Tom Soehn, interim head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Today, the new-look Vancouver Whitecaps take to the field for the first time in Los Angeles against Chivas USA. They will enter the Home Depot Centre and try to beat a pretty mediocre team, which is, sadly, a tall order for this squad. Yet if you look around Whitecaps fandom I think you'll see that most people are positive.
Is it because Teitur Thordarson has been sacked? I don't think so: opposition to Thordarson's firing still runs very high. Besides, Thordarson has been gone for, as of this writing, less than forty-eight hours. Even if Tom Soehn was the second coming of Arsene Wenger, he wouldn't have time to renovate this team top-to-bottom in two days, much of which was spent traveling. I'm not even convinced we'll see a new formation (although there's a good chance of that, of course). Wes Knight spoke in practice of how the team was working on keeping possession more and moving up the field as a unit rather than as three units; that's all very good, but it takes more than one practice to completely change your way of doing things.
So I'd be smiling at the suckers, except that I can't bring myself to quite bet against the Whitecaps either. It's nothing to do with Soehn, not really, except that he's there. It's the new coach bounce. We see it, from time to time, in every sport. The long-time gaffer is turfed and the team responds with its best effort of the season. Lousy players turn into stars, you get two goals from somebody like Jeb Brovsky, and the fans walk away from the television thinking "that coach is a genius." Sometimes the coach really is a genius. Sometimes the team loses the next dozen games. But that first game can get a lot of hopes up.
I think the time is right for the Whitecaps to rally around the figure of a deposed boss and grab a result. I just wish that could carry over to the next game; after tonight, it's up to Soehn.
The biggest factor for the Whitecaps might be the new players Soehn puts in the lineup. Joe Cannon is almost certain to start in goal unless Jay Nolly spikes his coffee. In central midfield, somebody will be replacing Terry Dunfield; it could be Jeb Brovsky, Peter Vagenas, or someone else we hadn't even considered. Who knows what other changes there might be? At any rate, one can expect the new players coming into the lineup to be fired up. Yes! This is my chance to show the new boss what I can do! This might mean to them coming out and making mistakes, but these guys are professionals and hopefully it means Cannon making sprawling fingertip saves and Vagenas breaking guys' ankles while somehow earning the free kick for Vancouver.
Then there's the fact that coach firings often serve as a wake-up call to the players. Indeed, that's often the idea, and may have been a major motivating factor in this move. Nothing brings home the idea that changes have to be made quite like watching two of the guys who tell you what to do get fired. In Major League Soccer, where player contracts are not guaranteed and nobody can really be sure they'll have a job from one day to the next, the motivation factor can increase: there but for the grace of god go I. So we might see a Whitecaps team with a bit more pep in their step and, hopefully, a level of concentration that will last ninety minutes this time.
Perhaps most importantly, Chivas USA now doesn't quite know what the Vancouver Whitecaps are going to bring. Last time we played the Goats, I was highly impressed with how head coach Robin Fraser adjusted his team so they were thwarting Vancouver's man-for-man superiority in central midfield and picked up some scoring chances. The Whitecaps would have the ball down in the Chivas end for minutes after minutes, then Chivas would move the ball around the horn and charge at the Vancouver goal; it was like they were playing against the run of play, if that makes any sense. It was very good. But now Fraser can't count on Soehn bringing his team out the way Thordarson would have. Indeed, he may have had Chivas practicing to pull the same trick on a Thordarson-led team only to find that the time has been wasted.
Whether Soehn is an idiot or a wise man, the Whitecaps have an advantage today with him in charge. But let's hope he's a wise man, just to make it safe.