Vagenas is the thirtieth and final member of the Vancouver Whitecaps roster, although of course the team may still release players if they desire to add any more. Vagenas, 33, had been on trial at Empire Field for the past couple weeks and clearly impressed head coach Teitur Thordarson, who had mentioned to the press that he had been pleased with what Vagenas had to offer. More importantly, he fills a position of concern with an experienced MLS body: with John Thorrington, Michael Nanchoff, and now Jeb Brovsky all fighting injuries, Vagenas will be a useful asset in a midfield that was forced to start Mouloud Akloul yesterday against Montreal.
The 33-year-old is a true Major League Soccer lifer. Vagenas was selected by the Los Angeles Galaxy in the second round of the 2000 MLS SuperDraft and wound up playing nine seasons with the Galaxy, usually as a regular lineup member. Vagenas actually captained the Galaxy to their famous 2005 double, but Los Angeles exposed him in the 2008 MLS Expansion Draft and he was taken by the Seattle Sounders. Vagenas's time in Seattle was hampered by injury but the Sounders put Vagenas to work in a bit role for the next two seasons before cutting him loose. He was part of the historic Galaxy squad which won the then-CONCACAF Champions' Cup in 2000 and has lifted three US Open Cup, two MLS Cups, and a Supporters' Shield. As an MLS rookie in the year 2000 he also won three United States international camps after arguably being the U-23 team's most valuable player in the Sydney Olympics.
Vagenas is obviously well over the hill. The Seattle Sounders actually traded Vagenas to the Colorado Rapids at the end of last season but he was unable to stick with the side. He's also suffered serious injuries to his knee that have set his career back as well as assorted muscle and joint problems. So what can an aging, injury-prone midfielder contribute to the young Whitecaps?
To be fair to Vagenas, it's not like he's in his dotage. He's still a legitimate player and, when healthy, looked pretty good in (very) spotty duty with the Sounders last year. He was also expecting to sign a contract in the Japanese J-League before the earthquake and tsunami put that competition on hold. His trial with the Whitecaps was very much not what Vagenas was hoping for, but at the same time he's in demand with some pretty good leagues and, if he can stay healthy, he definitely has something to offer Major League Soccer.
"If he can stay healthy", of course, being the operative question. Vagenas underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in 2009 which affected him badly for the next year, and even the Whitecaps players haven't been thrilled with Empire Field's low-grade artificial turf. Here we are putting a guy with joint problems on a plastic pitch with a team that has a suspiciously large number of lower-body injuries. It seems like we're set for a fall.
Of course, when I think "Vancouver Whitecaps veteran central midfielders with a history of knee problems", I immediately think of Terry Dunfield and he's doing pretty well for himself. His injury this season, a tricky but luckily not lingering groin strain, was caused by simply twisting his body the wrong way instead of anything turf-related. Modern knee surgery is a wonderful thing, and if a player trains well, looks after himself, and knows his limits, it's possible to get a great many highly effective years out of a bum knee. Vagenas can't possibly be as quick and as agile as he had been in his prime, and the 5'8" veteran may have to settle for being physical on defense and accurate on offense; basically, a lot like Terry Dunfield's game. But there's no reason it can't work.
Certainly, Teitur Thordarson thought so. He made a point of saying how good Vagenas looked on his trial and that he'd quite like to add the former Sounder. It's easy to see why. His resume is positive, and he brings an angle that the Whitecaps didn't really have before. In his prime, Vagenas was one of Major League Soccer's better offensive central midfielders, with a career high of five goals and four assists in 2005. As the years and the injuries have slowed him down, Vagenas's goalscoring has subsided (he's only scored one goal since 2007) but he remains a fine playmaker, including picking up two assists in only nine starts in 2009. Moreover, he was not a classic attacking midfielder: Vagenas always had a decent reputation for defensive reliability and was actually leaned on to help prevent goals in Seattle more often than he was asked to help score them. I would characterize Vagenas's defense as "responsible": not on Terry Dunfield's level but certainly on John Thorrington's or Gershon Koffie's.
Vagenas's signing, of course, can't be good news for Kevin Harmse. I imagine Harmse will stick with the team, as he brings some things that Vagenas doesn't: he's far more versatile, noticeably more athletic, and as a "hard man" he can be useful in situations when the little Vagenas would be confined to the bench. Still, Thordarson's confidence in Harmse hasn't appeared to be terribly high in recent weeks; when Mouloud Akloul is making his first start in midfield ahead of you, you have a problem. He might also wind up eating Alexandre Morfaw's lunch, if Morfaw ever gets back from injury, for they both bring a lot of the same assets to their game. Morfaw's a little younger but, then, at 23 years old he's not exactly young and Vagenas is far more refined.
I welcome Vagenas to the team. I don't expect him to be a major presence for the team; indeed, if he sees much more than spot duty against Columbus or Montreal I'll actually be worried. But thanks to their injury crunch the Whitecaps' midfield is badly shy on depth. Vagenas provides that depth; provides it in a reliable package who can add a dimension to the team when he's necessary. Unlike Kevin Harmse we're not hoping he can hold on, and unlike Jeb Brovsky we're not hoping he can develop into something good. Put Vagenas out and he won't blow you away, but you can almost count on his not hurting you either. It's not glamourous, but the Whitecaps need it.