The Vancouver Whitecaps have had a tough inaugural season, no doubt about it. It's been a season of red cards and injuries, coaching staff turmoil and lineup uncertainty; a season where the team has yet to win at all on the road.
But, as the difficulties piled up all season long, a bright spot stood on the horizon: The newly renovated BC Place, with its state of the art facilities, was awaiting to welcome the 'Caps with open arms. The excitement in sports-mad Vancouver was building as the Whitecaps prepared to host the Portland Timbers for the opening game at the stadium on Oct. 2, 2011. Surely, the city told itself, surely we would win.
Well, it didn't happen, and the Whitecaps had to wait for the next game to get their first win against a depleted Real Salt Lake side.
But what a win it was! On two penalties by Camilo Sanvezzo and one cracking volley by Nizar Khalfan, the Whitecaps finally gave BC Place the christening it deserved.
Here are five thoughts from a great night in downtown Vancouver.
For those unfamiliar with the MLS setup, the league enforces a strict salary cap on each of its teams, ostensibly to create parity. But it does allow exceptions in the form of the "Designated Player" rule. Under this rule, the teams can pay up to three players, or "DP's", a significantly higher salary.
First instituted when David Beckham came to the league, the rule allows the teams to attract superstar soccer players from all over the world. Aside from allowing the teams to carry more talented players, it also benefits them by drawing interest from each player's fanbase.
The Whitecaps currently have two DP's on their roster: forwards Eric Hassli and Mustapha Jarju. Hassli, acquired before the season started, has been a monster on the pitch, with the big Frenchman scoring 10 goals in his first year. Jarju, acquired midseason, has been a bit of a let down, with the Gambian struggling to find form and fitness.
But Brazilian striker Camilo Sanvezzo, earning a fraction of what Hassli and Jarju are earning combined, has been arguably the Whitecaps' best player. With 11 goals and three assists, Camilo is one of the brightest spots of a beleaguered season, playing like a DP without costing a DP's salary.
With Hassli suspended, playmaker Davide Chiumiento on the bench and Jarju out of favor, Camilo was given the chance to lead the Whitecaps attacking line against Real Salt Lake on Thursday. The Magician, as Camilo is often called, turned in a sparkling performance and proved every bit worth not only his salary, but Jarju and Hassli's as well.
I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a raise and a contract extension sooner rather than later.
Swiss-Canadian Alain Rochat, pictured above, is an imposing defender. As a center-back, he is powerful, forceful and sharp, a perfect partner to captain Jay DeMerit.
But as a left-back, Alain Rochat may just be one of the best full-backs in MLS. Crafty and hardworking in defense, he's also adept at bombing forward and is one of the better passers from the back. He has even scored and has been nominated for goal of the week.
The Whitecaps' midseason defensive woes prompted coach Tommy Soehn to shift Rochat to the center. And while replacement left-back Jordan Harvey was decent, it was hard not to notice a bit of a drop off in quality.
But on Thursday, the Whitecaps started newly acquired Trinidadian center-back Carlyle Mitchell alongside DeMerit, pushing Rochat back out wide and Harvey up to midfield.
The results, even against a weakened RSL, were encouraging. Mitchell added vigor and bite and looks to have formed a pretty good understanding with DeMerit. Rochat has found his stride again and was a commanding presence on the left as usual. And Harvey proved that he can play as a midfielder, even managing to get a shot on goal; thus giving the Whitecaps yet another option in midfield.
The backline (and midfield) just got a lot stronger for the Whitecaps, and it's all because of one astute purchase.
The Vancouver Whitecaps have a number of veteran players in their side. There is no doubting the talent in some of these players, like Eric Hassli, Davide Chiumiento, Peter Vagenas, Mustapha Jarju and John Thorrington, but at times, they do look jaded and a bit complacent.
Over the course of the season, there have been a number of games which the Whitecaps should have won but didn't. One such game is the recent game against the New York Red Bulls. Up a goal and up a man towards the end, the Whitecaps should have had it in the bag. But a combination of sloppy play and complacency allowed New York to equalize, and the Whitecaps dropped points yet again.
The loss against Portland led to Jay DeMerit, goalkeeper Joe Cannon and Tommy Soehn to openly question the so-called "heart" and drive of the team, wondering if players where "getting up" for the game and whether they deserved to play for the team at all.
And the veterans should be looking over their shoulders, for the Whitecaps actually have a number of hungry, talented youngsters just itching for a chance to break into the first team.
Head coach Soehn gave some of these youngsters a chance in the RSL game hoping they could inject some life into a listless team. They did. And how.
Striker Long Tan (pictured) and winger Nizar Khalfan were brought in for the suspended Eric Hassli and Shea Salinas. Defenders Carlyle Mitchell and Jeb Brovsky were all inserted into the starting lineup. Jordan Harvey was pushed up to the left of midfield, dropping Davide Chiumiento to the bench. Peter Vagenas was dropped for John Thorrington. Even forgotten striker Omar Salgado was given a run out, and he promptly picked up an assist.
What transpired was a truly wonderful game for the Whitecaps, 90 minutes of energy and drive where players constantly created chances and closed opponents down. The youngsters made a good showing for themselves, and even though we shouldn't expect a complete youth overhaul, it's nice to know that the Whitecaps can call on some youth when the veterans need a kick in the rump.
It's unknown how much the coaching turmoil has affected the first team, but Tommy Soehn is on his way out next season. In new head coach Martin Rennie, the team will have a talented and stable force guiding them, which should do wonders for the team's mentality.
Nevertheless, when the veterans do come back, hopefully they'll remember the youngsters they have breathing down their necks.
Throw a stone at any stadium across the country, and you'll hit a fan unhappy with MLS officiating this year.
The Vancouver Whitecaps in particular have been victims of poor officiating for much of the season. Against RSL, they caught a break, but in doing so, they earned two penalties from handballs that shouldn't have been called.
Even though the team benefited from them, my fervent wish is that MLS will take a serious look at their officiating in the offseason and do something about it.
The Southsiders, the official fan organization of the Vancouver Whitecaps, have been a constant force at all of the Whitecaps home games and even some of its away games. But there was some worry that, after the tough season the Whitecaps endured, the average soccer fans would turn away from the club out of sheer apathy.
This would have been a disaster for the fledgeling MLS team. Since the first day, Whitecaps matches have been consistently either sold out or almost sold out, averaging about 20,000 fans per game. It was a thing of beauty to turn on the television and see very few empty seats, whether the Whitecaps were playing at Empire Field or BC Place. Considering a number of teams across the league have problems filling their stadiums, I believe it is important for both the Whitecaps and the MLS itself that Vancouver keeps selling out its stadium.
The biggest test, in my opinion, was Thursday's game against RSL. The deck was stacked against the team. It was a make-up game for a rain-out, it was a mid-week game played on a Thursday rather than a Wednesday and the team was coming off a horrid winless streak. But beyond all that, the biggest elephant in the room was that the Vancouver Canucks were playing on the same night right across the street.
In a hockey-mad city like Vancouver, that was almost a kiss of death for any other live event.
And yet, despite all that, attendance was as strong as ever, with 20,113 fans filling BC Place. The stadium was rocking, with songs and chants filling the air as the crowd was led by the Southsiders. The players on the pitch fed off that energy, and they turned in one of their best games of the season.
But the best part of all that? The Canucks only drew 18,860 fans.
So there you have it. Five thoughts from a win that the Vancouver Whitecaps desperately needed.
Hopefully, the Whitecaps can build on this boost and use that momentum to charge towards the finish line and give next year's team a solid foundation to continue building on.