VANCOUVER, B.C. – It’s been a bit of a mixed bag in Vancouver for the Whitecaps' ex-Carolina RailHawks contingent.
Sure, head coach Martin Rennie has found plenty of success since coming over from the North American Soccer League (NASL) outfit, but with a couple exceptions, many of the players who accompanied him have not found the same fortune.
Rennie, who coached Jun Marques Davidson, Floyd Franks, Matt Watson, Etienne Barbara and Brad Knighton in Carolina, had some observers question the value of bringing “second-division” players with him to MLS shortly after his arrival.
It was a question the Scottish tactician was quick to counter at the beginning of the season – and with the club now about two-thirds of the way through the season, it's difficult to say who's right.
“[Rennie] believes all of us can play at this level,” Knighton told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday when asked about the progress of the ex-RailHawks contingent. “A lot of people say it’s difficult to bring a [Division 2] guy up to MLS but the transition has been fairly easy for most of the RailHawk guys here.”
Davidson, who spent time in Japan in between his spell with the RailHawks in 2010 and his move to MLS this year, is undoubtedly the gem of the group. The Japanese-American has established himself as a key member of the Whitecaps squad, and has started 19 matches as a defensive midfielder.
“Marques has solidified himself in our starting XI and has been fantastic for us this year,” Knighton said. “Matt Watson featured earlier for us this year and was great, and he’s coming off an injury right now, so we’re hoping to have him back. He’s at full fitness now, so we’re looking for him to break into the lineup as well.
“They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t deserve to be here.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Franks found himself released by the club after failing to impress from his meager nine minutes of playing time over two appearances.
For the other three members of that ex-RailHawks crew, the jury is still out.
Barbara has only played 10 minutes in MLS as a substitute this season, and seems to be well out of the picture at this stage. Rennie put a lot of trust in the former star of his RailHawks attack by giving him a start in the first leg of the Canadian Championship final over the likes of Eric Hassli, but since the disappointment in that competition Barbara has seemingly been frozen out.
Watson’s story is also a bit complex – he started six out of the club’s first nine matches in central midfield but then an ankle sprain and a subsequent setback left him out of the picture until the past two games, when he’s made the matchday squad.
“To be honest I didn’t expect to get so much time so early,” Watson told MLSsoccer.com recently. “I’ve never played in MLS and I don’t have experience. Playing in the lower league, the crowd’s a lot smaller and the level of play is lower, obviously. Earlier in the season I was involved a decent amount but the injury has pushed me back, which was disappointing.
“I think for us as a group coming from Carolina, it’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I feel we’re all capable of making it.”
One player who has done well in his brief appearances has been Knighton, who has been the consummate professional as backup to starting goalkeeper Joe Cannon. The 27-year-old stepped in to help the team to its first-ever MLS road win against Chivas USA on March 17 after Cannon left the game injured, and also backstopped the team to the Canadian Championship finals by starting both legs of the semifinals of that competition against FC Edmonton.
The former Philadelphia Union 'keeper has not seen playing time since then, but will have another opportunity to impress Rennie on Saturday as he steps in for the suspended Cannon against Real Salt Lake (7 pm ET, watch LIVE online), and will look to prove the gap between the NASL and MLS isn't as big as some would make it out to be.
Martin MacMahon covers the Vancouver Whitecaps for MLSsoccer.com.