VANCOUVER, CANADA - APRIL 16: Eric Hassli #29 of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC makes a move to get past Andrew Boyens #2 of the Chivas USA during the second half in MLS action on April 16, 2011 at Empire Field in Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
My center is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I attack.
Ferdinand Foch, commander of the French Ninth Army in 1914
The team is run by a Scotsman who answers to a Canadian and has players from five continents, but the Vancouver Whitecaps are adopting a French approach. Attack, attack, always attack.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Whitecaps have added South Korean veteran Lee Young-pyo, who ought to be a major boost at right back. South American journeyman Martin Bonjour, as well as a likely underwhelming chorus of youngsters and draft picks, provide the rest of the new blood on the back line. Brad Knighton is a backup goalkeeper, for what that's worth, and of the new midfielders Jun Marques Davidson has a reputation as a defensive specialist, and Bryce Alderson is a quality defensive midfielder who's too young to contribute immediately. Most of these players are just replacing the departed; Bonjour for Greg Janicki, Knighton for Jay Nolly, Lee for Jonathan Leathers, Davidson for Peter Vagenas, and so on. They should be upgrades but we're not throwing a lot more meat onto the defensive side of the ball.
And the attacking players? (deep breath)
First overall pick Darren Mattocks, elite MLS scorer Sebastien Le Toux, and attacking midfielder Lee Nguyen are all new to the team and can do only one thing. Atiba Harris, another guy who mostly throws himself forward, is almost a new addition as he recovers from knee problems, and attacking winger Michael Nanchoff arguably qualifies as well. Ben Fisk and Caleb Clarke, both attacking players, are still in training camp from the Residency team. This is without counting any players rumoured to be joining the Whitecaps who are also attack-minded midfield types. The list of attacking players lost amounts to Mustapha Jarju (I'm virtually the only Whitecaps fan alive who doesn't think that was addition by subtraction) and Shea Salinas (who I do not miss).
Obviously the attack needed a make over. Last year's Whitecaps scored 35 goals, worst in the league, while 55 goals against was merely third-worst. 22 of those 35 goals, or 62.9%, were scored by either Eric Hassli or Camilo Sanvezzo. Adding a few guns to the arsenal was a very good idea on Rennie's part; you don't really think Long Tan is able to carry the mail, do you?
However, he may have overcompensated. All the talk is of Vancouver using a 4-3-3 with Davide Chiumiento in the midfield: four out of ten outfield players whose sole duty will be attack. In our first friendly against Seattle, Rennie started Camilo, Hassli, and Le Toux up top with Harris in midfield. They did well (winning their 45-minute period 1-0 against a strong Seattle lineup) but wow, that's an aggressive bunch.
Add in bench players like Nanchoff, Tan, Mattocks, Nguyen, Russell Teibert, Omar Salgado, and possibly Chiumiento, and this team certainly has goals in it. But is the lineup too unbalanced, and how far can this get them?
It's hard for teams to succeed by running their opponents off the pitch. The last team to finish in the top two of an MLS conference without a defense that wasn't in the top half of the conference for goals allowed was FC Dallas in 2006, and they couldn't get out of the first round of the playoffs. The previous team was the 2004 Galaxy.
2009 DC United is the best recent vision of Vancouver's future: they tied for the league lead with 43 goals for but conceded 44; they finished tenth in the league and missed the playoffs. The 2008 Los Angeles Galaxy scored a superb 55 goals but conceded 62, eleven worse than the next-worst team, and didn't make the playoffs either. Plenty of teams have loaded up on firepower at the expense of defense and tried to outslug their opponents, but it's been years since a team has made it work.
The Whitecaps may muster an average defense, but they're in a precarious position. First, either Vancouver is going to use an attacking formation like a 4-3-3 or they're going to waste some expensive, high-quality talent. It seems unlikely that one of Camilo, Hassli, or Le Toux is going to be a bench player; if that is what Martin Rennie does then that means we've made a serious mistake allocating scant resources to expensive players anyway.
Of our defenders, Alain Rochat is a sure thing. Jay DeMerit will probably be fine if healthy and well-supported, and Lee Young-pyo certainly ought to do well, but both are minor risks. Martin Bonjour and Carlyle Mitchell are completely unknown quantities even though one of them is going to start. Depth is poor: only Jordan Harvey has more than a season's worth of MLS experience. In goal, Joe Cannon did well last year but is getting older and has a history of injuries, while Brad Knighton washed out of MLS last time around.
A successful 2012 season will depend too much on luck: will Bonjour or Mitchell work out, will everyone stay healthy, will Cannon regress? If the answer to any of those questions is "no" then we have an awfully one-dimensional team on our hands and let's face it, close observers of a single team tend to overrate the impact of a sudden makeover. It would, statistically, be a real shock if the Whitecaps finished top two in MLS scoring.
Yet if the Barry Robson or the David Bentley rumours are accurate, the Whitecaps are trying to get more firepower. Even if those rumours are false, there has been little movement on the defense beyond uninteresting trialists.
I love to watch goals as much as anybody. But for heaven's sake, Martin, I hope you know how to keep them out.