VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps' season opener is more than two weeks away, but coach Martin Rennie already faces some challenging decisions on his starting lineup.
On Thursday the Caps signed former English Premier League star Nigel Reo-Coker after acquiring the first right of refusal to him from the Portland Timbers. In exchange, Portland received Vancouver’s natural second-round picks in the 2014 and 2015 MLS SuperDraft.
"We have a number of difficult decisions to make as to who will be in the starting lineup," said Rennie on a conference call from Charleston, S.C. "But, really, we need that in order to compete on all the fronts that we need to compete on."
Reo-Coker, a 28-year-old London native has appeared in over 200 EPL matches and last played for English Championship side Ipswich Town on a three-month stint.
He will join the Whitecaps in Charleston on Friday as they continue with pre-season games before their March 2nd season-opener at home against Toronto FC.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed. Coker has played as both a defender and midfielder.
"He brings a little bit different dimension to the players that we have in our squad, and I think that's important," said Rennie. "We have to make sure that we have different types of characters and different types of players in the group."
Reo-Coker could toil on a bulging back line, which already features former EPL veterans Jay DeMerit, Young-Pyo Lee and Andy O'Brien. Brad Rusin, signed in January, can also play central defender.
Rennie said one option could be to put Reo-Coker and right back and move Lee to the left side, or the newcomer could be deployed in the middle of the pitch.
"He could play central midfield or right back, and he could play a couple of other positions depending on how we decide to sort the midfield up," said Rennie.
"But he's a versatile player who's played at the highest level for a long time, so he knows the different positions and how to play them, and that can be important for us, especially if we ever have any suspensions or injuries.
"It's good to have players who can be moved around a little bit."
Rennie has showed a preference for using Alain Rochat in midfield late last season after he was a mainstay at left back for much of the campaign.
Rennie also expects Reo-Coker to play a leadership role. He has captained EPL squads West Ham United FC, Aston Villa, and Bolton Wanderers and also worn the arm band for Wimbledon. Reo-Coker has come under criticism for a lack of intensity in the past, but Rennie took exception to reports that the player has yet to fulfill his potential.
Before joining Ipswich Town, where he started nine of 11 games, Reo-Coker scored four goals in 42 appearances with Bolton in 2011-12, helping the Wanderers reach 2012 FA Cup quarter-finals.
During four seasons at Aston Villa from 2007 to 2011, he made 102 appearances and scored two goals. He also helped West Ham United reach the 2006 FA Cup final against Liverpool only to lose on penalty kicks.
After starting as a 12-year-old in Wimbledon's system, he toiled for England’s U21 national team, serving as captain during the 2007 UEFA U21 Championship. He has also played for England's under-20 squad and served as a standby player for its 2006 World Cup side.
Rennie said Reo-Coker's desire to play in MLS while still in his prime also spoke well for the growth of the North American league.
"I think there was interest from other teams," said Rennie. "We're just real happy that he wanted to be in Vancouver, and we managed to work it out to get him here. He's someone that can add a level of excitement to our fans because of the level that he's played at and the type of player that he is."
The coach said it took about a month to work out the deal after one of his former Carolina RailHawk players advised him that Reo-Coker wanted to play MLS. Since Reo-Coker has an American wife, he could be classified as a domestic player in the future, potentially freeing up an international roster spot. But Rennie expects that he will be deemed an international for the time being.
"He wants to finish his career here, or be here for a number of years," said Rennie. "He still believes, and I still believe, he's not hit his peak yet — and time will tell if that's true or not."
Rennie expects some players will be unhappy to receive less playing time as a result of Reo-Coker's acquisition. But the coach is not overly concerned about the potential for disharmony.
"If we've got more good players, then there's more competition," said Rennie.
Notes_Reo-Coker's acquisition raised questions about the status of captain Jay DeMerit, who has been bothered by an Achilles tendon injury. But Rennie said DeMerit, who practised Wednesday, should be ready for the season-opener. ... Rennie said he has lined up positions with other teams for young players who need more playing time. He hopes to finalize as many farm-outs as possible within the next week.