The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their new season today at Swangard Stadium, and I'll be live-blogging the game from the press box for this site, The 24th Minute and Epic Footy. They'll be taking on the NSC Minnesota Stars[Simon Fudge, WhitecapsFC.com]. Game time is at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific, and live video can be found via the Whitecaps' home page.
It should be an interesting clash; Vancouver finished with a mediocre 11-10-9 record last season, but got hot in the playoffs and went all the way to the USL championship before losing to Montreal. The Minnesota Stars are a new team, but they have nine players from the former Minnesota Thunder, who were 7-13-10 last year and missed the playoffs. They'll be eager to get off to a hot start.
I've already written a season preview focused on the Whitecaps' league and personnel changes for Dave Clark over at Sounder At Heart, and I wrote one focused on their potential Voyageurs' Cup ambitions over at Fighting For Canadian Supremacy, but I think there's still some ground to be covered. In my mind, perhaps the best way to do that is focusing in on perhaps the Whitecaps' most high-profile player, Marcus Haber, who recently returned to Vancouver [Marc Weber, The Province] on loan from England's West Bromwich Albion.
Haber is not expected to be available for today's game, but he should be a force for the Whitecaps in his two-month stay. He scored eight league goals for them last year and added four more in other competitions, and he also excelled at setting up other strikers like Charles Gbeke. With the departure of Haber and Gbeke, the biggest questions around this year's Whitecaps squad centred on where the goals will come from. Haber's return will reduce those questions, at least for a couple of months.
At the same time, though, he represents the odd dichotomy at the heart of this year's Whitecaps squad. On the one hand, they're all about building for the future. They'll be joining MLS next season, and getting off to a strong start there is far more important than anything they can accomplish in USSF Division II this year. To that end, they have built an excellent academy system and have focused on developing young players; some, like Haber, have turned out very well. The nature of soccer is that those who shine brightest don't often stick around in the dimmer leagues, though, and that's what happened with Haber's exit after the season. The Whitecaps still received a substantial transfer fee for him, so it was worth it for them to develop his skills, but it's unlikely that he'll help them on the pitch beyond this current loan spell.
On the other hand, though, this season and the Voyageurs' Cup do still matter to the Whitecaps. They've had a very successful run in the second tier of North American soccer, and they don't want to go out with a whimper. They'll give their youngsters some playing time to help them develop, but they'll also throw in guys like Haber (and other older veterans, such as Martin Nash and Takashi Hirano) who will help the team win now. Moreover, putting too much pressure on untested prospects could hurt their development, and giving them too much exposure could result in their eventual exodus. Those are all tough lines to walk, and the Whitecaps will be balancing on them all season long.
We'll likely see the Haber story play out again down the road, not just with Vancouver but also with the youth development arms of the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC. Development is a crucial thing, but not all the players you develop will wind up as part of your long-term plans. They can still be very helpful, though, both in terms of the transfer fees they bring in and in the way they build the reputation of their first club. In the short term, however, their most important contribution may be what they do on the pitch. Haber can certainly aid the Whitecaps this season, and I'm sure many fans will be excited to see him back in the blue and white. His return may not last for long and may not be a crucial part of the future, but he should help with the present, and that can be appreciated for what it is.