As the calendar rolled over to February, we are finally approaching the end of the offseason for fans. Players and coaches have been hard at work in training - including a heavily publicized luau and beach sessions - while fans on Canadian shores were left with the new away kit, and a small smattering of video highlights from a pair of friendlies to get glimpses of what your Vancouver Whitecaps have been up to.
At the time of writing, we are rapidly approaching the opening match of the 2018 season, when the ‘Caps play host to the Montreal Impact. Even sooner than that, we are a under two hours from the final of the Pacific Rim Cup which sees Vancouver take on Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo (for a second time) at Aloha Stadium in beautiful Halawa, Hawaii.
While preseason often sees managers use a full breadth of players we may not see come opening day, it still offers us plenty of morsels to indulge upon. This year, Carl Robinson has used a huge complement of players from veteran signings Kei Kamara and Doneil Henry, to fifteen-year old residency player Simon Colyn.
As I write this, there are a number of questions on my mind as the ‘Caps get ready to wrap up the preseason tournament. Without returning to items already covered, like what’s to be expected of Alphonso Davies, and will it be 3-4-3 or 4-3-2-1 or 4-1-1-1-3 come opening day, here are three things that I’ll be watching for when the ‘Caps kick-off on Saturday evening.
Full Backs or Wing Backs?
As has been well documented, and discussed by numerous outlets, including 86Forever and Curva Collective’s AFTN podcast, the formations Robbo has picked have seen some of the training ground tinkering brought into use. While starting with the familiar 4-2-3-1 in Tuesday’s match against this same Hokkaido team, the halftime changes saw a full plethora of substitutions and the switch to a back three.
The ‘Caps selection of Justin Fiddes and Lucas Stauffer in the MLS Superdraft clearly indicated a desire to add speed and depth to the full back positions behind Jake Nerwinski and Marcel De Jong. Both Fiddes and Stauffer have been noted to have pace to burn, and while both are playing for a contract - how the full backs have been deployed as either part of a back four, or up higher as wing backs has been interesting to watch.
Through two friendlies, Fiddes and Stauffer have both seen match time, with Stauffer looking lively and playing in some dangerous balls down the right flank. Though, neither have overly impressed as the type of players to add competition for the aforementioned Nerwinski and De Jong.
With the personnel currently on the books, a back three is certainly a viable formation for Vancouver this season. As has been seen across Europe, and in MLS with Toronto in particular seeing success last year, the back three system is gaining momentum as the formation of the day and allows for a great deal of flexibility when executed correctly.
It adds defensive cover when there is the need to drop back and defend, and talented full backs can create a back line of five along with the center halves when the time comes to really dig in for a defensive stand. Of course on top of this, players with high work rates and great reserves of stamina are key to executing in the wing back positions, as they’re required to bomb forward and offer extra width to the attack. While Nerwinski and De Jong provided a great deal of service last season to the strikers, their presence and ability in the attacking third become vital to the team’s success if Carl Robinson decides to deploy the back three beyond Pacific Rim Cup.
Where do the new faces fit in?
Outside of the full backs, the Whitecaps were very busy in the offseason brining in depth across the pitch. Efrain Jaurez’s signing adds real quality in the form of an experienced and versatile midfield (or full back, though likely the former) option to the squad. He’s been regularly capped by Mexico, won the Gold Cup and played in a World Cup, and should be an instant leader in the dressing room.
The same can be said for former LA Galaxy stopper Brian Rowe, who should push Stefan Marinovic all the way through the season for the number one jersey between the posts. At 29, Rowe brings five years experience in the league, and heading into his sixth campaign, could potentially even take over the starting goalkeepers job after Marinovic forced himself into the team last season. Both players have shown the ability to deliver at the top level, and competition should only help make them better. Let’s hope that’s the case.
Also in the heart of defence, David Edgar has made his return to training after 14 long months out, and Canadian international Doneil Henry comes to the ‘Caps after struggling to make an impression overseas in Greece and England after being a mainstay with Toronto FC earlier in his career. Both players have the potential to add strength to the defense, behind the number one pairing of Waston and Parker, and hopefully they’ll continue in their current vein after Henry made his first appearance in the match against Iwaki FC on Thursday.
Lastly, and certainly not least, there are the forwards. Anthony Blondell, though young, looks like a player that could make the move to Europe in the next few years. While that’s not always something you want to say about a player that’s just arrived - it’s becoming a compliment in the MLS, as more players view the league as a stepping stone to the football leagues on the continent. For one, I’m hugely interested to see how he fares when selected. He looks like a player that could replace the goals that Montero scored last year, add some more flair to our already heavily South American influenced attack, and a Venezuelan Golden Boot certainly makes for an impressive C.V. piece.
While Blondell certainly isn’t a shoo-in for goals, and he has looked slightly timid in the brief minutes he has played, the big name signing of veteran Kei Kamara almost certainly is. Kamara boasts one of the most impressive goal scoring pedigrees in MLS. With 98 career MLS goals already to his name, Kamara looks certain to be an instant fan favourite and will hopefully be quickly and regularly in among the goals.
How will the Returning Squad Members fare?
Squad additions through the draft and new signings are exciting, like new toys for fans to relish and debate how to deploy before they ever take the pitch. Following the 2017 season, the expectations of the Vancouver fan base will be much higher for the season ahead. Spending most of the last year flirting with, or even occupying, the top spot in the Western Conference will do that.
Moving into 2018, how Robinson handles his returning squad will certainly be interesting given all the new faces in camp. Where players like Erik Hurtado, Brek Shea, Russell Teibert, Tony Tchani, Bernie Ibini and Cristian Techera fit in the preseason squads should give us an idea of what Robbo has in store.
Hurtado was limited in action last year, but came up with one of the goals of the season away to RSL. It was actually my pick for the number two goal on the year behind Reyna’s winner against New York City. He’s a workhorse when he’s on the pitch, and could prove to be a useful roleplayer for the ‘Caps. Unfortunately, that’s all I can really see for him this year given the new faces in attack.
Brek Shea is another depth option that brings a breadth of experience to the team, and provides a variety of uses on the left flank. While he may not have the same fleet of foot he used to, his experience could prove useful during the campaign, even if the burden of his contract hinders some of the team’s overall financial flexibility.
Teibert is one who, sad as it is for some Whitecaps supporters, may be entering his swansong with the club. He barely featured in 2017, and if he wants regular game time either another level needs to be found in his game, or a move to new surroundings may be his only option. He has looked sharp in preseason, and as always has brought the work rate we’ve come to expect. How he features in the rest of preseason will hopefully give us some insight as to what the manager has in his plans for the Canadian international.
Tony Tchani is a player I firmly expect more good things from this season. While he got caught out with some overzealous tackles last year, as a holding midfield player, that kind of aggression and desire to win the ball is what I want to see. His range of passing certainly isn’t that of say Aly Ghazal, but Tchani’s proven time and again that he’s a sturdy presence in the center of the park that provides excellent protection for the back line. Now in the prime of his career, I expect him to continue to provide the stability we’ve become accustomed to.
Lastly, in attack, are the two other squad players I expect big things from in 2018. Techera and Ibini.
Techera has shown time and again that he has the technical ability, vision and talent to break down defenses in MLS and provide that cutting edge the team needs in attack. His panenka to win it at the death against Iwaki FC show the creativity and composure he brings to the squad. Even in preseason, finishing from the spot can be a nervous test and he was cool as you like on Thursday. With 6 goals and 7 assists in 2017, I expect more of the same from the diminutive Uruguayan.
Much like Techera, I see Ibini as a real key to the attacking foil in this squad. His pace and strength down the wing were outstanding at times last season, and while he only pitched in a goal and 2 assists last year, I think those numbers could get better if we see his crossing and awareness in the final third improve. He came up with a late goal against Hokkaido on Tuesday after some great combination play between Alphonso Davies and Simon Colyn, and will hopefully gain some more confidence in front of goal heading into the 2018 season.
Heading into the conclusion of the Pacific Rim Cup, I for one, am certainly looking forward to some football this evening. Even if it’s only a friendly tournament.