Image courtesy VanCitySportsBlog.com
Saturday was a good day for the Vancouver Whitecaps forward corps. There was a heroic brace from Camilo Sanvezzo, of course, but there was also a simple if well-taken goal for Atiba Harris that sparked the comeback in the first place. Indeed, both players, Sanvezzo in particular, were having pretty good games even before they got on the scoresheet. I was proclaiming on Twitter than Sanvezzo "has a message for everybody: he wants a starting spot". Even Harris, who's been a whipping boy of this space since before the season started, impressed me with his tenacity, his power, and his awareness of his own weaknesses.
After a 2010 season where the Whitecaps forwards were a woeful lot, this is more than a pleasant surprise. On Wednesday, designated player Eric Hassli returns to action having scored a brace in our opener against Toronto and been our most dangerous player (in every sense) until he got sent off in Philadelphia. That leaves the Whitecaps with three forwards to fill two spots, not counting Omar Salgado, who's with the United States U-20 team but will be in the mix someday.
It's not an embarrassment of riches, exactly; none of these guys are Landon Donovan quite yet. But it's a strong crew with an attractive combination of skill and size that's given us having plenty of depth right when we need it. Harris, Hassli, and Sanvezzo are even tied for the season at two goals each, just to make separating them harder. But separate them we must, for New England beckons on Wednesday. Who should we start?
What do I think Teitur Thordarson will do? Honestly, that's an easy one. Unless Atiba Harris is being bothered by injury (he took nasty blows to his left ankle in both of the last two games), he'll go back to the same combination he used to start the season: Eric Hassli and Atiba Harris up top with whoever the hell is available in midfield.
But that's not what I think he should do. Harris's problems as a striker didn't go away on Saturday, they were just minimized. He still has no first touch to speak of, still has bad instincts for getting forward and putting himself offside, and his poise when finishing is questionable. At the same time, you could see his strengths better than usual. His shot, when he gets it off, is diabolically powerful. He's a surprisingly good crosser of the ball (well, not that surprising, given his heritage as a winger). He's also pretty quick for a big man, which is the main reason his goal came about: he was able to keep pace with Nizar Khalfan charging down the left wing and the defense lost track of him.
So why did Harris look so much better against Sporting Kansas City? Because Sanvezzo was doing all the work. Little Camilo spent ninety minutes trying out tricks on the Kansas City defenders, lookining to sneak by with the ball and either shoot himself or pass it off. Harris wasn't getting the ball around midfield and having to take it in himself; Sanvezzo was doing that. Nor was he having to hold it up, Charles Gbeke style, which is something Harris looks like he should be good at but clearly isn't. Instead, Harris could get up and be a true target man, knocking in opportunities when they came to him or taking them outside and setting somebody else up to try again. Not that I believe Harris is a true finisher; his two goals this year are over 10% of his career total after five seasons and 128 games in the league. His career high in a season is four. Still, it's a role in which he's more comfortable than having to play the transition game.
So I'd go with Eric Hassli way up top, sort of a target striker but one who tracks back (for he is astonishingly good at that), with Sanvezzo as the other forward. Honestly, it's not a very creative choice. Big Guy who causes trouble and bangs in goals, Little Guy who's shifty and gets the ball past defenders. But I feel it has something to offer. Hassli has fine touch both with his feet and with his head and is surprisingly slick for his size; he's perfectly capable of beating defenders on his own and opening room for Sanvezzo to get an uncontested scoring opportunity. Sanvezzo is a decent, if not great passer of the ball and, if he can get around a defender or two and catch Hassli in stride, may be able to make a goal or two just doing that.
Hassli and Sanvezzo bring dimensions, as a pairing, that Hassli and Harris just don't. Harris could probably use a little time off to rest that ankle anyway and, if it turns out he's fine, I might bring him in at right wing. It's his native position, most of our wingers are hurt, and I think his skill set might be pretty well suited for the job. If not, Harris can sit on the bench and come in if Sanvezzo's being manhandled or Hassli gets himself ejected again. I think he has a role on this team, just not as a starting forward.
(And what do we do when Omar Salgado gets here? Ah, but that's a whole nother article!)