Typically an expansion team in North American sports is a brand new franchise without any history. The roster is composed of disparate players deemed expendable by their previous club and exposed in an expansion draft, a handful of journeymen signed as free agents and a few rookies. The expansion team is offensively challenged, and doesn’t really have an identity or chemistry.
That isn’t the case with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps and their expansion brethren Portland Timbers, like the Seattle Sounders before them, are new to the MLS, but not new to professional soccer. The Whitecaps, Timbers and Sounders all played in USSF-Division 2 (the former USL) prior to moving up to the top tier soccer in MLS. This is a situation more akin to a team being promoted to a higher division in European soccer than a typical North American expansion team.
14 of the 29 players on the roster were with the Whitecaps last year in USSF D-2. 9 of those players have played significant minutes in the three games so far.
M Terry Dunfield (270 minutes) 1 goal, 1 assist
M Gershon Koffie (270 minutes)
D Alain Rochat (270 minutes)
G Jay Nolly (180 minutes)
D/M Blake Wagner (180 minutes)
M Nizar Khalfan (160 minutes) 2 assists
D Greg Janicki (154 minutes)
M Russell Teibert (134 minutes)
D Wes Knight (115 minutes) 1 assist
M/F Davide Chiumiento (66 minutes) 3 assists
D Mouloud Akloul
M Philippe Davies
M Alexandre Morfaw
G Brian Sylvestre
Chiumiento would have played more than 66 minutes if he wasn’t hampered by an early injury. Similarly, Akloul would have been starting as a central defender if not hampered by a broken ankle last year that required three surgeries before he was finally able to start training again.
Another player, D/M Kevin Harmse, played for the Houston Dynamo last season, but is a Vancouver native and played for the Whitecaps in USSF D-2 earlier in his career.
Aside from developing players in USSF D-2 play last year, some of the players, notably Teibert, are also graduates of the Whitecaps residency program for youth players.
When you take a deeper look at the players that have played for the Whitecaps last year and that also have played significant minutes this year, you can see that they are mainly all midfield or defender positions, with the exception of starting keeper Jay Nolly. This gives the Whitecaps experience and chemistry on most of the pitch, and allows them to play with a solid structure that provides great support to the forwards.
The Whitecaps were panned for their offensive ability prior to opening day, as critics and analysts thought they would struggle to put any goals on the scoreboard.
This clearly isn’t the case, as designated player Eric Hassli had two goals on opening day to help crush the visiting Toronto FC 4-2. Brazilian Camilo had two goals in injury time to earn both a 3-3 draw against Sporting KC, as well as MLS Player of the Week honors. Atiba Harris has been the most consistent forward, and he has two goals and three assists in three games.
Harris and Chiumiento lead the MLS in assists with three apiece. Seven different Whitecaps have hit the scoresheet with either a goal or an assist as the Whitecaps have scored seven goals in only three games, a goal total which is second in the league.
Vancouver has unfortunately given up six goals against in those same three games though, which would appear to argue against what I stated above about the returning defenders and midfielders.
However, injury and national team call ups have played a role in the goals against.
Captain Jay DeMerit (US) and fellow central defender Michael Boxall (New Zealand) both missed week two due to national team duty. DeMerit picked up a groin injury during his two game stint with the US national team, and is currently sidelined. Boxall returned to Vancouver to play against Sporting KC, but was admittedly lacking in energy after battling the flu and jetlag from flying to and from China for the international friendly.
Similarly, Greg Janicki is battling a hip injury, and while he started against Sporting KC, he stood before the media after the game and took the blame for two of the goals against, saying that he should have taken himself out of the game earlier.
Another player who could expect to start as a central defender is Mouloud Akloul, who is currently training after offseason surgery on a broken ankle.
Once even a few of these players are healthy, the backline should be much more solid, as it was on opening weekend.
Aside from the players actually on the pitch, the Whitecaps also benefit from a team identity that is often lacking in expansion sides.
The Whitecaps are the oldest professional soccer club in North America, having been in continuous professional play at various levels from their origins in the NASL in 1974 to the current day MLS incarnation. While winning the NASL Soccer Bowl in 1979 is probably the crowning achievement for the franchise, the Whitecaps also won six other titles in franchise history, including a USSF-D2 title in 2008.
The 2008 team that won the title, as well as the 2009 team that made the finals only to fall to the Montreal Impact (who will enter MLS next season), contained many of the current Whitecaps, such as Wes Knight.
Coach Teitur Thordarson was also on those teams, having been named Head Coach in 2007. This continuity in coaching and strategy has also helped the Caps in their inaugural MLS season.
Vancouver also has a rabid soccer fan base, with the Whitecaps having regularly sold out their previous (smaller) stadium in USSF-D2, and having drawn an average of 21,555 fans to their two home games to date, placing them third in attendance behind Seattle and LA.
The Whitecaps acknowledged their fans for spurring them on to the improbable comeback from 3-0 to draw Sporting KC 3-3.
“The support was incredible because normally [down] 3-0 after 70 minutes, the supporters start to go home,” said midfielder Davide Chiumiento, who has played in the Swiss Super League, French Ligue 1 and Italian Serie A during his career . “It was a big help from them.”
All in all, the Whitecaps are not a typical expansion team. And while being 1-1-1 is a bit lucky (you can’t count on your opponent to fold a 3-0 lead in injury time every week), teams shouldn’t expect the Whitecaps to be an easy game on the schedule.
Count on the Whitecaps to continue to play entertaining soccer and challenge for a playoff spot.
Game Day Notes:
Tonight the Whitecaps host the New England Revolution at Empire Field.
DeMerit and Janicki are not going to dress for the game, but Chiumiento is healthy and will start on the wing.
For the visitors, starting keeper Matt Reis did not make the trip with an injury.
I'll post a review of the game later tonight.