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The Bench Atiba Harris Club

Run, Atiba! Run to the bench!
Run, Atiba! Run to the bench!

In the Houston - Vancouver post-beating thread, a commenter named CanadianSteel had an excellent idea: "I think we should start a Bench Atiba Harris club."

Consider it done. I hereby proclaim the founding of the Bench Atiba Harris Club, Vancouver chapter established 2011 (Frisco, Texas chapter, I understand, established some years previous). We have one goal and one mission: to support the Vancouver Whitecaps and help them win soccer games by getting Atiba Harris's sorry ass benched.

This isn't the first time I've put the spotlight on a member of the Vancouver Whitecaps I have my doubts about. You may recall my questioning whether Jonathan Leathers is lucky or good, not taking a position but leaning towards "good" (much to my own surprise). Well, with Atiba Harris, there's no question. He's third in team scoring with two goals, behind Hardcore Eric Hassli and Camilo Sanvezzo with three each. He's also picked up a fistful of assists and played heavy minutes on a forward corps devastated by Eric Hassli's determination to set the single-season MLS yellow cards record. He's also lucky.

The Bench Atiba Harris Club doesn't hate Harris, necessarily. He's no Rob Friend. He has some useful qualities on a soccer field and, frankly, I'd be happy to see him continue with the Whitecaps in a depth role. Coming in as a tactical substitution or when injuries force him into the lineup.

But coming in, not staying on. As in, coming in from the bench. Bench Atiba Harris. It is the Whitecaps' best path towards soccer salvation.

Having begun so negatively, I feel I should go over what I like about Atiba Harris and why I think he's still a potentially useful MLS part. For a guy his size, Harris is pretty quick. Not just in a straight-line sense but in terms of agility and acceleration, which is where many big men stumble. He also has fairly good passing ability, including a surprisingly decent right-footed cross that he's shown off from time to time. He has boundless energy and is willing to sacrifice his body to help the team. If there's any "quit" in Atiba Harris, I haven't seen it: even after yet another ninety-minute game in the brutal Houston conditions on Sunday, Harris was giving his all with time winding down and the team down two goals. I wouldn't have blamed Harris for jogging his way through the last ten minutes, but he clearly did his best even if his best was no longer very good.

But, at forward, Harris's weaknesses are magnified. He has no instinct for the position. He's by far the Whitecaps' season leader in "most times needlessly caught in an offside trap" as well as the far more irritating category "most times randomly wandering offside for no immediately evident reason". His understanding of good goal-scoring positions is pretty much limited to "get in front of goal, preferably while the goalkeeper isn't", and while some players like Jonathan McDonald never even learned that much it still leaves something to be desired. While he's pretty quick, he also has no tricks with possession: his strategy for going through a defender is literally to go through him.

Most noticeably, his first touch is... he has no first touch. None. I've seen goalposts with a better first touch than Atiba Harris. He clearly learned how to control the ball on the mean streets of Basseterre with an inanimate cinder block. How many times has this killed the promising chances for the Whitecaps on counters or even building attacks? Midfielder slings a ball in to Harris, the ball ricochets off Harris's foot and we're starting all over again. Repeat ten times a game. It's maddening.

You can see the difference when Atiba Harris is on the field with a real professional striker like Hassli or Sanvezzo. What winds up happening is that, when the Whitecaps get a good chance, either the other forward or one of the wingers do all the work. Harris shambles around. The ball gets slung in, and hopefully the other player has pulled the defenders and the goalkeeper far enough out of position that Harris has no work to do. Harris's goal against Kansas City was typical. Nizar Khalfan made a great run down the left wing, beat the defense with sheer speed, forced the goalkeeper over to react to a probable shot, and then dropped a sublime pass right to the feet of Harris who was pretty much standing by himself in front of an open goal. That's Atiba Harris's goalscoring strategy: sometimes teams forget about him.

Harris isn't terrible, but he's not a starter at this level. He shouldn't even be a first-choice substitute at this level; I'd love to see what Long Tan has to offer off the bench. I'm fine with having Harris around in case of injuries and Hassli meltdowns, or as a good utility substitute who can play either up top or on the wing and won't, at any rate, kill you (Harris is much better than Cody Arnoux, I'll say that for free). But so far Harris has started every game for the Whitecaps and he's just not that good.

Bear in mind that Harris has spent most of his career as a winger. A reasonably effective winger, at that: he got pretty serious playing time with Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, and FC Dallas. He was never in the league's upper echelon but he was still somebody you could put on the field with comfort knowing he wouldn't embarrass himself. He was, in short, a perfectly respectable journeyman... as a winger. There's a reason no team which tried Harris at forward tried him there for long.

So bench Atiba Harris. Bench him and try using him in his proper position. He has a role to fill on this team, but right now Teitur Thordarson is not filling it.