A new year brings new answers for the soul-searching Whitecaps

(Photo by Andrew Bates)

(Photo by Andrew Bates)

The Vancouver Whitecaps have been through an identity crisis in the last year, asking who their players are and not liking the response. Some key additions may make those answers good ones.

The 2017 season starts for the Caps after a disappointing year that was supposed to have promise, but fell apart about midway through due to a few listless games and a few listless players. Part of the issue was the search for scoring touch that never came; in Octavio Rivero the Whitecaps hoped for the talisman who arrived with five goals in his first six games the year before. He was stone cold until he was moved, but after that point the Whitecaps were left with spare parts up front. While the salary was lighter, no player found themselves growing into the designated player mold, which nobody truly could. Pedro Morales had been a key playmaker, but in 2016 he was a leader that lagged behind, and left at year’s end.

In the preseason this year, it seemed that manager Carl Robinson seemed committed to encouraging stardom from players who hadn’t managed to break out, but supporters wished for someone that could be inspiring and, most importantly, put the ball in the goal. How do you find someone you know you can rely on? Pick someone you already know.

Fredy Montero’s signing was typically risk-averse from the Whitecaps. After bringing a number of signings in on hope that they are who they said they would be, they instead signed a veteran who is well-known to the league and Vancouver. He was brought in on a one-year loan, so no transfer fee was necessary up front and there was minimum responsibility in case it all fell apart. Montero is no diamond in the rough, but he came well recommended by Mauro Rosales, who helped set up the deal and then joined the team himself: another familiar face.

Both are former Seattle Sounders players, which is how fans knew them first. This creates a stumbling block for some. Does supporting a once-rival player betray a fan’s commitment? I think that in a league with salary cap, allocation and trades, you have to accept that players come and go, and as long as they represent the team, you have to trust them to do their best. If anything, it’s the old team and old supporters that should hurt, but for the new team, goals and time heal all wounds. Sebastien Le Toux, Pah Modou Kah and Blas Perez all took the same path, and if Montero is who the Whitecaps believe him to be, that has to be enough.

He did his best to prove it during Vancouver’s 3-1 aggregate win over New York in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal. His goal, fired in after a deflection from a slick backheel by Tim Parker from an Alphonso Davies cross, was as much victory as confirmation: with fists clenched, confirming that he can score goals here that matter. I was at the first leg in New York, and it was a celebration of improbabilities: the Kendall Waston ping-pong header, David Ousted coming up strong from the penalty spot again, and after the red card, a frenetic exercise in frustrating Bradley Wright-Phillips. The second leg Thursday never gave Wright-Phillips more release. Instead, it allowed Davies to start and dazzle with a goal and some incredible runs, and it allowed Montero to shout: I am here.

The season starts Sunday, at home against the Philadelphia Union. There’s a lot to be decided: as of writing, the captaincy, currently carried by Kendall Waston, who was branded an outlaw after his awful disciplinary record last season but now believes he can lead. Yordy Reyna, after being acquired to add attacking flair, broke his metatarsal and will be out until summer, leaving his value mostly unknown, and Brek Shea, who had a good game against New York, still must prove he can surpass his past in England and Orlando.

But taking that series the way they did in two halves: through guts on the road and goals at home, proves something. They may be the team that the players, coaches and Vancouver wants them to be.