As predicted, the Vancouver Whitecaps opened their 2013 MLS campaign with a victory over Toronto FC, a team comprised of many new and disjointed parts, and a side that is now winless in its last 15 matches. But what wasn't foreseen was the tentative and sometimes sloppy play that characterized the first half from the Caps, netting them a scoreless draw after 45 minutes. Until that point, the Caps had given numerous balls away cheaply, and failed to come out of most contested situations on the winning end.
But the effect of Reo-Coker's dominance in midfield was immediate, and from the second-half kickoff onward the Caps were able to thrust forward with authority, snuff out Toronto forays with impunity, and the crowd at B.C. Place finally had occasion to slide forward to the edge of their seats.
After an offseason featuring a good number of roster changes, match day 1 was our first opportunity to observe a number of key additions in full-on league action.
Brad Rusin did an admirable job after coming in stone cold off the bench for team captain Jay DeMerit, who pulled up lame after only seven minutes. The Caps had originally called it a strained calf, but DeMerit had suffered from an Achilles issue that plagued him throughout most of the preseason. One can't help but have grave reservations about the wisdom of inserting him into the lineup against a weak opponent, especially since reports today indicate that it's a ruptured Achilles, which effectively puts an end to his season.
For the first time too, Whitecaps fans got a good look at the much vaunted technical prowess of Daigo Kobayashi. Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie had him lined up at right mid to start the match, though in the early stages of the match he swapped sides with Kekuta Manneh, who had started wide left in Rennie's 4-2-3-1. It seems that, while Kobayashi's reputation preceded him, his goods are definitely as advertised. He's a younger, flashier version of Y. P. Lee from a ball skills point of view, with technical flair, soft feet, and a very useful knack for getting into useful position when off the ball. He may well turn out to be the creative spark the Caps have been missing since Davide Chiumiento's departure.
Preseason rookie sensation Kekuta Manneh started at left mid, and did show some of his incredible pace. Predictably, though, he also showed much of his inexperience, and perhaps nerves, either dribbling into trouble, or having difficulty at times getting the ball under control. Still, that's generally what rookies do.
Fellow SuperDraft pick Erik Hurtado came on halfway through the second half, and had, in my opinion, a slightly stronger showing than Manneh - despite making more mistakes. Hurtado has speed and power in his game, and he's built more like a strong safety (from that other kind of football), than a midfielder/winger.
Though technically not a new face by any means, Kenny Miller deserves plenty of praise for upping his game on the defensive side. His 60-yard gallop back to track down and deny Ashtone Morgan was exemplary - and proves to me that Miller is a guy with heart, and that helping this team is something he's committed to.
But, I've saved the best for last: Nigel Reo-Coker. If Hurtado's built like a safety, Reo-C. (as his jersey proclaims) is a middle linebacker. Imposing, strong, agile, and focused... and he's not even said to be in full match fitness. You don't often get to see the entire face of a match change with one substitution, but it certainly happened last Saturday. Everything I've seen, heard, and read of this man since his arrival in Vancouver suggests to me that we've acquired a consummate professional who's integrated into the side rather seamlessly.
It's only one match and, particularly in the case of Manneh and Hurtado, Whitecaps fans should temper some of the hype and let them stew a little in the MLS cauldron before making any definitive judgements. That said, there were a number of positives that the Caps take confidence in, and maybe some lessons that they can build upon in the week ahead before they host Columbus.