Inside MLS season preview: Vancouver Whitecaps

Darren Mattocks and the Whitecaps hope to return to the playoffs after missing out a year ago.

Craig Mitchelldyer/Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

ESSENTIAL FACTS

Last year in a nutshell: Hope and promise eventually yielded to disappointment as the Whitecaps fell short of an expected playoff berth.

(as of March 5)

Incoming: COACH: Carl Robinson (Vancouver – assistant); GK: Marco Carducci (Vancouver Whitecaps Academy), Paolo Tornaghi (Chicago); DF: Steven Beitashour (San Jose), Christian Dean (California), Ethen Sampson (Whitecaps U-23s); MF: Mehdi Ballouchy (San Jose), Matias Laba (Toronto FC), Andre Lewis (New York Cosmos), Pedro Morales (Malaga/Spain); FW: Sebastián Fernández (Boston River/Uruguay), Nicolás Mezquida (Boston River/Uruguay)

Outgoing: COACH: Martin Rennie (unattached); GK: Joe Cannon (unattached), Brad Knighton (New England), Simon Thomas (unattached); DF: Greg Klazura (unattached), Young-Pyo Lee (retired), Brad Rusin (Orlando City); MF: Jun Marques Davidson (unattached), Daigo Kobayashi (New England), Matt Watson (Chicago); FW: Corey Hertzog (Orlando City), Tommy Heinemann (Ottawa Fury), Camilo Sanvezzo (Querétaro/Mexico)

Kenny Miller needs to score goals to secure his future and sustain the Whitecaps’ attack in Camilo’s absence.

FUNDAMENTALS

Key Player: Camilo Sanvezzo’s decision to force a move to Querétaro heaped pressure on Kenny Miller to pick up some of the scoring slack. Miller scored eight times in 21 appearances last season, but that return represented a modest disappointment given his Designated Player price tag. The former Scotland international plays the part of a proficient striker: he searches for space and works opposing defenders relentlessly. He must now ally his work rate with more production inside the final third to ensure the Whitecaps compensate for Camilo’s departure and provide the Whitecaps with a reason to extend his deal in midseason.

Strengths: Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson focused on building more creative options through midfield during his first winter in charge. His decision to import more technical players addressed the concerns about creativity a year ago and strengthened the supply lines to Miller. Pedro Morales joined from Malaga to serve as the primary creative fulcrum, a player figure capable of picking apart opposing defenses in possession. Morales should receive ample support from the wide areas with a mixture of different options – the direct Russell Teibert (now also an alternative in central midfield) and the more instinctive Nicolás Fernández feature prominently among them – in the fold. Matias Laba (purloined from Toronto FC due to its DP glut) and Nigel Reo-Coker comprise an efficient base for the midfield operations in the projected 4-2-3-1 setup. Both players should choke off the opposition and make intelligent passes to retain possession effectively. Width isn’t a problem on the right side with Steven Beitashour now in the fold to overlap and serve crosses into the penalty area as the replacement for the retired Young-Pyo Lee. Jay DeMerit and Andy O’Brien form an experienced central defensive duo with Johnny Leverón and Carlyle Mitchell available as potential alternatives. Jordan Harvey offers solidity at the left back spot. The likes of Nicolás Mezquida (effectively displaced from a central role upon Morales’ arrival), Gershon Koffie, Kekuta Manneh and Darren Mattocks represent valuable depth if not selected in the first XI.

Weaknesses: Laba and Reo-Coker may need to work overtime to limit the exposure of a defense with questions in goal and durability and pace concerns at its heart. David Ousted lacks the consistency expected of a top goalkeeper. His tendency to drop the odd clanger could prove costly in the long-term. DeMerit (eight appearances) and O’Brien (16 appearances) combined to play two-thirds of a season last year. They position themselves well and sort out most threats, but quick strikers can catch them out from time to time. Leverón and Mitchell are best used as spot starters, not potential replacements. The diligence (Miller) and speed (Mattocks and Manneh) of the forward options masks their occasional profligacy. This side will need to generate chances plentifully in order to match the Camilo-inspired 53-goal haul from a year ago. Any substantive move to redress those issues will likely hasten Miller’s departure with the club now fully stocked with Designated Players after the recent arrivals of Laba and Morales.

Nigel Reo-Coker will play a critical role in Vancouver’s retooled midfield.

PROSPECTS FOR 2014

Key questions:

● How quickly will the new midfield establish its rhythm?: This group looms as the potential strength of the side. It boasts the proper blend of craft and toil to both function adroitly in possession and prevent opposing teams from playing easily. The belated arrivals of Laba and Morales ensure this segment of the team will remain a work in progress for the moment. Look for Reo-Coker to facilitate cohesiveness by adopting his usual leadership role and stitching things together with his industry.

● Can the defense hold firm enough to compensate for reduced goal production?: All of those creative players should keep the supply lines open, but there is still the rather pressing matter of converting opportunities. Camilo’s controversial exit strips the team of its most instinctive finisher, the one player capable of pulling something from nothing. The revised dynamic heaps pressure on the rearguard to tamp down the opposition in a bid to provide some latitude if it takes a while for everything to click.

● Where will Robinson exert his influence over the team?: Whitecaps players backed the former Wales international to succeed Martin Rennie. Club executives surveyed the scene before ultimately complying with the request. He takes a job with limited security, but the personnel moves during the close season at least provide him with decent underpinnings. He must find a way to depart from the previous regime – diminishing the affinity for selecting a raft of holding players in midfield represents a nice start – and stamp his mark on the team in order to steer the side back to the playoffs.

Best case scenario: Robinson’s guidance leads to an uptick in consistency and results. The defense holds strong with its veteran leaders marshaling the efforts superbly. The midfield dictates the tenor of most matches. Miller and the forwards score in bunches. And the Whitecaps coast into the playoffs with some room to spare.

Worst case scenario: Not even the upgraded midfield can cure the ills elsewhere. Injuries and form concerns ravage the defensive efforts. Profligacy afflicts the forwards. The problems at both ends ultimately rob Vancouver of a chance to book its postseason return.

2014 INSIDE MLS SEASON PREVIEWS