The recent changes made by Martin Rennie, Scottish manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps in MLS, have been questioned by many but only two games after the flurry of sales and trades it must be said that he is shaping the team for the better.
The Vancouver Whitecaps had really turned things around this season after finishing dead last in all of MLS last season in their first year of top flight North American soccer since the old NASL of the late 1970s and early ’80s. At the midseason point they sat very comfortably in a Western playoff position hovering between 3rd and 4th behind Real Salt Lake and San Jose, and although they struggled to score regularly despite what would appear to be one of the most potent strike forces in the league on paper, their defense has been one of the best in the league. The partnership of Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour in the center has been solid while Alain Rochat and Y.P. Lee are the best right and left backs in the league. The South Korean has been particularly impressive since signing for the Whitecaps in the offseason and is regularly error-free in his judgment, tackle, passing, touch, movement, etc. Leading up to this season most of the questions surrounding Vancouver were at the defensive end as looking at the attacking force of Le Toux, Hassli, Camilo, and Chiumiento, fans and pundits alike believed Vancouver would be pouring in the goals, but they’ve done a better job of preventing them. Yet that is where they have struggled all season, and despite a good record in late July, manager Martin Rennie has decided to ring in the changes to prepare his team for a real playoff push.
Barry Robson’s arrival from Middlesbrough had been sorted back when the season started although he was not to join up with the Whitecaps until July, and upon his arrival in the first team he has been a sensation. Occasionally guilty of taking a selfish shot or holding the ball a bit too long, Robson has been a force both offensively and defensively for the ‘Caps while also shouting orders and making himself a real general in the midfield. This is what was expected of him and the Scotsman has duly delivered. Goals however continued to be a bit shy, with only rookie Darren Mattocks regularly getting his name on the score sheet. Then came the sale of star attacking midfield man Davide Chiumiento to Swiss side FC Zurich for an undisclosed sum. This came as a shock to many as although a bit inconsistent, Chiumiento was charged with being the true creative force in the Vancouver midfield. He was also very good friends and roommates with striker Eric Hassli, and both were said to be dismayed by the Swiss midfielder’s departure. Later that week, Martin Rennie then dealt star forward Sebastian Le Toux to the New York Red Bulls in exchange for pacey Jamaican winger Dane Richards and it was at this moment that Whitecaps fans began to scratch their heads and shake them in disapproval. While Richards has had a good career thus far in New York, he was not expected to be able to make the same contribution that Le Toux had been delivering for both Vancouver and his previous team Philadelphia. With the money from the Chiumiento sale, Rennie bought Scottish striker Kenny Miller from English League Championship side Cardiff City and then shipped Vancouver’s most popular player in Eric Hassli off to Toronto in exchange for an international spot and some draft picks. In a very short span of time, the much improved Vancouver Whitecaps had sent Chiumiento, Le Toux, and Hassli, their three marquee players, off to other teams and although Richards and Miller appeared to be decent replacements many were unhappy with losing such talented and popular players. Internet blogs and columns have been filled with questions about Martin Rennie’s plan, while although he has Vancouver in a much better position in the table and that has to be respected, how could he make such drastic moves at the mid point of a reasonably successful season for the second year franchise? There were also some rumblings about how the Scottish manager was only interested in signing Scottish players after the arrivals of Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, but that did seem a bit harsh on Rennie. Although his plans may be drastic, they are in the right frame of mind and Vancouver should be better in the long run.
First off the sale of Chiumineto back to his native Switzerland makes sense if the money gained from his sale funded the purchase of Kenny Miller if this is what Martin Rennie had been planning all along. With the arrival of Barry Robson, the playmaking and dead ball situations could shift from Chiumiento to the new boss of the midfield who can play in the center or on the left. So if Robson is a direct replacement for Chiumiento, then it is definitely an upgrade. Second and most shocking was the trade that sent Sebastian Le Toux to New York in exchange for Dane Richards. Oddly enough this was a very good move by Rennie as the Whitecaps had too many forwards looking to make runs down the middle and although Le Toux can function as a winger, he is far less accomplished when pushed out wide. With the rise of rookie Darren Mattocks and his incredible turn of goals since hitting the Vancouver starting line up, the central striker role was filled and what Vancouver needed most was a speedy winger to keep pace with Mattocks and create more width, which Vancouver was severely lacking on the right side where Richards will now play. With Le Toux on the right flank, all the width had to come from right back Y.P. Lee as Le Toux would often cut inside and stay there, exposing Lee at the back if he pushed forward and Vancouver lost possession. Rennie needed a winger on the right side and there aren’t many better than Richards in MLS and he was going to have to give up a big piece in order to receive the Jamaican international. Although Le Toux is more responsible defensively, Richards is a more effective winger. Eric Hassli, who is very capable of scoring sublime goals, had been in quite a drought this season and found himself sitting behind both Le Toux and Mattocks in the starting line up. With his designated player salary, he was bound to be traded unless he could replace Mattocks in the starting XI, but Mattocks continued to score with regularity and Hassli was traded to Toronto. Vancouver got to free up space for an incoming striker as DP, and Toronto got to replace their star striker Danny Koevermans who is injured for the remainder of the season. Although Hassli was loved and will continue to be by the Southsiders, the trade makes sense with the incoming Kenny Miller.
Miller is the only unknown in this equation as although his scoring feats with Glasgow Rangers were phenomenal, his output in Turkey and England over the past two seasons has dipped as the quick striker gets further past the age of 30. He has undoubtedly played his entire career at a higher level than any other Whitecaps attacker and that should bring confidence as a Hassli replacement. Although Miller could turn out to be a bust, he replaces Eric Hassli who wasn’t getting a game in for the Whitecaps anyways, so if Miller turns into a substitute then Vancouver are not at a loss. But if he is a huge hit then obviously Martin Rennie can lay further claim to his genius tag. It’s a gamble where Vancouver have nothing to lose as Hassli wasn’t performing this season therefore Miller can only do better.
With the arrival of Barry Robson, Vancouver would continue in their 4-3-3 system with Robson, Koffie, and Davidson in the midfield with Mattocks, Le Toux and Chiumiento up front – all of whom want to run down the middle. No goals were coming from this system and last season’s star players Hassli and Camilo could barely get a minute of playing time. Now Vancouver play more in a 4-2-3-1 system with Koffie and Davidson in the central holding midfield roles and Robson in front of them as the key playmaker. Richards and Camilo add speed and trickery down the flanks and this season’s revelation Darren Mattocks continues his top form as the sole striker. A lot of pressure is now on the shoulders of Mattocks to continue to deliver the goods now that Le Toux has been traded, but the youngster shows no signs of it as he is still scoring at a good rate. This line-up also has some solid attacking substitues on the bench with Kenny Miller, Atiba Harris, and Omar Salgado, and has the Whitecaps playing a high speed, possession-attacking game that looks to be even more successful than the line up starting the season. Before Robson, John Thorrington was receiving more playing time but now the oft-injured veteran can now be an impact sub or rest easily on the injured reserve. The Whitecaps now have creativity in the midfield with Barry Robson and to a lesser extent Gershon Koffie (but the Ghanian youngster is getting better every game and soon enough will be a star of his own) and a solid triangle of hard tackling with Jun Davidson being the third man in the center. The flanks are very fast and with tricky dribbling as Dane Richards is on the right and Camilo restored to his starting position on the left. The excellent Darren Mattocks continues his great goal scoring form as the central striker with amazing speed and leaping abilities demonstrated in the past few weeks. If Kenny Miller gets in shape and finds his form, the Whitecaps can only be more dangerous with both him and Omar Salgado knocking on the door of the starting XI.
Since all these changes have taken place the Whitecaps have defeated the top team in the league in San Jose, and then lost a match which they could have won against Real Salt Lake but looked very impressive in the unlucky loss. Losing 2-1, Salt Lake’s goals came from the penalty spot and a missed header from Martin Bonjour. Unlucky, but they were well matched and often better than their Western rivals. Looking at Vancouver now, they appear to be a more cohesive unit in attack with far more options. With the same defense continuing to look solid in front of goalkeeper Joe Cannon, there is no reason why Vancouver cannot become contenders for the MLS cup. It may have hurt to lose players like Chiumiento, Le Toux, and Hassli but a team must give up talent in order to gain talent and simply having top players does not make a top team. What Martin Rennie has done is reshuffled his deck to create a better system of talented players who now spread the field better and have tremendous pace. Vancouver is developing an identity under Rennie and Whitecaps fans will revel in it soon enough.
What Martin Rennie has done with the Vancouver Whitecaps is brilliant as they are a far more balanced team in attack, but it is one “mistake” earlier in the season that keeps the current formation from being perfect. Camilo Sanvezzo, last year’s Vancouver MVP could not get into the starting line up for the first half of the season and it has really dented his confidence and effected his playing ability for the moment. He does often try to beat defenders when he should pass but Camilo was one of the most dynamic, exciting, and productive players in the MLS until Martin Rennie could not find a spot for him in the first team. With the arrivals of Mattocks and Le Toux playing up front with Chiumiento, Camilo along with Eric Hassli found himself in a limited substitute role. Now that Chiumiento is gone, Camilo has been restored to the starting line up to play down the left flank and although he has not played poorly and has had some decent moments, he does not appear to be the confident player we saw last season. If he can get a goal and regain some confidence that would make a huge difference to the Whitecaps attack. If he cannot find that spark he could find himself benched again once Omar Salgado returns from injury. The young and lanky striker had been marked for a central role due to his height by previous managers, but earlier this season Martin Rennie had played Salgado on the left and he was outstanding in that position. Along with Gershon Koffie, he has started to show tremendous footwork and an escalating passing ability and the two look to be players that if Vancouver can hold onto them, will become franchise men after a few more years. Hopefully Camilo will find his old form and fans can see him and Salgado battle it out for great performances on the wing, and we can only wait and see what Kenny Miller will bring to the team. If he makes an immediate impact, who could be dropped from the starting XI to accomodate him? Certainly not Darren Mattocks, who currently plays as the lone striker. Perhaps Robson could drop deeper alongside Koffie with Davidson taking a seat next to the other central midfielders Watson and Thorrington on the bench? Vancouver fans can only hold their breath and see what will become of this new team shape and there is no reason other than severe injuries that should prevent this incarnation of Rennie’s Whitecaps from being successful.