Retooled after a disappointing season, Whitecaps ready to take on Union

New-look Whitecaps set for MLS debut

VANCOUVER — As the Vancouver Whitecaps prepared for their Major League Soccer season-opening game Sunday against the Philadelphia Union, head coach Carl Robinson was asked how his team will be better this year than last year’s disappointing showing.

“It’s a difficult question to answer prior to the season,” said the former Welsh international who is entering his fourth season as Vancouver’s skipper. “If you ask me at the end of the season I will be able to give you an answer.”

Perhaps Robinson was hesitant to answer given the way last season played out. At one point last year the Whitecaps were 8-8-6 and still in the playoff hunt. But they managed just two wins in the final 14 games and finished with a 10-15-9 record. That left them eighth in the 10-team Western Conference, seven points out of the playoffs.

The Whitecaps struggled to score goals last season while allowing the second most in the conference. There also were questions about the harmony in the locker-room.

“We had plenty of opportunities to pick up wins along the way,” said team president Bob Lenarduzzi. “For one reason or another we just didn’t get it done.

“I have been around teams and players . . . where things start to unravel. I don’t know if it was a real indictment of the chemistry of the team.”

The Whitecaps will field their new-look team in MLS action for the first time Sunday. In a bid to boost their offence Vancouver was busy in the off-season, acquiring players like Colombian striker Fredy Montero, a three-time MLS all-star; American forward Brek Shea; and Peruvian midfielder Yordy Reyna, who is currently sidelined with a foot injury.

The Whitecaps also brought in help on defence, adding Americans Jake Nerwinski and Sheanon Williams.

They will join a team that has goalkeeper David Ousted, hard-nosed Costa Rican defender Kendall Waston; Uruguayan winger Cristian Techera; forward Kekuta Manneh; and 16-year-old Canadian Alphonso Davies.

Montero showed his value by scoring a goal in Vancouver’s 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls in Thursday’s CONCACAF Championships League quarter-final. The Whitecaps won the two-game aggregate series 3-1 and will play Tigres UANL of Monterrey, Mexico, in the Champions League semifinal.

Montero and Shea bring some veteran experience to the Whitecaps’ attack. They also appear to have developed a chemistry with Davies.

“We have a good pedigree in the league,” said Montero, 29, from Barranquilla, Colombia. “We want to jump into the field with the same energy, the same hunger as the young kids.”

Shea has only been with the team a few days but likes what he sees.

“It seems like everyone has good camaraderie,” said the 27-year-old who has played 34 games and scored four goals with the U.S. national team. “Everyone is on the same path and want to do well and have each others back.

“I think that’s pretty cool.”

The Whitecaps had a breakthrough season in 2015. In MLS play they had a 16-13-5 record to finish second in the Western Conference and earn their first home playoff match. Vancouver also won the Amway Canadian Championship to qualify for the Champions League. The Whitecaps scored 45 goals that year but allowed only 36.

Lenarduzzi said Vancouver must be better defensively in 2017.

“That’s just not your defenders,” he said. “That’s your whole unit that isn’t putting a premium on not conceding goals. We gave them up at bad times.”

Last year the Whitecaps made costly mental mistakes on the field and were guilty of taking too many fouls which led to players missing games.

“I think we need to cut out the silly mistakes,” said Robinson. “We made too many elementary mistakes last year, individually and collectively.

“We’ve added quality to the team. We have to stay on the pitch. We can’t get any silly sendings off. We have to tidy up on that.”

The Union finished sixth in the Eastern Conference last year with a 11-14-9 record. They lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Toronto FC.

Union coach Jim Curtin said opening the season on the road at BC Place Stadium will be a challenge.

“We know Vancouver has a ton of speed out wide,” Curtin told the Union website. “We’ll have to deal with that and be smart in transition. If we have to take fouls to slow the game down, we’ll do that.

“It will be a hostile environment.”

 

Jim Morris, The Canadian Press

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