When the Vancouver Whitecaps took the field for the Supporters Summit friendlies against the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders, dozens of Whitecaps supporters made the trip across the border to the incredibly happening town of Tukwila, Washington to watch their team in action. It wasn't just because of the ancient Cascadian rivalry between the three teams, although of course that helped. It was because, in the months since the Whitecaps walked off Swangard's hallowed pitch for the last time, the team has undergone a transformation almost unrivaled in soccer history. From top to bottom, there are new starters at every position, core players we'd never dreamed of, and a few old favourites hoping to jump to the next level. It's heady stuff, and no true fan wouldn't be curious to see this remodeled team in action regardless of the stakes.
We wound up getting 180 minutes plus stoppages of first team action. All three teams took the tournament at least a little seriously, but obviously they were friendlies first and foremost so none of the sides was at their best. Drawing conclusions from such an event is fraught with difficulty, as one has to separate out players who did well because they're excellent from those who succeeded because the competition was a little worse, not to mention those who were poor because they stink from those who were poor because they weren't trying as hard.
But we can't let that stop us, not when the team has been so reshaped and we're starving for even the faintest hint of how the new-look Whitecaps will perform. So after the jump, a look at five players who thrilled, five players who satisfied, and five players who disappointed from the most recent round of friendlies as viewed live from a set of metal bleachers on the outskirts of Seattle.
Fair warning: this is a pretty long one. If you're going to print it out and take it to the can, better go in shifts.
It says a lot that Alain Rochat beat expectations because boy, I was expecting quite a bit. No worries. I'm trying to think of something that Rochat didn't do well just to lend balance to the piece but it's not coming. On the ball, he was one of the most technically adept Whitecaps regardless of position. He loped forward to lead counterattacks, and his precise passes got the Whitecaps going, but at the same time his sensible conservatism meant that if something went wrong he'd be right back in position to defend again. He was never out of position, never bought one of the Timbers' tricks. He could take the ball away effortlessly if given the opportunity and force his opponent outside if not. And, to my considerable surprise and delight, he was far more comfortable with the physical side of the game than I expected, showing both solidity on his feet and just the slightest hint of a mean streak.
I ask a lot of my fullbacks, as Willis Forko would be able to tell you if he was ever unfortunate enough to read this website. Alain Rochat provided it all. When he went off limping, my heart was practically in my throat because oh my god, this guy looks like he's something special. Obviously it'll take a few more games for us to say for sure, but right now he looks like he might be just a little too good for Major League Soccer. I could not be happier. I'm going to start bringing Toblerone bars to games and waving them around in his honour.
On the other hand, I expected nothing at all from Long Tan and got a fair bit. Long Tan was a mediocre player for the worse-than-mediocre Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USSF D2 last year; why the hell would I have had any expectations? And sure, he wasn't perfect. Brenton was right in our comments when he said that Tan had a nasty habit of running straight into the defense and not being able to play his way out of it. He definitely had Camilo da Silva Sanvesso-itis, where a guy on trial tries to prove that he's Cristiano Ronaldo instead of using his teammates a little bit.
But it turns out the guy has a bit of skill! And a 250-horsepower Evinrude outboard engine in that 6'1" frame! The guy's no Randy Edwini-Bonsu but for somebody his size he's like a firework; most importantly, he uses his speed intelligently instead of just dicking around on the grass. He's not a world-beater, and he certainly bit off more than he could chew time and time again. Instead, he's a decent forward, a bit of a chaotic guy who, if he can get his head screwed on straight and start using his support a little bit, might be able to run off the bench and raise some serious havoc in an opponent's defense. He needs a fair bit of work to get to that point, but I'm no longer writing him off entirely. Call it the old Marlon James role: you don't want him for the full game but if you need a forward to make the other team's life much much worse for about fifteen minutes, Long Tan might be your man.
Omar Salgado was a bit of a weird cast for me. I had no idea what to expect from the kid, to be blunt. A tall quick player, but raw. According to eyewitnesses he looked pretty mediocre at times with the United States U-20s last year but even those eyewitnesses conceded that so long without a club had clearly hurt his form. Would I see, well, a typical big 17-year-old who had succeeded his whole life off of athleticism rather than ability, or would I see a striker good enough that Arsenal would scout him?
I definitely saw Salgado good. I can nail his weaknesses down to two things: he didn't always give the professional defenders of Seattle and Portland enough credit, leading to him snuffing out an attack but playing his way out of position, and his conditioning was mediocre. Other than that, he instantly transformed Vancouver's attack just by being on the field. He didn't get a five-bell chance against the Timbers but Portland's defense was tracking back like mad just to deal with him and it hurt them everywhere else on the field. Meanwhile, he punched through Seattle's back four a number of times and might have had another goal or two if his fellow Whitecaps had looked for him more often (he was amazingly, almost infuriatingly open with plenty of space in front of him three or four times but didn't get service in time).
Holy balls, this kid is special. I don't mean good, I mean special. I called him a wasted pick at first overall, but now... I'm re-thinking that. I'm re-thinking my whole belief system. Nobody should be that big and that quick and that talented and that agile. It's just not cricket. Of course he has so much to learn, but even if I'm not certain I would have taken Salgado overall I can now definitely see why the Whitecaps did. I find myself desperately hoping he gets his papers to play for the Whitecaps as a 17-year-old, not just because he'll help them win but because I just want more Omar Salgado in my life. I want to know if this is real.
I hoped that Joe Cannon would play for maybe forty-five minutes in the tournament and not look like a washed-up old grandpa. Instead he played parts of both games, looked completely recovered, and made what would have been absolutely frickin' highlight-reel saves if these games had been on television. Holy crap! The guy's like a panther in there! Once each against Portland and Seattle, there were moments where I thought "shit, that's a goal" and nope, there's Cannon, that enormous Grizzly Adams beard seeming to give him superpowers as he sprang across the goal to commit grand larceny. I love Jay Nolly as much as the next man, but I think I'm in soccer lust with Joe Cannon.
Of course, you can't count on a goalkeeper making spectacular saves. If Cannon did that sort of thing routinely he bloody well wouldn't have been exposed in the expansion draft. To me, the pleasant surprise was that the old man with injury problems still had the speed, the agility, and the strength to make the occasional preposterous stop. He also looked consistent, steady, in control, and he handled the easy stuff well enough. My idea of the perfect goalkeeper is one who stops all the shots he should and occasionally gets one he shouldn't, and that was Joe Cannon. I feel much more confidence in our goalkeeping on Tuesday than I felt on Friday.
I didn't expect much athleticism out of former Olympian Michael Boxall. I mean, I liked the pick when the Whitecaps took him in the Supplemental Draft, but I more-or-less figured we'd get a prototype of Greg Janicki. Big tall guy, good in the air, but slow as balls and without the intelligence or the experience to be a viable big league defender yet. Worth drafting, maybe worth keeping and nursing along in his development, but not worth expecting anything from.
I still don't really expect anything from Boxall, but I gotta say I liked my first look of him against Seattle. He seemed calm, in control, and perfectly ready for the occasion. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised; I mean, he did play in the Summer Olympics, so compared to that the pressure of an MLS pre-season game isn't all that considerable. But he was perfectly composed, always in the right position, seemed to expect that he'd be able to handle Seattle's attackers without difficulty and then proving it. I pretty much only noticed him when a Seattle player would pass the ball down the middle and Boxall would pick it off before efficiently knocking it to another Whitecap. It was the sort of game which you don't think about until you look back afterwards and think "wait... Boxall did kick a lot of butt out there, didn't he?" It was a Nelson Akwari game. His impact was best measured by the way nothing ever happened around him.
It wasn't brilliant. As Seattle brought on more of their first team players, Boxall was getting a little tired and it showed late in the game when the ball was flying by him and he wasn't able to adjust. When Wes Knight left, Boxall had to run around a lot more and that didn't help. By no means is he an everyday MLS player yet. But the Whitecaps haven't exactly got a fistful of MLS defenders right now. Who would you rather have on the bench, right now, than Michael Boxall?
Walked the Line of Adequacy:
I knew very little about John Thorrington when the Whitecaps scooped him up in the expansion draft. Veteran midfielder, little guy, capped four times for the United States once upon a time which is hopeful as far as it goes but, then again, he is thirty-one now and seems to be hurt a lot. It turns out that a healthy John Thorrington is actually pretty nice to have. He skipped the Seattle game and didn't exactly dominate central midfield against Portland, but I still liked what I saw.
I like my central midfielders simple, unambitious, and with a realistic appraisal of their own abilities. John Thorrington checked all those boxes. Did he misplay a single pass against the Timbers? There was nothing audacious and his defensive strategy seemed to be "Dunfield will take care of it", but it worked. Thorrington didn't seem to be going all out, or at least I hope he wasn't, but all the same when the ball came to him it always, always wound up going the right direction. That's fine. That's just fine.
Of all the former MLS journeymen coming back into Major League Soccer with the Whitecaps, probably the most worrisome was Greg Janicki. His reputation during his MLS days was very poor; think a smaller Andrew Boyens. While, to Whitecaps fans, Janicki won his spurs last season by being voted the Whitecaps' best defender (and that was saying something on a very good defensive team), veteran MLS observers were still concerned. I can quote Jason Longshore's opinion in my Twitter feed as typical: "Is Janicki contending for serious playing time? Unless things have changed, that's bad news for #WhitecapsFC. He was awful in DC." That reaction is by no means atypical.
Janicki's strengths are that he's strong, good in the air, and intelligent. His weakness is that he's as slow as a prairie sunset. My hope was that, with relatively quick teammates on the Whitecaps back line, Janicki's lack of speed wouldn't be exposed. And, in the Summit, that's... pretty much exactly what happened. Janicki kept himself in good position and made it difficult for even the most athletic striker to get around him. Even if Janicki was beaten, he'd buy enough time for Rochat, Leathers, or Knight to come to his aid. He looked slightly overwhelmed at times against Portland, but while he bent he did not break. Against Seattle he looked comfortable and in control despite having played 90 minutes the previous night (and goes another 90 in that game). He wasn't old, dominant, can't-get-by-me USSF D2 Janicki but honestly, none of us expected that. He was perfectly good, he didn't give anything away, and by the end of both games the enemy strikers had given up trying to pick on him through the middle. That's all we needed and that's all we could have asked.
I've never really been able to get a grip on Alexandre Morfaw. He's obviously not a bad midfielder, really. I'm just not really sure what he's for. He's a good passer, but not that good. Decent defensively, but not enough to look special. I've never seen him turn around a counterattack or lead the scoring. He's bad at nothing and not really good at anything either.
He saw time in both the Portland and Seattle games, where he further confused matters by sporting a hairdo that made me constantly confuse him and Nizar Khalfan. But he also had a couple of pretty decent games. Morfaw showed a bit of sandpaper I hadn't really expected; nothing on a Terry Dunfield sort of level but still, he had a knack for getting in the opposing midfielder's way, obstructing without drawing a foul, and even when he didn't get the ball back at least making it easier for the defender to do so. I liked it. It wasn't an inspiring performance, but particularly against Seattle he managed to wind the Sounders up and cause the right sort of chaos in their midfield game. More of that, please!
Wes Knight had a difficult game against Portland. Playing right midfield in place of the injured Shea Salinas, Knight misplayed far too many crosses and constantly caught himself too far up the field when the ball was coming the other way. It was pretty ugly. This wasn't the first time Knight has played wide midfield, and he's been competent enough in the past, but that was bad. There's no way to sugarcoat it.
Then, in the Seattle game, Knight got the start at his native right back. And Old Wes was back. I'm a Wes Knight fan. Long-time observers will recall that I named him my USSF D2 all-league right back, stated that of the returning Whitecaps Knight "will have the easiest time breaking into the starting lineup", and even pimped him as a potential MLS captain. Wes Knight is excellent, and in the Seattle game he showed everybody why. He's quicker than light, great with the ball at his feet for an old American college fullback, knows his way around his position better than a player his age frankly should, and while he's not much of a classical ball-winner he's so good at forcing attackers in the wrong direction, driving them into the corners or even out-of-bounds, that it doesn't really matter. He showed that off in style against the Sounders. It's no coincidence that Vancouver's defensive strength slipped as soon as Knight was substituted off: he was making the right-hand side a no-go zone. Simply too smart and too fast for even the veteran Seattle attack to beat. One bad game and one good one averages out to "met expectations", but Knight's second game was more hopeful than his first game was disappointing, if that makes any sense.
Jay Nolly had much the sort of tournament as his old second-division teammate Knight. Platooning goalkeeping duties with Joe Cannon, Nolly struggled just a bit against Portland. When I say "just a bit", I mean that he should definitely have had Portland's only goal (the ball which led to the goal should have been a routine catch but instead Nolly bobbled it) and he was generally fighting his catches all game. Nolly's had trouble grabbing the ball a few times in his Whitecaps career, particularly in the rain: in dry conditions he's usually sure enough but boy he looked shaky against Portland.
It's hard for me to admit, but Nolly probably should have gotten a piece of Roger Levesque's goal against Seattle too. I'm going to forgive him, though, because if Levesque's shot was slightly stoppable he made some cracking saves in that game which more than equaled the score. We actually cracked out the old "you'll never beat Jay Nolly!" chant for him, which was nice given that Nolly's an old fan favourite we were all worried would never start in Vancouver again. Never bet against Nolly.
Not Good Enough, Buddy. Not Good Enough:
I've never been the biggest Cornelius Stewart fan, but I was hoping for more than I saw against Seattle. He only played twenty-eight minutes, but those twenty-eight minutes confirmed what I've always feared about Stewart: he's just too limited to be an MLS-quality player. He's quick, but not so quick that it breaks games open on its own. He handles the ball decently but isn't going to trick a major-league defender with it. He shoots the ball well, but not YouTube well. He can't play defense, hold the ball up, or track back into his own half worth a tinker's damn. Against the Sounders' second-string defense, Stewart's tricks just didn't work. He couldn't generate a thing off the wing and that just hurt Vancouver's chances.
Stewart's a professional-grade player. He's just twenty-one years old and has some very nice qualities: he plays the ball pretty deftly along the ground and has a cunning eye for knocking cheeky passes or runs through cracks in the defense. Unfortunately, his entire game plan relies on exploiting another team's mistakes since he can't really generate much on his own. He deserves to make a living playing soccer somewhere, but I'm less and less sure MLS is the place.
Atiba Harris, on the other hand, is an MLS-grade player. He's proven it time and time again. Even stuck out of position as a big target man rather than the midfield role he's used to, Harris is widely expected to get results. Not a superstar, but someone you can rely on to contribute. So what the hell happened last weekend, when everything Harris touched turned to granite?
It was Harris's first touch that was most shocking. He just had no control as the ball reached his feet, and it pinballed off in heaven knows what direction. He had a terrific work rate for a big man and I really loved his defensive effort: you can see the years of being a midfielder in his attitude where he knows denying a goal is just as important as scoring one. I bet I'm going to wind up liking Atiba Harris, particularly if we can play him in a wider transition role. Unfortunately, this time around his ball control was so terrible that he hurt the Whitecaps whenever he was on the field. Nor did he have a natural knack for getting open. When people talk about the Whitecaps playing very directly, I have to think Harris is part of the reason why: he hasn't got the agility or the instincts to get around defenders, and with his combination of size, speed, and poor control he really is just better off chasing direct balls. Hopefully Eric Hassli takes some of the pressure off Harris and lets him play a more natural role.
Jonathan Leathers is a nice prospect. He's what I'm going to call "a young 25", meaning he's twenty-five year old but came to professional soccer the very long way so his rawness is forgivable. He could never crack the starting lineup for the Kansas City Wizards, and that's a bit worrisome given that the Wizard's defense has ever exactly been magic. But he's quick and he never seems to run out of pep. He's an attractive little player.
Yet why do I get the feeling that, his entire youth career, he was able to succeed just because he was a quick little player? The guy's smaller than Frodo Baggins, has no physical game to speak of, can't particularly tackle or strip the ball. He makes plays well enough and that's nice, but it doesn't really matter if he can't get the ball in the first place. This probably served him well owning chumps at Furman University, but unfortunately in Major League Soccer wingers know what their feet are for. Leathers started the Portland game and finished the Seattle game, and in neither case did it go well for him.
As far as I can tell, Leathers's problem is that he's secretly a midfielder. Decent passing, speed to burn, likes to lope up the field to try and create offense, but a very marginal defender... who looks at that and says "ah, professional fullback"? Maybe he's actually a fairly good defender most of the time but just got his butt kicked by the second-string midfields of Portland and Seattle on this occasion, I really don't know. I do know that, when I saw him, Leathers seemed to be quite happy to run around, play the ball as he liked, and count on being able to run back into position when he had to (except, again, these are professional soccer players he was trying this against so it never, ever worked). I really hope that Leathers has more defensive awareness than he showed us; that he knows he's already got a roster spot so was taking it easy and trying to avoid injury/make some offense rather than playing serious defense. Otherwise, I foresee a lot of wishing for Wes Knight in my future.
Nizar Khalfan got the start for the Whitecaps at right wing in the Seattle game, and I should have been excited. My main complaint about the 22-year-old Tanzanian last year was that he was a natural winger forced to play out of position at forward because there was nobody else to do it. Khalfan isn't a natural goalscorer and is at least a fairly decent playmaker with some defensive instincts. He plays a good all-round game and, at forward, was just out of his element.
Well, to my pleasure Khalfan came in on the wing against the Sounders and... looked out of his element. Perhaps it was just because it was a friendly. He was cheating for offense more than usual, and Nizar Khalfan isn't a creative enough player to get away with cheating for offense. He's an all-rounder, but he hasn't got a tonne of moves in his pocket and he isn't fast enough to chase down opposing midfielders if he muffs up. That meant that Khalfan spent a lot of time in no-mans land after getting a little too ambitious and turning the ball over. Maybe that time as a forward screwed up his brain. I hope not, because I want the old Nizar Khalfan back.
I almost wanted to list Jonathan Leathers again here, that's how useless he was. Instead I'll be a bit hard on a kid, only because I need a fifth "not good enough" to fill out the concept. Poor Bilal Duckett, you deserve better than you're going to get.
It's a bit hard on poor Bilal, being placed here. Not because he was good. Oh, god no. Playing left back in the Seattle game, Duckett was constantly a day late and a dollar short. For a guy with a fair bit of natural speed, Duckett seemed to have an almost Willis Forko-ian sense of the exact wrong moment to arrive at a spot on the field. He didn't cut out passes, he didn't drive his teammates off the ball, he couldn't start the counter attack, he couldn't really do much of anything. He also tired disconcertingly quickly and his poor defending on the left-hand side was a core reason the Seattle Sounders were able to attack Vancouver's goal in waves for the last fifteen minutes.
No, I feel bad for Duckett because that's a situation a player in his position should never be in. A freshly-drafted defender chucked in for a 90-minute stint against a solid, experienced Seattle Sounders attack, trying to cope with it with teammates almost as unblooded as he is? Duckett's no Michael Boxall: he hasn't got great natural gifts to make up for his lack of experience, nor has he got games with an Olympic team to show him what properly good players do. He's just, and excuse me for putting it this way, some guy. A decent young defender who could probably be a professional if nurtured, but not somebody who should be thrown into speeding traffic and told "good luck".
I liked Duckett's fundamentals. He seemed to understand the position, anyway. He's quick enough to play fullback, and considering he's such a stringbean he did a surprisingly good job when the play got physical. When he wasn't under pressure and panicking a bit, he handled the ball reasonably well. He's the sort of guy who should be getting reserve games, 15-minute appearances as a substitute, things like that. Going ninety against the Sounders, of course he got worked. Anyone would have been. But I'm still cautiously optimistic for the Bilal Duckett Era in Vancouver.