AAAAH! AAAH! (runs around shrieking and flailing arms) AAAAAH!
On Saturday, the Vancouver Whitecaps first team took on Toronto FC Reserves/Academy/Nick Soolsma for the 2012 Disney Cup Thing of Meaninglessness. Boasting a potent lineup which featured Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, Lee Young-pyo, Eric Hassli, Camilo Sanvezzo, Joe Cannon, and for some reason I haven't figured out yet Darren Mattocks, the Whitecaps snuck one slightly fluky goal past Toronto goalkeeper Quillan Roberts. The Whitecaps threatened briefly to add more but mostly played the game in midfield, while Toronto had good counter-attacking chances in the second half and were denied only by Joe Cannon's heroics. Vancouver won 1-0 but didn't look imposing.
Sunday, the second eleven took on the NASL's Carolina Railhawks. Being an NASL team the Railhawks should, of course, have been a walkover for a Whitecaps team that started six former second-division players and, as a second-division team itself, had a better than .500 record against MLS opposition. The Railhawks were only the reigning best team in the division, loaded with high-quality veterans, and coached by the legendary Colin Clarke, so imagine our surprise when that professional soccer team turned out to be a match for a lineup of young players, depth guys, and mercurial talents! Second-division alumnus Long Tan and second-division alumnus Davide Chiumiento scored for Vancouver but we wound up losing on penalties.
Clearly these are the worst things that have ever happened. The same second eleven hammering ten out of eleven Sporting Kansas City starters 3-0 has been erased. Our starting lineup's thorough thrashing of the Montreal Impact may as well have been on Mars.
Or maybe we should lay off the navel-gazing. Neither game was as good as we wanted but neither plumbed the depths of infirmity we witnessed last season. After Sunday, Whitecaps fan boards are awash with gloom and angst, and we should know better. Nothing on the weekend which hits at our goal of a good mid-table finish.
The Whitecaps were their own worst enemy on Saturday. They played like they knew what was at stake and conserved too much energy. They underrated an opponent used to playing against grown men: TFC Academy has a strong record every year in the Canadian Soccer League. Most of the Toronto players are more used to each other from years of training than the Whitecaps, who had too many moments of "oh I'm just going to beat all these teenagers by myself ho hum." Alain Rochat, last year's MVP, had an awful game, while Mattocks proved he's still not ready to start at this level (bear in mind TFC Academy's U-18s, and indeed the Whitecaps Residency, play at a higher level than the NCAA).
For all that, the Whitecaps still walked away with a good 1-0 victory: Toronto FC certainly deserved a goal but the Whitecaps deserved two. It was a much more evenly-fought game than any of us would have preferred but Vancouver emerged victors of the worthless prize, leading to a hilarious picture of Russell Teibert kissing his first championship as a professional player and looking utterly non-plussed by it. The players were undermotivated and everybody knew it.
When we play FC Edmonton in May that sort of thinking could bite us in the ass; Martin Rennie has some work to do. But that's a matter of mental approach, not skill, and thus can be fixed. Rennie recognized the problems to judge by his post-game interviews.
Rennie teams have had problems with motivation before; witness the last third of the 2011 NASL regular season. But it's not a problem likely to rear its head with this team too often; it's not good enough to get too cocky, and hopefully Rennie can sort things out.
There were other factors. The Whitecaps made a minor strategic mistake when arranging their friendly lineups, as the probable first eleven has played together relatively little: Saturday, the previous week against Montreal, and for bits and pieces of 45-minute segments in semi-legitimate games against Seattle and Salt Lake on a neutral site. The UVic friendly, the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City games, and of course Sunday's match were all played by backups. That's one game against professionals and one against semi-professionals/amateurs for the first team, versus three against professionals and one against amateurs for the backups.
Speaking of professionals, I'm not sure why some fans expected a whitewash against Carolina. The Railhawks, even without Rennie and many of their players, are a successful organization top to bottom with plenty left in the tank. They poached Colin Clarke, the most accomplished coach in the division and more than a match for most MLS bosses, to replace Rennie. The team has added serious players: forward Brian Shriver has long been in the division's first tier, forward Jason Garey was a good MLS player for a number of years, and the return of Amir Lowery more than compensates the loss of Matt Watson in midfield. They're not what they were in 2011, but they're contenders. Vancouver fans, of all people, should know not to underestimate NASL teams in a world with no promotion/relegation where a team's level is determined exclusively by the size of the cheque they write.
Carolina had a question mark in goal: Nic Platter is a player/coach who backed up Fort Lauderdale last year and has never been more than a journeyman, while Akira Fitzgerald was with the team last year but an unknown quantity: I knew nothing of him but the name and expected Platter to start. Silly me: Fitzgerald certainly showed me something: he's a really little guy for a keeper but made three five-alarm saves to deny what should have been goals at any level. He was remarkable; if that's the form the Railhawks can expect all season then Brad Knighton was the wrong guy to take.
The Whitecaps played the Railhawks evenly, which is what you'd expect when the starters for a good NASL team play the backups from a mid-pack MLS team. Watson and Bryce Alderson were both exceptional in the middle of the park but the Whitecaps were let down on the flanks, by an injury to Russell Teibert, and by a Sebastien Le Toux being marked into oblivion by youngsters Cory Miller and Austen King. Now that's where I expected a mismatch (King is a rookie and Miller a little-played sophomore): instead, Le Toux was a non-factor and Long Tan completely enigmatic, scoring a nice header but wasting boatloads of possession. I also thought the Whitecaps had earned a penalty when Miller hacked down a Vancouver attacker near the corner of the box in the second half, but the referee disagreed.
We lost on penalties to a quality team because Akira Fitzgerald was God, our best player had his worst day of the pre-season, and because the Railhawks are not to be trifled with. Those same Whitecaps pantsed Kansas City but they were less tired, less injured, didn't run into a brick wall of a goaltender, and there's a pretty fair chance the 2012 Railhawks will be better than the 2012 Sportings anyway.
So what am I supposed to be worried about again? The Whitecaps didn't play like superstars on the weekend but nobody expects superstardom. Just a reliable team that'll make some noise and battle for a playoff spot. We're off to a good start.