Starting on Nov. 28, MLSsoccer.com will look back at the 2011 season team by team. We kick off our 2011 in Review series with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
It was a trying journey at times for the Vancouver Whitecaps in their first Major League Soccer season. Two coaches and a third on the way for next season perhaps best sums up the way results have gone.
Things started promisingly with a 4-2 victory against Canadian rivals Toronto FC on First Kick weekend, but as key veterans Jay DeMerit, Atiba Harris and John Thorrington found themselves in the treatment room more often than on the pitch, an inexperienced ‘Caps squad learned some tough lessons about top-flight soccer.
Still, there’s been much to celebrate. Top-level soccer is back in Vancouver for the first time since the original NASL, and the club’s off-field story this past season was nothing short of magical, as an average of 20,406 fans showed up at Empire Field and BC Place to cheer on the team, good for the third-highest average attendance in MLS.
Best Moment of the Year
Fifteen minutes into the club’s first MLS match against Toronto FC on March 19, Eric Hassli announced his arrival in North America with a tremendous left-footed half volley to put the Whitecaps up 1-0. The goal got an already excited Empire Field rocking and set the tone for the sort of atmosphere fans created all season long in Vancouver.
Forty-one minutes into the second leg of the Nutrilite Canadian Championship final on July 2, captain DeMerit made a desperate slide to save a sure goal from Toronto’s Javier Martina with the ‘Caps leading 1-0.
While his play saved the goal, albeit in controversial fashion as the ball looked as if it crossed the line, the influential American re-aggravated a groin injury, which ultimately kept him out for more than a month.
The timing was frustrating for DeMerit, who had missed the better part of two months early in the season, and meant the Whitecaps had to attempt a run for a playoff position without their leader for the rest of July and early August.
More than five million hits on YouTube and a Top 5 nomination at the ESPY awards says it all. Hassli’s June 11 wonder-strike against the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field is arguably one of the best goals in MLS history, and fell just short of Goal of the Year. While the tremendous flick-up and volley over Kasey Keller from outside the area was spectacular, the fact the goal was against a Cascadia rival made it all that sweeter.
In Vancouver’s 1-0 victory against the Houston Dynamo on Aug. 27, Joe Cannon made a number of tremendous saves. His 72nd-minute stop on Brian Ching was nominated for MLS Save of the Week, but he made an even better stop in the 24th minute, as he had to readjust his body after a shot from Brad Davis deflected off Carlo Costly from close range.
The big Bay Area native demonstrated excellent reflexes to ensure the ‘Caps secured their first clean sheet in more than two months by extending his left leg in unconventional fashion to knock the ball over the bar.
The fans voted Camilo as Whitecaps Player of the Year, and there’s no reason to argue. The Brazilian led the team in minutes played with 2,484 and was the club’s leading scorer with 12 goals. Five of those were on the road, which demonstrates the consistent performance the 23-year-old brought every match. Add in the quality of some of those strikes and it strengthens the argument even further.
Don’t forget, Camilo wasn’t simply new to MLS, he was new to North America and had to learn a new language. While some players complained about the extensive travel, the dynamic forward thrived whether home or away, as mentioned above.
Interim head coach Tom Soehn made a lot of comments about the team lacking the right mentality at crucial times this season, but if there was one player who those comments certainly didn’t apply to, it was Camilo, who played out of position on the wing without complaint whenever his coach asked.
1. Keep Camilo: The biggest thing the Whitecaps must do this summer is hold onto their Player of the Year. After the season Camilo had, there is interest from teams within MLS and around the world. He is under contract for next season and the club will receive some tantalizing offers it must refuse.
2. Beef up central midfield: While John Thorrington and Gershon Koffie showed signs of a formidable partnership in the final games, the squad needs one or two top-level central players who can provide competition, especially given Thorrington’s injury problems and Koffie’s inexperience.
3. Reinforce the defense: Depth is also an area worth addressing, particularly at right fullback, where Soehn experimented often. With Montreal Impact claiming Jeb Brovsky through the Expansion Draft and Bilal Duckett waived by the club, that only increases the need to address that position. Incoming coach Martin Rennie tried out Koffie there during his postseason evaluation camp, but bringing in an established starting right fullback would do wonders to shore up the league's third-leakiest defense.
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.