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Vancouver Whitecaps 2014 Review: Attacking Midfield

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A season-end review of the Vancouver Whitecaps attacking midfield core.

Shirt on or shift off, Morales was the straw that stirred the Whitecaps offense in 2014
Shirt on or shift off, Morales was the straw that stirred the Whitecaps offense in 2014
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

After (and even before) the 2013 season, it was clear that the attacking midfield was an area of need. Matt Watson, Erik Hurtado, Russell Teibert, Nigel Reo-Coker, Daigo Kobayashi, and Kekuta Manneh had combined for 96 starts, 11 goals (Kekuta: 6), 22 assists (Teibert: 9), and 129 shots (Kekuta: 38). While certainly in need of an upgrade, it was not immediately evident where that upgrade would arise.

In 2013, Nigel Reo-Coker was one of the highlights in the midfield. Despite his inability to hit a target from five feet away, there was discussion of making him a designated player (remember that scary possibility). However, he arrived to training camp out of shape and quickly out of a starting position. After a run-in with those deadly bike racks, he was relegated to spot fill-in duty for Steven Beitashour and eventually traded to Chivas for Mauro Rosales.

2014 was expected to be Kekuta Manneh’s breakout year after his play last season and impressive hat trick against the Seattle Sounders. However, his contributions throughout the 2014 season were not to the degree that was expected. Meanwhile, Teibert was tossed back and forth between attacking midfield, defensive midfield, and the bench. Hurtado was moved into a striker role, where he saw some success, and Kobayashi and Watson were released.

In February, the Whitecaps attempted to improve their maligned attacking midfield with the acquisition of Mezquida (transfer) and Fernandez (one-year loan). However, the key moment was March 5th when the Whitecaps announced the signing Pedro Morales. The Whitecaps had their coveted #10 and he was only 28 years old! However, given the history of DPs in Vancouver Whitecap fans were a little anxious. Morales silenced many of those fears when he scored a goal and added an assist in the first game of the season, subbing on for the last 25 minutes. In that game, Fernandez also introduced himself to the sellout BC Place attendees with a goal of the week rocket from outside the box.

Yes, after the first game of the season, the attacking midfield of the Whitecaps had appeared to go from being a major weakness to a strength. By the season’s conclusion the combination of Morales, Fernandez, Manneh, Mezquida, and Rosales would accumulate 79 starts, 21 goals, 17 assists, and 236 shots. While an overall success, the attacking midfield is not without its questions this off-season. We will now look at high and low points for each of the midfielders and what to expect going forward.

Pedro Morales ($1,190,000): 28 Starts (2554 Minutes), 10 Goals (7/8 on PK), 12 Assists, 105 Shots (7th in the League), and 39 Shots on Goal (9th in the League). Newcomer of the Year Award (pending).

Pedro Morales was acquired by the Whitecaps on March 5th, 2014 from Malaga. Pedro had rode the bench for the majority of the La Liga season and was looking for a new start. At 28 years of age and experienced, there were obvious reasons for optimism. However, whenever a high-priced player comes to MLS from Europe there always seems to be questions about why the player could not succeed in Europe and whether he would be dismissive of the MLS. Those fears were quickly laid to rest as Morales’ skill and positive attitude were evident from the beginning of the season. By mid-season his mastery on the ball and through the air had Whitecap fans mesmerized. Despite only being with the team for about 15 games, the retirement of Jay DeMerit resulted in Morales being named captain.

Morales ended the season as one of only 7 players (Keane, Donovan, Martins, Dempsey, Valeri, and Henry being the others) to have more than 10 goals and 10 assists and is expected to take the award for Newcomer of the Year. It is clear that as Morales went, so did the Whitecaps. In games where he scored or setup a goal, the team was 10-1-4. In games where he was held off the score sheet, the team was 2-8-10. Of the teams 42 goals, Morales was a part of 22 of them (52.38%). Fans are excited to see what Morales will bring next year after he has had some rest, is completely adjusted to the league and travel, and has someone to pass the ball to that can score goals (how many times does Morales need to send Hurtado in on a breakaway before he scores!). However, there are a few things to be concerned about.

The field turf at BC Place, long travel, and extended season appeared to take their toll on his back and play. From July 30th to the regular season’s conclusion (14 games), Morales totalled 3 goals (2 from the penalty spot) and 4 assists. Despite being regarded as a free/corner kick specialist, he really did not show much in my opinion. Granted, his poor back was a contributing factor as was the lack of heads to get on balls (pre-Waston), but free kicks was a spot where Camilo did a lot of damage the previous season and it would have been nice to see more out of Morales in this regard. Finally, despite scoring 10 goals, 7 were from the penalty spot. Being 7th in the league in shots and 9th in shots on goal, you would expect a lot more. In fact, his goal rate was 1 per 35 shots, or 2.86% (YIKES!). In comparison, the fan polarizing Darren Mattocks was 1 per 10.8 shots. If the Whitecaps are able to bring in some reliable striker support Morales’ poor conversion may not be a concern, however, it would still be nice to see a few more of those shots end up in the back of the net. Nevertheless, Pedro’s contributions were certainly worth the salary and the price of admission, he appears very dedicated to the team, and there are few reasons to doubt that he will be even more successful next season when he has someone to score off of his many perfect passes.

Sebastian Fernandez ($143,000): 24 Starts (1968 Minutes), 5 Goals (3 GWG, 1 GotW), 0 Assists, 54 Shots

For Fernandez, 2014 must be looked at as a season of wonderful highs and extreme lows. Acquired, on loan, February 5th, there was a lot of optimism prior to the season. Paired with his Boston River teammate Mezquida, Fernandez showed his skill in the City of Roses pre-season tournament. In the first game of the year, Fernandez further displayed his skill, winning Goal of the Week (GotW). Fernandez would go on to be nominated for GotW in each game he scored (4). In Week 17 he would finish 3rd in voting while in Weeks 8 and 30, 2nd.

Fernandez also experienced some extreme lows. On June 2nd, in a thrilling 4-3 away win at Portland, Fernandez attempted to draw a card, against Kah, by slapping himself in the face and going to ground. His actions were condemned across the league and, more importantly, publicly from his own coach. However, it would appear that this action, and some of his early season ‘falls’, would haunt him the rest of the year as he was often the victim of a foul but failing to receive the call. Fernandez concluded his tumultuous season with a red card after berating the referee at the end of the team’s loss at Dallas.

Fernandez was on a one-year loan and the team has publicly acknowledged their desire to have him back. It is clear that Fernandez brings a lot to the team but there are also a few concerns. MLS is a rough league and his size seems to contribute to him being easily knocked off the ball. That lack of size might help to explain why he appeared invisible for extended periods of time. His on-the-field behaviour also has to be questioned. I believe that the ‘self-slap’ was addressed well but his actions at the end of the season bring questions about his maturity. Nevertheless, Fernandez certainly brings an important element to this team that should be a welcomed attribute next season, should his loan be extended, or he is transferred.

Kekuta Manneh ($70,000): 13 Starts (1198 Minutes), 4 Goals (1 GWG), 2 Assists, 54 Shots.

Going in to the season, there were a lot of expectations thrust upon Manneh. Beginning as a ‘super-sub’, Manneh was clearly influencing games. However, after about 10 games, Manneh appeared to lose confidence in himself. He rarely attacked the fullbacks, preferring to stay outside the box, failing to have his typical impact. Over the final month of the season, something seemed to click for Manneh as he began to look like his old self. Hopefully that change remains and he continues to grow next season.

At 19 years of age, Manneh is still very raw. While his speed and footwork are unquestionable, his ability to defend and play an entire game are points of concern. Nevertheless, Manneh is a building block for the Whitecaps going forward, with the potential to play at a higher level in Europe later. Although it has been suggested, by myself and others, that Manneh is a striker and should be put up top, I believe that his place is on the wing. Up top, he will easily be muscled off the ball and his strong footwork and speed will have less of a factor.

Nicolas Mezquida ($65,000): 4 Starts (418 Minutes), 2 Goals, 0 Assists, 11 Shots

Acquired on February 5th, Mezquida was initially favoured to be the Whitecaps new #10. One month later, those plans changed with the signing of Pedro Morales and Mezquida was subsequently relegated to a substitute role with limited playing time. In his limited play, Mezquida displayed an ability to find the back of the net, but, at 150 lbs, was also routinely knocked off the ball. Mezquida is a young player (22) who was a great signing for the Whitecaps. He will have an important role next year as cover for Morales and will probably get more playing time given the CONCACAF games, where his lack of size may be less of an issue against Central American teams.

Mauro Rosales ($450,000): 10 Starts (809 Minutes), 0 Goals, 3 Assists, 7 Shots

On August 21st, the Whitecaps were finally able to part with Nigel Reo-Coker, acquiring Mauro Rosales in the process.  One of the all-time great MLS assist men, Rosales was a clear upgrade for the bench warming Reo-C. It was quickly apparent the value of Rosales. A true team player with endless drive, Rosales formed a great partnership with Morales. While his statistics may be viewed as a bit lacking, it would be important to note that Rosales has always been an assist man with very few goals (12 in 118 MLS games). With the team’s lack of scoring there was very little, statistically, that Rosales could contribute. Although his contract is up this season and his salary and age may be viewed as high, the 33 year old still has plenty left to offer the Whitecaps and I would be surprised if the Whitecaps did not put in extensive efforts to retain his services this off-season. It is clear that his mind works similar to Morales and they could form a very dangerous combination next season with their link-up and ability to switch roles throughout the game.

The Future

There are certainly reasons to be optimistic going forward. The core of the attacking midfield is young with the likes of Marco Bustos, Kianz Froese, and Bryce Alderson waiting in the wings. Previously I have advocated the use of the final DP slot to a wing player. It was an area that I believed needed some retooling. While the clear focus is the striker position, which may use the final DP slot, upgrading the wings may still be a good idea. It is great having the young players and being optimistic about their contributions, but as we saw from the strikers this year, placing all your hopes on unproven youngsters can blow up in your face. I believe that the retaining of Rosales is key for this team and a failure to do so will necessitate a chunk of change being spent on the attacking midfield. Although it is possible to find someone better, Rosales has proven his work ethic and skills in MLS. It would seem to me that the best decision is to go with the known commodity rather than the unknown. If Rosales is kept, then the attacking midfield looks to be in great shape with a great blend of youth and leadership.

What are your thoughts on the attacking midfield this season?

Agree/Disagree with my assessment?

Join us again tomorrow when Jon concludes our Whitecaps Season in Review series with a look at the strikers.