, for example, is by no means a brilliant striker. From what I saw of him both with Tampa Bay and in the Cascadia Supporters Summit, his decision making is a step behind. He has skill, and sufficient speed to use it, but he goes the wrong direction or makes the play at the wrong time. Of course this will improve with time, but right now whatever "it" is, Tan hasn't got it. On the other hand, I was surprised at his technical ability with the ball at his feet. His positioning might be poor, but all the innate talents you expect from a fine striker are there: quick feet, sufficient pace, that inherent self-confidence to go for goal, and a fine first touch that might have been the best on the team. I'm told he has a solid shot when he has the opportunity to let fly, although he didn't get to show it off at the summit.
Was Long Tan my favourite non-Omar Salgado striker at the supporters summit? Hardly; I'd much rather see Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo get the permanent contract. But Tan is taller and more experienced with the rough-and-tumble North American game. Besides, the Whitecaps have hardly given up on Sanvezzo, who's in Seattle trying to get a visa sorted out so his trial can be extended. Given the number of roster spots they have open, the Whitecaps would be well-advised to sign both Tan and Sanvezzo, and I'm certainly curious enough about young Long to see what he can do over a full season.
We already know what Blake Wagner can do over a full season, of course, and frankly that answer is "not a whole lot". Given what a bright prospect he was in his FC Dallas days I was a little disappointed to see how limited Wagner was as a second-division Whitecap last season. He has a fine shot and decent offensive ability, but he's also not the most athletic player and he's sensible enough to, as a rule, track back rather than put himself into harm's way going for goal. He could make some nice defensive plays along the left side and was usually in the right place to snuff out long crosses. But he wasn't elite and when Willis Forko came to town we saw how badly Wagner suffered without Tsiskaridze to back him up. He was a perfectly respectable second division player and I'd have been pleased to see him remain with the Whitecaps if they were still in the NASL. But they aren't, and now I'm not so sure.
What Wagner brings is something the Whitecaps do need: a left foot. Their choices at left back are Alain Rochat, who is excellent, and Bilal Duckett, who is badly inexperienced. Wagner gives them a reasonably capable option to move back in case something happens to Rochat and would keep Duckett from being overexposed. The left midfielder, so far in preseason, has been the offensively gifted Russell Teibert. Teibert still hasn't got an MLS contract so it's by no means certain he'll keep the job by March 19. Even if he does, Wagner's natural defensive posture contrasts nicely with Teibert's devil-may-care skill and athleticism. Russell Teibert is a better player than Wagner even today, but with a 1-0 lead in the 88th minute I'd much rather have Wagner out there. Moreover, with more gifted offensive teams that might pick on young Teibert, we'd be glad to have Wagner as an option.
Sure, it would be terrific if we could have a first-class shutdown left-side player instead of the decent-but-not-great Wagner. But this is MLS and those sorts of players are hard to come by. How many teams in Major League Soccer are truly satisfied with their depth at left back and left midfield? Wagner is capable, conservative, and probably comes cheap. When his signing was first announced, I said "really, Blake Wagner?" But, as with so much this team does, the more I think about it the more I understand.