Martin Rennie has gone straight to work this off-season in what can be considered as close to a complete overhaul of a squad as will be allowed by the muddy MLS rulebook. No one is exactly surprised, as Rennie has shown he's not afraid to shake things up by his fire sale in Carolina in 2009. That, in addition to the fact that the 2011 Whitecaps were, quite frankly, terrible.
Some of the moves were obvious. Players like Vagenas and Janicki were always likely to be dropped. Even some fan favourites and potentially useful players such as Jay Nolly and Phillipe Davies were sent packing for nothing more than the roster spot they occupied. Rennie even managed to have first season flop Mustapha Jarju's contract ripped up for a large pile of cash in severance pay.
Several weeks later, the pieces are starting to come together and the picture that is the 2012 Whitecaps is beginning to become clear. LeToux, Mattocks, Nguyen, and perhaps Barbara have been brought in to add depth to an already deep attacking group. Lee Young-pyo, Martin Bonjour, and Chris Estridge have filled out what is beginning to look like a rather competent and adequately deep back line.
This should be music to Whitecaps supporters ears. Last season, injuries and suspensions ravaged Whitecaps defenders, and it became evident very quickly that last seasons' 3rd and 4th choice centre backs were not able to keep up with MLS talent. Mind you, much of the blame for the late season sieve-like defending lies with Tom Soehn for inexplicably releasing Maloud Akloul, a strong and entertaining (read: risky) centre back and speedy Whitecaps fan favourite Wes Knight before beginning a painful game of right-back roulette.
Regardless, it appears the Whitecaps will go into 2012 with a much more staunch defence and a full compliment of capable attackers. This leaves one barking questions.
Is our midfield any better?
Rennie has made several useful signings in the middle of the park. Lee Nguyen will likely be an upgrade on Salinas and is rumoured to be on a bargain basement contract. Matt Watson comes with high praise as a steady but unspectacular central midfielder, and Jun Marques Davidson has been praised by Rennie as a strong and steady defensive midfielder with plenty of technical ability. Thorrington appears to be fit to start the season, and Harris may slot in as a starting right winger if preseason is any indication.
While there is certainly more depth to start the year, it's only a matter of time before someone (cough, Thorrington) goes down injured or a stretch of bad form hits and the Whitecaps are forced to play with a midfield marginally better than last years – a midfield that was consistently overrun by even the most flaccid of opposition.
There have already been rumblings from the club that they are still looking for a general in the middle of the park, but finding a good upgrade for the right price is a difficult task in the reality of a salary cap league.
Luckily for the Whitecaps, they have one thing that doesn`t count against the cap which they lacked last season.
Gershon Koffie was a virtual lock in the middle of the park. Finding a midfield partner for him was a constant struggle for consistency and fitness. Rochat was forced to the middle to cover for an injured and inept centreback cadre, which left Shea Salinas as the only player providing width as players were consistently played out of position on both the left wing and right back.
Fast forward to training camp in Arizona this season and a far different picture is painted. The Whitecaps have depth at most every position including in the midfield.
Six months ago it was hard to think of a squad that didn't include Koffie galloping around the middle of the park constantly chasing down opponents and occasionally running the ball straight into them. Today he is not even in the starting eleven. Jun Marques Davidson is a likely starter beside Thorrington, barring new acquisitions,
Both should keep one eye over their shoulder. Koffie and Watson are both serviceable MLS players, and depending on formation, even Davide Chiumiento could usurp one if not both of the starters.
That's the beautiful thing about competition.
Competition within the squad will encourage the best performance on the field., allow for squad rotation and provide versatility.
It was clear that some players on the team gave up towards the end of the season in the rudderless ship that was Tom Soehn's Whitecaps. Soehn didn't have the horses to switch gears in the middle of the season; he also didn't have the guts to really mix it up and player some of the younger kids. It was only when Colin Miller set the starting 11 when the season was already a disaster that players like Nizar Khalfan and Long Tan got a run and provided some spark.
Was that renewed energy because Khalfan and Tan are better players than Salinas and Hassli?
Not at all. The Whitecaps played better because they played the guys who wanted it. They played a bunch of guys with energy and something to prove.
On March 10th, Hassli and LeToux will certainly be the first choice strikers up top, and rightfully so. However, should either falter and slip into a run of bad form, Rennie has the option of installing any one of many capable forwards.Thorrington may go down with yet another injury, but this time, it will not be only Koffie to fill the gap. And should Bonjour not work out in the MLS, Mitchell has shown the potential to be a quality MLS centreback.
This all indicates good things for supporters. Last season, the Whitecaps entered training camp with a core roster full of unknown quantities to the MLS. This season the good parts were kept, the waste was shed, and players have been brought in at every position to either replace or push current starters.
The individual players will be better this year. They'll have to be, or they'll be sanctimoniously replaced.
It's all a recipe for for an entertaining and successful 2012.
Bring on the March 10th. Bring on the Impact.