As I write this the Vancouver Whitecaps, both old and new, are training in southern California. As the likes of Shea Salinas and John Thorrington join last year's second division cast (Jay DeMerit does not arrive until next week), the Whitecaps brain trust of Teitur Thordarson, Tom Soehn, and company will cast an appraising eye over each of the players. This twelve-day camp, for many of the second division Whitecaps, represents their best chance to catch the staff's eye and get themselves a contract in Major League Soccer.
It's an opportunity the second-division players haven't yet had, to test their mettle against proven Major League Soccer veterans. It'll look that much more impressive for Cornelius Stewart if he can score on Joe Cannon as well as on Jay Nolly. The players who were on the bubble will get to push themselves over the edge by mounting impressive performances against more experienced professionals and convince the doubters that, yes, they can handle Major League Soccer.
Forget all of that, though. For many of the players it will be helpful, but for others it will be superfluous. I have a suggestion for a player they can sign right now.
He's young, he's domestic. He's a proven second division player who's played simple, almost complaint-free defense for a few seasons now. He can handle both defense and midfield, and would probably have played goal if they'd let him. He's not a superstar, but he's an effortlessly reliable player who Teitur Thordarson has leaned on heavily in the last two seasons. He's the goods.
Sign Luca Bellisomo, or the Whitecaps will end up regretting it.
When encouraging a team to sign a given player, it's easy to fall into hyperbole. "Robbie Keane will score twenty-five goals in MLS!", that sort of thing. Luca Bellisomo is not the sort of player to inspire hyperbole. Last year he scored twice, which even for the 2010 Vancouver Whitecaps was nothing to write home about. His offensive instincts are fair, and he's a decent passer of the ball (particularly up the middle; he does get tunnel vision sometimes). There's nothing to write home about there, though, and Bellisomo isn't going to score his way into anyone's heart. He didn't score his way into mine.
Bellisomo is not a star. He's not a goalscorer. He's not even a quintessential shutdown player like Jay DeMerit. He's a utility player. If the Whitecaps do sign him to the 2011 roster, he probably won't start all that many games unless somebody gets injured. The Whitecaps are in the process of assembling a formidable defense, and Bellisomo will probably have trouble cracking the starting eleven. This leaves Bellisomo on the bench, but the bench is an all right place for Luca Bellisomo to me. A multi-positional player with terrific positioning, Bellisomo can come on at any point of the game to provide energy or an injury replacement in a couple of key positions. That's precisely what you look for in a regular substitute.
Not that he can't handle the big minutes. Bellisomo was third on the 2010 Whitecaps in minutes played behind Martin Nash and Jay Nolly, and he was in more than good enough shape for the role. Bellisomo's extensive play wasn't because he's a dazzling all-round player who was vital to the team's fortunes and fit in perfectly with their style. It's because he was useful, and you could count on him, and you could play him anywhere with the certainty that you'll get a solid performance out of him. When I tapped Bellisomo as my choice for the Whitecaps most valuable player, that's what I recognized: just because he wasn't a flashy superstar doesn't mean he wasn't critically important to the Whitecaps' fortunes.
Bellisomo is a central defender natively. But last year, thanks to a series of nasty injuries, he started in central midfield where he did just fine. Even after the likes of Takashi Hirano got healthy, Bellisomo remained in midfield because he'd simply been playing strongly enough. He's very much a defensive player in midfield, as one would expect, but unlike a Terry Dunfield Bellisomo plays defense based on positioning rather than tackling. I can count the number of times an enemy attacker managed to turn Luca Bellisomo on my fingers. Moreover, he's quite a good aerial player and still very light on his feet. Though not one of the fastest Whitecaps, he was certainly one of their quicker defenders and was able to get up to speed quickly enough to help the team.
Twenty-four years old, Bellisomo's best days are clearly in front of him. And as a second division lifer, it's impossible to imagine he could command far more than MLS's minimum salary. A talented, young, tall player with a value contract who can play in both midfield and on defense, who is athletic enough to keep up in MLS and intelligent enough to not be overwhelmed by the league? It seems like a no-brainer to me.
It may seem misguided, at this stage of the Whitecaps' roster development, to advance the cost of a utility bench player when there are potential designated players out there waiting for us. But in Major League Soccer, every dollar counts. The salary cap and the roster limits means you need as many adaptable, affordable, and talented players as you can lay your hands on. Luca Bellisomo is a very good example of that sort of player, and if the Whitecaps don't find a home for him in MLS someone else will.