Everybody's previewing the Major League Soccer season which starts tomorrow and who am I to argue?
The Vancouver Whitecaps have remodeled almost the entire team, and that means you can't really tell what they're going to do. A new coach, a host of new players, new strategy and new attitude in an almost-new stadium; even the chief executive office is gone. Predicting this team's performance is going to be based entirely on stringing together a bunch of questionably-significant facts from a half-dozen leagues over several seasons and trying to relate those with meaningless pre-season games to figure these guys out. What I'm saying is that you have to be a moron to try it.
Luckily, I was always a great moron. After the jump, my preview of the coming 2012 Vancouver Whitecaps season.
This is the time of the year for optimism. Look at the SB Nation pre-season previews, each written by a dedicated observer of the team, and you'll count on one hand the teams that haven't got cause for optimism. Everybody's made changes, except the New England Revolution of course. Everybody's got their hopes up, but we know that some teams are going to finish out of the running anyway.
This isn't deliberate bias: we study our teams' new acquisitions, get to know their strengths and their weaknesses, listen to coaches who play up the former, and get the impression that this is going to work. We deliberate strategies and come up with interesting tactics and formations which will seem to lead to wins. In most cases, analysis of the opposition is far less in-depth. We're left with a sort of Wikipedia-level view of our rivals, and so we overestimate our own progress. We know that Greg Klazura's a left-footed rookie playing on the right but he cuts in well, looks intelligent, and has a magificent eye for the long pass; we don't know so well that Chivas or Portland have promising unheralded rookies own pulling their own tricks.
As I said for SB Nation Soccer last week, the Whitecaps could finish anywhere without surprising me. A Supporters Shield/MLS Cup double? Obviously unlikely but I can see how it would happen: the Whitecaps have the required depth at every position, experienced professionals everywhere, good leadership, and enough star power to pack a punch. A second Wooden Spoon for Bob Lenarduzzi's trophy case? More probable: too many players and coaches getting their first or second tastes of Major League Soccer, a few potential injury cases. A good team that runs a strong record into the playoffs, a middling team that sneaks through, a bad team which shows some improvement but is still short of the standard... you could make excellent arguments for any of those positions.
When I say the Whitecaps will be competitive this year, I'm splitting the difference. On paper, the team has brought in a lot of interesting new talent but history demands that not all that talent will work out. Some of our stars from last year will regress towards the mean, while hopefully a few underachievers will find their games again. The Whitecaps are so unfamiliar with each other, and not a lot more familiar with the league, that there are bound to be growing pains. No contender is made from whole cloth.
A key for the Whitecaps will be patience. It was in short supply in 2011 and that's part of what sank us: as the Whitecaps struggled for points (but not performances) in the first third of the season we jettisoned our coach, faithful and once-reliable players, changed up our tactics, and tried to shift gears without a clutch. The results spoke for themselves. That's not a mistake Vancouver can afford to make a second time.
Martin Rennie, and the majority of his new acquisitions, have been proven professional success stories. But not in Major League Soccer, which has unique rules, an odd culture, a bunch of cement-head defenders playing rough soccer with surprisingly skilled offensive players making big money. Road trips are long and the league works hard to keep rich teams from gaining any of the little, non-roster advantages that helps them cement their lead over the poor. There must be hard times ahead: a few ugly games, a blowout loss or two. There will be mistakes from players not previously prone to making them and Martin Rennie will, as a mathematical certainty, make a gaffe or two.
But the Whitecaps hired wisely and Rennie's always gotten results. So have the veteran players brought in from other leagues. Maybe they can't hack it but they need a fair opportunity: no hand of the front office swooping from the heavens the first time the team looks sour. Yes, the MLS gods have given Vancouver an easy start this year, but the 2011 Whitecaps had their best nights in home games one and two and look where that got them.
I think that patience will be there. I think the Whitecaps never had much faith in Teitur Thordarson last year to begin with, that they are genuinely impressed with Martin Rennie, and they know better than to continue a Toronto FC-style cycle of blame and failure. That's where so much of my optimism comes from: if I saw Lenarduzzi or Soehn waiting in the wings looking at Rennie with a loaded gun and a dark expression, I'd be concerned. But I think they both know their place and will fill it the best they can.
So where will the Whitecaps finish?
Close to a playoff spot, if not in one. It'll be a tight battle for the playoffs whether it's successful or not. Hopefully an exciting one with the Whitecaps pushing hard in the last weeks: the sort of thing that sells season tickets even if it falls short. The Whitecaps are obviously short of the first tier of the MLS Western Conference; teams like Los Angeles, and their form will probably be inconsistent against the second tier as well. They can play with anybody on their day, but with so many question marks Vancouver's "day" won't come around as often as we'd like.
The team's leading scorer is just as much of a crap-shoot as the standings. I go with Eric Hassli, partially because as a designated player he's likely to get a disproportionate share of the playing time, partially because he's the only true target man on a roster full of all-rounders and will therefore be put into a purer goal-scoring role, and partially because he has a better career scoring record than Camilo. As for Le Toux, I'm not entirely certain he'll get the playing time he's used to and if he does, he'll be asked to use his A-grade playmaking more than his B-grade shooting in this lineup.
I think Matt Watson, Carlyle Mitchell, Michael Nanchoff, and Russell Teibert will be getting "what a pleasant surprise!" stories in the papers by June. I think Long Tan, Omar Salgado, Darren Mattocks, and Atiba Harris will have Twitter wondering what's wrong with them.
I think Vancouver should be the class of Canada, although FC Edmonton has potential if they can regain consistency and their new imports meet expectations. Toronto appears mentally fragile, has few consistent players besides 35-year-old Torsten Frings, and are overrating some pretty average ones. They're a cut above Montreal, though, who have Justin Braun and hope alone. Their coach is a non-entity and their strategy of spending big money on constantly-injured underachievers from the Italian leagues is hilarious. Vancouver should be fair to good, Edmonton could be a non-playoff NASL team or league winners in a romp, Toronto is fair to poor (not at all ruling out the playoffs for them), Montreal might be historically bad.
I don't think Vancouver is the class of Cascadia; Seattle's throne hasn't been seriously challenged. Portland should watch its back for second place; that said, Hanyer Mosquera spooks me a little and Kris Boyd could obviously win the league scoring crown if his head's on straight.
I think this season will be an improvement on the last; I mean, obviously on the field it could hardly be worse, but the hype has taken a step down this year while the skill seems to have taken a step up. That's a good combination, although I'm not sure the Whitecaps ticket office will immediately agree.