We all know that, notwithstanding the Vancouver Whitecaps' offensive performance in this week's Real Salt Lake friendly, we need scoring badly. Much as we might like to, we probably can't rely on Terry Dunfield and Russell Teibert to keep punching holes in MLS-quality defenses, and Atiba Harris isn't exactly inspiring confidence. Whitecaps fans spend more of our employers' time than is really good for us pestering each other about how much we need forwards and combing even the most disreputable web sites for any hint that we might actually be getting somebody. Quite the contrary; the latest disreputable rumour is that we might losing one of the only strikers we have. How natural, and how in character for this team, that the Whitecaps' latest trialist is yet another midfielder.
The newest would-be Whitecap is 19-year-old Berlin native Lennart Hartmann. A once-blue chip prospect with German 2. Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin S.C., the defensive midfielder has found himself on the outs in new boss's Markus Babbel's system and has made only six appearances this season for Hertha Berlin II in the German Regionalliga Nord. Headlines have swirled around Hartmann's being a German youth international, but the Germans don't seem too heartbroken about losing him: Hartmann's contract expires in June and has spent the entire season kicking around with Hertha's reserves. He joins a midfield that's already rife with young competition, as Hartmann tries to eat Gershon Koffie, Alexandre Morfaw, Russell Teibert, Nizar Khalfan, and Ridge Mobulu's lunch. Among others.
Probably the most interesting thing about Hartmann's trial is how he probably got here. As ever, neither Teitur Thordarson nor Tom Soehn have gone around talking about how they find players from abroad, but long-time Eighty Six Forever readers will recall that a Swiss-based agent named Loïc Favre represented Alain Rochat and Davide Chiumiento when the two signed with the Whitecaps in 2010. Loïc's father, Lucien, managed Hertha Berlin until September 2009 and was responsible for bringing the young German into the Berlin first team. When the elder Favre was fired due to a run of awful results, Hartmann failed to make another first team appearance. It's easy to believe that, armed with Lucien's belief in young Hartmann, the Favre family connection might have brought the Whitecaps another potential signing.
Hartmann's a solid prospect who's been praised by smarter soccer brains than mine. But the truth is that he is a 2. Bundesliga reject and, despite the excitement of trialling such a young professional and a German youth player, this isn't the sort of guy who's going to get us into the playoffs. That doesn't mean I don't like him. After the jump, one man's look at the latest potential Whitecap.
There's an awful lot of Ethan Gage in Lennart Hartmann. He's a young defensive midfielder who broke into the first team early, look like he might round into a core player sooner than anybody expected, but wound up slipping back into the reserve world.
Hartmann made his league debut with then-first division Hertha Berlin in an August 17, 2008 road match against Eintracht Frankfurt. Hartmann came on as a 67th-minute substitute for Gojco Kacar in central midfield and played out a 2-0 Berlin victory, drawing a few solid reviews particularly given that he was 17 at the time. It was a tremendous debut for Hartmann but within ten days of that glorious moment Hartmann was on the injured list. A pubis inflammation knocked Hartmann out of the lineup and lingered on and on, eventually taking him out February of 2009. Pubis injuries are both funny and uncomfortable but they can also be surprisingly long-term: we Edmonton Oilers fans will recall that Marc Pouliot also lost a lot of time with a pubis injury in the 2009-10 season. Because of his injury and because, well, he was just seventeen, that one debut wound up being Hartmann's only first team appearance of the season.
Hartmann became the sixth-youngest player in the history of the Bundesliga. He had very few chances to improve on his career, though. The next season, with Hertha struggling (and failing) to avoid relegation, Hartmann made two appearances with the senior side in the Bundesliga, once as a substitute and once as a 90-minute starter. Hartmann also got his first senior Berlin start in the Europa League against FK Ventspils of Latvia, playing seventy-seven minutes and assisting on Lukasz Piszczek's 34th-minute goal. Hartmann played thirteen more games with Hertha Berlin II, scoring once. It was a good season for Hartmann, but all of his first-team appearances came early in the season. Once Berlin was struggling for its Bundesliga life, Hartmann was nowhere's near the first team. He may have been a good prospect, but when the chips were down he was not the answer.
The man who started as head coach at the beginning of the season, Lucien Favre, was sacked on September 28 a day after Berlin had lost 5-1 to 1899 Hoffenheim (incidentally Hartmann's first league start and last senior game so far with Berlin). After the relegation, his replacement Friedhelm Funkel did not have his contract extended. A trip to the second division should have been a great chance for Hartmann to catch on with a weakened roster, but instead he fell out of the first team all together. Marc Weber's excellent column on Hartmann suggests that current boss Markus Babbel prefers large players, and given that he signed enormous Canadian slab of uselessness Rob Friend that's not hard to believe. Berlin has kept some small midfielders, such as the 5'8" Sascha Bigalke, but most of them are not regulars and midfield starters like Peter Niemeyer and Fabian Lustenberger are six-footers.
There's no risk in taking Hartmann on trial, of course, and he might well be worth a contract. He'd be an international player but it's not like the Whitecaps have used up a tonne of international spots right now. It's not every day that players from the best European youth systems fall into an MLS team's lap, either, and we've had some damned good luck all round with Germany in the past. I'm happy for the Whitecaps to keep trying players like this, but once again they are solving the wrong problem.