I think it's safe to say the start to the Vancouver Whitecaps 2014 season has been better than anybody could've expected. Despite losing the golden boot winner from last season, the 'Caps have fielded a young, energetic team that has shown the ability to put balls in the net, while rookie Head Coach Carl Robinson has looked brilliant for giving extended playing time to Erik Hurtado, that kid from California who's scored in five straight matches.
So, with the World Cup going on and most 86forever writers waiting for something local to write on, we asked them to answer a few questions about the Whitecaps, their impressive start, and the best and worst moves the club made over the off-season.
What match impressed you the most?
Some might point to the team's first-ever win over the Timbers, or the last-second comeback to draw with a very good Real Salt Lake side - both away matches, but for me it's the 4-1 drubbing of New York in the Caps' home opener. That set the bar for 2014, and gave the Caps some much-needed early momentum.
For me it would have to be the Pedro Morales show in the 4-3 win over the Portland Timbers. Despite some obviously shaky moments at the back this team is starting to show signs of what they may be capable of. If we can tighten up the problems on the backline and not have to win a game by outscoring our opponents in a "shootout" then this will be a big step forward for the Caps.
The 4-1 win in Portland wasn't just a road win - this was an assertive road win in a heated derby match inside the decidedly unfriendly confines of Providence Park. Staking a 4-1 lead was a feat by itself, especially considering the near-disaster of a start to the match. Clinging to said lead all the way to the final whistle ensured the 'Caps would be rewarded for their hard work.
You can look at conceding two late goals as a worrying collapse (and you'd have a decent argument to make); in my ledger, that's just one of two cons outweighed by numerous pros. Con #2? The early Urruti goal. Pros? The immediate fight-back. Hurtado's drawn penalty. Morales' penalty brace. Hurtado with another in stoppage time. Jordan Harvey, Goal MachineTM. A battling, take-no-prisoners mentality with the Southsiders (and the Cascadia Cup) there to egg the Whitecaps on. Yeah, you can colour me impressed.
Perhaps not a popular choice but I would take the win over Columbus down in Ohio. That game showed early signs of maturity and better form on the road. The Whitecaps kept a clean sheet, they were defensively responsible and were able to capitalize on one the chances they created. Also, that game marked the beginning of the Erik Hurtado's hot streak.
Who's the early candidate for team MVP?
The key word here is "early". At this stage, there are a number of choices... Erik Hurtado - based on his goal-scoring contribution, Pedro Morales - for the great grease work he does to lubricate the Vancouver attack engine, and Matias Laba for his stalwart defensive effort game in and game out.
There's so much left to play in this season that there's more than enough time for someone else to add their name to the mix as well. For the moment I'll go with Morales.
While Morales tends to get most of the headlines for his brilliance in the attack (and deservedly so) my MVP at this point in time would have to be Matías Laba.
Simply put: if Laba has a good day then so do the Whitecaps.
Pedro Morales! Is this even up for debate? Morales has been every bit as advertised, creating goals and dictating play in the middle of the park. Even when specifically marked, as he was in Philadelphia, Morales still finds ways to positively influence the game.
You can make solid claims for Matías Laba or Gershon Koffie but in my mind, Morales is easily the team MVP thus far.
Without hesitation I will say Matias Laba. The young DP has been absolutely instrumental in Vancouver’s early success in the season. He provides stability, protection and distribution midfield that he had not seen before in MLS. More importantly for the most part his level of play is consistently top shape.
What was the best goal scored by a Whitecap so far this season?
Kind of like asking what's better: Tira Misu, or strawberry shortcake? This is all down to individual palates to decide. I'm going with Erik Hurtado's marker vs Seattle about a month ago - but only in small part for the spectacular finish that Hurtado capped it off with at the end. Note the number of key elements Vancouver pulled off in leading up to the score.
Watch how much work Hurtado puts in to make this work:
He intercepts near midfield, battles a difficult ball past Sounders' midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, turns away from trouble and dribbles past Pineda again before laying off to Fernandez, who plays a nice cross to Morales, who hits a precisely weighted first-time diagonal lobbed through ball to Hurtado (who's carried on his run upfield after dishing to Fernandez).
It's the huge amount of work Hurtado put in (from recovery, to transition, to attack) and the quick and creative combination play in midfield that whets my appetite for more from Hurtado and the rest of the team.
Are you [expletive] kidding me?! Get in!!! *ahem* Let's break this puppy down:
1) Hurtado starts the play by stealing the ball from Osvaldo Alonso; 2) Hurtado retains posession, skips by three Sounders trying to close him down... 3) ...and completes a pretty tic-tac-toe passing play with Sebastián Fernández and Pedro Morales; 4) Hurtado victimizes Alonso; 5) Hurtado undresses Alonso again, this time with a side of Djimi Traoré; 6) Finally, Hurtado rifles a lovely shot off the underside of the bar and in.
Get, [expletive], in.
Which off-season moves have worked out?
Bringing in Morales from Malaga. Laba's been our best defender by far, but without Morales' exceptional vision, and world-class passing, there's no way the Caps come near to replacing all the goals that migrated south in January.
When Morales has been on his game, which is almost all the time, the Caps are a well above average team. Without him, Vancouver generally struggles to maintain the same degree of form.
Definitely Morales and (now that he's settled in) Steven Beitashour.
That Pedro Morales guy seems pretty solid, wouldn't you say? Oh, and those Steven Beitashour and Matías Laba characters are quite the beauts.
I think the biggest headlines are taken by Pedro Morales who has been absolutely brilliant, however as I mentioned earlier I think Matias Laba is a huge addition to the team.
Which off-season moves haven't panned out?
Things have been rather successful for the Caps thus far - so much so that I had to look off the pitch to find anything that hasn't worked out: Continuing to drape off the upper deck during big draw matches such as the Galaxy and the Canadian Championship.
The club's strategy of limiting seats to artificially create "demand" is beginning to wear thin. When Vancouver could sell 30,000 seats, why wouldn't they opt to do so?
To suggest that the signing of the Uruguayan duo of Nicolás Mezquida and Sebastián Fernández hasn't worked out would be a little harsh, but instead we can say that the jury is still out. At times we have seen what these two can offer and why they Caps brought them onboard in the first place.
Also, I wouldn't say the extension given to DeMerit hasn't worked out, but instead would suggest that perhaps that the Caps make sure that they are prepared for a future without DeMerit and have his successor ready to go.
The Andre Lewis draft saga remains a mystifying bit of business to me. Sure, the 'Caps hold Lewis' MLS rights but they immediately loaned the kid out upon receiving him on loan from the New York Cosmos. Is the plan to leave Lewis at the Cosmos as a de facto loan and attempt to pluck him away once they feel his development is finished? If so, that's a gutsy long-game to play with a first-round prospect.
I also don't see the wisdom in keeping Mehdi Ballouchy around, even as depth. With all the youth in the system, surely there's a better prospect to take the aging, battered Ballouchy's place.
It is hard to judge some players as they haven't seen any minutes (Tornaghi, Ballouchy, etc). Perhaps the offseason move of not moving Nigel Reo-Coker has been the one that the ‘Caps might be regretting the most at this point.