The Vancouver Whitecaps have already brought a few names from their 2010 second division roster into Major League Soccer. Wes Knight, Philippe Davies, Jay Nolly, Greg Janicki, and Terry Dunfield are all confirmed members of the 2011 squad, while the rest of the second division hopefuls will re-convene in January for their last chance of impressing the Whitecaps brass. From now on, anybody who makes the team is an upset to some extent: the favourites have all been dealt with, and the rest is about filling out depth.
Significantly, however, all five returning Whitecaps so far are domestic players. Davies and Dunfield are Canadian whereas the other three are American: none of them will occupy an international slot for Vancouver in 2011. Perhaps the Whitecaps just haven't seen anything from the international players so far that impressed them, but more likely they're leaving their options open. Vancouver ran a heavy international contingent in 2011, many of whom played key roles. But with MLS's limitations on the number of international players any one team can carry, it makes sense for the Whitecaps to hang back and make sure there are no better options before committing to an old, familiar name.
Fortunately for the Whitecaps, I'm here to help. Over the coming weeks, or until I get bored of it, I'll be going over a few international names from last season's Vancouver Whitecaps roster and tell you how they could potentially contribute to this team going forward. Some of them could be core players for a Major League Soccer team, some of them have spirited potential coming off the bench, and some would provide more intangible benefits. But there's an awful lot of room for non-North American talent in the Whitecaps family.
Today, the series starts with 2010's Whitecaps Newcomer of the Year and greatest St. Vincentian forward since Marlon James, Cornelius Stewart.
I'm not Vancouver's biggest Cornelius Stewart fan. He got playing time last year at the expense of players like Randy Edwini-Bonsu and the aforementioned Marlon James when he hadn't really done anything to deserve it. Though a quick, electrifying player with obvious ball skills, he also wasn't the most talented guy on the pitch. Both his finishing and his playmaking were questionable, and he seemed to have the rookie's knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His athleticism got him chances, but his inexperience squandered them.
A lot of that can be forgiven, though, when we remember that Stewart is only 21 years old. Moreover, he has relatively little experience in more skill-oriented world of Canadian soccer, only joining the Whitecaps Residency team from his native St. Vincent and the Grenadines in late 2009. In St. Vincent, a teenage Stewart could (and did) thrive off of pure athleticism and the shock of his speed: he was second only to Edwini-Bonsu in pure pace on the 2010 Whitecaps. He combines this pace with great shiftiness. When Edwini-Bonsu is in full stride he'll pretty much go in a straight line, but Stewart can cut up and down the field and make his moves at speed. Despite having only turned 21 in July, Stewart already had eleven senior caps and two goals for his country: the first came in 2008, before Stewart had even joined the Vancouver system.
Nobody can question whether Stewart is athletic enough to handle the speed of MLS. In fact, the question is whether MLS is fast enough to handle the speed of Cornelius Stewart! The real concern for Stewart is whether he can score goals at the highest level. He posted quite a respectable haul in 2010, with two goals and five assists in 1,332 minutes. He ranked second on the team behind Martin Nash in assists and was tied for first among our strikers in goals despite being deactivated from the roster in September to make room for Vancouver's new import players. The young Stewart was obviously one of our most effective forwards last season, although of course that's not saying much.
Stewart's great advantages are speed, youth, and attitude. He can obviously physically cope with MLS, and he's shown a willingness to work on his game that helped him adjust to USSF D2 last season. At his age, Stewart still has plenty of time to learn the ropes. Unfortunately, in MLS it's sometimes difficult to bring in an import player to "learn the ropes". Any import spot that Stewart takes is one import spot the Whitecaps can't give to a solid, contributing veteran. Gassing such a valuable roster spot on a player who will, at best, see spot bench duty in 2011 and may not get out of the MLS Reserves is a risky proposition.
Ultimately, whether Vancouver should sign Stewart or not comes down to what alternatives are available. If the Whitecaps can spend that import spot on a valuable player who can regularly be a part of the first eighteen, they should do so. But those players aren't always easy to come by, and if January comes and goes with no ace imports on the horizon, then the Whitecaps could do a lot worse than spending a season working with Cornelius Stewart.