The Whitecaps have made the final of the Disney Tournament Thing of Who Cares (5PM Saturday; streamed live on TSN.ca) against Toronto FC Reserves (TFC's best players, to the extent that's not a contradiction in terms, are heading home for their CONCACAF Champions League match against the Los Angeles Galaxy). They've handled all comers easily, beating the Montreal Impact, Houston Dynamo, and Kansas City by a combined score of 7-0 despite playing their backups in two out of the three games. None of those three teams are leading MLS contenders, and of course these are just exhibitions, but I defy you not to feel a little excited.
Yesterday, the Whitecaps celebrated that triumph by releasing Lee Nguyen, one of the more highly-touted of our off-season acquisitions. Nguyen by no means looked bad but it says something about our preseason confidence that nobody much objected to his departure because we're so loaded. Lesser-regarded players such as Michael Nanchoff, Carlyle Mitchell, Long Tan, Matt Watson, and Bryce Alderson have been staking their claims at all positions. Of course not all of these players will keep it up when the games get serious, but for now all indications are positive. Martin Rennie has a coach's favourite problem: he has to sort through an embarrassment of depth.
After the jump, I talk about a few players who have favourably surprised me. Isn't it nice, being a Whitecaps fan talking about unexpectedly good players again?
The loss of Lee Nguyen can't be a shock. I don't want to say I told you so, but I did; there's nothing in Nguyen's playing history which suggested that he'd be able to contribute at the MLS level.
I don't want to crap on Nguyen too much: he did impress at times. He has a good eye for offense and isn't as slow to react as his reputation led me to believe. He's got Shea Salinas potential and I expect him to make a career of it somewhere; then again, I didn't want a fully-developed Shea Salinas either.
Nguyen might have had a chance with the Whitecaps but he got beat the good way: there were simply too many players on the rise. Michael Nanchoff played decently against Sporting Kansas City as a right midfielder and exceptionally against the Houston Dynamo on the left, while Russell Teibert has improved on his early 2011 form. Teibert's even looked convincing-ish in his time on the right, a pleasant surprise to me and a major boost to his chances. Meanwhile, Davide Chiumiento, Atiba Harris, Camilo Sanvezzo, Long Tan, and Etienne Barbara are all still kicking around as wing options. I probably forgot one or two; that's how loaded we are.
Nguyen's release brings Vancouver down to 28 roster spots used with no international slots available; could this be pointing to a potential Residency signing? My guess is "no", but Caleb Clarke has been impressive of late and has to be given an outside shot.
Starting at the back, Carlyle Mitchell keeps succeeding. I don't think he can get past Martin Bonjour; the Argentine's audacious assist to Eric Hassli in the Montreal game got him on a lot of radars and Bonjour's size and toughness contrast well with Jay DeMerit. However, not so many weeks ago Mitchell was almost the forgotten man. His attention to detail, agility, and marking skills, combined with some nice ball movement, have made everybody remember him over the past two matches. Of all those on this list, Mitchell has the most positive MLS experience, and it's nice to see him picking that baton back up.
A moment must be given to central midfielder Matt Watson. So far in Vancouver Rennie has him linking up the back four plus Gershon Koffie/Bryce Alderson with the wingers and the forwards. It's worked. Watson hasn't made a spectacular play either offensively or defensively, but he's kept the giveaway count low, isn't easily stripped of the ball in the open field, and generally keeps the ball moving forward while also ensuring the Whitecaps maintain possession (as much as anyone in his position can). He's low on "wow" factor but also low on mistakes, which in his role is just fine by me. Again, we'll see how he does when play speeds up: I remember how poised Terry Dunfield looked and how much he had to simplify his game when MLS came at him full speed (although I may be the last man in Vancouver who thinks Dunfield was still, on balance, effective).
Alderson keeps looking wise beyond his years. Nobody in Canada needs to be told his potential, but playing in the middle of the park with such a varied list of responsibilities does highlight his flaws: lack of a right foot, unwillingness to take the offensive initiative, and so on. But no 18-year-old player has ever been perfect and, even against experienced MLS attackers, Alderson's held his own: he's been using his body to shield the ball, slowing up play, and making passes that aren't ambitious but are accurate and helpful. I like where he's heading, and I certainly wouldn't mind if he got minutes at John Thorrington's expense.
Michael Nanchoff was the star of Saturday's game against Houston and I've already shot my load over his performance. On Wednesday he was out of his comfort zone as a right midfielder; he did less well in that tough position than Russell Teibert did in his Saturday cameo. However, he was still okay; he seemed to recognize his limitations, deferred to Greg Klazura when necessary, tried to get it to Davide Chiumiento or Sebastien Le Toux by hook or by crook, and generally did a fair supporting job.
These are a lot of unalloyed positives, and that's without counting players who have been excellent but haven't surprised me (Russell Teibert) or the excellent players who haven't surprised anybody (Sebastien Le Toux). That's what these sorts of excellent games will get you. Again, we'll see what happens when the games become real: I don't dare pretend that all of these guys will continue to surpass expectations. But, of course, they don't all have to: Martin Rennie's given the Whitecaps plenty of options to replace those who struggle.
Holy hell, I'm actually feeling good about this team.