With less than two weeks to go until the Vancouver Whitecaps kick off their 2016 campaign, the squad additions are all but done and just a possible exit or two left to be sorted. The Whitecaps squad is filled with both talent and question marks at every position on the pitch. Here are seven players who I believe to be facing a sink or swim season in 2016.
Even if this year proves to be a poor one for the young Honduran, he will almost certainly be back in 2017. Newly signed to a five-year contract, Flores is clearly one for the future but with the trading of Gershon Koffie to New England, he must also be one for the present. A high motor, high athleticism player who impressed on his debut last season against Portland but very little following has to play to his ability this season. That means relentless pressure on the ball, exciting runs down the middle of the park and smart, forward passing. He's absolutely capable of these things and these traits are what kept him in the Honduran U-20 team during a rough 2015 club campaign. With just Russell Teibert and Matias Laba ahead of him on the depth chart at defensive midfielder, Deybi Flores will get ample opportunities to payback his manager's faith in him and help ease the pain of losing a supporter favourite. Flores will swim in 2016.
Dean, the third overall pick just two years ago, struggled in limited minutes in his rookie season. Then came last season, when he tripled his MLS starts from one to three but also got leaped over on the pecking order by rookie Tim Parker. This season brought renewed optimism. First, an onslaught of tweets coming from those that cover the team saying how great of shape he arrived in Vancouver in, winning the initial fitness test and starting all three matches in Tucson. While he looked improved last season in expanded minutes, his decision making at times with the ball at his feet was worrying, to be kind. However, he is just twenty-two and his combination of size, power and athleticism as a left footed centre back sees him remain a very intriguing prospect. I think all Whitecaps fans would consider this year a success for Dean if he can solidify himself as the third option behind Parker and Kendall Waston and continue to make strides along the way. I believe Dean will swim in 2016.
I struggled with whether to add Hurtado to this list or not. On one hand, he was a fifth overall draft pick by the club and its best striker for most of 2014. On the other hand, he was loaned to Norway last season after seeing his value in versatility done away by Octavio Rivero, Kianz Froese and Nicolas Mezquida, among others. But here we sit, days away from first kick, and Hurtado is back with the squad. With the imminent(ish) departure of Darren Mattocks, it seems as though Hurtado will play apart for the Whitecaps this season after all. Presuming he begins the year as the fourth option at striker and at least fourth on the right side of midfield, it probably won't be too big of a part at all. For all his speed, power and bright hair, I'm afraid this is the year Erik Hurtado sinks.
Smith was brought in last August on loan from Saprissa, adding depth and competition to a spot occupied by then starter Steven Beitashour. At that point pretty much any midseason defensive addition from Saprissa was one to be excited about. Fast forward six months and Beitashour is gone but Smith remains just that; depth and competition. He was given an early audition for the spot in both Champions League and MLS play last year when Beitashour went down injured, but did little to give the fans or the coaching staff confidence he was ready to be a regular starter. Similar to Hurtado, he has the pace and the power but just seems to lack the technical side of the game. He has seemingly already lost the right back battle to Fraser Aird, but getting called up to the Costa Rican National Team regularly, Smith is an interesting case. Unlike his Tico teammate, I think Smith will sink in 2016.
It's no secret the club wants Teibert to succeed. Same can be said about every player in the squad sure, but Teibert is a different case. He's the club's academy poster boy and the future club captain if he can take his opportunity and run with it. Gone are the days of him playing in a front three alongside Camilo and Kenny Miller and chipping in nine assists in a year. Teibert the winger is gone for now, but if he can combine some of the solid forward passing and dangerous crosses that had him leading the league in assists in June of the 2013 season with the rapid dog mentality he brings to defensive midfield, then Teibert the box to box midfielder will be a very good player. With Gershon Koffie gone, that spot alongside Matias Laba is Teibert's for the taking. If the Niagara Falls native is going to become the Whitecaps' Gerrard or Scholes, now is the time to do it. Rusty will swim in 2016.
Predicting Rivero's 2016 season is fools work and
I guess that's why I am doing it to do so takes a long-winded ramble beforehand, so here it is: The Rivero that Whitecaps supporters saw at the beginning of 2015 is what he is capable of. He was a complete striker and exactly what you wanted out of a lone striker. Then his tricky play and finishing went out the window and he became a shell of himself and missed crucial chance after crucial chance. Striker's can have all the ability in the world but it is a confidence base business and Rivero isn't feeling too hot right now. At his big salary in a salary cap league, Rivero has to prove he is worth the money this season, or else he isn't worth keeping around. Eight goals aren't enough to justify keeping him around on his current designated player status, and although the Rivero of old could come roaring back and net fifteen goals for the club, I'm afraid 2016 will be a 'sink' for Octavio Rivero.
For all the additions made during the offseason, one question has remained in supporter's heads; which Morales will come to BC Place on March 6th? Is it the 2014 Morales who played every game except one, scoring ten and assisting on twelve goals? Or is it the Morales of 2015 who played a thousand less minutes while tallying just six goals and four assists? The team goes as Morales goes and he can take them as far as he wants, but he has to get back to his best. Killer through balls and pulling the strings for ninety minutes, the captain will swim through 2016 and beyond.
With so many returning players with question marks, it's good to take a look at their status and gauge how they will fair in a crucial 2016 season. High flying playmakers returning to form and high priced strikers leaving town with a whimper, whatever happens 2016 is sure to be the most exciting Whitecaps season yet.