Welcome to Partially Obstructed View. We are each restrained by the limits of our own perspective, but when we meet to share information a clearer picture of the truth can be revealed. Comments & criticisms are welcome.

Monday 3 October 2011

First Person View - Expansion Expectations

    I wrote back at the beginning of the season that Vancouver seemed a touch too assured of themselves heading into their first MLS campaign. Several months on, and some thirty matches later, one cannot help but wonder if these raised expectations have somewhat dampened what should have been a celebratory year.

    There is now much less spoken of the great history of the club and its plans for the future, than there is of the mistakes that have been made.

    I recall the end of Toronto FC’s first season in 2007, despite the dismal performance on the field, the crowd gathered on the pitch in celebration of Year One being under the belt, and the prospects of the future. Though over the years this excitement has diminished those memories of the first season, where the team everyone said would not work did, have fueled the continuing success of the franchise.

    Even in these darkest days the joy of that experience remains. The passion that was kindled, though failing in the current storm, could easily be stoked with some positivity.

    Vancouver has admittedly had a rough year. A poor record, numerous injuries to key players, a controversial coaching change, and repeated miscommunications between the front office and the hardcore support have all spoiled what was a chance to celebrate the history of the sport, and build for the future.

    It is possible that with Empire Field bearing the brunt of these bad memories and their future lying in the regal confines of the newly-refurbished BC Place that there has not been significant damage to the aspirations of the fans. Reparations between a disaffected supporters group and the front office have been made, a strong, highly touted coach will take the reins, there is a core of solid players to build around, the youth setup is in full swing, and the second season should bode much better.

    The first campaign, regardless of what one may think of the paucity of the step up from the lower division (USL, NASL, or USSF D-2), was always destined to be a difficult endeavour. MLS is a difficult league, though the travel, temperature variation, and accommodations are similar, if not better, to those of the lower level, there remains a definite step up in quality.

    In NASL, one could take a night off against a weaker opponent to conserve energy for the next big game. Though there were undoubtedly some fine players in the league, each side combined only a few of these with a set of scrubs, much like what happens in MLS, but to a greater degree. There are no easy nights in MLS, the parity and the quality of the opposition ensures each match is a difficult venture.

    Perhaps Vancouver was too brash in how they built their club. Opting to import flair players, and concentrate on drafting youth, rather than acquiring proven MLS talent, and players that could contribute immediately. It must be said that Vancouver has tried to play a very expansive, attacking style, one that is readily punished by the grinding play of MLS. The loss of Atiba Harris has undoubtedly been an obstacle, and no one could argue that the Whitecaps have been a terrible team to watch.

    Portland has made a much better fist of their first go-around. Hamstrung with fewer injuries and playing with a more simple style – concentrating on a strong defensive core, pressing the advantage from set pieces and utilizing wing play more than Vancouver’s through the middle approach.

    In soccer it is easier to hold what you are given than to take more; opening up leaves holes, while staying tight leaves you ready to pounce on other’s mistakes. Jack Jewsbury, a veteran of MLS, has been a rock for the Portland midfield, even expanding his game to new heights in terms of goals scored and assisted. A solid MLS head to steer the ship, something Vancouver has not had.  Even their American leader and captain, Jay DeMerit, had no previous MLS experience. In their preferred starting eleven, only Pete Vagenas and Joe Cannon have significant minutes – and success – in the league, and they are getting a little long in the tooth.

    Not only did the Timbers take a more efficient route, but their fans came across as living more in hope than in expectation. When success came along – after a spanking in Colorado - in the form of a series of great home matches, the fans were able to enjoy them, well aware of the possibility of getting beat. Perhaps Vancouver’s opening match win over Toronto was a false dawn for a fan base already expectant following some ill-considered hype.

    Montreal should learn from this experience and not expect too much in their first season. Success in the inaugural year of the franchise should be measured off the field – attendance, club development, community and media outreach and such – rather than in results.

    That is not to say that on-field performance should not be considered. But any results – good or bad, probably bad - must be tempered with a view to setting the base for a strong future. Rash decisions – both of management and player personnel – must be avoided; there will be plenty of losses, but there is value in patience.

    Will Vancouver’s fans take to the pitch in joy? I hope they do, but it does not seem likely. Montreal and their fans should learn a lesson from the curse over expectation and use what will be a difficult season to celebrate their deep history with the sport, and propel themselves forward.

    The first year is only one year, the future, if considered properly, holds many more with significantly more promise.

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