VANCOUVER, B.C. – For all the attacking pieces the Vancouver Whitecaps have added this offseason, big questions still remain around the 'Caps defense.
Last year was one to forget for Vancouver's backline. Individual errors plagued the defense for most of the season, contributing heavily to the team missing the playoffs as they conceded the second most goals in the Western Conference.
It was a major step back for a team that tied for the best defensive record in all of MLS in 2015. But as early as it is in the new campaign, the signs are already there that last year was a blip and the resolute defense head coach Carl Robinson was seeking has returned.
"It was an excellent performance," Robinson told reporters after the match. "They were running on empty some of the players, especially the ones that played two 90 minutes. We didn't look at all in danger and last year we probably would have conceded. A lot of positives on the defensive side. We weren't able to take one of our chances, but lots of positives."
Vancouver made five changes from the team that shutout the New York Red Bulls on Thursday night to advance to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. One of those changes came in the center of the Whitecaps defense.
With Kendall Waston suspended, Christian Dean came in for his first MLS minutes since October 2015 and his first start since August of that year. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 SuperDraft, Dean endured a difficult 2016, missing the entire season due to a series of injuries and suffering the heartbreaking loss of his father.
"He was absolutely excellent," Robinson said of Dean. "He deserves a lot of credit. He's been very patient. He's got talent. Last year was an unfortunate season for him because he went through a lot, physically, as well as mentally and the injuries that he had.
"It was a tough year. I'm pleased for him. He came in and he looked very mature, very polished and he went stronger as the game went on. Him and Timmy [Parker] were excellent together. He should be proud of himself today."
The former US Under-23 international admitted he fell into "some dark places" in 2016 but the support of the Whitecaps, his teammates and especially his mother got him through the toughest times.
He took advantage of his chance with a rock solid performance on Sunday, an outing Dean hopes will lead to more opportunities in 2017.
"It felt really great to be back out there," he said. "Before the game I had butterflies for sure, but my dad always said 'if you don't feel it, you don't care,' so I thought it was a good thing that I had those.
"I came into the season aiming for Kendall's job. That's what you have to do. Everyone wants to play."