The Whitecaps returned to Vancouver on Thursday, boasting an impressive preseason record of three wins in three games in Arizona, with seven goals scored, and only two conceded. Returning strikers Darren Mattocks (four) and Kenny Miller (one); as well as new signees Corey Hertzog and Paulo Araujo (one apiece), have supplied the goals.
Brad Knighton and Joe Cannon have each played ninety minutes, and allowed one goal apiece. Simon Thomas, still a trialist, managed to put together back to back clean sheets against the United States (for Canada) and Arizona Sahuros (for Vancouver). So far, 2013 has been a good year for the club, but these are still only early days.
Their stop in Vancouver will be a brief one. It’s just enough time to see the family and get a couple of days of training in at Burnaby Lake Sports Complex West before flying out to Charleston on Wednesday.
Whitecaps Captain Jay DeMerit sees this time of year as essential to the upcoming campaign, for it is in the here and now that the team is reformed after the long winter break.
<i>"I think it’s healthy anytime a team can get together and use competition in the right way. We’re starting to create that here. These days are especially fun to be able to do that, or at least to start to set that foundation of competition during training. Guys have been at it and of course having a lot of fun. We’ve had a physio competition as well to see who’s fastest. So, all those types of things brings a team together."</i>
He also likes the way the team is headed. The bar has been raised, in terms of the abilities and personalities of the players coming to Vancouver.
<i>"In the draft, and over the past couple of years, we’ve added some really good athletes, guys that are quick, guys that are fast, guys that can hit you dynamically. I think anytime you can add a skill guy it helps us."</i>
At halftime of the friendly against Houston, DeMerit came off and Kobayashi came on. Confident and composed, he took control of the centre of the park, forcing Houston to play wider than they would have liked. Although he didn’t see much of the ball, he did manage three scoring chances, distributed the ball well, and most importantly, made Houston change their style. From the sidelines, DeMerit got to watch his new teammate, and he's liked what he's seen so far.
<i>"Sometimes I think we’ve missed a little bit of that finishing touch, those playmaking skills that only certain guys have, and I think Kobayashi brings that to our team. Ultimately, he brings a different element. So if Martin needs to change things up, to play a different competition, he’ll give us something different."</i>
Joining Kobayashi in the second half was centre back Brad Rusin, who has now completed 90 minutes for the club. After having trained with him in Vancouver and Arizona, and seen him play alongside Andy O’Brien and Carlyle Mitchell, we asked Jay what he thought of the latest addition to our growing list of ex-RailHawks.
<i>"He’s good. Like I talked about, it’s about a squad that gives you something else and Brad gives us something else at the centre half position. He’s a big physical guy, he brings a lot of height, and so if you look at some of the big forwards in our league, he’d be able to wrestle with them a little bit more I think than some of us smaller guys like to."</i>
Although Rusin’s been officially listed at 6'4" and 210 lbs, statements like this only add to the growing belief that his measurements have been undervalued. It’s not often that the 6'1", 180 lbs. DeMerit refers to himself as a "smaller guy".
<i>"He brings some experience at many different levels, and ultimately he brings a good attitude. He already knows a couple of the guys from Carolina when he played there, so that helps him integrate early. I think he’ll be a good addition for us."</i>
With trialists Andrés Fresenga (Canada), Jaime Peters (Canada), Adam Clement (United States), and Beto Navarro (United States) joining Rusin and the rest of the defence, DeMerit is looking forward to maintaining and even improving on the 15 goals they shed from their conceded column last year.
<i>"It’s just about making sure as a back unit, we continue to learn each other’s tendencies, we continue to learn how to communicate, and especially get the guys in front of us to help us."</i>
But defence is not solely the responsibility of the back four. DeMerit believes in a team effort. They can succeed as one, or lose as individuals.
<i>"Nobody can do things alone and as a back four you can’t do it just as a four, you need the guys in front of you in the midfield to help you out defensively."</i>
Fortunately, this year there is a lot of speed and versatility in the squad. Mattocks, Hurtado, and Manneh will combine for some fantastic goals on the counter-attack, but they’ll also have to do their part defensively.
<i>"Guys down the wings need to track back after they make forward runs, but as long as you get guys behind the ball, you keep a lot of clean sheets. And thankfully last year we were able to keep a lot and hopefully we can do the same this year."</i>
The results have been encouraging. Morale is high in the squad. There are some returning players who are older and wiser for last year’s experiences. These veterans are joined by some energetic new faces, fresh from the youth ranks, or journeymen with something to prove.
They still have the College of Charleston, a rematch with Houston Dynamo, and games with Chicago Fire and Carolina RailHawks to come. But in the end, none of that matters. It all starts again on March 2nd, and it looms large in the mind of Captain Jay DeMerit.
<i>"That’s what we’re ultimately here for: To perform well when it matters."</i>
And it's now just three weeks and counting till that time that matters comes around once again.