Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: 5 Bright Spots from a Troubled Season
It was a performance that was indicative of how the Whitecaps season has gone all year long—a bad bounce here, a blown call there, a bit of luck for both teams at either end—and in the end, it proved that incoming head coach Martin Rennie has a lot of issues he needs to iron out over the offseason if the Blue and White are to compete for a playoff spot next year.
That said, it hasn't been all bad for the Whitecaps in a tough expansion year.
Over the course of the season, the Whitecaps have managed to give their fans a number of intriguing storylines, breakout stars and rays of hope. They've given "Goal of the Week" nominated strikes, thrilling comebacks and hard-fought 1-0 wins.
Here are five of those bright spots for fans to look back fondly upon, and to begin hoping for the future.
The Emergence of Eric Hassli
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Vancouver, home to the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Trevor Linden, loves their larger than life sports heroes. They want them to be good at what they do, look like they're enjoying it and above all, love the city they play in.
At the start of the Whitecaps' inaugural MLS season, soccer fans were desperate to have their own Markus Naslund; they just weren't sure where it would come from as the MLS Whitecaps looked very different from their previous incarnation. Would it be their first draft pick Omar Salgado? Would it be former Watford captain (and current Whitecaps captain) Jay DeMerit? Or would it be the club's first designated player, the big Frenchman named Eric Hassli whom nobody knew anything about?
With one strike in the first half of the first game against hated rivals Toronto FC, Eric Hassli would indeed step up and lay claim to the title.
After bagging two goals in that game, Hassli would then go on to have an impressive, if a bit red card-tinged, season. He quickly won over fans with his tireless and dedicated play, although he did suffer some early culture shock when he racked up a series of red cards, earning him the monicker "Eric the Red."
But as the year wore on, and even through dips in form and goal droughts, he remained one of the most popular players on the team. On the national stage, Hassli shot to prominence on one magical night in Seattle when he scored this goal, surely the MLS goal of the year.
He even fulfilled the criteria of "must love the city" when he proclaimed that very sentiment, and backed it up by tattooing maple leaves all up his arm. That's dedication.
That popularity was evident at the last game of the season. Although Hassli did not start, the crowd chanted his name throughout the match. And when the big Frenchman eventually made his entrance, the closed roof of BC Place could barely contain the roar of approval.
Eric Hassli repaid that faith after the match and ended up staying on the field more than an hour after the game ended to sign autographs, let people kiss his head and take pictures with each and every fan that wanted one.
Vancouver, your newest sports legend: Eric Hassli.
Camilo the Magician
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The Whitecaps have two Designated Players, Eric Hassli and Mustapha Jarju. They might as well have three with the way Camilo Sanvezzo has played this year.
After stints in Malta and South Korea, the young Brazilian made his way to the MLS with no guarantee that he would make it big for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Indeed, he didn't even make the starting lineup for the opener against Toronto.
But the man who would later come to be known as "The Magician" quickly rose to prominence by engineering what would prove to be the greatest comeback in the Whitecaps' inaugural season.
Down 3-0 to Sporting Kansas City at home, the Blue and White were down and out. Even after Atiba Harris scored late in the game, it looked like a result was out of reach. But near the end of the game, Camilo fired home to strikes in quick succession, ensuring a draw that felt like a win.
He could continue to prove a key figure in the Whitecaps side for the rest of the season, using his pace and craft to become the team's top scorer and most valuable player. And he did so earning a fraction of most of the other players in the MLS' top 10 scorers list do.
There's much speculation now as to what will happen to Camilo next year. Will he stay at the team on the same salary? Will he leave Vancouver for more money in Qatar? Will the Whitecaps use their third DP slot to give him a raise?
No matter what happens, Camilo Sanvezzo has given the city many magical moments in a season that desperately needed it. For that, he will always be a Whitecap hero.
Gershon Koffie: A Pleasant Suprise
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At the start of the season, the Whitecaps had plenty of depth in a midfield that featured the likes of Terry Dunfield, John Thorrington, Peter Vagenas, Russel Teibert, Jeb Brovsky and Alex Morfaw. It also featured a 19-year-old Ghanaian named Gershon Koffie who, despite his obvious talent, looked set to be rotated due to his young age.
But with each game that passed, Koffie made it impossible to drop him from the team sheet with solid performance after solid performance. On his day, Koffie showed that he has the talent to absolutely boss a midfield and the potential to be one of the best in the league as he grows.
Similar to Darren Fletcher, Koffie is a hard working destroyer, tough tackling and a solid marker capable of good linking play as well. Although he had dips in concentration at times and there are several things he needs to work on, Koffie is a bright spot on the team and should definitely be one of the first names on Martin Rennie's matchday squads next year.
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This was a late-breaking story, but it was a long time coming.
By the time the Whitecaps finally played at the newly renovated BC Place, the team was in trouble. They lost to heated rivals Portland Timbers. Eric Hassli hadn't scored in months, Davide Chiumiento had seemingly disappeared, and the Whitecaps were playing in a highly disjointed and often listless fashion. Outspoken leaders Jay DeMerit and Joe Cannon would take the players to task publicly in the hopes that they would rise to the occasion and end the season on a high note.
Something had to be done.
And on Oct. 6, 2011, something was done.
Greeting Real Salt Lake that day was an unfamiliar starting XI that featured new signing Carlyle Mitchell at centre-back, Alain Rochat at left-back, Jordan Harvey at left-midfield, John Thorrington in centre-midfield alongside Gershon Koffie and Nizar Khalfan at right-midfield.
And starting up front alongside Camilo was Long Tan, the first Chinese-born player in the MLS.
The new blood was just what the team needed, and through a fantastic team effort, the Blue and White recorded a 3-0 win on goals by Camilo and Khalfan.
But, while he didn't get on the score sheet, one of the standout players of the night was Long Tan. Although he made a few token appearances in early games, the man from Dalian really hadn't featured much in coach Tommy Soehn's plans. But those few appearances later on, especially one in which he provided a brilliant assist for Shea Salinas' first Whitecap goal against Houston, earned him the RSL start.
And he certainly didn't disappoint, turning in a solid industrious performance up front that brought joy to an entire stadium. He followed up by scoring his first ever MLS goal, and the first ever by a Chinese player, against DC United in the next game.
Suddenly, Tan was trending in Vancouver, and fans were chanting his name.
But even as he has made an impact on the pitch, he has also made a startling impact off it.
Vancouver is a multi-cultural city, and one of the largest ethnic groups is the Chinese. All of a sudden, this massive cultural section of the population had a folk hero, a sports hero, in one of the most sports-happy cities in the world.
It's no wonder that the media started knocking on the Whitecaps' door, or that Chinese reporters and cameramen turned up at Vancouver's YVR airport to see the team—to see Long Tan—off to his next game against Dallas.
Paul Barber, CEO of the Whitecaps, wasn't blind to the media attention, either. And it's no coincidence that the Whitecaps banner on their Facebook page was modified to include Tan's visage.
It will be interesting to see how they push him next year.
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In a lot of leagues around the world, when the home side is down 3-0 at the 70th minute, chances are most of the crowd is headed home.
Not in Vancouver.
There were almost 21,000 cheering fans who stayed in the stadium from start to finish on that glorious night against Sporting Kansas City, and it would be an indicator of how much support the Whitecaps would have for the rest of the season.
Indeed, when you look at the numbers regarding average attendance in the league, the Vancouver Whitecaps rank third overall, behind only Seattle and LA. Impressive stuff, considering the Whitecaps are in last place. Every home game was either a sell-out or near that.
But no matter the form of the team, no matter if they were scoring at will against Toronto or getting humiliated by LA, support at home was always loud, always boisterous, always thunderous.
Led by the Southsiders, the official supporters group, fans in both Empire Field and BC Place would be cheering and chanting throughout each and every game, feeding off the players as the players fed off of them. In every post match interview, win or lose, the Whitecaps players and coaches would always acknowledge this, and apologize for not putting out a better product.
But the support never faded, even when the Vancouver Canucks started their season up next door at Rogers Arena.
The fans still came. And it doesn't look like it's stopping anytime soon.
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It's been a long road for the Vancouver Whitecaps. An up and down season saw many stories emerge, good and bad, and there are many things still to talk about before Martin Rennie takes over the team.
Fans, players and technical personnel alike are already looking to next season hoping for better. And indeed, the signs do look promising if certain issues are taken care of.
But in the meantime, there's plenty from this season to look back on and feel good about.
Here's to many more on the way.