Last year the Vancouver Whitecaps were good enough to advance to the Major League Soccer Western Conference semifinal. After losing the two-game aggregate series 2-0 to the Seattle Sounders, management realized the team needed to be better this year if they wished to challenge for a Major League Soccer title.
The Whitecaps renovated their roster during the off-season. Added to the lineup were players like strikers Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell, centre-backs Doneil Henry and Jose Aja, right back Sean Franklin and central midfielder Efrain Juarez.
On Friday, the Whitecaps announced they had acquired midfielder Jordon Mutch on a one-year loan from English Premier League club Crystal Palace and midfielder Felipe Martins in a trade with the New York Red Bulls.
Veteran defender Tim Parker, a key contributor who at times served as club captain, was dealt to the Red Bulls in the Martin deal. Also gone are goaltender David Ousted; defenders Jordan Harvey, Cole Seiler and Sheanon Williams; midfielders Christian Bolanos, Nosa Igiebor, Matias Laba, Ben McKendry, Mauro Rosales; and striker Kyle Greig.
With Vancouver ready to open the regular season Sunday against Canadian rival Montreal Impact, Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson believes his team will have a deeper, more talented roster.
"The squad has got stronger," Robinson said after a training session this week. "I think we have different characteristics of players.
"It gives us a little flexibility. The competition is very strong in all areas of the field."
Robinson said adding players like Juarez and Kamara to play beside holdovers such as Alphonso Davies allows him to make changes during a game, or alter the lineup depending on who the Whitecaps play each week.
"We are able to make in-game adjustments if we need but you have to have the players to do that," said the former Welsh international who is entering his fifth season as the Whitecaps' head coach.
"This year I think we have. That will change week to week because different formations will be played, different personnel will be used. Having the flexibility to do it is very important. That's the reason why you need a deep squad."
Kamara has amassed 103 goals and 39 assists in his 11 previous MLS seasons. The 33-year-old from Sierra Leone, who also has played in the English Premier League, said there may be an adjustment period as the team meshes.
"It takes a little bit when new players come on the team," he said. "For me personally, joining the team in preseason has helped it a lot.
"There's different formations everybody has to get used to. Getting used to one another, what our strengths and weaknesses are so we can help put those together."
Captain Kendall Waston likes the changes the Whitecaps have made.
"We think we have more quality this year, more experience," he said. "When the season begins is where the fun part begins."
Vancouver had a 15-12-7 record last year to finish third in the Western Conference. The Whitecaps won their first-ever MLS playoff game with a 5-0 drubbing of San Jose but looked anemic in not being able to score a goal in two games against Seattle.
"We reflected in the off-season," said Robinson. "Now we have different players with different characteristics that we believe, in big games, at key moments, will be able to alter the course of games.
"We didn't have anyone that was able to grab the game by the scruff of the neck or able to do something different last year. We had some really good players who made things happen but in those key moments they didn't."
The Impact have also done some rebuilding.
Montreal missed the playoffs last year, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 11-17-6 record. Coach Mauro Biello was fired and replaced by Remi Garde, a former manager in both Ligue 1 and the Premier League.
On the pitch, veterans like Hassoun Camara and Patrice Bernier retired.
The Impact will limp into Vancouver with their roster already riddled with injury.
French centre back Zakaria Diallo, one of Montreal's top off-season signings, will be lost for five to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
"Now we have to face adversity and find a solution," Garde told the Impact website. "The group shows solidarity and I think we will want to give a good performance for him."
The Impact come to Vancouver with one healthy forward, Matteo Mancosu, and one centre back, Victor Cabrera.
The Whitecaps are expecting a record home-opening crowd for the game at BC Place Stadium. Their previous best audience for a MLS season-opening game was 22,592 for their first match in 2011.
"It's going to be very loud and very energetic," said team president Bob Lenarduzzi.