VANCOUVER - There were dark clouds and a cold, driving rain Monday as the Vancouver Whitecaps held their final on-field training session but the players and coach showed a sunny disposition as they looked forward to next year's Major League Soccer campaign.
Under rookie head coach Carl Robinson the Whitecaps accumulated a 12-8-14 record for a franchise high 50 points. Vancouver went 4-0-1 down the stretch to finish fifth in the Western Conference and clinch the final playoff spot. They lost 2-1 to FC Dallas in a heartbreaking playoff game that was decided on a questionable call by the referee.
You don't need to be a psychic to read the signs that the Whitecaps have the potential to grow and improve.
"We're moving in the right direction," said defender Jordan Harvey. "Making the playoffs, getting 50 points, all those landmark kind of things . . . it was a successful season.
"I'm as excited as the next guy for coming into next season."
Veteran defender Andy O'Brien said the Whitecaps have laid a solid foundation.
"The club will no doubt be looking to get stronger and develop," said O'Brien. "In terms of the way we finished the season, I think that was a good blueprint in terms of how to start (next) season."
As a coach Robinson is perpetually optimistic and supportive of his players. He has the team playing an entertaining, up-temp style on the field and created a positive culture in the dressing room.
Of the 28 players currently on Vancouver's roster, 18 are 24 years or younger. That means the Whitecaps are still maturing and developing.
"I know we can do better," said Robinson, the 38-year-old former Welsh international. "I know we can be better prepared not just on the training field but off the training field . . . to make things run easier."
Players like midfielder Pedro Morales, holding midfielder Matias Laba, forward Sebastian Fernandez, defender Kendall Waston and goalkeeper David Ousted are part of the team's core.
Robinson knows he must add to that group for the Whitecaps to make the next step.
"There will be changes," said Robinson. "There will be additions because I want to strength the squad. " The Whitecaps' biggest need is the additional of goal scorers. Vancouver scored 42 goals last season, the least of any team making the Western Conference playoffs. Only four other teams in MLS scored less goals.
Morales led the team with 10 goals and 12 assists.
"We lacked a goal scorer," said Robinson. "If we had someone that could score 15, 20 maybe 30 goals, then we would be in a totally different position.
"That's what we have to try to do to add to the group I've got. Not to take away anything because we are building here. I want to build a core in here to move forward, not just next year but the next three, four or five years."
The Whitecaps have had success finding Latin American players, but Robinson doesn't rule out looking for talent in Europe.
"I will turn over every rock," he said.
One player Robinson would like to add to Vancouver's roster is Erick Torres, who scored 29 goals for Chivas USA this season before the team halted operations.
"One hundred per cent I would like him on my team," said Robinson. "If you ask the other MLS coaches I'm sure they would say the same."
The Whitecaps will face some new challenges next season. Being the Canadian MLS team with the highest points standings earned Vancouver a berth in the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League. That means playing extra games during the season.
Next season will also see Sporting Kansas City, the 2013 MLS champions, and the Houston Dynamo move into the Western Conference. That will make the fight to make the playoffs that much harder.
In the coming weeks there will be four MLS drafts, including an expansion draft, the Chivas dispersal, a re-entry draft and the SuperDraft. One of the first decisions facing Whitecaps management is which players to protect in the expansion draft.
"It's very difficult but that's the sign of a good team and a good squad," Robinson said.
"I have decisions to make. It will be for the benefit of the team and the club moving forward."
One player Robinson must decide about is O'Brien. The centre back turned 35 in June and moved into a leadership role when captain Jay DeMerit retired due to injury.
O'Brien says he wants to come back and would consider a reduction in his salary of US$280,000.
"It's not all about money," he said. "It's about being wanted."
Robinson plans to meet with O'Brien soon.
"I would like to try and keep Andy in some capacity with the club," he said. "I think he's a very good leader.
"Because we are in a salary cap league it depends on the financial side of it as well."