By ADAM SERRANO
The Vancouver Whitecaps begin their second year in MLS with a new head coach and a new sense of promise.
Martin Rennie, who was hired midway through the 2011 season, has quickly sought to revamp a club that finished at the bottom of the Western Conference last season. In his first offseason at the helm, Rennie has reshaped the club in his own image, instituting a new attacking system while making several big splashes in the transfer market.
Rennie's changes have paid off this preseason, as Vancouver is currently undefeated, and the wealth of attackers are playing as advertised. While the team as a whole remains a work in progress, Rennie believes that his attack stacks up with that of any team in MLS.
"It does seem to be jelling reasonably well," Rennie said. "I think a lot is made of our attack, but our midfielders are performing well and our defenders are defending well too. I think that we have a good squad of players, and our attackers aren't all the same. Some of them play wide, and some of them are up the field and there is more flexibility to this squad than many people realize."
Here is a closer look at the Whitecaps ahead of the 2012 MLS season:
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS 2012 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
2011 FINISH: 6-18-10, 28 points (ninth in Western Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D Martin Bonjour, F Sébastien Le Toux, D Young-Pyo Lee, F Darren Mattocks, M Barry Robson, F Etienne Barbara, GK Brad Knighton
KEY DEPARTURES: D Jeb Brovsky, M Philippe Davies, D Greg Janicki, F Mustapha Jarju, M Nizar Khalfan, D/M Wes Knight, D Jonathan Leathers, M Shea Salinas, GK Jay Nolly
In hopes of creating a dynamic attack that was no longer reliant on attackers Camilo Sanvezzo and Eric Hassli — who accounted for more than half of Vancouver's goals last season — Rennie has bolstered the squad by adding Sebastien Le Toux via trade from Philadelphia and signing a fellow Scot, midfielder Barry Robson, as a Designated Player. The Middlesbrough player will arrive in July to provide a midseason boost.
The additions were not limited to experienced players, as Rennie also drafted speedy Akron forward Darren Mattocks with the second overall selection in January's MLS SuperDraft. While the new faces have made the competition considerbly tougher for last year's stars, including playmaker Davide Chiumiento, the first-year manager believes that his new signings will only push the likes of Camilo and Hassli to improve.
"It will be nice for them to be an environment that they are more comfortable with. They're both speaking English better and know what to expect from the league," said Rennie. "There's also more competition for them, and that will make them train harder which in the long run will help them when we're playing in games. I think that there is every good chance that they should be able to do well this season."
The club has also been active on the defensive side of the ball, where personnel was ravaged by injuries last season and made costly mistakes that routinely led the Whitecaps to drop points as the season wore on.
To shore up the troublesome back line, Vancouver added a pair of experienced defenders with established credentials overseas. South Korean right back Young-Pyo Lee and Argentine center back Martin Bonjour were signed to a solidify a back line that already included former U.S. international Jay DeMerit and Swiss defender Alain Rochat.
Like the offense, chemistry is key for the emerging back four, who admittedly are still attempting to get on the same page ahead of the March 10 opener against the Montreal Impact.
"One of the reasons that we've been able to do so well this preseason is the work rate of the entire team, not just the back line," said veteran goalkeeper Joe Cannon. "The composure that we have on the ball this year is better than last year. I think that the defense is getting better day by day this season, and we need constant improvement."
Heading in the inaugural season of Rennie's grand project with Vancouver, the wily veteran Cannon believes that with some old fashion elbow grease, the Whitecaps can become contenders.
"I think that it's going to take awhile for us to figure out what we're capable of, but I don't think that we need to limit ourselves and our belief system," said Cannon. "However, coming off last season, we realize that there is a lot of work to be done so I think that the belief right now is that we just have to try get a result on March 10 against a strong Montreal side, but obviously making the playoffs is our main goal. "