The Vancouver Whitecaps have been a whipsaw throughout their Major League Soccer existence: a swirl of losses and wins, a parade of players and coaches in and out, and, after a last-place finish in their debut year, a playoff berth in their sophomore season.
From the beginning, and through it all, the Whitecaps have talked with big confidence about creating a premier club, one that not only becomes a perennial contender in MLS but also one respected farther afield.
Ambition stung the club last year. After their dead-last finish in 2011, the Whitecaps posted a remarkable turnaround in the first half of 2012, going 8-3-6. But the roster was overhauled in the summer. The biggest mistake ended up being Barry Robson, the Scot signed the previous winter but who arrived in July. The team won just a single game in its last 11, including a playoff loss to eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy.
At the least, the Whitecaps could claim they were the first Canadian squad to make the MLS playoffs (something Toronto FC hasn’t done in six seasons, nor the Montreal Impact in their first).
For the Whitecaps, even if life has been a whipsaw, the trajectory is positive. The team, again, has made numerous roster changes, as second-year head coach Martin Rennie further shapes the team in his vision. Most of all, there’s more depth on the roster, including two promising rookies, Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado, which, all-in, Rennie said would be a “key factor” for the team.
The marquee addition was made just last week, when Vancouver brought on a British midfielder who has played more than 200 times in the Premier League, Nigel Reo-Coker, a 28-year-old who was strong at West Ham United and Aston Villa before later struggling.
“Now that we’ve actually made the playoffs,” team president Bob Lenarduzzi said ahead of Saturday’s opener against Toronto, “we’ve set the bar.”
As for last year, “We’ve all acknowledged that we made too many changes,” he added. “Maybe we got greedy, and wanted to go for it.”
Whether the new names – of which Reo-Coker is only one of several – make the difference is to be seen. Vancouver’s player-acquisition record is mixed. Mustapha Jarju was an outright failure; Robson didn’t come close to working out either; Kenny Miller, who joined last summer, didn’t play well but could be an important plus this year; Eric Hassli, the expansion-year star, was jettisoned in 2012.
Lee Young-Pyo, a defender from South Korea, stands out because he was heralded, and actually delivered, and should be an important player again in 2013. Lee was the team’s best last year, as Vancouver gave up the fourth-fewest goals in the league. The Whitecaps offence was the problem, only 35 goals, third-worst in MLS.
In the stands, the Whitecaps remain solid but stalled – and need results to buoy their numbers. The opening-year boon of 20,400 or so per game, third out of 18 MLS teams, slumped after the last-place showing to about 19,500 a game last year, sixth in MLS.
Current capacity for soccer at B.C. Place Stadium is 21,000, which the team would like to grow to 25,000. Season-ticket sales this year, roughly 13,000, are about the same as last year, and down from more than 15,000 in 2011.
“We’re still only three years on the market,” chief operating officer Rachel Lewis said