The Vancouver Whitecaps have finally achieved the right balance. - Drew Hallowell
In the Asian gateway city of Vancouver, pretty much everyone is familiar with yin and yang - but just in case you don't have a clue what I'm on about, I'm not making reference to the starting centrebacks on the Chinese national team.
According to Wikiipedia, yin and yang are the Chinese constructs that serve to "...describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world..." It's about complementary forces and elements, and their interaction that achieves harmony and balance. It's about ebb and flow, action and reaction, and for the first time in Major League Soccer: Blue and White.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have had a fairly rough go of things in recent years. In the span of about two years starting in 2010, they played out of three different venues, saw three different head coaches, and had a big-name CEO sign on, chalk up a number of successes, and then vanish from the scene. They were indeed vibrant and tumultuous times, but not necessarily ones that were conducive to finding balance.
The team has had its share of problems on the pitch as well. In particular, the Designated Player role has been somewhat of an albatross around the team's neck for a litany of reasons.
Mustapha Jarju, the first African to sign as a DP in MLS, turned out to be a catastrophic flop from the start. The Gambian had posted impressive numbers while playing in Belgium, signed on with the Caps in the summer of 2011, and was released in early 2012.
Eric Hassli's chapter in Whitecaps lore couldn't have been any different - perhaps the yin to Jarju's yang. Vancouver's first-ever DP, he became a cult hero more or less instantaneously after potting two goals for the home fans in the Whitecaps' first match in MLS. The former FC Zurich star was perhaps the ultimate of enigmas - capable of scoring all-world markers, yet susceptible to committing the dumbest of fouls. And then there came the extended drought, and his exit to Toronto FC.
More recently, there was the Barry Robson saga. Suffice it to say, the "fit" just wasn't right here, and both sides have since moved on.
Finding balance was a major issue through Vancouver's inaugural season in MLS. The side had some useful tools, but not enough of them to compensate for weaknesses, particularly in midfield, or to avoid a last-place finish (tied with New England) and a -20 goal differential.
In year two of MLS, the team made significant strides, improving in spite of themselves. But if balance was the problem in 2011, it was a lack of harmony that ultimately caught up with the team in 2012. After a particularly strong showing in the early stages of the season, the club decided that mid-season tinkering was in order - the results of which are well documented here, and elsewhere. Vancouver saw a number of talented players depart, and their replacements were equally talented - on paper at least. Vancouver was a side that, from mid-season onward, looked constantly to be trying to catch up with themselves. "Cohesion" and "identity" were the words du jour for far more jours that I'd care to remember. Despite another losing season, they became the first Canadian team to qualify for the MLS playoffs.
For 2013, both harmony and balance, the yin and yang, seem to have found a home in Vancouver. The blue and white have added superb SuperDraft picks in F/Ms Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh, along with high-quality off-season signings such as CB Brad Rusin, F Daigo Kobayashi, F Tom Heineman, D Johnny Leveron, and D/M Nigel Reo-Coker. You want speed? Got it in spades. You want experience? Check. How 'bout depth? Yup. What about youth? That's been covered too.
This year, for the first time, Martin Rennie has viable options all around the pitch. He has proven talent that can move into multiple slots without skipping a beat. His "plug and play" roster should allow him to optimize the lineup on a match by match basis, and avoid the kind of horse-whipping that saw Lee and DeMerit run into the ground at times. For once, his choices should be far more about who can complement each other, rather than cover for each other.
As the Whitecaps soon begin to make final preparations for the season start, I get a sense that everything's ok in the universe today. Could that be .... confidence I'm feeling? I'm not quite sure. But whatever it is, I like it, so I'm going with the flow.