It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Well, in January. Well, from a Vancouver Whitecaps perspective. For Monday is the start of preseason.
A year ago the squad was getting set to head off for a sodden fortnight in Wales. This year much more exotic climes await, but the weather for this week is at least going to be a constant!
The ‘Caps take to the pitch at the National Soccer Development Centre for the first time in 2018 on Monday. They’ll be there for nine of the next ten days before heading to Hawaii to take part in the Pacific Rim Cup. With trips to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and some more spells in Vancouver to come after that, there’s a packed six weeks ahead.
It feels like a new era this year. Long time servants like Jordan Harvey and David Ousted have moved on, along with many others. A batch of new faces, some signed, some hopeful, will be taking to the pitch to try and show Carl Robinson they deserve to be part of the matchday mix this season.
A look at that 30-man roster for the trip to Wales shows just how much the squad has changed in the past 12 months. Only 11 of them look likely to be taking to the pitch at UBC this week. That’s a lot of turnover.
So as we head into this first week of the preseason, let’s take a look at six of the talking points that we’ll be watching out for over the first ten days, in the first of our new section that we’re calling ‘The Hex’.
WHO HAD TOO MUCH CHRISTMAS PUDDING?
A lot of the early work in preseason is always around fitness. There will still be a lot of drills undertaken and scrimmages played, but there will also be a lot of physical testing, laps run, and what is always our favourite, the beep test. It’s always the first time to see which players have put the work in on their own this offseason to keep in shape and who has let themselves go and allowed themselves to be more stuffed than a turkey.
Unfortunately we’ve seen the latter happen a lot over the years. Sometimes it’s due to injury, but sometimes it’s just a poor personal regime. Off the top of my head I can think of Nigel Reo-Coker, Kekuta Manneh, Cristian Techera, and one of the worst looking trialists I’ve ever seen come into a ‘Caps training camp in terms of fitness, Fatawu Safiu, who actually got lapped! (But full credit to Safiu who turned it around, got fit, and did eventually earn a WFC2 contract).
The result is poor testing, extra laps needing to be run, and a major blot in their copybook for when it comes to being in the first team reckoning for the start of the new season. It’s not only a mark of disrespect to Robbo and the club to not keep yourself in reasonable shape, but it’s ridiculous in this day and age where competiveness in the squad is clearly going to be tough this year. If you don’t care about yourself, why should anyone else?
It won’t take us long this week to see who’s flagging a bit and who has put on a few extra pounds in all the wrong places. And for anyone that has, I maybe wouldn’t be getting too comfortable in your surroundings. Robbo’s wrath will be soon felt.
WILL WE GET AN INSIGHT INTO THE ‘CAPS NEW SYSTEM?
Like I said, fitness building and establishing some team chemistry with all the new faces will be focus number one these first two weeks, but the early scrimmages we do see may give us a bit on an insight into just what new system the ‘Caps will be looking at this year. Or at the very least, let us see what chemistry certain options have together.
Pre-season is the time to do some experimenting, but Robbo has already broadly hinted at three at the back. We just don’t know how the rest of the team will line up in that case. Five in the midfield and two up top? One or two defensive midfielders? One striker or two? Will there even be what you’d recognise as a traditional number 10?
It’s likely not going to be until those first preseason games in Hawaii, or even later, that we’ll get a good ogle at a potential starting line up, but we’re hoping that the first few days will at least show us what kind of chemistry new attackers Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell will have together, and whether they’ll be playing side by side or with Blondell withdrawn or on the wing.
How many DM’s Robbo tries to cram into his midfield is another big question. It’s not sexy, but we have to remember how relatively successful the 4-1-4-1 was last season with the trio of Matias Laba, Andrew Jacobson, and Tony Tchani. This week probably won’t give us that first indication as to how attack or defence minded any new system will be, but it won’t stop us looking for it anyway.
THE CENTER BACK PECKING ORDER
So talking about three at the back, just who will that involve as Robbo’s preferred first choice selection if that is indeed the way he goes? Kendall Waston and Tim Parker are obviously your shoe-ins. The third is very much up for grabs, so let’s see who stakes an early claim for that with some impressive testing and performances in week one.
Marcel de Jong is our leading candidate and Robbo’s throwaway line on Friday mentioning him may be a clue that it is also his. We may all have just read far too much in to that one comment. Whether it is or not, there’s a big question heading into preseason around the centre back pecking order.
Right now the ‘Caps are four strong in that category. Robbo has previously made it very clear that he likes to carry five and has lost Mr Versatility, Andrew Jacobson. With Waston and Parker one and two in the pecking order, we have Aaron Maund and new addition Doneil Henry battling it out to be number three.
Remembering that Waston will be away for a big chunk of the summer particularly on World Cup duty, the Maund v Henry battle is big from the off. This is a hugely important preseason for both of them and they have to show their worth from that very first day of physical testing. Of all the positions, this may be the one that has very little wiggle room for having preseason off days. Parker’s away with the US team for the start of the ‘Caps camp, so someone has the opportunity to step up in his place early.
But let’s not forget David Edgar. Finally back after an offseason hit and run accident and subsequent injury in 2016, Edgar’s option was not picked up. But he will be in training camp and will be very, very hungry to earn himself a new deal and will be a performance to watch in week one.
I hope he does. He would be a reliable third option and an important veteran presence in the locker room. For me, if he signs a new deal, he is the number three guy.
TEIBERT V NORMAN – THE BATTLE OF THE CANADIAN DMs
Let’s keep the Canadian theme going and another big battle that looms this offseason, this time between two young Homegrown DM’s.
In one corner you have the tried and tested, and newly re-signed, Russell Teibert. A player we feel has plateaued and needs to desperately find a new spark to his game if he wants to remain at the top level. In the other, new addition, and WFC2 Player of the Year, David Norman Jr.
Norman will be hungry and keen as mustard to impress. He headed to Wales last year with the first team squad and it’s an interesting season ahead for the 19-year-old. He’ll undoubtedly spend the full preseason with the first team and maybe into the start of the season, as Robbo takes a look to see how he looks at the higher level. If the feeling is there’s more development needed, then he’ll likely be sent down to Fresno for some valuable playing time in USL play.
He’s already been tested there last season with WFC2 and you feel his game would come on best in the pro first team environment in Vancouver. But he also needs to play. A difficult quandary, made all the more so by not having that local USL option any more. Hopefully the answer won’t be to fly players down to California, or wherever, the day before a game.
Norman is more attack minded than Teibert, more aggressive, younger, but can he be relied upon to come in at short notice and do the necessary job at MLS level? For all that we criticise Teibert for his one dimensional defensive game, you know what you are getting with him and he is one of the most reliable players on the squad.
With Aly Ghazal, Efraín Juárez, and Tony Tchani all ahead of the pair in the midfield pecking order, both need to impress from day one in training camp and the battle to see who is the best Canadian DM of the two will be a great one to watch.
WILL NEW ADDITIONS MAKE THE GRADE?
Outside of David Norman Jr and Henry, we’ll get a look at several other new Whitecaps faces for the first time this week. First impressions do count.
As mentioned, we’ll get to see Anthony Blondell. I’m excited by the prospect of what the young Venezuelan will bring to the team and what kind of dynamic partnership he may form with Kei Kamara and Yordy Reyna. How quickly he’ll settle in to his new environment, including the rain, will be something we’ll get a first idea of this coming week.
Still up front, Kiwi Myer Bevan has moved up from WFC2. Will he be hanging around the squad or is he another Fresno contender? He needs minutes to keep up his development and international aspirations, so he needs to really impress in training camp from the outset if he wants to get any of those in MLS. You have to feel he’s battling Erik Hurtado for a striker’s spot on the bench. A strong preseason could see him move ahead of the 2013 draft pick in that particular pecking order.
I’m interested in seeing the first glimpse of Efraín Juárez and what he may offer the team this season, and finally we have Friday’s two draft picks. Both Justin Fiddes and Lucas Stauffer look like exciting prospects. Right now the first question is can they hack it with the pace and skill of the pro game? These first two weeks of preseason can sometimes be a huge eye opener to the guys out of college. Will they take to it like ducks to water or fish out of it? This week will give us a first idea.
There’s also likely to be a number of trialists dotting around, so that’s always an interesting one to see who may do enough to earn a deal and is always a fun part of this time of year. Will any of Robbo’s UK contacts throw up a surprise or two ala David Templeton last year?
WHO LOOKS LIKE THEY MAY BE ON THE WAY OUT?
With 24 active players on the Whitecaps MLS roster right now, and with the likely addition of at least one of Friday’s two draft picks and maybe a third goalkeeper, there’s not a lot of space and salary to play with. Edgar could take another spot, leaving the likelihood that future additions will result in some subtractions.
And looking at the squad, it’s not too hard to see whose coat may be on a shoogly peg in the dressing room.
Bernie Ibini is the forgotten man. He surely can’t be happy with his role in the team right now. He’s shown flashes but is way down the attacking depth chart and could move on. If his attitude doesn’t look right this week. his time here will be surely numbered. But then he might come out flying, with a point to prove. That’s all you can do in his situation. Seize the moment this week.
We mentioned Aaron Maund earlier. He feels like good trade bait to me. I personally rate him higher than Doneil Henry, so he needs to show that from week one of camp. Just have a hunch that might not really matter and his fate is sealed.
Then there’s Brek Shea. He’s, perhaps surprisingly, still here and still bringing in that high salary as one of Vancouver’s two Designated Players. Is another trade looming for the well travelled Shea or does an attacking wingback system suit him right down to the ground and he’s now a perfect fit for the ‘Caps up that left side? Like others, he needs to show he wants to be here from the start off camp.
Remember, as Kekuta Manneh’s showed last season, no-one’s place in the squad is secure, and the man who headed here in return last March, Tony Tchani, is another big money player that may just find himself being shopped around. With Ghazal and Juarez ahead of him, and Teibert and Norman capable in the wings, it’s hard to see how he’ll survive a full season here in Vancouver. A blistering training camp could change all that though.
So that’s what we’re watching out for this week at the start of preseason training camp. Let us know what you are.