Vancouver Whitecaps are farther along in their pre-season preparations than the Charleston Battery, who’ve been in camp for just a week. But even though Charleston has yet to offer contracts to the majority of players who will make up its 2013 roster, Vancouver might just be the team with bigger questions to answer.
OVERVIEW: The 2012 Battery squad was a good team that hung around near the top of the USL PRO table throughout the season and then got hot down the stretch, making a memorable and improbable underdog run through the playoffs. The MLS-expansion Whitecaps, on the other hand, were the worst team in Major League Soccer in 2011. Re-cast under former Carolina Railhawks coach Martin Rennie in 2012, the team began the season in strong form, faded fast after August, and lost its first playoff match to the eventual champion Los Angeles Galaxy. Charleston enters 2013 with its eyes on a fifth championship, while Vancouver’s trajectory looks unlikely to propel it far beyond its 2012 finish.
CHARLESTON: The Battery return a strong core of players from their Sept. 8 Championship Game. The back line features two veteran defenders in John Wilson and team captain Colin Falvey, while the midfield is stocked with younger talent, including team scoring leader Nicki Paterson, USL PRO Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas, and former Toronto F.C./Seattle man Amadou Sanyang (who appeared in last year’s CCC while on trial with the Chicago Fire). The return of Paterson and Cuevas is surprising, as Paterson played well last fall on trial with New York Red Bulls, and Cuevas drew some attention after his successful rookie season. Among the questions facing Coach Mike Anhaeuser between now and April: Who replaces steady keeper Andrew Dykstra, and does the team need a traditional forward replacement for departed striker Tony Donatelli?
Anheaeuser thinks it’s possible that as many as 15 of the players on the eventual 2013 roster could be players from the 2012 team, and that’s good new for the Battery’s prospects. But it’s not clear what the lineup in this first match will look like. With several players either nursing injuries (Falvey), away with other clubs (Ryan Richter is on trial with DC United) or still developing match fitness, tonight’s starting 11 could include several new faces.
VANCOUVER: Despite bidding farewell to CB Martin Bonjour in late January, the Whitecaps return a veteran defensive unit that most MLS teams would gladly call their own. There’s talent in the midfield, too, with tough young defensive-mid Gershon Koffie on patrol.
But the head-scratching story for this team is its stockpile of talented forwards. In addition of Scottish national captain Kenny Miller and second-year speedster Darren Mattocks there’s also Omar Salgado, the former first pick in the MLS Superdraft. If that wasn’t enough, the team used its two high picks in this year’s draft to nab more attackers: Kekuta Manneh (4th pick) and Erik Hurtado (5th pick). And its big international acquisition, Daigo Kobayashi, is described by some as an attack-minded creative midfielder.
But the surprise man in the Whitecaps’ plans might just turn out to be former Battery and Railhawks striker Tom Heinemann, who saw an early season knee injury in 2012 derail his career with the Columbus Crew. Rennie has compared Heinemann’s disruptive toughness to San Jose Earthquakes forward Steven Lenhart, another tall, strong, wild-haired forward capable of winning duels with MLS center backs.
Speaking of center backs, Whitecaps skipper Jay DeMerit is 33 now. Though no longer part of the USMNT’s plans, he remains one of the strongest defenders in MLS.