Thursday at 7:30 PM Pacific Daylight Time, the Vancouver Whitecaps will begin their final push for a second division title with the first leg of their playoff battle against the Portland Timbers. It's a game against a mortal rivalry. It's a series that will represent the last second division encounter between these two teams. One of them will go on and try to exit the second division as winners, the other will have played their last game at this level and enter Major League Soccer on a relative low note.
The last several months for the Whitecaps have been an awkward lineup juggling act. Teitur Thordarson and Tom Soehn have tried, not entirely successfully, to balance the need to build the best possible team for 2011 against the desire to win in 2010. We're sent quality players home and endured terrible performances on the pitch just so we knew as much as possible about some of these guys, and we've constantly revolved everyone in and out of the lineup to get the widest possible perspective at the price of any kind of chemistry between the players.
It has, at times, been ugly. The Whitecaps are too talented a group of individuals to really play badly but not for a moment have they looked like a team. We've endured it because of the promise of 2011, and there have been relatively few complaints apart from the frustrated howls at the games as we failed to score yet again.
But this is different. This is the playoffs. Our last playoff run in the second division, our last shot at a title in a league where we've spent the last eighteen years. This is quite literally why you play the game: for the chance at a championship. There could be no better tribute to the second division, or to old Swangard Stadium, than to go out as champions. To be promoted to Major League Soccer with a team that deserves the honour. Mine is by no means a universal perspective, but I firmly believe it to be the right one.
If we're going to win the title, we have to do it with these players. We can't go back and return Cornelius Stewart and Takashi Hirano to the roster, or bring Marlon James back from the dead. The roster was fixed at the end of the last transfer window and this not-quite-a-team is what we have. But it's an awfully good team, if applied correctly. After the jump, the lineup I hope we enter the playoffs with.
Formation: being a sucker for novelty, I'm using Teitur Thordarson's 4-2-3-1 that acquitted itself pretty well. The key for this formation is that it greatly increases our prospects of moving the ball through the midfield and getting legitimate scoring chances, at the cost of isolating our defenders a bit. I think our defenders are up for it, even if they didn't necessarily show it on Saturday.
Goal: Jay Nolly, the choice so obvious it doesn't need to be defended. Playing every minute but eight over the last two seasons will give you that sort of job security. Nolly, incidentally, is the best possible argument that the Whitecaps still have some interest in winning this season: backup goalkeeper Simon Thomas is almost unanimously seen as promising but utterly unblooded, and if the Whitecaps really were 2011 or bust they'd surely run Thomas into goal at every opportunity to see if he'd be worth a flier as an MLS backup given that it's pretty obvious by now what Nolly has to offer. Luckily - and I say this with all respect to Thomas - Teitur Thordarson agrees with me that we'd rather see Nolly staring down a rampaging Ryan Pore with the game on his foot.
Left Back: there seems to be a conflict here between the needs of 2011 and the needs of 2010, but to be honest Zurab Tsiskaridze is the only possible choice for me here. Willis Forko arrived with some fanfare to compete for a spot in 2011, but Forko has been relatively mediocre while Tsiskaridze, all season, has had some fans calling him the team's most valuable player. The competition between Tsiskaridze and Forko is probably the most lopsided NASL-vs.-MLS fight on the roster. Between Tsiskaridze and Alain Rochat being a natural left back, on my MLS team I'm not sure Willis Forko would ever leave the bench.
Centre Backs: you will, I think, agree with me when I grab Greg Janicki as my first choice. Janicki's been strong, reliable, had some surprising offensive touch, and has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season. But my other pick has the stench of MLS all over it: bluntly, we need to see what Mouloud Akloul has. He was supposed to be a sure thing for the 2011 roster and everyone's pick for our best defender until he snapped his ankle like a piece of kindling 22 minutes into his Whitecaps career. Akloul's rehabilitation has been slow but allegedly thorough: all the same, we better find out whether he's the same player he was with al-Ittihad Kalba and we better find out quickly. If Akloul is found wanting physically, I'd go straight to Luca Bellisomo as his replacement without giving the once-omnipresent but now seemingly redundant Nelson Akwari a second look. I feel appalling leaving Bellisomo on the bench, as he has been my 2010 Whitecaps Most Valuable Player because of his versatility and his unimpeachable reliability, but even though he can play two positions very well, he isn't our best player at either one when the entire team is healthy and on form. In truth, I'd feel pretty comfortable carrying all four of Bellisomo, Akwari, Akloul, and Janicki into Major League Soccer.
Right Back: there is essentially no competition at this position, so of course I'll say Wes Knight. The other choices at right back have been defenders coming over from other positions and Ethan Gage; I think you'll understand my preferring Knight. Interestingly, Knight is one guy I think could benefit from some MLS-calibre competition within the Whitecaps: while his strengths (bloody long throw, great composure, above-average tackler, good ball movement) have been justly praised, his weaknesses (poor off-the-ball awareness, outmuscled too easily, offensive awareness of a cinder block) seem to me like they might get badly exposed in Major League Soccer. For now, though, Knight is the best (and almost only) choice. Gage is my second pick in case of injury.
Central Midfield: Absolutely no surprises here. Martin Nash and Terry Dunfield get the call: two chippy Canadians who can pass like they were born with the ball at their feet and might each be the best player on the team. Dunfield has been hilariously dominant since joining the Whitecaps; hilarious considering his reputation as an English lower-league journeyman. Nash is a bit of an odd selection for me. I don't think he's been as good as Luca Bellisomo this year: Nash's brutal lack of pace and ineffectiveness defensively have dragged down his considerable offensive prowess. But given the problems Vancouver has scoring goals I think the Whitecaps need Nash in the lineup more than they need Bellisomo, even if Bellisomo is better. That's a pretty good back four capable of covering up for Nash's mistakes. Besides, what were the chances I was going to bench the captain even if he did deserve it? My reserves are Luca Bellisomo and Gershon Koffie.
Attacking Left Midfield: Blake Wagner serves a dual purpose as probably the best Whitecap available at the position and someone who has to prove himself for MLS. Wagner started out gangbusters after recovering from a season-opening foot injury but the former FC Dallas man has stagnated in recent weeks. That actually mirrors pretty much his entire FC Dallas career in miniature: he made forty MLS appearances and capped four times for the United States U-17s and yet might not move back into Major League Soccer with an expansion team he's already established himself with. A good playoff from Wagner would boost his stock considerably.
Attacking Central Midfield: there are two possibilities for how Davide Chiumiento would do given key playoff responsibilities for Vancouver. One is that, as he's almost starting his season in the playoffs, he'll play like a small player in a tall league who isn't quite in game shape and be completely neutralized. The other is that, being almost certainly the most talented player in the second division by a wide margin, his relative lack of fitness will be proven irrelevant as he'll carve inferior defenses up like so many hams. I can't imagine Chiumiento possibly being "average". I'm desperately hoping for the latter result but whatever the answer is it would behoove the Whitecaps to find out. His two regular season appearances have been promising enough to win him this spot without debate.
Attacking Right Midfield: there's only one choice for me, and that's Philippe Davies. Playoff experience would clearly serve the 19-year-old Davies well in the coming seasons, and as he's clearly been Vancouver's best flanking midfielder this year it's not like there's anyone worthy to replace him. I say this with apologies to Alex Elliott, who's generally been pretty good but is twenty-three years old and hasn't shown an MLS calibre of play, and with vague regrets to the likes of Alexandre Morfaw or Gershon Koffie, who just haven't shown enough in my mind to snatch a spot away from an incumbent. Kyle Porter is his backup in my mind but primarily as an injury replacement: he played thirty very good minutes against Portland, but they were just thirty minutes and in truth I think Davies was almost as good.
Target Striker: I'm going to take Randy Edwini-Bonsu. There are fitness concerns surrounding Randy; he missed Saturday's Portland game with a groin strain and on Twitter Marc Weber listed Edwini-Bonsu as "doubtful". But he is the clear choice if available. First, if Chiumiento is at his best, the idea of the Swiss Ronaldinho laying perfect balls onto the feet of Edwini-Bonsu in full stride is enough to make me start doing fist-pumps in the middle of the SkyTrain. Second, as I've already discussed, Edwini-Bonsu has been Vancouver's most effective striker this year. Third, he has as much need as anybody to prove he can handle the tougher sledding of MLS. And finally, if Edwini-Bonsu does struggle or tires too quickly and needs to come out for an impact substitute it would be a simple matter to replace him with Cody Arnoux, whose style of play is so different that he could catch a defense used to Edwini-Bonsu's speed on the wrong foot.
Bench: Simon Thomas gets the nod as the backup goalkeeper because, based entirely on seeing the backup warm up once in a while in the south end, I like him better than Dan Pelc. Willis Forko and Nelson Akwari represent the defenders. Luca Bellisomo stands ready to play whatever position he is needed in, not excluding goal. The midfield substitutes are a mixture of old (Kyle Porter, returned to the team from his German exile) and new (Gershon Koffie, with Alexandre Morfaw a second choice as circumstances dictate). And as the sole replacement striker I take Cody Arnoux, who won this spot with a sterling game last Saturday and whose all-round versatility gives him the edge over Ridge Mobulu and whose not being completely useless gives him the advantage over Jonathan McDonald (McDonald should literally never play for the Whitecaps again). If Chiumiento struggles or we otherwise go back to a traditional 4-4-2, I drop Porter in favour of Ridge Mobulu to give the bench more attacking punch.
The Rest: Alex Elliott just misses out on the bench. The gap between him and Kyle Porter is so small that if Elliott looks great in training and Porter doesn't, I might give Elliott the nod. Ditto between Gershon Koffie and Alexandre Morfaw: neither has looked brilliant but Koffie, I think, has shown a little more for the moment. Defender Ethan Gage should probably be on our 2011 roster as a prospect but won't get the nod from me for the playoffs unless Wes Knight gets hurt or we need an injury replacement on the bench. Ridge Mobulu is a very promising young player, but I prefer Edwini-Bonsu to him and think that his skills are too similar to Edwini-Bonsu's to justify putting him on the bench ahead of Arnoux: all the same, if one of Edwini-Bonsu or Arnoux struggles in the first game, Mobulu better be ready for the second. Jonathan McDonald has gotten a tonne of game time from Teitur Thordarson, but for my part I don't want him within a million miles of my ball club when the games matter. The rest of the Whitecaps roster, bluntly, is too insignificant to matter.