The New York Red Bulls are in town. Of course, that also means that the organization will almost undoubtedly be busy manufacturing a fresh new reason why Thierry Henry won't be able to partake in the team's season opener. It's no secret that the aging Henry does not like playing on artificial turf, and at 36 years old his knees probably offer two of the most compelling reasons reasons why. So, once again, Vancouver's soccer fans are very unlikely to have the opportunity to see Henry in action at B.C. Place. Oh well.
In some respects, the Caps and Red Bulls offer a study in contrast. Not least of which was the off-season. Following the well-publicized delays in getting off-season preparations in gear, the Caps have made numerous moves to substantially upgrade their talent - particularly in midfield. However, the Red Bulls, as defending Supporters' Shield winners, have made only a couple tweaks this off-season. It's a sharp contrast with the run up to 2013, when New York shipped out 16 players, and brought in another 12 in a major retooling.
Picked by SB Nation's MLS site managers to finish 2nd in the Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls are essentially standing pat on a strong hand again in 2014.
F Fabian Espindola is no longer a Red Bull, but 2nd-year man Bradley Wright-Phillips is, and in Henry's (almost sure) absence, look for him and Andre Akpan to try to pick up the scoring slack. MLS all-star midfielder Tim Cahill's action may be limited at best, as he's only just returned from national team action for Australia.
Interestingly, New York has picked up two TFC castoffs by way of trades - midfielder Bobby Convey and fullback Richard Eckersley. Convey adds even more to the Red Bulls' key strength, the midfield, where coach Mike Petke has a bevy of talent to choose from.
Defensively, New York offers almost as many questions as answers. Last year, the Red Bulls gave up the third-highest Shots on Goal total in Major League Soccer. Only Montreal and Chivas conceded more shots against. Defensive anchor CB Jamison Olave is reportedly being withheld from the weekend's match on BC Place's artificial surface. Pacey left back Roy Miller is also a strength, and should provide support on the overlap. The remaining two spots aren't as settled, and could be filled by either of a number of back line candidates.
New York keeper Luis Robles played all 34 matches last year, and offers the team some much-needed stability in the position. His GAA of 1.21 was just a shade better than David Ousted's 1.23. Robles' 70% save percentage puts him middle of the pack.
There's been much to be happy about in recent weeks if you're a Caps fan: the shoring up at RB with the signing of Steven Beitashour, confirmation that the club has already received the transfer fee for Camilo, a very successful pre-season run, and a quartet of high-quality Latin signings.
For the first time, Carl Robinson will be facing his former team as head coach. For the first time in quite a while, the Whitecaps look to have a roster and a tactical system that meshes well.
At the back end, the Caps have a solid combination of proven veterans and youthful depth across the board. Barring another visit from the injury bug, there's little reason to think the Caps can't reduce the number of shots conceded this year. Beitashour (RB) is joined at the back by incumbents Andy O'Brien, Jay DeMerit, and Jordan Harvey.
The holding mids in Robinson's 4-2-3-1 are set with Mathias Laba partnering with Nigel Reo-Coker. Gerson Koffie looks to be relegated to a depth role now, and in a real pinch either Russell Teibert or Johnny Leveron could be called upon to fill in.
Attacking midfielders Nicolas Mezquida, Sebastian Fernandez, and recent signing Pedro Morales should all figure in the season-opener, though Morales' deployment could be limited to a second-half substitution, as he's only just joined the blue-and-white. Mezquida played well centrally against Portland in the Rose City Invitational, while Fernandez lined up on the left in that one, so we could reasonably expect to see Teibert line up on the right. Kekutah Manneh? Well, he could draw in on speed alone as a midfielder, or - given his strike rate - up top. I can't see Erik Hurtado getting more than bench duty in this one.
Vancouver (1W-3D) have never lost to the Red Bulls in the MLS era, with the two previous matches in Vancouver ending in 1-1 saw-offs. With both Henry and Olave both out of this one, and Cahill's participation doubtful, look for Vancouver to open their 2014 campaign with another First Kick victory.
Prediction: Vancouver 2, New York 1