LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Soon, the tinkering will begin.
The Vancouver Whitecaps headed home to potential change Friday after losing an historic playoff game a night earlier.
The Major League Soccer club faces roster alterations designed to help them avoid a repeat of Thursday’s heartbreaking first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Captain Jay DeMerit said the 2-1 loss, which came after Vancouver held a 1-0 lead until the 69th minute, showed the quality of the Whitecaps. But it also demonstrated their need for improvement.
“In order to beat the best, you have to be the best,” said DeMerit following the game.
The setback, he said, was another case of the Whitecaps being unable to hold on to a lead. Vancouver needs such experiences to make it a better team.
Before the end of the year, the Caps are expected to hold a post-season evaluation camp at which the future of a number of players will be decided. Such camps are common in Europe, and Vancouver held a similar one heading into the last off-season.
Coach Martin Rennie used the camp to make extensive changes to the expansion team that finished last overall in 2011 — both before and during the just-concluded campaign. Fewer changes to the club’s core are expected this time, but some moves will still be significant.
Midfielder John Thorrington said the Whitecaps must become more consistent. Although the team suffered from a dire lack of scoring at times, Thorrington said he would not single out offensive players. The increased consistency must be evident in all areas of the pitch.
“It’s frustrating, because we were so close to a huge victory for our franchise and to really help define the future of our franchise,” said Thorrington late Thursday.
Although the win was not to be, the Caps must remember how close they came to beating the defending MLS champions.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen,” he said. “But the progress we’ve made from last year to this year, if we continue this progress, the organization is going to go places.”
The Whitecaps finished fifth with an 11-13-10 record and became the first Canadian team to qualify for the MLS post-season. But after a strong start, they fizzled during most of the second half. Vancouver posted just three wins in the final 17 matches of the 34-game schedule.
Although the club was extremely strong defensively most of the season, the Caps only mustered 35 goals — including just 10 on the road. As a result, moves to improve the club’s scoring are expected to top Rennie’s off-season acquisitions agenda.
Scottish striker Kenny Miller, signed in mid-season, did not produce the offence expected of him, and his future in Vancouver is in question. Miller, who showed a willingness to face reporters’ questions at the toughest of times, including Thursday night, indicated he struggled because he did not have a pre-season in either Europe or Vancouver.
“If you don’t have that, you’re always playing catch-up,” said Miller, who recorded two goals and an assist in 13 games.
Miller hopes to show better in 2013 once he has a training camp and exhibition games under his cleats. But it remains to be see whether the team will want him back, and he accepts a potentially reduced role.
“I’ve come here to play — it’s as simple as that,” said Miller, one of the team’s designated players. “I’ve never, ever been one to be happy sitting on the bench and playing a minor role. It’s never been in my make-up.”
Miller, who had a $1.2 million salary this season, was on the bench at the start of Thursday’s game, but came on in the second half after Darren Mattocks left because he was feeling stomach pains. Mattocks scored Vancouver’s lone goal against the Galaxy, and led the team in scoring with seven goals, despite missing several games because of injuries, suspensions, and international duty with the Jamaican national team.
His depature Thursday again demonstrated the team’s over-reliance on him.
The future of Scottish midfielder Barry Robson, who was also brought in to score, and produced three goals and two assists, is also under review. But during a mid-week conference call, Rennie said several mid-season changes, which included the arrival of Miller and Robson, did not have an overly negative effect.
Midfield, where the club lacked creativity and flow for much of the season, is also likely to be evaluated extensively.
Rennie said he was proud of his players for their performance Thursday and throughout the season. Whitecaps minority owner Jeff Mallett did not want to say where he thinks changes must be made, but indicated more scoring is necessary.
“We’ve improved vastly defensively,” Mallett in the Home Depot Center media area before Thursday’s game. “That’s why we’re standing here. … (But) 25 goals is not going to cut it to be one of the elite teams in this league.
“So, simple math tells us we’ve gotta create more chances and we’ve gotta finish more chances. (It’s) really that simple.”
Mallett said the club accomplished most of its goals on and off the field. He praised Rennie for his work, but wants the coach to devote more attention to developing talent through the club’s residency and development teams now that he has had time to settle in.
Mallett also wants the Whitecaps to develop, and draw from, more national team players. He said the club is disappointed with the state of the Canadian men’s program’s development infrastructure and wants to contribute more to it.
“We should be like every elite nation, where you want to play for your national team,” said Mallett.
He added the club also wants the Whitecaps reserve team to get more action by having more games on its schedule.
One move is already known. Midfielder Dane Richards will not be back, because he has signed to play with English side Burnley next season. Other potential moves include the departure of veteran goalkeeper Joe Cannon, who started the season strongly but was displaced by backup Brad Knighton late in the campaign. Meanwhile, steady defender Young-Pyo Lee indicated during the season that he will consider retirement in the off-season, even though he has two years to run on his contract.
Ultimately, Rennie’s decisions are expected to determine the future of most players.
“Most of the things (within the club) are improving, and (the playoff berth) is a step forward — but it’s all about winning,” said Mallett.