The turn of a new year often yields change. Resolutions are created as the mindset shifts to the present and the future, while distancing itself from the past. Here, at From The Backline, we too are adopting that forward-thinking philosophy as we enter 2016. You are reading my first column for this site as part of an expansion of sorts to the FTBL brand. The podcast has become a raging success in the two years since Mark and Jorge first started recording, with both the quality of production and Whitecaps content unavailable anywhere else in the Lower Mainland.
To collaborate with these guys is something that I'm extremely excited about and grateful for. I'll be contributing here on a regular basis, sharing my thoughts on the club in what I intend will be somewhat unique to the material you can consume elsewhere. That is the end to which FTBL has ceaselessly chased with their audio-visual work, and is the outcome FTBL will continue to strive towards in this medium. I hope that you enjoy the fruits of this partnership over the coming months as we endeavour to bring you the most comprehensive coverage possible.
This current Vancouver Whitecaps team, in the midst of an especially uncertain offseason, is contrived of many fascinating individuals. The team's fine achievements this past year would arguably not have been possible without the presence of such contrasting identities, each with their own particular set of circumstances. The Blue and White encountered numerous obstacles on their way to Canadian Championship glory and a second place finish in the Western Conference, and much of that adversity was foreign. They kept their cool, though, and adapted with composure.
Thanks to the harmonious atmosphere inside the locker room facilitated by head coach Carl Robinson, the feat of galvanising the group towards one shared ideal has occurred rather organically. There is an integral balance between the sagacity provided the veterans and the exuberance attached to the youth within the squad. Matias Laba, Russell Teibert, and Gershon Koffie, for example, have attained maturity years beyond their age thanks to this, and are now able to offer their own brand of leadership to those even younger than themselves.
It has also enabled Robbo to trust his men with whatever game plan he and the technical staff deem most appropriate; from the pragmatic style exhibited in the early phases of the campaign to the more adventurous play seen throughout the summer. Discipline is relied upon and fundamental to the former, while the latter would not have been possible were it not for the abundance of expressive younger players at the manager's disposal. Championship calibre sides - those that belong in Major League Soccer's upper echelon - can credit much of their esteem to precisely this.
As is the case when fixtures are contested, some guys are more relevant during this usually turbulent part of the year than others. This can be owed to doubt surrounding their future in Upper Cascadia, to intrigue over their role in the team, to excitement about their potential, or to urgent need for improvement. I've singled out eight members of the roster that have the most pertinence at present, and have somewhat paralleled them to the characters featured in Quentin Tarantino's latest film, The Hateful Eight, as a platform to discuss their immediate predicament.
The Bounty Hunter
I don't believe the team can complete any business more significant than Mati Laba's contract extension - regardless of whatever transactions eventuate before the commencement of the regular season. Anyone who knows anything that has watched the Caps over the past two years will agree that Laba has been the most valuable member of the starting line-up. Nobody else is more consistent, nobody else can successfully handle as many responsibilities, and nobody else has a brighter future than the Argentine destroyer. The front office deserve major kudos for this deal.
The fact that Laba has committed his future to the club is tangible reflection of just how well Robbo's project is going. He is comfortably the league's most polished player in the under-24 demographic that MLS are so enamoured with, and could feasibly exert a similar influence in Europe. Mati has not identified Vancouver as a stepping stone to that promised land, instead establishing himself as something of a franchise cornerstone in front of the defence. This renewal warrants more celebration than any new arrival, and with time more will come to recognize that.
The feeling of hopelessness synonymous with John Ruth The Hangman is similarly created when Kekuta Manneh blazes into the opposition's territory. Among countless others in 2015, Manneh executed Omar Gonzalez - the man many considered Major League Soccer's best centre-back - on the road in Carson as if it were nothing out of the ordinary. Who can blame Gonzalez for swapping SoCal for Liga MX and escaping Kekuta's jurisdiction? He has come on leaps and bounds over recent months, and it's about time we give that progress the attention it merits.
The fourth year in MLS seems to be to some of the best wide players what the age-23 season is to many 2-guards in the NBA. Fabian Castillo, Ethan Finlay, and Brek Shea all enjoyed breakthrough campaigns with three terms behind them, and that pattern looks set to continue with Kekuta. He demonstrated in the final game of the regular season against Houston and in the second leg of the Western Conference semi-final with Portland that he can be the straw that stirs the drink for the Voyageurs Cup holders - even when the team as a collective are devoid of that impetus.
Tarantino gave this rather poetic view on Daisy Domergue's role in the movie to the LA Times: "A blizzard behind her, a rope in front of her, and a man who hates her chained to her side. Is she a killer? Yes. Is she crazy? Maybe. What will she do for freedom? Anything." This immediately reminded me of Darren Mattocks, and the bleak reality of his situation at BC Place right now. If he doesn't find new surroundings soon, we may as well put a noose around the neck of the idea that he may become the irresistible talent that everybody had expected years ago.
The feeling of excitement associated with the 25-year-old's rookie season feels like a distant memory indeed. Nevertheless, Mattocks remains an attractive asset both within the league and internationally. He's blessed with the kind of athleticism that so many prioritise in search of fresh meat, he demonstrated the ability he possesses in the Gold Cup last summer, and he's exhibited maturity under Robinson's tutelage. Perhaps he'll have another chance to impress in preseason, but staying in Vancouver would be detrimental to any further development before reaching his prime.
Pedro Morales dons the armband for the Caps when healthy, however - much like Walton Goggins' character - his credentials as a figure of power garner skepticism. Morales is not an orthodox skipper in the traditional sense, having ostensibly received the captaincy because of how he leads by example more so than by vocal encouragement. Last term, as he struggled with injury, the Chilean maestro couldn't fulfil the responsibility through either utility. The result: Pedro grew frustrated and failed to inspire those around him as he had done twelve months earlier.
I expect the diminutive playmaker's fortunes to change, though. In fact, I am very confident that he will return to the same prominence he performed at in 2014. Morales will no longer be distracted by his future after penning a new deal with the club back in August. He's also expected back at the training facility before everyone else as means of putting himself in the best physical condition possible. I'm hopeful too that he will have another opportunity in a decidedly deeper position, as Nico Mezquida and Marco Bustos continue to blossom further ahead.
As the only Mexican I know that has anything to do with the club is podcast co-host Jorge Mendoza, I have elected to rename Demian Bichir's character in The Hateful Eight. Question marks follow the caretaker of Minnie's Haberdashery in the same way they follow Whitecaps midfielder Deybi Flores. Flores demonstrated the many areas of his game that need honing further and showed a lack of technical understanding on various occasions throughout the season. At the same time, he also proved that he harbours the ingredients to become something special.
I feel the five-year contract that Deybi recently inked could eventually be regarded around MLS as a massive coup. He is only now experiencing sufficient education as a player, and with an entire preseason to enhance his tactical awareness the forecast looks positive for 2016. Whether or not Robinson brings in a new box-to-box type, I anticipate Flores to take advantage of his chances in a similar function. He has all of the physical prerequisites needed to grow into a real star in this gifted group, which is without doubt the optimal environment for him to do so.
The Little Man
The acquisition of Cristian Techera on loan in April was a masterstroke from Robbo. El Bicho added a brand new dimension to the Whitecaps attack from the word go, and fitted into the side seamlessly. He was especially instrumental when his coach chose to throw caution to the wind, relishing the license he was afforded to wreak havoc on the right flank. Within that approach, Techera formed a lethal alliance with his compatriots Octavio Rivero and Nico Mezquida as they stretched back-lines from the first whistle through to the ninetieth minute.
It is tantamount to Vancouver's chances of enjoying another exceptional year that Techera's services are secured on a long-term basis. He injected newfound energy into the team whenever he stepped onto the field, and players capable of that are distinctly rare. Who knows what would have happened if Robinson had panicked and brought in someone else as opposed to waiting for Cristian to become available. It's essential that the supporters already evaluating the window remember that, and trust the man who has shown his nous in the market time and time again.
The Cow Puncher
Octavio Rivero shares a lot in common with Michael Madsen's characters in Tarantino's first film and his latest. There is a mysterious and calculated quality to Rivero, Mr. Blonde, and Joe Gage that instantly gravitated me to all of them. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. Pink remarked that Mr. Blonde was the only guy that he could trust because he was too homicidal to be working with the cops. Now El Cabeza certainly isn't homicidal, but based on some of the extraordinary stuff I saw from him last term I'm inclined to think the same way. He's too methodically brilliant to root against.
The solution to Vancouver's goal-scoring issue doesn't necessarily lie with the addition of a proven, prolific talisman to lead the line. Instead, the answer could be found by unlocking that potential within Octavio - who has already shown that he can fill the void. The way to accomplish that isn't as complicated as some perceive it to be: it can be achieved through balancing the duties the 23-year-old is entrusted with and managing his minutes through the likes of Masato Kudo. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
The enthusiastic manner in which Walton Goggins greets Bruce Dern in this clip from The Hateful Eight is exactly how the guys should have approached Mauro Rosales during his time here. It's not yet clear what the next step in the 35-year-old's decorated career consists of. However, irrespective of whether or not he agrees to new terms with the Whitecaps, we need to take the time to fully appreciate his contributions at BC Place. Mauro has been an effective option in the final third and an even more effective personality among so many in need of his experience and guidance.
When selected in the first eleven or depended upon from the bench, Rosales has been the epitome of reliability. While his numbers have declined with age, the dividends his presence has paid should not be understated. His exploits in the game have taken him to the heights of soccer, and I hope that those with similar ambitions in mind have seized the chance to gain from what he has learned in that time. I'll be pretty sad if we've seen him ride mistimed challenges and defy his age for the final time as a Cap. If that is the case: thank you for all that you've given us, Mauro.