MLS 2011 team preview: Vancouver
Key squad members: D, Jay DeMerit; M/F, Atiba Harris; M, Shea Salinas; GK, Joe Cannon; M, John Thorrington; F, Omar Salgado; D Alain Rochat, M/F Davide Chiumiento, F Eric Hassli
Key questions facing this team:
1. Will the Caps be competitive?
The truth about expansion teams is that few do as well as the Seattle Sounders did, going to the playoffs in each of their first two seasons. Most end up like the San Jose Earthquakes did upon re-entering the league in 2008; they came in seventh in the West in their first two years. Which means the biggest concern for any expansion team is competitiveness. Although the Whitecaps franchise is already leading the league in sponsorship, it will have frighteningly few proven players on the field. "It's impossible to say until we start the league and play important games where we stand," said coach Teitur Thordarson, who also was in charge when the Caps were in the minor leagues last year. "There will probably still be a time of adapting to the league when we start. But my hope is that we will be competitive from day one."
2. Do the players have enough MLS experience?
In a rather strange opening salvo of moves as an MLS franchise, Vancouver traded away five of the 10 picks it made in the expansion draft in November in a matter of hours for allocation money, slots and a draft pick. While this probably folds into a larger plan to put the acquired perks to use -- which hasn't yet happened -- it also robs the club of much of the MLS foundation the expansion draft is designed to create. The Caps have seven leftovers from the minor leagues and just four players who have regularly set foot on an MLS field.
3. When can Salgado play?
When Vancouver selected 17-year-old Mexican-American striker Omar Salgado with the No. 1 pick in January's MLS SuperDraft, it knew he came with a caveat. Because of a quirk of North American sports, in which leagues spread out over more than one country, he could run into eligibility issues. Simply put, world governing body FIFA -- as a measure against the borderline child trafficking in soccer players out of South America in recent decades -- has a rule that players younger than 18 can't play in any country other than the one in which their parents reside. The Whitecaps and MLS will plead for an exemption because Salgado's parents live in El Paso, Texas, which shares a league with the country he will play in, Canada. But it probably will be to no avail. If that proves to be the case, Salgado won't be available until Sept. 10, when he turns 18. Consequently, the only games Salgado will get until then is with the U-20 national team, a real hindrance at this stage of his development.
Biggest X factor: the front line
While the defense looks to be quite good for an expansion team, as it's headlined by U.S. World Cup starter Jay DeMerit, the front line could be a huge headache. Even if Salgado is eligible to play, the only MLS-proven forward currently under contract is Atiba Harris, who really is more of a left winger than a striker. The club signed its first designated player in French journeyman striker Eric Hassli, whose inclusion on the team sheet won't intimidate any opponent. It also brought back playmaker Davide Chiumiento, a holdover from its minor league days. Given the erratic track record of obscure (and famous) DP's, the club hasn't guaranteed itself a solution in this area.
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Breakout player to watch: Salgado
Although Thordarson doesn't seem sold on making Salgado a starter on his team, if he is cleared to play he could be a major contributor by default, given the lack of depth up front. That's not to say Salgado isn't up to it. His ability has charmed every coach who has worked with him in the U.S. national youth programs, where he has astonished with his capacity for improving rapidly. "It would be a great thing if we could have him ready from day one," Thordarson said. "Omar has been showing some great things in training."
It's hard to see this team coming anywhere near .500, despite the expectations of its fan base. Although the Whitecaps have been decent in meaningless preseason games, there is no evidence of sufficient firepower, experience, depth or even manpower. You also have to wonder why the Caps got all of that allocation money, since they've done little with it yet. Most likely, they'll start spending to acquire international players during the summer transfer window, when they've had a chance to assess their needs. In any case, any fantasies Whitecaps fans might have about their team emulating the Sounders' first year don't look even remotely likely.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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