Martin Rennie is not promising miracles. But the new head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps is confident his team will score some goals this season. And given that the ’Caps were the lowest-scoring team in Major League Soccer in their disappointing expansion season a year ago (35 goals in 34 games), added offence certainly sounds like a step in the right direction.
One truism of the sport is that every coach at every level claims to want to play an attacking style. And Rennie is no exception. However, he brings with him a track record that indicates he will be a man of his word and his team will find a knack for the net.
“I think the teams that I’ve coached over the last few years have always been the highest-scoring teams in North America at any level, so I would hope that that will continue,” Rennie tells the Georgia Straight as he readies his Whitecaps to open their MLS season on March 10 against the Montreal Impact, the newest MLS franchise. “To play the way we want to play, you have to defend properly. Always when you’re coaching you work on the defending side of it first, and once you get that right, then you build into the attack, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
In a forgettable first season in MLS, the Whitecaps won just six of their 34 games (6-18-10) and not a single one on the road (0-12-5). And although they wowed the crowd at Empire Field with a 4-2 win over Toronto FC on opening day last March, the team won just three of its next 28 matches.
Rennie represents hope for the soccer team. Hired after three successful seasons at the helm of the North American Soccer League’s Carolina Railhawks, the 36-year-old Scot isn’t associated with all of the losing that went on here a year ago. He is a fresh voice with new ideas. But as he’ll soon find out, he’s under some pressure early in his tenure to get the Caps moving in the right direction. The last thing the soccer club can afford is to pick up where it left off and struggle right from the start.
Fans here witnessed too much of that as part of the painful birth of an expansion franchise. It was to be expected last year but it cannot be accepted this time around. With seats to fill at B.C. Place Stadium, the Whitecaps need some early success, and Rennie’s plan calls for his team to play with flair in order to score goals, win games, and give the paying customers what they want. To have success in the standings, the Whitecaps will have to find a way to score on the road, where they generated a paltry 11 goals in 17 matches a year ago.
In the coach’s eyes, it all comes down to a combination of personnel and preparation, and with a few weeks left before opening day, Rennie is starting to see his plan come together.
“I think it’s partly the system and partly the players—it’s got to be a little bit of both,” he says. “There are definitely things that we work on that help us score goals. Even if you attack a lot and create a lot of chances, if you don’t have guys who can finish, it can be a long day and can become frustrating. We’ve always had players who could put the ball in the net, but we’ve also had teams that pass the ball and created a lot of chances. So some of it comes from building that belief that they’re going to become goal scorers and that they’re going to succeed.”
One of the biggest reasons for optimism around the soccer club heading into its second year is the fact the Whitecaps have overhauled their roster and added some finishers to the lineup. MLS veteran Sébastien Le Toux, top draft pick Darren Mattocks, and recently signed Scottish midfielder Barry Robson all join last year’s goal-scoring leaders Camilo Sanvezzo (12) and Eric Hassli (10)—incredibly, the only players on the roster to score more than three goals last season—to give the ’Caps the appearance of a much stronger attack.
And although much will be expected of those players when it comes to production, they won’t be alone. Rennie believes that with increased depth and experience in all parts of his roster, the 2012 ’Caps will be considerably better and consistently more dangerous up front.
“The Whitecaps spent a lot of time without Joe Cannon, Jay DeMerit, John Thorrington, and Atiba Harris last year and those are guys that understand soccer in North America better than most guys on the squad,” the coach says of injured veterans who struggled to stay in the lineup last season. “They’re experienced players, very good players, and right now they’re healthy and we would like to hope they’ll be a part of what we’re doing, because I think they make a difference.”
As the Vancouver Whitecaps prepare to embark on their second tour of duty in Major League Soccer, there really is nowhere to go but up following last season’s last-place finish. So in that regard, Rennie has put himself in a good position to move the soccer club in the right direction.
No one is expecting miracles, although doubling the team’s win total from six to 12 hardly seems like an unrealistic expectation. Now it’s up to Rennie to deliver on his promise of hard work and attacking soccer in order to squeeze some more offence and entertainment out of his team when it starts the new MLS season next month.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.