Around this time last year, the Vancouver Whitecaps displayed considerable bravado as they aspired to place among the top teams in MLS.
But in 2014, the Whitecaps will have a new coach, a new look and less attitude, starting with Saturday’s season-opener against the powerhouse New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place Stadium.
“We’re all looking ahead with a cautious optimism,” Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said before the team held its final pre-season practice Friday.
The Whitecaps finished seventh in the Western Conference with a 13-12-9 record in 2013 after becoming the first Canadian team to make the playoffs the year before. New York, which features a star-studded lineup, finished first overall with a 17-9-8 mark.
Carl Robinson, a former Whitecaps assistant coach, will try to excel in the top job after Martin Rennie was fired at the end of the last campaign.
“Obviously, with a new coach coming in, there’s going to be a transition, but he’s had a full pre-season to work with a majority of the guys,” said Lenarduzzi. “And then, getting the guys that we’ve added over the course of the pre-season, there’ll still be I would think a required time for players to gel and for the newer guys to get to know Carl and his coaching staff and their teammates.”
Robinson has brought in several new players from South America and Europe, including new designated player Pedro Morales, a Chilean midfielder who was signed earlier this week.
“We don’t want to put too many unrealistic expectations on him, but we’re hopeful that he’s going to produce and we’ll see results of that in goals and assists,” said Lenarduzzi. “But ultimately what we’re looking for from him is to bring out the best in players around him.”
Other prominent newcomers include attacking Nicolas Mezquida and Sebastian Fernandez, who both hail from Uruguay, and Mattias Laba of Argentina, a designated player who was acquired from Toronto FC.
Vancouver’s acquisitions have paled in comparison to TFC’s splashy off-season signings, but Lenarduzzi did not feel pressured to match them.
“I don’t think any team in the league feels the pressure to match $100 million spent on three players,” he said.
As a result of the changes, the Whitecaps lineup features players from 16 countries, who bring diverse skill levels, backgrounds and languages.
“Football is a global sport,” said Lenarduzzi. “The language barriers? I don’t believe they are barriers. Obviously when you get on the field you’d like to be able to communicate with your teammates. But really, if you’re good players, your ability will do the talking for you.”
Lenarduzzi is hopeful that Robinson, 37, a former Welsh international player who toiled in England and in MLS with Toronto and New York, will be able to get his message across.
Known as a strong communicator, Robinson developed close relationships with players in his assistant’s role and, according to Lenarduzzi, succeeded in getting them to accept what they sometimes did not like to hear about their play.
“Now that he’s the head coach, he’s the guy where the buck stops,” said Lenarduzzi. “So it won’t be the same as it was the previous two years. It’ll be different. But I’m encouraged that up until now he’s maintained his willingness to communicate with the guys.”
Lenarduzzi also likes the fact that Robinson stresses a possession-oriented, attacking style of play while still requiring the club to display a disciplined defensive structure, and “puts a premium” on young players.
“We haven’t kicked the ball in anger yet, so we’re not getting carried away,” said Lenarduzzi. “We think we’ve got a good squad of players. But if he applies all of those things then I think we’ve got an opportunity to make the playoffs this year, which is really our objective.”
The quest for a post-season berth became more difficult following the departure of striker Camilo Sanvezzo — who led MLS with 22 goals last season — to Queretaro of the Mexican League. Camilo angered the club by donning the Mexican team’s jersey while he was still a Whitecap and a transfer was eventually negotiated.
“The hope is that two players or, more than likely, three players will help pick up that (scoring) slack,” said Lenarduzzi.
One likely source of more offence is striker Darren Mattocks, who had a disappointing sophomore season marred by injuries, inconsistent play and international absences that limited him to just three goals.
Lenarduzzi also hopes to get “10-plus” goals from striker-midfielder Kekuta Manneh, a gifted 19-year-old scorer who was used sparingly in his rookie season but still found the net six times in only 764 minutes of action over 20 games.
“What I don’t think we want to do is heighten the expectations of Kekuta,” said Lenarduzzi. “He’s a very good player, and he proved that late last season.”
Former Scottish international striker Kenny Miller will be expected to produce early as he plays on an unusual six-month contract that could see him leave the team in mid-season.
“Kenny will need to do what he did the first half of last season and if that’s the case, then certainly that’s going to encourage us to keep him around,” said Lenarduzzi.
Striker Omar Salgado, 20, the team’s first-ever MLS draft choice who has missed most of the past two seasons with foot injuries, could also help make up for Camilo’s absence, depending on how much playing time he can earn after his long layoff.
Ultimately, Vancouver’s scoring prowess could hinge on Robinson, also a former Red Bulls assistant coach, who was not management’s first choice to replace Rennie.
“I’m excited. I really am,” Robinson told reporters this week. “But I’m trying to keep a calm head on my shoulders in (the dressing room) and in front of the guys.”
Notes: The Whitecaps loaned five players, including seventh-overall 2014 draft pick Andre Lewis, to the second-tier Charleston Battery on Friday. Lenarduzzi said the Whitecaps made the move to ensure that Lewis, a 19-year-old midfielder from Spanish Town, Jamaica, gets plenty of playing time. Strikers Mamadou Diouf and Marlon Ramirez, midfielder Aminu Abdallah and defender Jackson Farmer were also sent to Charleston. a Vancouver beat New York in their lone meeting last season. The Whitecaps are unbeaten (1-0-2) against the Red Bulls in three all-time games.