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Slump or bump? A look at how second-year players may fair in 2018

Despite an influx of new talent, the Caps’ group of sophomores will be vital this season

SOCCER: AUG 19 MLS - Houston Dynamo at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Photo by Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While a lot of attention is being focused on the host of new signings Vancouver brought in this offseason, it is easy to overlook the players returning for their second season with the Caps who will be asked to play major or increased roles. In this story we’ll speculate as to the fortunes of those crucial sophmores in the upcoming season and hypothesize whether or not we’ll see an improvement or regression from their debut campaigns. I’ll assign a rating of “slump” for those who could fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump and “bump” for those who should be in for more improvement in 2018.

Stefan Marinovic, GK:

The arrival of the New Zealand international resulted in David Ousted’s sadly unceremonial departure from the club, as Marinovic earned more and more play time (and had a cheaper contract) than the Great Dane. Marinovic had a couple rough patches as he acclimated to life in MLS (notably a howler against Real Salt Lake in his second match as starter) and is also often guilty of subpar distribution. But he also put on some stellar displays, including a seven save performance against Sporting Kansas City in arguably the Caps’ most vital result of the season. The key for the Kiwi will be ironing things out and being more consistent, putting in more shifts like his superlative performance against Peru in the World Cup Qualifiers last year. His tall frame, agile physique and winning attitude are all key ingredients to being a strong MLS keeper but also don’t be surprised if there are a few occasions where Caps’ fans miss Ousted.

Verdict: Bump

Jake Nerwinski, RB:

Many observers raised eyebrows when Vancouver selected Nerwinski over other fullback options in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft, most notable Maryland fullback Chris Odoi-Atsem (who wound up with D.C. United). But Nerwinski quickly established himself as one of the best rookies in the league and it wasn’t long before Carl Robinson gave him the keys to the car so to speak at the right back position, surplanting MLS veteran Sheanon Williams. Now Williams is gone and while new signing Efrain Juarez can play right back in a pinch and 2018 draftee Justin Fiddes is talented at both fullback positions, Nerwinski will be the opening day starter this season. His passing ability, coolness in possession and intelligent defending all caught the attention of the fans (myself included) who initially doubted his selection and Nerwinski consistently played well beyond his years. All of these elements point to an even more successful season, although a shift to more of a wingback role could require some acclimation. All-in-all, however, Nerwinski is something that most teams in the league lack: a consistent, competent right back.

Aaron Maund, CB

One of the few second-year players likely to see his minutes decrease this season, Maund was acquired on deadline day from Real Salt Lake in an effort to bolster CB depth. But the main reason Maund was acquired was the season-ending injury suffered by David Edgar, who returns in 2018 ready to fight for his place in the squad. He is joined by new signing Doneil Henry and rookie Lucas Stauffer, both of whom could push Maund even further down the depth chart. It’s not like Maund saw a ton of action last season and he will be useful given Kendall Waston’s trip to Russia 2018. Maund is the perfect depth CB, bringing MLS experience when called upon, but I doubt we’ll see as much of him this season.

Verdict: Slump

Aly Ghazal, CM

No Matias Laba and no Nosa Igiebor (lol) means that Vancouver fans will be looking to Aly Ghazal to continue to develop. In my opinion, he will be able to. I thought his physical playing style and impressive tackling abilities were often reminiscent of peak Laba and he boasts an even more impressive physical frame to boot. I feel like a pairing with Juarez will help counteract his main weakness, namely passing and dribbling and allow Ghazal to do what he does best: being a force in the middle of the park. While his skill set probably won’t grow much, he should be a consistent presence on the team sheet again.

Verdict: Neutral

Tony Tchani, CM

At this point, you pretty much know what you’re getting with Tony Tchani. Entering his ninth MLS season, Tchani was often an object of derision amongst Caps’ fans for his inconsistent play and maddening dribbling ability (to say that he has the first touch of a gorgon is probably not a stretch). Tchani will not be paired with Andrew Jacobson, after Jacobson elected to retire this offseason, which is a shame because that partnership was often productive in shutting down the opposition and forcing them to play out wide. His athleticism will remain an asset, although it probably is overly optimistic to expect him to bang in as many goals as he did last season. Efrain Juarez’s arrival could cost him minutes (especially if the Caps elect to use wingbacks) but given Robbo’s affinity for defensive midfielders Tchani will see plenty of the time on the pitch and will probably look about the same in that role as he did last year.

Verdict: Neutral

Yordy Reyna, AM:

Let’s start out with the elephant in the room: Reyna’s 2018 will be affected by his legal issues in ways we likely won’t be able to predict. Given the fact that recent developments suggest that Reyna may still be charged for “misrepresenting the facts” of the case (and that this revelation came so close to preseason), it is likely Reyna will be less than focused on his football when he enters preseason. If we’re thinking about his on-pitch contributions, Reyna will be absolutely vital for the Whitecaps, as he is one of the few creative players on the roster. His importance to the team was clear during the stretch run of the 2017 season, as he tallied four assists and six goals in half a season really provided a boost to the team. But given that Reyna’s status on the team is not secure and that he will likely be distracted by those legal troubles, I see no way he is able to extend that impressive half season for a full campaign.

Verdict: Slump (if he remains on the team)

Bernie Ibini, AM

Brought in for wing depth, Ibini became useful as a super sub with a unique combination of pace and size. Best remembered for tallying the Caps’ first goal in a 4-0 romp over FC Dallas, Ibini is the kind of depth piece that will be helpful, especially now that Christian Bolanos departed the club. But if the rumors of moving to a 3-5-2 are to be believed, it is hard to see what position Ibini best fits in to. He doesn’t quite have the right skillset to slot in at wingback (his crossing and passing leaves a bit to be desired) but his finishing is not quite strong enough to earn him minutes at striker (especially compared with Anthony Blondell, Erik Hurtado and Kei Kamara). Even though his role at the club is less than clear, I think that it’s easy to forget that Ibini is still only 25 and his raw abilities can still be ironed out and developed. Hopefully he is able to get the minutes needed to do so.

Verdict: Bump (if he gets enough playing time)

Brek Shea, AM

I frankly forgot that Shea joined the club last offseason and I was equally surprised that the club didn’t attempt to move the 27-year-old. The fact that they didn’t leads me to believe that Robinson sees Shea as important depth at winger and striker. Shea also has experience as a wingback/fullback, which is useful if Robinson wants tactical flexibility. While he is sometimes maddening, Shea also put in some solid shifts and was willing to play in whatever role Robbo asked. His speed and hold-up play are useful but he’s probably not at a point in his career where he’s going to grow much. Hopefully he continues to show off his fishing talent too.

Verdict: Neutral