VANCOUVER — Jake Nerwinski was chatting with his parents when they asked him which teammates he was close to ahead of his second season with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"Everybody's gone now," he jokingly told them.
The 23-year-old defender was exaggerating, but a number of players might have been well-served by name tags when the Major League Soccer club opened its pre-season with testing and physicals Monday.
Vancouver added no fewer than seven new faces to its roster over the winter, while also waving goodbye to some fan favourites.
"You make new friends," added Nerwinski. "That's what this business is about sometimes.
"There's a lot of change, but I'm excited to see what this group can do."
The Whitecaps started 2017 by making the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League before finishing third in the Western Conference with a 15-12-7 record. That paved the way for the team's first-ever MLS playoff victory in the knockout stage, but Vancouver went out meekly in the next round against the Seattle Sounders, managing just a solitary shot on target in 2-0 aggregate defeat over two legs.
Head coach Carl Robinson vowed there would be changes in his media debrief a couple of days later and quickly went to work.
The moves included the addition of strikers Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell, midfielder Efrain Juarez and Canadian defender Doneil Henry.
To make room for the fresh bodies, Vancouver cut ties with defender Jordan Harvey, who had been with the team since 2011. Popular goalkeeper David Ousted and midfielder Christian Bolanos were also sent packing, while the loan deal for striker Fredy Montero with his Chinese club came to an end before the Colombian was sold to Portugal's Sporting CP last week.
"I wanted a freshness, an energy," said Robinson. "You've got to make changes and you've got to sacrifice things.
"Decisions were made for the benefit of the football club and the team, but we get back to work now."
In the six-foot-three Kamara, the Whitecaps believe they finally have a true target man up front for the first time since Robinson took over ahead of the 2014 season.
"Kei is a natural box player," said Robinson. "We've been very good at putting consistent crosses into the box, and sometimes last year we didn't have enough bodies in there.
"We've found a man that will be on the end of crosses."
Goals off set pieces were Vancouver's bread and butter for long stretches in 2017, and Kamara, who was acquired in a trade with the New England Revolution, is looking forward to getting on the end of those free kicks and corners.
"I have watched this team play for a number of years," said Kamara, who has 98 career MLS goals in 286 appearances. "I've really enjoyed the way the wing guys have played ... putting the balls in the box. For me as a target striker, that's what I want."
Juarez, meanwhile, is also eager to get going after his move from Monterrey in Mexico's top division was completed last week.
"So, so, so excited," said the 29-year-old. "I'm so happy for this new opportunity that Vancouver's given me — a new challenge.
"I'll give all my effort to the team."
Juarez comes to Vancouver having made 274 professional appearances with Monterrey, fellow Mexican sides Pumas UNAM and Club America, Scotland's Celtic and Spain's Real Zaragoza. He's also played 39 times for Mexico, including three matches at the 2010 World Cup.
"Great pedigree. He's a leader," said Robinson. "Character-wise, he's as good as you're going to find."
Juarez played right back with Monterrey, but the Whitecaps expect him to mostly line up in midfield in a box-to-box role.
"It's not a position that I don't know," said Juarez, who played in midfield with Celtic and his national team. "It's football. The ball is round here, in Mexico or in China.
"I can run all day, all night."
Change in personnel isn't the only switch coming in 2018. Robinson has been pretty consistent with a 4-2-3-1 formation, but hinted he might try a 3-5-2 setup with three defenders at the back this season.
"That will stick if we win games," said the Welshman. "I'm excited to challenge myself and my coaches to get the best out of those players in a different system."
The Whitecaps will train in Vancouver before heading to Hawaii on Jan. 31 to continue preparations for their opener March 4 at home against the Montreal Impact.
"I've brought different players in for certain reasons," said Robinson. "We've reduced the age, we've reduced the salaries, we've brought in hunger, we've brought in energy.
"Now it's down to them to do the fun bit."
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