I've been accused of being too negative about the Vancouver Whitecaps. Well, that's easy; the Vancouver Whitecaps suck at soccer.
It really is just that simple. When you're writing about the worst team in the league, you're going to be a little down on them. It's not inherent pessimism (okay, it's a bit of inherent pessimism); it's an honest appraisal of the facts. I'm a supporter and a writer, not a cheerleader, and I don't plan on sugar-coating anything.
On the other hand, the Whitecaps' first season in MLS isn't all bad. Except for that Los Angeles Galaxy game I've enjoyed every match I've attended at Empire Field and, while I won't miss the old Steel Lightning Magnet, it was certainly one of those most characterful places to attend a soccer game in Canada. The Seattle Sounders' visit to close out Empire tomorrow will be one of the highlights of the season regardless of the result.
The organization, by every account, seems to genuinely care about the Whitecaps' success even if we sometimes differ on how best to achieve it. They've done their best to make themselves as big a part of the community as the old Whitecaps in the NASL days. I've mentioned much of this in passing, but we're all a little miserable after months of bad results.
So, today, I'm going to do something unusual. I'm going to look on the bright side of life. Not talking about the future, not talking about how things will be good in the future... talking about how they're good now. Cheering for the Whitecaps is still fun, and when I march out of Empire tomorrow with a song in my heart even after a tough loss these are what will be in my mind.
Category I: Things Tom Soehn Has Done Right
I don't like Tom Soehn. The guy's an incompetent coach and I won't be changing that opinion any time soon. The sooner Martin Rennie's in place, the happier I'll be. I'm thinking I might throw a little party. We'll drink Scotch.
However, as Director of Soccer Operations, Soehn has been responsible for bringing in some players who didn't have high profiles but have proven quality additions. His conception of how to build a competitive team isn't quite right but he certainly has a good eye for talent. It's not all vipers and venom with Soehn: I could even accept his remaining with the 2012 Whitecaps in some capacity.
The most obvious example of Soehn's good eye is Eric Hassli, the French designated player who left relative obscurity with FC Zürich to become MLS's leading strikers. Hassli is a gregarious positive personality who vocally loves the city of Vancouver, plays his heart out, and is earning every cent of his salary. He's not a perfect player (a little slow, not as good in the air as his size implies) but who in MLS is? There isn't a team in MLS who wouldn't take Hassli at his current contract — a contract that Tom Soehn can take a lot of credit for.
Alain Rochat and Davide Chiumiento both had a bit of a profile in North America when they came over: they weren't brilliant "discoveries" but Rochat has been exceptional and Chiumiento has been worthwhile. Soehn also poached exceptional young Gershon Koffie out of nowhere: he's arguably been Vancouver's most valuable player this season. Some of his other foreign acquisitions such as Nizar Khalfan and Alexandre Morfaw haven't been spectacular but they're been useful. Khalfan's also been good value, although Morfaw's waiting for a real chance at MLS.
Soehn's draft record is decent: neither spectacular nor awful. Taking Omar Salgado first overall has been controversial and it's tricky to judge a guy who just turned eighteen years old but I don't think anybody doubts his potential. He's been unlucky with Michael Nanchoff, who missed essentially the entire preseason with a groin injury, but I like what I've seen from him as an intelligent playmaker with a good shot. Jeb Brovsky and Bilal Duckett get a lot of stick from Whitecaps fans, but both were later-round picks: Brovsky is a useful central midfielder who I'd like the team to keep. In the supplementary draft, Soehn absolutely stole Michael Boxall, an intelligent, strong, and eager centre back who'll probably be starting in MLS someday.
Obviously the team he's built isn't good enough. Soehn criminally underestimated the amount of depth the Whitecaps would need, wasted his expansion draft, made very costly mistakes on players like John Thorrington and (arguably) Joe Cannon, and has left a few key positions seriously undermanned. He shouldn't have the only say over roster decisions in 2012... but I'd love it if Soehn had some input. He fails on team-building strategy but has a very good eye for talent.
Category II: Things the Organization Has Done Right
I write very little about the Whitecaps front office in this space. (I write very little about anything in this space.) Michael McColl has owned that beat for a few seasons; I tend to find it hard to improve on what he's said.
There have been problems between the Whitecaps and the fans at points this season: players being ejected for wearing masks, the questionable handling of Nevio Pizzolitto's spitting on a Southsider after a Voyageurs Cup match, and general accusation of security paranoia. However, most of these problems come courtesy the Pacific National Exhibition's security force. Hired by the owners of the ground Empire Field sits on, neither the Whitecaps nor the BC Lions have a great deal of say in their operations. They set guidelines but it's ultimately up to PNE Security what they do. Almost without exception, the event staff employed by the Whitecaps has been courteous and helpful.
As I type this, the Whitecaps ticketing staff are working on allowing Vancouver Southsiders to concentrate into a smaller number of sections in BC Place while, supposedly, placing additional restrictions on ticket sales in those areas. That's good news for the Southsiders (who get to sing their songs in one voice) and good news for other fans (who don't need to fear inadvertently buying a ticket among a bunch of rowdy, standing, young men, as well as opening up more sections where they can watch a game the way they see fit). They've been helpful in getting around PNE regulations barring flagpoles, although with some hoops to jump through. There are rumours of chant leaders in the Southsiders sections being allowed to use megaphones at some point in the future. While I concentrate on the Southsiders because I am one, there are no indications they've been anything less than professional to the casual bulk of fans.
At this time last year, I had a hell of a time getting a Whitecaps rep to sell me a season ticket and an even worse time giving them my money. This time, I have access to a convenient automated system and Whitecaps reps are almost falling over themselves to be helpful. It's for the most obvious reason — they want me to renew my season ticket — but it's an effort to improve customer satisfaction.
I don't want to harp too much on the media angle, but I will say that the Whitecaps have a reputation for being one of the best professional sports organizations in North America for a reporter, big- or small-time, to deal with. They've lived up to that in my first season interacting with them.
In another world, I'm a fan of the Edmonton Oilers. That organization not only bans bloggers from the press box but bans any member of the organization from speaking on the record to anybody from non-traditional media and once threw a newspaper-credentialed reporter out of their press box for live-blogging during a game. A reporter of my acquaintance had a press credential to one of the Oilers' minor-league affiliates pulled when the reporter planned on writing on a fan blog about the team. Security goons under orders from the front office hunt down those showing signs against the regime in Rexall Place; an excellent arena which Vancouver-resident billionaire Daryl Katz is currently trying to replace on the taxpayer's dime. There is no trick too dirty for them, and for all that sleaze they've finished dead last in the NHL two years running.
The Whitecaps and the Oilers both lose a lot of games. The reason it's still easy for me to cheer for the Whitecaps is that their organization puts as much effort into winning off the field as they do on.
Category III: The Players
As a soccer fan, I don't like the way Major League Soccer relies on the NCAA college ranks. Those players benefited from sub-standard instruction for their most important developmental years: the only result can be inferior players.
But as a fan, it sure is nice to be able to cheer for a team of intelligent, likable, educated young men. Soccer at the NCAA isn't football: not many athletes can afford to waste their education taking fake "courses" about cooking and the history of the oboe. Academics aren't an irrelevant consideration for somebody wanting to play NCAA soccer, and so you wind up with well-rounded young men like Boxall and (once) Wes Knight who don't just play good games but also have minds and opinions that weren't stunted by spending their lives since they were 14 in a soccer factory.
Not to write off the non-college-educated Whitecaps. How many players in the history of Vancouver sports have been as likeable, as fun, and as selfless as Eric Hassli? Mouloud Akloul, when he was here, was the sort of guy who'd bring out cans of beer to supporters after they won a shootout against the Timbers Army. Joe Cannon will support fans any time, and Joe Cannon paying for supporters' drinks after a tough loss. There's hardly a player of consequence who hasn't been willing to engage the fans and been photographed showing all the class we hope our athletes display.
On the field, well, the team loses. It's hard to sugar-coat that. But with exciting players like Hassli, Davide Chiumiento, Nizar Khalfan, Long Tan, and Russell Teibert around, there's usually something to watch. This team doesn't bunker, doesn't dive (except Camilo Sanvezzo), and doesn't play dirty. They play thoroughly enjoyable soccer. We might be happier if they played ugly and won, and they look too much like eleven individuals almost every game... but if you divorce yourself from the result, those individuals can be pretty exciting.
Being a Whitecaps fan is rough, and about the only thing we have to look forward to is the second overall pick this coming winter. We can still enjoy the ride, even if we don't necessarily like where it's going. I'm still here supporting the team, and if you're reading this odds are you are too.
See you tomorrow at Empire.