2016 MLS season preview: Vancouver Whitecaps

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After enjoying their most successful season in club history last year, Carl Robinson's youthful side face a tough challenge in meeting expectations for 2016.

2015 regular season: 2nd Western Conference (3rd overall)

2015 playoffs: Conference semi-finals; 2-0 aggregate loss to Portland Timbers

MLS Cup odds: 17/1

Players in: Masato Kudo (Kashiwa Reysol, free), Christian Bolanos (Saprissa, undisclosed), Fraser Aird (Rangers FC, loan), Cole Seiler (SuperDraft), Blas Perez (FC Dallas, trade)

Players out: Paolo Tornaghi (option declined), Steven Beitashour (Toronto FC, trade), Ethen Sampson (option declined), Andre Lewis (option declined), Caleb Clarke (option declined), Robert Earnshaw (out of contract), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution, trade), Mauro Rosales (FC Dallas, trade)

The Vancouver Whitecaps went into 2015 looking to improve on their most successful MLS season to date, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Carl Robinson’s second year in charge saw the club end their eight-year wait for a Canadian Championship before going on to clinch their first-ever home playoff game with a second-place finish in the Western Conference. Their MLS Cup hopes ultimately ended in a whimper with a Conference semi-finals defeat to eventual champions Portland Timbers, but few would argue that their season wasn’t a success overall.

Expectations are now high for the new campaign, but after arguably overachieving in 2015, the question is whether Robinson’s youthful side are ready to take the next step forward.

Reasons to be positive

Defensively, the Whitecaps were outstanding in 2015, matching the Seattle Sounders for the league’s fewest goals allowed (36) thanks to the stellar form of goalkeeper David Ousted, centre-back Kendall Waston and holding midfielder Matias Laba. All three have since been tied down to new long-term deals and form the backbone of an emerging side that features several exciting prospects. Winger Kekuta Manneh is the headline-grabber, but between the likes of fellow wide man Christian Techera, midfielder Russell Teibert, left-back Sam Adekugbe and central defender Tim Parker, there’s certainly an argument to make that the club are blessed with the best group of youngsters in MLS.

Furthermore, some attacking experience has been added to the squad over the offseason in the form of Costa Rica international Christian Bolanos. Signed from Deportivo Saprissa, the two-time World Cup veteran previously spent several seasons playing in Europe and should offer a dynamic presence on the right flank in the wake of Mauro Rosales’ departure.

Trouble on the horizon?

Despite how impressive Vancouver’s defence was last season, there are question marks about the back going into the new campaign. Having traded Steven Beitashour to Toronto FC, Robinson will be relying on either Rangers loanee Fraser Aird or Costa Rican import Jordan Smith to fill in at right-back, but it remains to be seen whether either is up to the task. Between the posts, meanwhile, it’s paramount that David Ousted stays healthy given his only backup is 20-year-old Marco Carducci.

The bigger concern for the Whitecaps, however, is whether they can produce enough goals. 24-year-old Uruguayan striker Octavio Rivero started last season in sizzling form, netting five times in his first six games, but his production fell off a cliff from there as he found the back of the net on just five more occasions over the next 28 matches. Japanese forward Masato Kudo and the experienced Blas Perez have since been brought on board, but it’s unclear how much playing time they’ll see at this point. Some help will likely come from Bolanos, Manneh, Techera, club captain Pedro Morales and the enigmatic Darren Mattocks – if he isn’t traded – but none of those aforementioned players is a guaranteed source of goals.

For Morales, staying healthy for the full season will be enough of a challenge. As talented as he is, the Chilean playmaker is now on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off an injury-riddle season which saw him limited to just 15 underwhelming starts. He has looked sharp in preseason, but who picks up the slack if he falters again in 2016 is currently unclear. With the reliable Gershon Koffie also traded to the New England Revolution, there could be some significant problems in the centre the park if Teibert doesn’t step up to fulfil his promise.

Key man: Matias Laba

Arguably the best holding midfielder in MLS, Laba doesn’t get nearly the credit his consistent performances deserve. The 24-year-old Argentine’s ability to pick out a pass and cover the back four has been central to Vancouver’s success over the past two seasons, as he made a league-high 152 tackles last term – 28 more than this nearest rival. With Koffie gone, there’ll be even more responsibility on him to keep things ticking over in the middle.

One to watch: Sam Adekugbe

Adekugbe looked primed for a breakout season in 2015 after starting seven of the club’s first nine matches over fellow left-back Jordan Harvey, but a serious ankle injury meant he made just two more appearances over the rest of the campaign. The 21-year-old Canadian international is now fully recovered, however, and after an offseason training stint with Brighton & Hove Albion, he looks ready to fight for a spot in the starting XI this term.

Predicted regular season finish: 7th Western Conference

With a promising head coach and squad filled with talented youngsters, the future is unquestionably bright for Vancouver. However, in the ultra-competitive West, 2016 may ultimately prove to be somewhat of a transition season. Robinson’s men were big overachieves last term, and with some serious questions still surrounding the team, it’s easy to see them slipping down the standings – even if performances on the pitch aren’t necessarily worse. Bearing in mind that they only finished six points above seventh-placed San Jose Earthquakes in 2015, a third straight playoff appearance is by no means guaranteed.

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