BY DARRELL LOVELL
The Vancouver Whitecaps looked to be right on track in 2012. The club started its second campaign strong and looked primed to be a key challenger in the Western Conference playoff race.
Then the ‘Caps hit the reset button.
Midway through the season Martin Rennie shifted course, jettisoning stars such as Eric Hassli and Sebastien Le Toux. Davide Chiumiento returned to Switzerland and suddenly the upstart Whitecaps were in flux.
Ultimately the club grabbed the last spot in the playoffs and fell to the LA Galaxy in the opening round for a tough finish to a curious season.
Heading into 2013, Rennie and the Whitecaps have undergone even more transformation, with the arrivals of new faces Daigo Kobayashi, Nigel Reo-Coker and Johnny Leveron expected to provide a boost for the third-year club. Those additions have made them a trendy pick to make a big jump forward.
Here is a closer look at Vancouver Whitecaps heading into the 2013 season:
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS SEASON PREVIEW
2012 FINISH: 11-13-10, 43 points (fifth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: F Erik Hurtado, F Paulo Jr., D Brad Rusin, F Kekuta Manneh, F Corey Hertzog, F Tommy Heinemann, M Daigo Kobayashi, D Johnny Leveron, D/M Nigel Reo-Coker
KEY LOSSES: GK Brian Sylvestre, M Tiago Ulisses, F Etienne Barbara, M Michael Nanchoff, M John Thorrington, M/F Atiba Harris, M Barry Robson, D Martin Bonjour
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: Erik Hurtado. The rookie has shown in preseason that he is not just speed. He can run at defenses from both the forward position and wing and has the ability to create from both areas. If given time, he could be a leading Rookie of the Year candidate.
PRESSURE IS ON: Darren Mattocks. The ‘Caps want to run and Mattocks is their prized thoroughbred. The Jamaican international has all the physical skills to set MLS on fire this season. Does he have the mental strength and toughness to lead the attack and provide the contribution Vancouver will need?
Much of the optimism in Vancouver surrounds a defense that should be very strong. Jay DeMerit and Lee-Young Pyo return to lead a back five that saw little change from last season. The two veterans will lead a line in front an up-and-coming goalkeeper in Brad Knighton.
The Vancouver custodian had a solid coming-out party late last season after supplanting Joe Cannon late in the season, pitching three shutouts in eight regular season starts. If he can step up his game in his first full season as a starter that will make for a strong back five for the developing ‘Caps attack to lean on.
While the defense is in good hands, generating attacks is a question Vancouver has to answer.
Last season the ‘Caps were a team that never struck fear in the hearts of opponents after the mid-season changes. Now the attack may be the most electric in MLS with a Darren Mattocks led forward line that could win a 4×100 relay if configured right.
Speaking of Mattocks, he may have the most eyes on him in MLS. Mattocks had a teasing rookie campaign complete with flashes of brilliance and disappearing acts on his way to seven goals, leading all rookies. In year two, the Jamaican international will be the focal point of the attack and will bear the brunt of responsibility for the Whitecaps production. His work with Kenny Miller and Camilo up top may decide how far the ‘Caps go in 2013.
While Mattocks will be the key figure for the ‘Caps attack, this could be the season where the midfield finally starts to grab hold. The club returns Camilo, a player that has shown to be a creative force in MLS, to man the left flank.
The club went out and got Camilo some central reinforcements in the form of Kobayashi. The Japanese international can provide a technical touch in the final third. If he can find his feet in MLS, he could be the provider the Whitecaps need. Toss in a veteran EPL anchor in Reo-Coker and the midfield can be a difference maker in Vancouver, if they can gel.
With the roster done, for now, the Whitecaps will look to climb the standings in a Western Conference that will be a tough lark as usual. LA look to once again be the class of the conference with fellow Cascadia club Seattle Sounders FC the leader of the group of challengers.
If the moves pay off the Whitecaps will be at the top of the list of teams looking to take the West crown.