So, farewell then, Nizar Khalfan, Cornelius Stewart, and Takashi Hirano. The Whitecaps could take only eight international spots out of the current USSF D2 transfer window ("international" meaning "neither American nor Canadian") and you three have been left on the outside looking in. Khalfan is off playing internationally for Tanzania and will almost certainly be called away again later this month, Stewart is expecting to get the call to the St. Vincent and the Grenadines for their upcoming Caribbean campaign, and Hirano broke his nose. So all three were looking at availability problems at the best of times, but leaving three pretty effective players off the roster?
Of course, it's just "so long for now" to Khalfan and Stewart. The two are currently under contract to the Whitecaps Residency team at present, a rather neat management fiction that means they're still Whitecaps property and thus eligible to come into MLS in 2011 one way or another. The situation for them seems pretty simple: the Whitecaps had seen everything of those two they needed to see, so time to let others into the spotlight.
Khalfan and Stewart have a lot of new competition not only as internationals but at their positions. Cody Arnoux, Jonathan McDonald, Ridge Mobulu, and Davide Chiumiento have all been added to the team this transfer window and all can play striker. Khalfan is mostly a midfielder but so are Terry Dunfield, Gershon Koffie, Kyle Porter, and Alex Elliott. That's a lot of players, all of whom will need an opportunity to show Thordarson and Soehn that they can play in Major League Soccer. Or that they can't. Dropping Khalfan and Stewart for these unproven and uncertain players certainly hurts our chances at a title but we've discussed that earlier. What matters, presumably, is that it improves our chances of making the 2011 MLS playoffs regardless of our chances of taking the 2010 USSF D2 championship.
Unfortunately, it appears to be the end of the line for Taka. At thirty-six years old and coming off the bench all season, nobody really believed Hirano was in line for a Major League Soccer spot. But he's been with Vancouver since 2008, his first club outside his native Japan, and has played marvelously in spite of his age at any of the million roles the Whitecaps have needed him to fill. He's good off dead balls, he never misses a pass, and he thinks the game better than probably any current Whitecap. Athletically he can't keep up with MLS players and the injuries have been piling up a bit lately, but all the same. Even if he couldn't come to MLS with us, surely he deserved a better send-off than this.
So it is left up to me to give him one.
When Taka came over to the Whitecaps in the middle of the 2007-08 season, he was already old enough that we could make jokes about it. The Whitecaps were fighting hard for USL-1 honours that season, and we were going to strengthen the team by grabbing an elderly left back who had never before left Japan? It was enough to make you giggle. Oh, true, Hirano had capped nineteen times for the Japanese national team and scored four goals, which was nothing to shake your head at. But his last cap had been almost eight years previous. Nobody over here knew how good he was, of course, but there was a feeling he couldn't be that good, a Richard Hastings who probably didn't speak English. Not an encouraging way to chase a championship.
Didn't quite get that one right, it turned out.
What made Hirano so valuable wasn't so much his skill, although he was pretty good for USL-1. It was his versatility. Hirano played left midfield and central midfield most of his first season and distributed bulls-eye passes like an expert marksman. He played the right side once in a while when the team needed him, and sure it was his off foot but what matter? He was still Taka Hirano. And when the team needed a defender he'd slip back, whether on the left side or in the middle, and he'd suddenly be cutting out crosses and heading away corners and ruining the lives of some of USL-1's best strikers. He'd have played goal if Teitur had let him. We won the 2008 USL-1 championship over the Puerto Rico Islanders and Hirano was a big part of the reason the Whitecaps had the opportunity.
In the 2008-09 season, his first full year with the team, Hirano proved it was no fluke. He played a regular starting role and went ninety minutes frequently in spite of his age. He only scored one goal for the Whitecaps but his contributions went far beyond that: his passing accuracy surpassed even Martin Nash and he hardly ever, ever made mistakes. This from a guy whose home leagues had written him off, who had moved through six teams in seven years before joining the Whitecaps. It wasn't so much a comeback as a resurrection. Another finals appearance, this time against the Montreal Impact and this time unsuccessful, although Hirano kept playing his heart out.
It's true, as a Whitecap Hirano was never the most athletic guy. In a foot race you wouldn't have to check who he was up against because you knew Taka would probably lose. Nor was he particularly strong. He lacked the ability to intimidate attackers and the speed to catch up with them if he missed. He made up for that by never missing, by a fine body control and an awareness of the pitch that meant he was constantly well-positioned and prevented him from having to expose his weaknesses. Sure, he was limited. But when you have a player who can pass with unerring accuracy and play such precise defense, you soon to stop worrying that he can't come thundering down the wings and fling crosses willy-nilly on the break. I'd rather have one Taka Hirano than fifty Ansu Toures.
Unfortunately, his last season hasn't been the farewell we Hirano fans could have hoped for. He suffered a knee injury in pre-season training and missed most of the friendlies as well as the beginning of the USSF D2 season. When he came back Zurab Tsiskaridze had established firm ownership of the left back position and minutes were hard to come by. Still, he saw spot duty, the occasional start, and when he got in he was the same Taka he had been pre-injury. Everyone knew that he wouldn't be making the trip to Major League Soccer with the Whitecaps but there was an entirely unspoken agreement not to mention that: to enjoy watching Taka play out the string at his same high level.
Then it was over in the most senseless way. A broken nose in a reserve match against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and Teitur Thordarson deciding to deregister him. Of course the Whitecaps want to see players for 2011. Of course. But is there any chance that the likes of Jonathan McDonald or Alexandre Morfaw are going to help Vancouver, short or long-term, more than Takashi Hirano? Any chance whatsoever? It hardly seems likely, but instead of making one last charge into glory with a conference-leading team Hirano will watch the Whitecaps from home.
He was a USL First Division All-Star, he was voted the Whitecaps best newcomer, their best defender, everything but MVP itself. He was Takashi Hirano. He's probably done in Vancouver, and he will be missed. I hope he catches on with another team, maybe here in North America or even back home in Japan, and manages to go out with a little more dignity than a broken nose and a deregistration.