The Vancouver Whitecaps are in overhaul mode. But this summer it’s not because the team is in tatters.
A year ago, the expansion Whitecaps were changing coaches and betting big money on unknown players, as the club staggered to a last-place finish in Major League Soccer.
This year, the team is on pace for the playoffs, but the Whitecaps have made major changes in the past week. Vancouver dispatched its star playmaker, Davide Chiumiento, to FC Zurich, and traded forward Sebastien Le Toux to the New York Red Bulls for Jamaican international midfielder Dane Richards.
The finishing move came on Monday, when the team announced the signing of Kenny Miller, the 32-year-old striker who has captained Scotland internationally and most recently played for Cardiff City. Miller joins countryman Barry Robson, who signed with the Whitecaps last winter and joined the club several weeks ago.
“The football’s getting stronger and stronger,” said Miller of MLS.
The flurry of roster changes comes just as the Whitecaps have hit their worst skid of the season. In late June, at the start of a five-game road trip, Vancouver was a stellar 7-3-5. Then the team was thrashed by the Los Angeles Galaxy and went 1-3-1 away from home, and now stand at 8-6-6, with 30 points.
The record remains good enough for eighth in the 19-team MLS, where 10 teams make the playoffs, and the Whitecaps are still a comfortable eight points ahead of three teams bunched in 11th place.
But the playoffs are hardly assured. L.A. and its star-studded roster, led by David Beckham, arrives in Vancouver for a Wednesday night tilt, quickly followed on Saturday by the No. 1 team in the league, the San Jose Earthquakes.
The Whitecaps’ moves are about building a stronger team long-term, said head coach Martin Rennie after training on Monday. He said the various changes will not upset the club’s rhythm and chemistry.
“It’s good to make changes when the team’s actually doing reasonably well,” Rennie said. “I think if you make changes when you’re not doing well, there’s a desperation, and often you end up making bad decisions. We weren’t desperate to make any of the additions that we made.”
The roster changes notably shift the Whitecaps’ international complexion from one whose centre was French-Swiss to a blend of Scottish-Jamaican. Rennie, a Scot, and a rookie head coach in MLS, has significantly shaped the club in his short tenure, backed by lead owner Greg Kerfoot.
The connection between Miller and Vancouver begins with player agent David Baldwin of Base Soccer, the large London agency. Baldwin is an old acquaintance of Rennie‘s and was also the agent to his two assistant coaches, Carl Robinson and Paul Ritchie, when they were players.
Sitting in the stands at BC Place on Monday morning, Baldwin recalled when he helped Robinson sign with Toronto FC in its expansion 2007 season, and how much the league has changed since. The Reds’ first-ever MLS game was a 2-0 loss on the road to Chivas USA. The game, Baldwin remembered, “wasn’t particularly pretty.” It was a time when big names came to the MLS for the end of their career, “put on shorts, and enjoy the sun.”
Today, MLS is a “very viable option” for players, said Baldwin.
“The standard of play has improved dramatically,” he said, adding that he considers Vancouver a top destination for international players.
Miller signed as a designated player, which allows Vancouver to pay him more money above the league salary cap. The Whitecaps now have their maximum three designated players, along with striker Eric Hassli and Robson.
And while coach Rennie believes the many mid-season changes aren’t a major concern, Robson said a period of adjustment is always a fact.
“That takes time, that takes time,” said Robson after training. “Everybody needs to play with each other, the intermingling, and knowing what each other does. And that’s what I found hard myself. The more we do it, the better hopefully we’ll get, and we can push the club forward.”