Almost every article circulating around the Lower Mainland since that 2-0 defeat to the Timbers has rambled ad nauseam about the lack of a prolific goal-scorer on this Whitecaps team. The lament directed at that one weakness has largely overshadowed all that has been accomplished since March - a recipe for disaster when pessimism is so prevalent among local observers. Many have elected to embrace the immediate pain attached to the recent postseason exit instead of taking a step back to consider all the variables. To some degree this is justifiable with the wound of playoff failure still fresh, but here at Eighty Six Forever we endeavour to observe the bigger picture when possible. In this instance the best way to do that, in my view at least, is to look back at some of the narratives and events that constructed the year that was.
My plan to distinguish my work from whatever you can find elsewhere at the minute required more than a somewhat fresh perspective, though. I turned to my all-time favourite sportswriter, Bill Simmons, to help me achieve something unique. He built what was perhaps the most engaged audience of any sports column on the internet during his time at ESPN. From seamlessly implanted pop culture references to amusing anecdotes from his formative years in New England, The Sports Guy represented something brilliantly refreshing over the duration of his 14-year stint at the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Simmons pioneered a format where he could combine his extensive knowledge of TV and cinema with his invaluable insight on the North American sporting landscape, and that style is something that I'll be taking inspiration from here.
The only thing left was to decide on what exactly to draw the parallels with. I had a number of slightly contrasting options in mind, before ultimately deciding on Reservoir Dogs - the directorial debut of Quentin Tarantino. While I would consider the Blue and White's last eight months or so a more successful enterprise than Lawrence Tierney's catastrophic jewellery heist, the two timelines share a few characteristics that I would regard as both entertaining and poignant. Both boasted their own brand of unbridled chaos and both kept their audience enthralled from start to finish. If you're yet to watch the movie I would recommend that you do so ASAP. If you have no interest in that activity, read ahead with fresh eyes or check out what a hockey writer has to say for the Vancouver Sun. K Billy's Super Sounds of the 70's weekend just keeps on truckin'.
Mr. Blonde: Boy that was really exciting. I bet you're a big Lee Marvin fan, aren't ya? Yeah, me too. I love that guy. My heart's beating so fast I'm about to have a heart attack.
In the aftermath of the underwhelming season opener with Toronto FC, head coach Carl Robinson turned to a more pragmatic approach in how he set up his side. The decision paid dividends over the next three fixtures where the emphasis on disciplined organization was employed as the Caps notched successive narrow victories over Chicago, Orlando City and Portland. In each contest the winning strike was converted beyond the 85th minute, and the series of events helped to lay the foundations for what followed in the regular season. The guys established their testicular fortitude on the road early and used that character to carry them to the Western Conference's second seed. Octavio Rivero hit the ground running too, displaying the clutch gene at Toyota Park and the Citrus Bowl with his decisive contributions at the death. It was certainly an exhilarating stretch of time, if painfully uncomfortable until the final whistle.
Mr. White: You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.
Arguably the main explanation for why the strategy detailed above worked so effectively was Kendall Waston picking up exactly where he left off down the stretch in 2014. I tweeted recently that I thought the Towering Tico was the most tactically important defensive player in the league when it was announced that Impact stalwart Laurent Ciman had beaten him to the MLS Defender of the Year award. That, to me, is the biggest statement you can make about his performance throughout 2015. He gave the Whitecaps the license to absorb swathes of pressure all year long, crippled opponents by turning the space in front of David Ousted's net into a no-fly zone, and gave everyone ahead of him incentive to play with confidence. Although Mati Laba had my vote there can be no debate that the 27-year-old was a worthy recipient of the club's MVP award, and the news of his much deserved long-term renewal is undoubtedly a massive coup.
Joe: No way, no way. Tried it once, doesn't work. You got four guys all fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black, but they don't know each other so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick. You're Mr. Pink. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow.
Robbo remained loyal to his 4-2-3-1 system to the dismay of the tactical geniuses within the fan base. Most members of the starting line-up were able to adapt to the varying degrees of adventure exhibited by their manager, however it was the #10 role that actually facilitated the contrasting identities. Pedro Morales was integral to the early season philosophy of living and dying by the counter, only for injury problems to plague his game over the summer. This opened the door for Nico Mezquida to not just fill but redefine the void left by the skipper; giving Robbo the flexibility he was desperate for without needing to abandon his preferred scheme. Vancouver sorely missed that luxury to alternate at will down the stretch as both options spent time on the sidelines, and the two of them struggling to regain the same influence after returning robbed the team of its momentum. Watch out for Marco Bustos to join the equation in the not-too-distant future.
Mr Blonde: Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy? Or are you gonna bite?
Kekuta Manneh had for years exposed us all to glimpses of his staggering potential, combining excitement with frustration to rather ambivalent effect. This season, however, has seen the Gambian start to bite. Though he remained a bipolar figure on the left flank, Kekuta came on leaps and bounds in the areas that have most frequently attracted criticism. He's developed an impressive passing range, improved in his decision-making under pressure (although an increase in volume disguises that), and generally displayed maturity across his entire body of work. Manneh proved his credentials when it really mattered - most notably during the meetings with the Galaxy and the Red Bulls - to receive further attention south of the border, coming second in the 24 Under 24 rankings. We'll get to his final appearance of the campaign later.
Joe: Boys, I don't mean to holler at ya. When this caper's over - and I'm sure it'll be a successful one - we'll get down to the Hawaiian Islands. Hell, I'll roll and laugh with all of ya. You'll find me a different character down there. Right now, it's a matter of business.
Robbo probably won't be heading to the Hawaiian Islands this offseason, but he deserves to be taking that trip with the squad in first class. Taking the youngest group in the league - as one of the youngest coaches in the league - to second in the West, third in the Supporters' Shield standings, and the Canadian Championship is an extraordinary feat. The 39-year-old galvanized an extremely competitive roster and managed to avoid internal conflict even though the fight for minutes didn't decline in intensity at any juncture. He places enormous significance on character when scouting new additions, and that criteria has been largely responsible for the highly touted cohesion inside the locker room. Laba and Waston extending their contracts suggests Robbo will have more chances yet to take that journey across the Pacific with this current nucleus.
Mr. Pink: I don't tip because society says I have to. Alright, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I'll give them a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job.
Steve Buschemi, as Mr. Pink, captured the fan base's sentiment towards the club's success to perfection in the quote above. Vancouver has transformed into Supporter's Shield contenders in the space of two years, harbour some of the most promising talents in Major League Soccer, and have regularly reflected how well the project is going on the field. In most markets this change in fortunes would translate into hysteria both in the media and in the stands, however the general reaction surrounding the team hasn't comprised of that warm affection. This nonchalance towards the current state of affairs is perplexing to me. Maybe it's a product of the city's sporting mentality that I'm not exposed to, or maybe it's owed to how young this community is. Whatever the reason, the campaign warrants more celebration and shouldn't be taken for granted.
Mr. White: Just hold on, buddy boy. Hold on, and wait for Joe. I can't do anything for you, but when Joe gets here, which should be anytime now, he'll be able to help you. We're just gonna sit here, and wait for Joe. Who are we waiting for?
I still feel empty. Kekuta's electrifying start to the second leg of the Western Conference semi-final series and subsequent injury after a collision with Nat Borches will haunt me for some time. Manneh was charged up by all of the energy inside BC Place like Jamie Foxx in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, rattling the post while he ceaselessly scared the life out of Adam Kwarasey and Caleb Porter's back-line. Everyone spectating knew that it was going to be his night, that he was going to be the difference and that everything was now on his shoulders. That was until the tragedy struck. I desperately wanted to watch the 20-year-old get back up in the same fashion Isiah Thomas did in Game 6 of the '88 Finals - scoring 25 points in the third quarter on a severely sprained ankle - but as eager as he was to recover it just wasn't going to happen. Oh, what might have been.
Joe: He was the only one I wasn't 100% on. I should have my head examined going on a plan like this when I wasn't 100%.
Darren Mattocks has been, for quite some time, the most maligned member of the Whitecaps. Every start is dreaded, every cameo appearance is laughed at. Whether it be because of a poor first touch, a squandered opportunity, or lethargy on the defensive end, the Jamaican international has become a convenient scapegoat over recent years. In fact, Mattocks is the only subject that 90% of fans can agree on. He sucks, according to the consensus. It struck me as a surprise then that so many were adamant that he was the right man to replace Manneh during the first half of the biggest game in club history. The shared pace didn't dictate that he could have exerted anything close to the same influence on proceedings as Kekuta. How could Robbo be 100% on him? This is of course totally irrelevant now. Nevertheless, I wanted to share my angle on the decision in retrospect.
Mr. Pink: Do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin playing for the waitresses.
I'm playing that same violin for everyone that doesn't want to see Octavio Rivero lead the line in 2016. I have felt ashamed in light of the awful treatment that supposed supporters have extended to the Uruguayan DP. No matter how many times the mitigating circumstances to his play are stressed, the majority cannot comprehend that a 23-year-old in a foreign environment may struggle to put the side on his back in front of goal at a sustained rate. I'm ecstatic with what I've seen from Rivero to this point, and I look forward to Robbo complementing his game through activity in the market. Octavio has a higher ceiling than any other #9 in MLS, and the thought of him continuing to translate that upside into production is something that should tantalize fans as much as any new arrival. El Cabeza is the hero Vancouver deserves and the one it needs right now.
This is my final contribution to Eighty Six Forever. Thanks to everyone who has read my work and left feedback over the last 13 months. Go Caps