With less than three months to go, the Vancouver Whitecaps are preparing for the final push to claim their first ever MLS Cup playoff berth.
Head coach Martin Rennie has turned around a struggling expansion team in short shrift, in the process shipping out a number of popular and recognizable players like Eric Hassli, Davide Chiumiento and Sebastien Le Toux.
Now, after giving club debuts to players of even greater recognition in July – notably Designated Players Kenny Miller and Barry Robson – the stakes are even higher.
Rennie has turned to ownership and has received backing in a big way – Miller’s new contract pays him $1.2-million a season, while Robson will earn about half that per season.
The club has also acquired MLS veteran Dane Richards, as well as former Newcastle centre back Andy O’Brien and Brazilian youngster Tiago Ulisses.
By season’s end it’s not inconceivable that all could be making a push for a place in the starting lineup, and while competition is crucial for any side, the amount of change Rennie has elected to make to a team doing relatively well in the standings (the club currently sits fourth place in the Western Conference) has raised a few eyebrows, from within and outside his squad.
It’s not as if the moves have had much criticism. Miller and Robson are proven senior players, and Richards has shown his immediate quality by improving the club’s wide right position by virtue of actually being a right-sided midfielder rather than a forward playing out of position, as was the case with Le Toux.
O’Brien fills the gap the club has at centre back beyond starters captain Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour, and has the credentials to compete with those players for playing time.
Ulisses, while essentially a mystery man for most North American observers, is a young player who has received training at one of the top academies in South America with Brazilian giants Corinthians.
After seeing what former Juventus trainee Chiumiento could do, Whitecaps fans will be well aware that failing to make it at an elite team as a youngster doesn’t mean that same player won’t be able to make an impact in MLS.
At worst, Ulisses will provide cover at defensive midfield for the rock-steady Jun Marques Davidson – at best, he will push the Japanese-American to improve, or replace him in the lineup with a superior all-round game.
So it’s not as if Rennie’s moves have been unpopular, and indeed he’s addressed his team’s most glaring issues – Robson fulfills that midfield general role the club really hasn’t filled before now in its season and a half at MLS level, Miller should add some much needed goals to the team’s bare-bones offense, and O’Brien and Ulisses will provide cover or compete for starting roles.
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But is all this change happening at the right time? There’s little doubt these players improve the team, but the sheer scale of the turnover is quite remarkable.
Robson has only found his feet in his last few games, Miller has yet to hit full stride, and while the club says O’Brien’s fitness levels are good, he hardly played last season with Leeds after dealing with depression issues – is the former Irish international going to be sharp enough when he gets the nod, even if he is in good physical shape?
The good news for the club is that Rennie has been quick to recognize the team’s weaknesses and address them promptly. But if these players are called upon in this upcoming crucial stretch – perhaps with as many as three or four of the newcomers on the field at once – will they have the understanding and the chemistry of teams that have remained largely intact for the full season, nevermind the requisite fitness or sharpness?
Vancouver’s Scottish boss had concocted a winning recipe before his big shuffle. Now we’ll see over the league’s final months whether the change in ingredients leads to a mouth-watering conclusion or a lingering, sour taste for the club’s supporters.