Brad Knighton has quietly turned into an effective goalkeeper for the Whitecaps. - George Frey
It's tempting to critique the first-year MLS manager for his midseason tinkering, but he's actually succeeded in building a pretty solid defense and foundation for the future.
No one will deny that Martin Rennie came into his new job with some significant work to do. The first-time MLS head coach inherited a team that had claimed just 28 points through 34 matches in 2011, gone winless on the road and been outscored by 20 goals. There were some useful pieces on the roster, to be sure, but they certainly weren't working well together.
Rennie didn't exactly start cleaning house right away, but he did make some significant moves. Among the more notable were trading for Sebastien LeToux and signing Korean international Young-Pyo Lee. Big changes or not, it clearly worked.
At the close of the summer transfer window, the Whitecaps were 9-6-7 and looking all the world like a team that was going to make some noise in the playoffs. With the additions of Designated Players Barry Robson and Kenny Miller, speedy winger Dane Richards and defender Andy O'Brien, they also seemed to have the talent to play with just about anybody.
We all know what happened next. The Whitecaps absolutely fell apart down the stretch, going 1-6-3 in their final 10 matches and backing their way into the MLS Cup playoffs. For all their sins, they are tasked with heading to Southern California to play the LA Galaxy, a team they've never beaten and who has outscored them 5-0 at Home Depot Center this year.
It has gotten so bad that the two players who Rennie seemed to be counting on to take the Whitecaps to the next level -- Miller and Robson -- could well find themselves on the bench for this game. That's exactly what happened in the Whitecaps' season-finale at Real Salt Lake, an ugly but reasonably effective 0-0 tie that was their first road point since July 7.
After that game, Rennie talked about the need to get results anyway possible and that the team had perhaps focused too much on trying to play attractive soccer during their late-season swoon. Considering they only scored six goals during that 10-game stretch -- four of which came in their only win -- that sounds more like a narrative in search of storyline, but it does indicate that Rennie is more than happy to park the bus and just hope for a result in Los Angeles.
The question is, has he really built a team that is capable of playing that way? Actually, he might have.
With 41 goals conceded, the Whitecaps actually rank as the fourth best defense in MLS this year. Jay DeMerit has quietly made a case for himself as a Defender of the Year candidate. Lee is arguably the best two-way right back in the league. Brad Knighton has stepped in as the No. 1 goalkeeper, and has posted a .81 goals against average. Among MLS goalkeepers with at least five appearances, that's the fourth lowest mark.
It's also a much better tactic than the Whitecaps trying to run-and-gun with almost anyone, let alone a team like the Galaxy. For all the offensive talent they seem to have collected, at least on paper, it has not resulted in nearly enough goals. That stable of forwards everyone seemed to be raving about at the beginning of the season helped them score just 35 goals all year. Shockingly enough that is the exact same number they scored a year ago when they were one of the worst teams in MLS history.
Outside observers, like myself, made a lot of hay out of Rennie's seeming infatuation with acquiring forwards this year. But what he really managed to do this year was transform the Whitecaps' defense. Last year, they conceded 55 goals. They knocked that number down to 41 this year.
It's probably a stretch to say this is exactly how Rennie planned it. After all, he spent quite a bit of money acquiring offensive-minded players. But it's the relative bargains, guys like Lee, defensive midfielder Jun Marque Davidson and center back Andy O'Brien, that have actually had the most positive impacts.
It seems to be a safe assumption to say that Rennie has fallen short of working an absolute miracle, and taking the Whitecaps from league doormats to contenders in the manner of one year. But he does deserve some credit for building a foundation that could eventually get them there.