The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their title defence tonight against the Carolina RailHawks, but the Whitecaps squad that will take the pitch will be very different from the team that hoisted the USL-1 trophy last season. Gone are Alfredo Valente, Steve Kindel, Wesley Charles, Nicholas Addlery, Jason Jordan, Eduardo Sebrango, Jeff Clarke and others who were key parts of that team, and as Marc Weber of The Province wrote today, some of the team's tenaciousness may have departed with them.
Unlike last year's championship squad, which was primarily a group of talented veterans hitting their stride at the right time, this season's been dominated by a focus on youth, as I talked about in my post on their first match of the regular season. Young players like Marcus Haber, Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ethan Gage, Wes Knight and Luca Bellisomo have all made their impact felt on the team this year. Haber in particular has impressed; many thought the team might struggle to score goals this season after the departure of Sebrango and Addlery, but that void up front was nicely filled by Haber (eight goals, four assists), Charles Gbeke (a league-high 12 goals and one assist) and Marlon James (nine goals). Haber finished seventh in league scoring with 20 points, while Gbeke tied for second with 25 points and James placed eighth with 18 points in 17 games. Meanwhile, Addlery put up 17 points in 22 USL games this year and Sebrango only recorded 10 points in 28 games in all competitions.
If the Whitecaps have improved up front, they have perhaps taken a step back in midfield and defence. The midfield's seen plenty of talented players, including Gage, Ansu Toure, Martin Nash and Vicente Arze, but injuries have made it difficult to establish a consistent lineup there. The same is even more true at the back; Knight (who tied for the league assist lead with eight and was the team's nominee for the USL Rookie of the Year award) and Takashi Hirano have been solid presences on the wings, but the centre's seen a revolving cast, much of it inexperienced. The release of Wesley Charles, the team's most experienced defender, was a good move from a team chemistry point of view after two bizarre on-field incidents (including a punch-up with Gbeke during a game), but it showed that the Caps are painfully thin at the back. The retirement of Justin Thompson didn't help matters either. Goalkeeper Jay Nolly has been solid as always, leading the USL in minutes played, finishing second in saves and recording seven shutouts, but he hasn't received a lot of defensive help this season, and that's one of the key reason why the team heads into the playoffs as the seventh seed.
This isn't a one-sided matchup, though. Carolina was very good this year, finishing with a 16-7-7 record, and Vancouver's 11-10-9 mark is much less impressive, but the Whitecaps turned it on down the stretch, going 4-1-5 to clinch a playoff spot. The team faced some of the typical struggles observed when using young players earlier in the season, but their young stars have found ways to contribute and the team has gelled down the stretch. Moreover, Vancouver may have gone 0-1-1 against Carolina this year, but the Whitecaps played well in both games. They could have won the game in Carolina, and they dominated the August 15 contest at Swangard. I'm expecting a tough physical battle tonight, and a great contest. Tune in here for the live blog at 10:30 Eastern/7:30 Pacific!
[Cross-posted to The 24th Minute]