In future years, when we look back and try to remember the 2014 Whitecaps MLS season there are a few things that will pop to mind. The low production in the scoring department will probably be one of the first things, however one has to think that the solid performance of the back line has to be up there.
Going into 2014 the Whitecaps defensive line went through some changes with respect to the one that finished 2013. While the core remained intact with veterans Andy O'Brien, Jay DeMerit and Jordan Harvey returning to training camp, there were others who didn't. YP Lee retired at the end of 2013, Greg Klazura's option was declined (did I hear he is going to med school?) as was Brad Rusin's who signed a one year contract with Orland City in USL Pro.
The Whitecaps allowed 40 goals compared to 45 in 2013. That is an 11% improvement year-over-year. The Whitecaps allowed 20 goals in the first 13 matches of the season. That is an average of 1.53 goals per game. While that is not an atrocious record, it is true that the early positive results were not necessarily thanks to a solid defensive body of work. It was in that 13th match (a 3-3 away tie in Philadelphia) that saw Jay DeMerit leave the field as an active player for the last time.
After returning from the two week World Cup break the defensive line seemed to have finally gelled and the results were evident. The Whitecaps allowed only 20 goals in the last 21 games of their regular season. They became a team that was hard to score against. The proof is a league leading 13 clean sheets for Danish shot stopper David Ousted. Out of those 13 clean sheets, 11 came after the World Cup break.
Let's take a quick look at each individual defender in more detail:
Jordan Harvey - Jordan Harvey "Goal Machine" did not have the same scoring touch as he did in 2013 but he still managed to bag two goals. More importantly, he played in 33 games in 2014, his biggest tally since he arrived in Vancouver back in 2011. He was an absolute rock in the left back position all year long and he easily had his best year as a Whitecap. Harvey will be 31 when training camp 2015 comes around and, with Sam Adekugbe making solid arguments to become a regular in the starting XI, the coaching staff will have to decide whether or not the Mission Viejo native should be protected during the Expansion Draft.
Carlyle Mitchell - The 27 year old Trinitarian appeared in only 8 games this season. He was relegated to being a depth player and is way down in the pecking order. I expect that Mitchell will not be back for 2015.
Andy O'Brien - What is not to like about Andy O'Brien? Playing in 26 matches this season, the Irishman has proven that he still has something to bring to the table in this league and in this team. Extremely vocal, O'Brien marshals the backline while he seems to be able to create solid partnerships with basically anyone who plays alongside him. O'Brien has publicly stated that he wants to come back in 2015 even if it is at a lower salary and with some changes in the role that he plays. His veteran presence and experience on the pitch can be of great benefit for his younger teammates, both on and off the pitch.
Jay DeMerit - The now retired captain played in 11 games this season before suffering another season-ending injury. Contrary to last year, he decided that it was time for him to step away from the game in late July. As a fan favourite, his role as Club Ambassador suits him perfectly.
Johnny Leveron - It is no secret that I am a huge Johnny Leveron fan. The Honduran international only saw action in 16 matches this season and that is concerning to me. By now we know that it takes Johnny a run of games before he settles and starts showing the best version of himself. He got that opportunity after DeMerit's injury but unfortunately an untimely call-up for his national team, along with the arrival of Kendall Waston, meant that he basically didn't see the pitch down the stretch. I think that the Leveron-Waston partnership should be the defensive pairing of the future but I worry that the Honduran will not have the patience to wait for opportunities.
Sam Adekugbe - The academy product saw limited time this season, most notably in the last regular season match against Colorado when he was subbed in for an injured Steven Beitashour and during the Canadian Championship games against Toronto FC. His refined technique and ability to run down the line and make plays near both boxes makes him one of the most exciting players for the future. With the Whitecaps playing in three competitions in 2015, along with the promised Whitecaps USL-Pro team, there will be more opportunities and more minutes available for the young Canadian to continue his development.
Christian Dean - It is hard to really make a judgment about the 2014 SuperDraft pick. His minutes were very limited and most of them saw him out of his preferred central back position. On paper, Dean has all the tools to be a good MLS player and he would be one the biggest beneficiaries of the USL-Pro team. One thing is for sure - he is, as his coach dubbed him, a "man mountain," very tall, but not as tall as Kendall Waston.
Steven Beitashour - Dubbed by Carl Robinson as "arguably the best right back in the league," Steven Beitashour came in to take the baton from retired YP Lee. While it can be argued that Beitashour had a wobbly start to the season, he settled in as the season progressed and proved his worth especially in the defensive end with shrewd positioning and efficient marking. Perhaps some will say that he came advertised as a great assister, however, let's give him a break because when you have no one to put the ball in the back of the net it is hard to rack up assists. One has to think that he is a lock in to be protected in the upcoming expansion draft.
Ethen Sampson - Ethen Sampson started 2014 with some doubts as to whether or not he would be the right player to serve as a back-up for Steven Beitashour as a right back. After playing one year with the Whitecaps U-23 in the USL in 2013, the South African 20-year-old saw limited minutes in 2014. However, it has to be said that his two appearances were under hostile circumstances (both away games in Frisco), including a match as a starter in the knockout playoff game. I think it is fair to say that Sampson earned himself a spot in the roster for next year considering the amount of games that the Whitecaps will play in 2015.
Kendall Waston - DeMerit's retirement expedited Waston's arrival in Vancouver. Carl Robinson stated that the hulking Costa Rican centre back was a target for the club next January but once the captain went down, they decided to bring him in mid-season. While some players struggle when they arrive half-way through the campaign, Waston arrived in Vancouver and quickly demonstrated that he is cutout to be a successful defender in MLS. His impact on both ends of the pitch was clear through his scoring two set-pieces goals in the ten matches he participated in. His fierce presence on the pitch is ironically contrasted with his sweet and polite demeanour off it. Bilingual and very active on social media, Waston became an immediate fan favourite in the city. His contributions were so influential that he earned a nomination as "Latino del Año" by MLS despite featuring in less than a third of the season. Waston will be protected in the Expansion Draft and barring any injuries, he should be a regular fixture in the heart of the Whitecaps defense for years to come.
The reality is that the Whitecaps buckled down and stopped leaking goals in the last two thirds of the season. With goal production drying up at the same time, it was these solid defensive performances one of the most important factors that contributed to the Whitecaps making the playoffs, retaining the Cascadia Cup and clinching a CONCACAF Champions League berth for 2015-2016.
Carl Robinson and his coaching staff have some important and difficult decisions to make regarding their defenders. Should Andy O'Brien be resigned? Should Jordan Harvey be protected? Did Ethen Sampson do enough to earn himself a spot in the roster? Will Johnny Leveron be back as a Whitecap?
Many decisions are to come that will make up for a great offseason and we will be here to cover it all and discuss it with you.