Week 13 of the 2015 Major League Soccer season is in the books, and whether or not you can actually believe it, that means we’re approaching the halfway point of the season.
In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at the Best XI from the 2015 MLS season, doing so with a little help from the first 17 Teams of the Week. For now, though, we keep plugging away week by week by week until Week 17 is in the books.
Martin Rennie just proved that it takes more than a good soccer mind to get it right in MLS.
Rennie knows the game and always seemed equipped with the tactical acumen to make some hay in MLS. He had certainly done so previously in domestic soccer’s lower tiers with the Carolina Railhawks.
But Xs and Os only work when a manager gets the personnel calls right, and that was Rennie’s failing.
You never quite know who might be pulling strings behind the scenes (or who is chiefly shaping the roster at a larger level). Either way, Rennie’s choices really were all over the road, sometimes with little logic behind them. (Or, perhaps, without transparency. And if a manager isn’t communicating his thoughts on why fill-in-the-blank plays here instead of there, or why Tommy gets the start instead of Timmy, we can only assume that he’s playing hunches or hatching half-baked plans).
Player selection really is where it begins and ends with managers. It’s not “tactics” so much as identifying the tactics that best fit the personnel. It’s really about picking the right guys and then setting them up for success. And that’s where Rennie never quite seemed to get it right in Vancouver.
There’s a lot of young talent around BC Place, for instance – but also questions aplenty about why we didn’t see a little more of them, a little more Russell Tiebert or Kekuta Manneh or others in 2013?
We saw Darren Mattocks in and out of the lineup, too. Perhaps it’s not Rennie’s fault, exactly, but the young forward’s upside seems so tantalizingly vast – and you wonder if it is being developed properly?
And then there’s Gershon Koffie, who has so much promise – but curiously started just 21 games this year. Plus, shifting midfield roles never quite allowed the 22-year-old Ghanaian settle into a comfortable groove.
When the right guys were on the field, there were too many times when they just didn’t seem to find the right placements. Creatively inclined Daigo Kobayashi needed to be in the middle; by the time he finally got there, it was too late. (Rennie lost fan support and probably damaged his relationship with upper management by not offering a credible explanation for that one.)
Nigel Reo-Coker seemed well suited for the center of the park, or for a slightly offset role, where he spent most of the year. But right back? He didn’t play there much, but he did sometimes look like a fish out of water when assigned to that less suitable role.
Like so many of Rennie’s choice, it just looked … weird. A Premier League midfielder, asked to play at right back? Surely there was a better way around that one, a better way to keep Reo-Coker closer to his strongest role?
Injuries definitely affected the bottom line, particularly the crusher to inspirational center back Jay DeMerit just minutes into the 2013 season.
Then again, every team deals with injuries. What every team doesn’t do is fade toward the end. In 2012, the Whitecaps were a healthy 9-5-5 on July 20 (even without DeMerit). They finished on a 2-8-5 slide.
This year, Rennie’s bunch was 7-3-5 in late June. They finished on a 5-9-4 slide.
When a team finishes going the wrong way once, it might be an accident. Two in a row is starting to look like an uncomfortable trend. Enough of the ownership, apparently divided on this choice, according to reports, was apparently convinced so.
In a league built on parity, maximizing the talent on hand is the bottom line. Possible catchy MLS managers’ mantra: “Use it wise if you want to survive.”
All that said, here is the warning: The Whitecaps are about to be on their fourth manager … hardly a convincing track record for a club just finishing its third MLS season.
Teitur Thordarson didn’t last long enough, about three months into his first season as an MLS coach, to make even half the league stops. (Too bad, too … Utah is vastly underrated as an MLS destination!) Tom Soehn became interim manager; but it’s always awkward with the technical director fires the coach and then names himself as replacement, even if it’s just on interim basis. Next came Rennie, and he’s gone now.
Does this remind anyone of another Canadian club, one on the perpetual merry-go-round of remodeling? Yes, Vancouver Whitecaps, you are wading a little too close to the Toronto FC zone.
Let’s say this straight away: there are some seriously talented and trusty central midfielders who will not be on this list.
How many holding mids or central midfielders could put up a compelling argument for Top Ten consideration? Somewhere north of 15, perhaps?
Imagine if we had attempted to cram attacking midfielders into this ranking, too! (We rank those tomorrow.)
Our ranking of the Top Ten holding midfielders/ central midfielders in Major League Soccer:
1. Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso
2. Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman
3. Montreal Impact’s Patrice Bernier >
The Canadian international came out of nowhere last year to provide one of the real stabilizing forces around the expansion club – never mind all those names attached to greater decoration. He’s 33, a little old for a central mid, but still manages to wear it well around Stade Saputo.
4. New York Red Bull’s Dax McCarty
5. Chicago Fire’s Jeff Larentowicz >
Perhaps he didn’t quite fit Oscar Pareja’s image of a midfield conduit in Colorado’s possession-oriented, short-passing game. Chicago was glad to take him in a trade, bringing that blend of rough-and-tough ball winning and reliable two-way play to Toyota Park.
6. LA Galaxy’s Juninho >
David Beckham’s busy central midfield mate at the Home Depot Center had been generally known around MLS circles as “the underrated Juninho.” We can all officially give that stuff a rest. Skillful, industrious and still quite young (24), he gets the work done on both sides of the midfield stripe.
7. D.C. United’s Perry Kitchen
8. Vancouver Whitecaps’ Nigel Reo-Coker >
Talent-wise, the England veteran may deserve higher ranking here. But we’re not 100 percent sure the center of the park is where Reo-Coker will land for Martin Rennie’s Whitecaps. And as we’ve said before, it’s hard to tell which Reo-Coker arrives, the well-liked leader or the occasional troublemaker?
Each day from now until the beginning of Major League Soccer’s 18th season, we will preview one Eastern Conference team and one from the West. First kick is March 2.
No. 7 in the West are the Vancouver Whitecaps:
Significant additions and subtractions:Barry Robson is the biggest “loss.” The Scottish international was brought in as a Designated Player, had the team built around him, but never quite justified the love. It was also unclear he ever warmed to the move, part of the reason he’s now in the third-tier of English soccer.
To partially fill his boots, Vancouver’s brought in 30-year-old Daigo Kobayashi, though the team’s unlikely to rely on him the same way they tried to depend on Robson. With the once-capped midfielder on this fifth team in sixth years, that’s probably a good thing.
Farther back, the team has added Nigel Reo-Coker to their defensive midfield. If Martin Rennie gets good Reo-Coker, the former West Ham, Aston Villa standout will prove a very valuable addition.
Strengths:Vancouver has a number of individuals capable of transcending whatever struggles appear around them. Defenders Jay DeMerit and Lee Young-Pyo are among the best at their positions in the league. Gershon Koffie would be one of the most talked about young players in MLS if he were playing in a different market, while it’s no longer edgy to say Darren Mattocks is set to break out (everybody agrees).
Rennie could change philosophy every 45 minutes, but if those players are on the field, Vancouver have a puncher’s chance.
Pressure points: That starts with Rennie. The Whitecaps’ boss took a chance with the team last year, shifting gears midseason after an unexpectedly strong start. A couple of key trades and the signing of Kenny Miller remade the team for the worse. That mistake needs to turn into a learning experience.
The team also needs to settle into a way to play (a problem that lingers from last year’s makeover), and they need to find somebody to augment Mattocks’ goals. That means playing in a way that gets more production out of Miller and Camilo.
With the acquisition of Reo-Coker pushing Alain Rochat back to left back, the biggest question is in goal. Is it going to be Brad Knighton or Joe Cannon? Knighton seems the right choice, but Cannon is awfully veteran-y.
Difference maker: If Jay DeMerit isn’t the best defender in the league, he might be the most valuable. His experience and talismanic play augment his defending with valuable leadership at a crucial position. The problem is age combined with the specter of nagging injuries, with an Achilles problem hampering his preseason preparations. For a 33-year-old, that type of problem could cause a cascade.
Potential breakout player: No doubt about it: Mattocks (right). On a per minute basis, the guy was already a strong scoring option last year, a season where injuries and rookie adjustments held him back. With Jamaica out of the Gold Cup (and Mattocks no lock to make the team for World Cup Qualifiers), the talented attacker will be at Rennie’s disposal more often.
The question is how much to expect. Break out your TI-85s and do some prorating and it’s not hard to see mid-teens as a reasonable output for Mattocks. That would make him one of the league’s best goal scorers.
Is it too soon for that? Nobody who has watched this kid played would deny the talent. It’s all about how much he plays and whether he has made the adjustments.
If he comes good, Vancouver’s biggest problem is solved. They have a consistent goalscorer.
Bottom line: If the Whitecaps carry over last fall’s form into 2013, they’re not a playoff team. Add in likely improvement from Dallas and Portland, and Vancouver will be hard-pressed to replicate last year’s finish.