SPORTS

Hype and hope turn to realism as Whitecaps look to forget last-place finish

03/08/2012 06:44 EST | Updated 05/08/2012 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - It started with considerable hype and hope, but ended in futility.

So as the Vancouver Whitecaps prepare to open their second Major League Soccer season Saturday against the expansion Montreal Impact, they are taking a much more pragmatic approach than they did in their first campaign.

"We were probably a little naive going in," Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi said. "And one of the club's internal initiatives, that became more public than it should have been, was wanting to be a top-25 club in the world. It wasn't a good idea to be trumpeting that."

After earning a comeback 4-2 win over Toronto FC in their first-ever MLS game last March before a worshipping home crowd, the Whitecaps became the talk of the town and discussed the possibility of winning a league title as an expansion club. But by the end of May, popular Icelandic coach Teitur Thordarson had been fired and replaced by soccer operations director Tommy Soehn in a bid to salvage the season.

But the move, which came after players with little MLS experience had earned dramatic comeback wins and ties and were still bonding as a team, had minimal effect. Vancouver finished last overall with a 6-18-10 record and did not win a single game on the road.

As a result, the club has set much more modest goals of just being competitive and qualifying for the post-season in 2012. Declining to discuss exactly what went wrong, Lenarduzzi also wants to put the disappointing 2011 campaign in the past.

"It's time to look ahead and not behind us," he said. "We don't want to dwell on what went on last year. It was a difficult first season for us. Everyone, from the youngest person on the totem pole right up to ownership, I think we all are holding our hands up and being accountable."

The stability starts with the return of Brazilian striker Camilo and French counterpart Eric Hassli, who ranked among the league's top scorers with 12 and 10 goals, respectively. St. Kitts and Nevis striker Atiba Harris is also expected to play a key offensive role after he was limited to five games last season because of a knee injury.

French striker Sebastien Le Toux, acquired in a trade from Philadelphia also packs scoring punch, having recorded 25 goals and 20 assists over the past two seasons with the Union.

Midfield is a question mark. Italian veteran Davide Chumiento, who struggled to get into the lineup last season and battled weight issues, is trimmer and possesses offensive flair while Ghana native Gershon Koffie provides a defensive presence. John Thorrington, who missed most of lost season with a groin injury, is healthy and should also provide improvement, as will Scottish international Barry Robson will arrive in the summer from Middlesbrough in England.

On the back line, holdovers Jay DeMerit, Alain Rochat, Michael Boxall and Carlyle Mitchell should provide experience and stability. The defence has also been strengthened by the additions of former South Korean World Cup star Young-Pyo Lee and Argentine Martin Bonjour.

Returning goalkeeper Joe Cannon wants the team to be stronger psychologically this season.

"Our heads tended to go down and we looked for answers," he said. "I think now we have (the answers) and we'll have the confidence."

The confidence-building task ultimately falls to new coach Martin Rennie. The highly-touted Scot finally gets to coach the club in regular-season games.

Rennie guided the Carolina RailHawks of the North America Soccer League to regular-season and conference titles in three years with the club.

"Everywhere he's gone, he's taken over a struggling club and turned it around," said Lenarduzzi. "We like that."

But Rennie, who has brought five former Carolina players with him, is not setting any loft goals, either. Like Cannon, he stressed the importance of staying grounded. But Rennie believes the first-year Whitecaps put "a lot of pieces in place."

"So far, it's just about making sure that, every time we step on the field, we're competitive and, every time we step on the field, we have a belief that we can win," said the 36-year-old. "Right now, that means the first game against Montreal and, really, that's as far as we go."

Off the field, the team expects to have continued success after ranking third in the league with average of attendance of about 20,400. After playing most of last season at temporary Empire Field, the club will play all of its games at newly-renovated B.C. Place Stadium.

Season-ticket sales are down about 2,000 to 13,000. But chief operating officer Rachel Lewis said less than 2,500 tickets remain for Saturday's opener. A sellout in the stadium's soccer configuration is 21,000. Initially, seating will be confined to the stadium's lower bowl, but tarps covering upper seats can be removed if demand warrants for subsequent games.

Note: Harris will not play Saturday after suffering a knock on the knee in a pre-season game against Toronto FC, but is expected back soon.

MORE:cpSports