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Attacking the Second Division Myth

Vancouver Whitecaps captain Martin Nash. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Vancouver Whitecaps captain Martin Nash. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

When the Vancouver Whitecaps moved to Major League Soccer in 2011 they brought a number of players from their old second division team with them. Philippe Davies, Greg Janicki, Wes Knight, and Jay Nolly had all played more than one full season with the second-division Whitecaps: enough to be called full-blown "second division players". Head coach Teitur Thordarson was also a vet of division two. It looked like a good, experienced core.

Then the Whitecaps finished dead fucking last. So much for that, right?

Today's signing of Carolina Railhawks alumnus Matt Watson has resurrected an old meme in Whitecaps fan circles: that one of this team's core problems was its reliance on second-division players. They brought in the division two coach, and the division two lineup, and they got killed. Goes to show that you shouldn't trust players like Watson, who might have been good NASL types but will surely get their shows run in the big bad world of MLS.

You'd think Vancouver Whitecaps fans, who watched their second-division team outplay Toronto FC year after year (and then get outplayed by the second-division Montreal Impact in this year's Voyageurs Cup) wouldn't have such superstitions but they do. So let me debunk it. You can object to today's Matt Watson contract for a number of reasons, but one of them cannot be "he's just an NASL player". Vancouver's second-division players from last season were the least of its problems.

For the most part, the Whitecaps didn't even bring their best second-division players into MLS. Jay Nolly is the honourable exception but he had a decent 2011 and is sticking in MLS for 2012. A lot of people, including USSF D2 league award voters, would have taken Nelson Akwari over Greg Janicki at central defense and they were both more effective as a duo than they were alone. My vote for the team's most valuable player was midfielder/defender Luca Bellisomo, who had a hell of a year, and a more popular choice was midfielder and captain Martin Nash, who piled in the goals and had definitely earned an MLS shot before he decided to retire.

Some of the players we gave up on, such as Randy Edwini-Bonsu, have gone on to a level higher than Major League Soccer. The aforementioned Bellisomo was a leading player for Finland's IFK Mariehamn, a league somewhere between the NASL and MLS in quality. Meanwhile, the Whitecaps got great seasons out of players like Davide Chiumiento who looked completely hapless and the second-division level, as well as ones such as Gershon Koffie who were occasionally exciting but generally net negatives.

Who can honestly say the problem with the Whitecaps was in their second-division holdovers? Knight spent most of the year out of his natural position at right wing while Shea Salinas recovered from injury. He was forced out at right back by the strong play of Jonathan Leathers; that's football, but he looked all right when he got a chance and had a memorable defensive effort against the New York Red Bulls. When Teitur Thordarson was fired, however, Tom Soehn didn't give Knight a chance, preferring his infamous "Right Back Roulette" which sent the Whitecaps straight to hell.

Greg Janicki had one horrible game against Sporting Kansas City where he had a hand in all three of Vancouver's goals against thanks to a hip injury he was too proud to substitute himself out for. Other than that, he was perfectly competent when paired with a partner in defense who could compensate for his lack of foot speed. That's no surprise: the Whitecaps had to keep the same consideration in mind with Janicki in the second division. However, when Tommy Dreamer came on as coach he stopped giving Janicki opportunities, preparing to ruin the team's transition threat by sliding Alain Rochat to centre back.

Jay Nolly played fine and remains in Major League Soccer with the Chicago Fire; he needs no defense from me. Philippe Davies never got a chance from anybody, although his progress over the USL PDL season has really raised my hopes for him. In any case, Martin Rennie has so far held onto Davies even though the signing of Bryce Alderson gives him four out of a required three Canadians.

A few other players spent a season or less in the Whitecaps second division setup before moving on to MLS: Blake Wagner, Alexandre Morfaw, Terry Dunfield, the aforementioned Koffie and Chiumiento. Long Tan also picked up a couple seasons of second division experience before becoming a Whitecaps fan favourite, although his years were with FC Tampa Bay. Of the players I just listed Wagner and Morfaw were outright failures, Tan and Dunfield were useful in their role, and Koffie and Chiumiento were automatic starters: a pretty fair success rate for players of any origin and certainly not a blanket condemnation of second-division talent. Russell Teibert, who played 45 minutes of second-division soccer before suffering a tragically injury-shortened 2011, hardly counts.

The problem with the Whitecaps weren't the second-division players, most of whom were summarily executed by Tom Soehn in any case. The problem was the players we brought in to replace the second-division players. Jeb Brovsky instead of Luca Bellisomo, Bilal Duckett instead of Akwari or Zurab Tsiskaridze, Michael Nanchoff instead of Nash; replacing players who proved their quality at a somewhat lower level with players who hadn't proven shit. The players with MLS experience weren't much better, tending towards the injured (John Thorrington), the erratic (Shea Salinas), and the holy-fuck-Christ-awful (Peter Vagenas).

Far from taking too many second-division players, Tom Soehn seemed biased against them: he'd rather take a chance on a third-rate American college kid, or sign an American MLS player who's already bounced around so many teams that his worth should be pretty obvious. The second division players the Whitecaps brought up weren't brilliant but they were useful provided you respected the limitations any Whitecaps fan who'd watched them for the past year would be aware of.

So don't be an idiot and your second division players have a chance of contributing. Bad news for Tommy Dreamer, but good news for Martin Rennie and Matt Watson.