VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps spent most of last season trying to prove doubters wrong.
They find themselves in much the same boat heading into this campaign.
After the messy departure of reigning Golden Boot winner Camilo Sanvezzo, and with an untested rookie head coach in Carl Robinson, the Whitecaps overcame a number of hurdles in 2014 to qualify for the playoffs.
And the Major League Soccer club is more than happy to fly under the radar again when the schedule kicks off at home on Saturday against Canadian rivals Toronto FC.
"That's fine. Actually probably prefer that. I want to be the underdog," said defender Steven Beitashour. "I don't want people looking at us and giving us their best game. I want to be the underdog and (have teams) kind of overlook us. I know we're going to come in and show them how we've been working and that we're ready, because everyone here knows that we're ready."
Unlike their weekend opponent, which spent a second straight off-season overhauling its roster with high-priced acquisitions, the Whitecaps prefer to develop players in their youth academy and mine for overseas talent in lesser-known leagues.
Among the notable additions to complement the squad's 22 returnees are pair of Uruguyans in striker Octavio Rivero and defender Diego Rodriguez, while veteran MLS centre back Pa-Modou Kah was signed after the team and Andy O'Brien couldn't agree on a new contact.
"The club has a strategy and they follow it," said goalkeeper David Ousted. "I'm content enough with us not signing what you call 'big names.' I think the signings we have gotten in are big names, but they're big names based on what they do on the pitch."
The Whitecaps grabbed the final Western Conference post-season spot for the second time in three years in 2014 before losing out to FC Dallas in the first round. But the strides made under Robinson didn't impress many observers — bookmakers have Vancouver listed at around 30-1 to lift the MLS Cup in 2015.
The main reason for the lack of belief in the Whitecaps' chances mostly boils down to an offence that was at times downright anaemic in 2014.
Captain and influential midfielder Pedro Morales scored 10 of Vancouver's 42 goals, but strikers Darren Mattocks, Erik Hurtado and Kekuta Manneh each struggled for long stretches, including one that saw the club fail to put the ball in the net for an equivalent of five straight games during a mid-season downturn that nearly cost the Whitecaps a playoff spot.
Robinson preaches possession and is hoping another year of experience for that attacking trio, the addition of Rivero — who replaces versatile striker/midfielder Sebastian Fernandez — and the threat of Kah and fellow defender Kendall Waston on set pieces will help Vancouver reach his target of 25 more goals in 2015.
"The guys that we have in the centre forward areas and the wider positions, I think they can up their ratios of goals by getting into the box a little bit more and obviously taking chances," said Robinson. "I think bringing in Octavio will be a big plus for us because he will help the other forwards that I've got and will hopefully get a number of goals as well."
There will be an extra playoff spot available in each conference this season, but with two expansion clubs added in the East, the West is a lot tougher with Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City switching over.
The Whitecaps were excellent defensively last season, with Ousted picking up 13 clean sheets over the team's 34 regular-season games. They will need a similar performance, and more goals, to take the next step in 2015.
"I don't mind being written off. We were written off last year when at the start of the year I took the team and we'd lost Camilo," said Robinson. "I agree with (doubters) in a certain respect because we didn't score enough goals, but I managed to drag the group into the playoffs, which is a fantastic achievement for that young group of players. Football's about proving people wrong.
"That's the beauty of the game."
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