Identity. Webster's defines it as "sameness of essential or generic character in different instances." And in all the recent talk centering on the Vancouver Whitecaps -- their loss of momentum in recent weeks, the revamping of the roster through departures and acquisitions (what is it now, four or five moves in the last two weeks?), and the side's on-pitch alignment -- it all boils down at some level or another to the quest for an identity -- that singular galvanizing quality that bonds the disparate, and unites those whose own unique paths have brought them to this place and time.
Identity isn't a brown and blue colour scheme. It's not a team photo, nor is it a system of play or a match day motto. In soccer, as in all team sports, having a collective notion of who you are, what you are, and why you're together in the first place is the cornerstone of establishing an identity.
And it's having a sense of identity that carries teams through adversity, keeps them focused when the pressure is on to come back to tie when trailing late, or to hold on for the win when the opposition is hammering at the gates in the dying minutes.
The fault lines on the Whitecaps roster are many: more than a dozen different nationalities, a starting back line that speaks four different languages, players young enough to be their teammates' sons, some players with World Cup experience while others are more at home in the PDL, a team with a touch of reggae, and samba, with a twist of bar brawl and Euro-Asian fusion thrown in -- great if you're throwing a dinner party, but kinda tough to rope together in a common cause.
The 2012 season started full of promise for the Whitecaps -- and to a large degree that promise was delivered, as the team pledged to erase the memory of a dismal entry year in MLS in 2011. Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie gave priority to improving team defence, and the back line and midfield were shored up considerably with the addition of Young-Pyo Lee and Jun Marques Davidson. The team promptly went out and set an MLS record for minutes played at the start of a season without conceding. Ironically, the clean sheet run was snapped in a match that saw the back end melt down in allowing San Jose to hammer home three goals in the span of 10 minutes. What had once looked like an iron curtain defence, was reduced to tin foil status. In losing the following match by an identical 3-1 score, the Caps confirmed that their defending could be exploited.
The notion that this team would be virtually impenetrable quickly vaporized.
Since those early days, a consistent theme has been the string of low-scoring one-goal margins of victory a couple draws - with the interjection of a pair of demolitions at the hands of New England and Los Angeles. Oh yeah, there was also the abject failure of the Whitecaps to secure the Voyageurs Cup from a TFC side that is the laughing stock of MLS.
For a while, the Caps looked to be dynamite on home soil, but now their home record has fallen to 5-1-4, putting them in the same company with the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution. To be sure, this is still a huge improvement over 2011, but the team was reminded recently about what happens to squads that won't or can't pull together.
The Whitecaps had the opportunity to establish a name for themselves as road warriors last month, as they struck out on a five-match away swing. The tally? Four of a possible 15 points. Alas, the search for an identity continues.
Now, with the MLS transfer window wide open, Martin Rennie's been dealing like a croupier on amphetamines. Enigmatic playmaker Davide Chiumiento's been sold off. Sebastien Le Toux, stuck in neutral for too long, was dealt to New York. And face of the franchise Eric Hassli's been shipped somewhere east in a fire-sale deal to clear cap space and a DP slot.
It's beginning to look as if Rennie's slowly reverting to Vancouver's NASL model back in the late 70's, when half the UK arrived in Vancouver to don the blue and white.
Inconsistent performance and the recent spate of roster roulette have combined to leave Vancouver lacking in identity. And the wheel of fortune may soon be set to spin yet again if Rennie's to be taken at his word.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have roughly half a season to figure out who they are, and how to average more than a goal per match. Will it be enough time to secure a playoff spot? Who knows? But we might get a clue to the answer this evening if the Caps can stay focused for the full 90 against San Jose.