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From Jay Nolly to Jarju: Looking Back on the Best and Worst of the Whitecaps’ MLS History

Best kits? Most valuable (and least valuable) players? Hear what the Eighty Six Forever team has to say.

Just months after earning themselves an MLS expansion franchise in 2009, the Vancouver Whitecaps (then of the USL-1) played against Miami FC (now the Fort Lauderdale Strikers) in front of a crowd of 405 fans. The Whitecaps lost the match 2-1, and needless to say, the club has come a long way since then. The Caps went on to finish as runners up in the league playoffs that 2009 season, and a little more than a year and a half later, they played their first MLS match at Empire Field against Toronto FC, winning 4-2.

Since that opening day victory, there have been plenty of ups and downs in the Whitecaps’ MLS history: such as the 11-game winless streak which followed their inaugural victory in MLS. But there have been great highs as well, like the 5-0 playoff victory that the team enjoyed in October of 2017.

All of this goes to say that although the Whitecaps have not won an MLS Cup, or necessarily enjoyed the most storied opening 9+ seasons as an MLS franchise, there have been plenty of memorable moments along the way.

With that in mind, I pulled together some of the Eighty Six Forever team (Caleb, Andrew, Atlantis B and myself) to review some of the highs and lows of the MLS franchise to this point.

We started with a discussion of which Whitecaps team in MLS history was the best in comparison to the league at the time. Obviously the MLS has come a long way since 2011, but I was curious to hear which team, in my colleagues’ estimation, was best in relation to their competition.

Caleb: The best Whitecaps team of the MLS era was the 2015 one. They were not always wholly convincing, but they were the most well rounded team of the MLS era. For the month or two when Octavio Rivero looked like he would never stop scoring (lol). It seemed as though the 2015 team would be unstoppable. Of course he did stop scoring, and the team only managed to score 45 goals the whole season, but they were so defensively sound it didn’t matter.

Unfortunately the team would eventually be brought down by Pedro Morales’ inability to stay healthy and they washed out of the playoffs after astoundingly starting Gershon Koffie as a number 10 against a beleaguered Portland Timbers outfit. The Whitecaps as an MLS franchise have been almost exclusively downhill since that decision. Highlight of that season for me was beating Seattle 3-0 on the road with a Pa Modou Kah brace.

Andrew: Certainly the 2015 team—the defense was easily the best the club has had in its modern history and was arguably the best in the league, it was the high-water mark for many top players (Ousted, Laba, Koffie, etc.).

As Caleb noted, the offense left something to be desired and was their undoing but this is the standard against which all future teams will be judged, at least until a deeper playoff run is cobbled together.

Bryce: I know it doesn’t mean playoff success, but you can’t really argue with 2015. Most wins (16) and Points (53), Highest Conference (2nd) and Overall (3rd) Standings, Fewest Goals Allowed (36), and they had their only Canadian Championship win in the MLS era. Only negatives are they could have finished at the top, winning only one of their last six matches, they didn’t win the Cascadia Cup, and they laid an egg in the playoffs. Still, it was a successful season…their best in fact.

Their highest win total (16), their fewest goals allowed (36) by a lot, their highest place in the conference (2nd), although they faltered down the stretch when they could have been first in the conference, finished third in MLS….only to be held scoreless in the playoffs and knocked out in the conference semi-finals. To end on a high, it was the only time they have won the Canadian Championship in the MLS era. I think there is no doubt that 2015 is their best season.

Sam: I’m going to go a bit off the board here for one simple reason: Alphonso Davies. Beyond that, the 2017 Whitecaps were also a very intriguing unit. Not only did you have Davies on the come-up, but also Laba (pre-injury) and Tchani at the height of their powers. Fredy Montero was still playing at a high level for the most part, Ousted and Milinkovic were in goal, and Waston and Parker held down the fort at the back (albeit not quite like 2015). I think the Champions League run really took a toll on that team, but the potential was definitely there. Also, had Nosa Igiebor been brought into the team earlier, that really could’ve been the boost the team needed.

With a relative consensus on the 2015 outfit as the best squad assembled so far (other than me), we moved on to the most valuable Designated Player in Whitecaps history, a challenging question given the fact that unlike other franchises, there hasn’t necessarily been a player who stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Caleb: Unless I am mistaken, no Whitecaps DP has ever been sold for more than he was bought for (seems like a problem). So value will have to be assessed in terms of on field performance. For me it’s still Morales. I know it ended on bad terms but no Whitecap in my lifetime (1998-present) has been able to dominate a game the way he was capable of doing.

Andrew: I’m going to go with Laba here, who ironically found himself the odd-man out when Toronto FC went big on the DP front. Not sexy enough for the Reds, he was the workman-like, old-school guy who made everything tick in the center of the park on that 2015 team. I don’t think I’ve seen a Whitecaps player who loved to dive into challenges as much as Laba and the stingy defense in 2015 really flowed from him. No offense to Morales, but the Caps have had creative players since (albeit not quite on the same level). What we all wouldn’t do to have peak Matias Laba in midfielder on the current Caps team...

Bryce: There are not really any standouts. People I would likely pick were never DPs. Shows that you need to get value in your roster to be successful. The obvious choice is Pedro Morales, but I was never a big fan of his. I think I will have to go with the most recent, and expensive, DP, Lucas Cavallini. His value is not fully realized yet, but he has been important thus far with his Canadian heritage and setting the tone for the club.

Sam: I’m with Caleb on this one. Other than Davies, no one else has possessed the raw talent and ability to flip a match on its head quite like Pedro for VWFC.

From high priced acquisitions, we moved on to the underrated heroes, the “super subs”. Although there haven’t been many of these in Whitecaps history, there are a few notable ones which sprung to mind for me, so I was curious to see what my colleagues had to say.

Caleb: Has there ever been one? I have many memories of Peter Schaad saying something like “this is the sort of game where Kekuta Manneh or Erik Hurtado could really make a difference as legs start to tire” but I don’t remember many occasions where that actually manifested.

Andrew: I was struggling to think of anyone for this besides Erik Hurtado and while I would like to pick him just for the memes I’m going with someone who was undoubtedly a super sub during his short time in Vancouver: Robert Earnshaw. 2 goals, both coming as a sub? Game winner over a rival? Check and check. Yeah the other seven appearances left something to be desired but Earnshaw was such a likable fellow and went on to a youth coaching role with the club. Certainly one of the most memorable, if not “best,” super subs in club history.

Bryce: I would give that award to Kekuta Manneh. He had his moments as a starter, but it seemed like his best role was as that dangerous 60th-minute substitute. He was someone that scared opposing defenders.

Sam: It feels like Nico Mezquida was born to be a super sub. It’s a shame he could never put together that level of perfomance over a full 90, but he was always an impact player off the bench for the Whitecaps. Mezquida’s top moment was likely the 2017 playoff game against the Earthquakes. He came off the bench in the 68th and scored twice late on to put the match well out of reach.

Moving on to less memorable players in Whitecaps history, I asked everyone to name their top “bad player that they liked anyways”. The idea behind this question was to nominate someone who didn’t perform to the best of their abilities while in Vancouver, or simply wasn’t suited for the league, but you found them entertaining to watch nonetheless.

Caleb: I had a strong affection for Jay Nolly which carried over from watching him at Swangard. Actually if ASA’s xG model is to be believed he was hardly the worst keeper to don a Whitecaps jersey in MLS.

Andrew: Bernie Ibsei was objectively not very good and was apparently only signed because of his agent (lol) but for some reason I took a liking to the guy owing to his tantalizingly bizarre career arc, his speed and the one goal he managed to score in 25 appearances. I can’t say I was overly sorry to see him depart the club but hope he’s doing well with Robbo in the A League.

Bryce: I wouldn’t classify him as bad per se, but I was always a fan of Johnny Leveron. Don’t know why I like him, but he was a favorite of mine.

Sam: For me the player is Tommy Heinemann. He was a reminder of MLS years gone by, even as he was playing, but there was something very alluring about that. There aren’t any players like that in MLS anymore.

From the lovable underdogs, we moved on to the Mustapha Jarju’s of the world. This category was reserved for players who came to the Whitecaps with a high level of promise and expectation, but failed to deliver at that level on the pitch. I dubbed this the “over-promise, under-deliver” category.

Caleb: This might be a bit of an off the wall pick but I think it might be Deybi Flores. He looked fantastic on his debut and then as he got older and gained more experience…seemed to get worse with every subsequent appearance.

Andrew: The list of players who could be filed away in this category is lengthy. But I’m going to go with Omar Salgado for a couple reasons. I don’t think he was the most purely talented player not to make the cut in Vancouver. But there is a certain amount of expectations that come with being a number one overall pick AND the first draft pick in franchise history. Because of injuries, poor performances and training ground bust ups, Salgado’s tenure turned into a train wreck. To make matters worse, the Caps passed up University of Akron teammates Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen, both of whom have had distinguished MLS careers. Oh what could have been.

Bryce: I like some of my colleagues suggestions and, sadly, the Caps are not short on options. I like the choice of Nosa Ibeibor, Stefan Marinovic, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Barry Robson, but my top choice is Efrain Juarez. Nosa wasn’t a big name, Marinovic had a terrible team in front of him, Reo-Coker did a few things well, and Barry Robson….well….maybe he is close to Juarez. The reason I pick Juarez is because Carl Robinson touted him as a leader for the team, someone who would unite the Central/South American players with the rest. He ended up being anything but and was benched part way through the season. He was not only bad, that I could have handled, but he sabotaged the club on (via red cards and poor play) and off (dissention in the club) the field.

Sam: No one else said for me it’s Jarju. Ten matches played, no goals, no assists, three shots on target. Simply iconic. He was also the first ever African to sign as a designated player in MLS - which is too bad, because I think it gave African players a bad name for a while in the league.

Finally, we tackled an always controversial topic, the best and worst kits in the Whitecaps’ MLS history. No explanation needed here.

Caleb: Best: The hoop.

Worst: Whatever the ones with all the triangles were called.

Andrew: Best: I’m a noted supporter of the Sea-to-Sky kit and it is still the jersey I wear the most. That one or the hoop kit for sure.

Worst: It’s hard to screw up the Caps’ kits too badly given the beautiful color scheme involved, but the rain kit was not Adidas’ finest effort.

Bryce: I feel the best one was the sea to sky. I know a lot of people will disagree because it was too ‘busy’, but I liked the variety. Unity was pretty good too.

Worst? Showing my desire for busy (and dark), any of the home jerseys…If I have to pick a specific one, I will go with the diagonal stripes. Not a fan!

Sam: My favourite kit was the 2015-16 home jersey, which was essentially the predecessor of the “Sea to Sky” away kit.

Far and away my least favourite kit in Whitecaps history was the “Unity” look. To me, nothing says lazy and uninspired like an all grey look. It could have been made better if there were some more unique details, but it basically looked like a training top. I’m glad those are gone for good.


Do you have different answers to some (or all) of these questions? Be sure to let us know in the comments.

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