It might be too early to ask the question, but the question still has to be asked. Now that Martin Nash is gone, who can succeed him as captain of the Vancouver Whitecaps?
You see, I'm not one of those who thinks the team should simply grab an old man for their first MLS season and hand him the armband. The Whitecaps aren't the Philadelphia Union. They're entering the 2011 MLS season with old players, an old fanbase, plenty of history, and their fair share of traditions. Handing the armband to somebody with no experience in Vancouver risks diluting all of this. It risks alienating the players being brought in from the USSF D2, who may not be glad to find themselves immediately sidelined in favour of some Johnny-come-lately. It increases the load on Teitur Thordarson and the coaching staff, who would not only have to train a new team but train a new leader into the bargain.
Since they recently announced the release of defender Ian Joy, the Portland Timbers find themselves in a similar fix and my opinion is no different for them. A captain is more than just a leader: he's an embodiment of the club's history and the rallying point for its future. Having a relatively old team like Portland or Vancouver hand that responsibility off to a raw newcomer is taking the Major League Soccer spirit a little too far.
Now, if the Whitecaps didn't have any players who were both skilled enough and large enough personalities to wear the armband, appointing a newly-signed captain might be worth the tradeoff: you can't lead very well from the reserve team. Luckily, Vancouver's not in that situation. They have a few players who were with the team in 2010, should be with the team in 2011, and could all mount convincing cases to wear the armband. Some of them are veterans, some of them are just large personalities. But they're all decent players who might start in Major League Soccer and who would greatly surprise us if they didn't at least make the team. They're all, by every account, good people as well as good players, and they were all a large part of the personality of the Whitecaps in 2010.
By no means am I saying that the Whitecaps have to name their captain now, or even much before the beginning of the 2011 season. Quite the contrary; you should wait until you have a team before you decide who leads it. However, given that I think that a current Whitecap should probably get the armband, and given that I'm rather short of story ideas at the moment, now seems like as good a time as any for some baseless speculation.
After the jump, my four candidates to captain the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2011 season.
In the spirit of picking a player intimate with the Whitecaps and their traditions, my first nominee played about half an hour for them last season. It wasn't his fault, though; Mouloud Akloul broke his ankle in his first regular-season game and didn't return, as a substitute, until the final match of the year against Portland. He was, at least, with the team during 2010, training and getting to know the guys and immersing himself in Whitecaps culture. Indeed, given how little playing time he had he arguably had more of an opportunity to do those things. Certainly, Akloul picked up the community spirit right away, being honoured by the Whitecaps for his contributions to the community and winning a fan club with his energy, his enthusiasm, his personality, and his skill that's pretty good for someone with as little playing time as him.
Picking a potential captain from outside the clubhouse is, of course, an impossible exercise. We don't really know how well Akloul relates to the players. Maybe he's terrific with the fans but really awful to his teammates; there have been athletes like that in this sport. Every account of Akloul's personality, though, is positive. When he was on the bench, he was hardly ever still, whether he was kicking it around with a ballboy or sharing words with a teammate or generally looking like he was the most excited kid in Vancouver. I think I saw him bantering with everybody, and I mean everybody. By every possible standard for an outside observer, Akloul really is as excited, and as excitable, and as nice a guy as he looks. Moreover, he's also an excellent centre back who has extensive professional experience in leagues better than MLS and was, until his injury, being written into our 2011 lineup in pen. You can ask for a worse captain than an incredibly personable guy who is also a first-class defensive player, and if the Whitecaps want a captain who can be an ambassador to the community as well as his teammates than Akloul could be a natural choice.
From a more conventional captain's mold is my second possibility, Terry Dunfield. Dunfield only joined the team late in the 2010 season but he immediately latched his claws into the starting eleven and never made Teitur Thordarson regret it for a second. His playing abilities are undoubted: he's another favourite for MLS and he would have been the Whitecaps most valuable player in a landslide had he played the entire season. He's a stern tackler and a take-no-guff midfielder who earned his stripes in the rough world of the lower English leagues and he was standing up for his teammates before he probably knew half of their names. He would tussle with opposing players, he would argue with the referees, he would go and make a lovely pass that split the enemy defense in half. There's a lot to like about the way Terry Dunfield plays
At risk of giving in to the weakness of stereotyping, Dunfield just looks like a captain. Maybe it's the effect of seeing his League Two defensive midfield grittiness translated to a North American pitch, but when Dunfield is running around out there he makes life easier for his teammates. He's not afraid to engage, either physically or verbally, with the enemy. As a long-time professional journeyman in some pretty good leagues, he certainly has the experience and the credibility to wear the armband. Like Akloul, Dunfield has become popular with the fanbase in a very short time: it's hard not to like somebody who plays as rough-and-tumble as he with the skills he also brings to the table, and he had a pretty impressive appearance for the Canadian national team in Montreal. On the other hand, he has been in Montreal a relatively short time, and while he seems like a good guy we probably know less about Dunfield's personality than anyone else on this list. Certainly he spends less time engaging with the fans than the others, which isn't a mark against him but does leave him a bit of a mystery. I've never seen a sign, on the field or off, that his teammates have anything less than the greatest respect for him and that's what counts.
A good captain must not only be respected by his fellow players, but he must also be a fan favourite. Somebody who the crowd can rally behind and who can serve as a credible face for the club. When you're looking for a fan favourite, you're looking for Wes Knight. This isn't just my opinion: he was actually voted the Whitecaps' fan favourite earlier this year. At twenty-four years old, Knight is the youngest man on his list, but he's spent his entire professional career with the Whitecaps since joining for the 2009 season from the College of Charleston. More than popular, he's a highly effective two-way right back who is a favourite to follow the team into Major League Soccer in one role or another.
The upsides of Knight are obvious: personality, popularity, and he's already proven something of an on-field leader despite his relative inexperience. He's spent longer in the Whitecaps organization than most of these candidates, which certainly works to his advantage. His candidacy is not perfect, however. His youth may be an issue if older, more experienced players are asked to follow his lead, and while he may make the MLS team it's by no means certain he would start. With his relative lack of professional experience Teitur Thordarson may want to bring in a veteran right back and use Knight as cover and in a utility role: a valuable player, certainly, but one mostly coming off the bench and brought along slowly to avoid throwing him in over his head. It's difficult to wear the armband in such a position. No matter whether he's the captain or not, Wes Knight will be a leader for the MLS Whitecaps: he may, however, not be the best choice for formal leadership.
The next contender is a popular veteran with Major League Soccer experience. He's been with the team for several years now and is everybody's favourite to get onto the Major League Soccer roster one way or another. He was also the one who wore the armband last season when Martin Nash was unavailable or substituted off, and he's one of the most popular players in the Vancouver Whitecaps organization. He is the two-time reigning team Most Valuable Player. He is the wearer of the magic hat. He is Jay Nolly, and yet nobody is talking about him as a candidate for the captaincy.
On paper, Nolly would seem to be the perfect choice. A veteran presence, and one highly respected by both players and fans alike. His skill is not in question, nor is his dedication to the Whitecaps. Teitur Thordarson clearly thought enough of Nolly's leadership abilities to make him captain when Martin Nash wasn't in the game, and there was nothing wrong with Nolly's performance in that role. A starting goalkeeper will be a highly visible part of the team whether he's the captain or not, and Nolly has been as secure as anybody in the spotlight. There is only one question about Nolly, and unfortunately it is a very large one. Will Nolly be the starting goalkeeper for us in 2011?
Teitur Thordarson trusts Nolly, the Whitecaps have not yet signed or selected a replacement, and it's safe to say Simon Thomas isn't going to take his job. There haven't even been any legitimate rumours about a Nolly replacement (Petr Cech definitely does not count as legitimate). The truth is, though, that last time Jay Nolly went through Major League Soccer he was found wanting. That was a few years ago and there's no question he's improved since then, but nobody could blame the Whitecaps if they didn't want to put all their eggs in the Nolly basket. Even if they just wind up getting a veteran insurance policy along the lines of a Greg Sutton or a Josh Wagenaar, it could be enough to put Nolly's position under threat. Your captain probably shouldn't have his position under threat. Nolly's a great player, and if the Whitecaps do go into 2011 with him as their starter he'd be my choice for the captaincy. But that's an awfully big "if".