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MLS 2011 Previews: Vancouver Whitecaps Haven't Settled Much

Who do you expect to be in the Starting XI?

So far in training camp, head coach Teitur Thordarson has juggled his formations aggressively. However, in his exhibition games against first-class opponents the Whitecaps have shown a preference for a relatively conventional 4-4-2 using a withdrawn striker: it could be called a 4-4-1-1 of sorts. Meanwhile, very few places in the starting lineup have been set in stone. Joe Cannon has struggled to get healthy and the Whitecaps have gotten a good showing from second-division starter Jay Nolly in goal, so even that position may be up for grabs.

The only sure things appear to be Swiss-Canadian Alain Rochat at left back, Jay DeMerit at centre back, Jonathan Leathers at right back, Terry Dunfield and John Thorrington in central midfield, Shea Salinas on right wing, and Davide Chiumiento as a withdrawn striker. The rest is by no means certain. Former New Zealand Olympian Michael Boxall and surprisingly impressive SuperDraft pick Bilal Duckett have been seeing a lot of action in defense, although the second central defender will probably wind up being Greg Janicki. Russell Teibert is probably the favorite to pin down the left wing position though Nizar Khalfan and Gershon Koffie are giving him a hell of a time. And Atiba Harris will probably be our starting striker up top, but that might change if Brazilian trialist Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo continues to impress. For that matter, Philippe Davies and Jeb Brovsky may yet challenge Thorrington for a spot in central midfield, while Wes Knight is looking good enough to make Jonathan Leathers uncomfortable at right back.

Which new player(s) will have the biggest impact?

With an expansion team, where to begin! The season may rise and fall on the success of Harris. As Vancouver's only proven MLS goalscorer, Harris is being asked to play out of his comfort zone as a target man on the end of long balls rather than a winger. Harris is a big player and has shown some quality in pre-season; if he can approach the 10-goal mark, the Whitecaps might have a surprisingly strong first season. If, on the other hand, Harris struggles, it's hard to see where the goals will come from.

Which player(s) loss will be felt the most?

The Whitecaps have retained almost all their key players from the 2010 USSF D2 campaign. The biggest, and virtually only, loss is that of veteran central midfielder and captain Martin Nash. Even at 35 years old, most Whitecaps fans thought Nash would have something to contribute in MLS. He was perhaps Vancouver's most valuable player last year and, in addition to being a sublime passer, was a first-class dead ball specialist. However, Nash elected to retire in the off-season and took up a coaching role with the Whitecaps, leaving Vancouver without a clear taker of free kicks or corners.

At what point is this season considered a success?

The casual fans in Vancouver would probably be hard to satisfy with anything less than a playoff appearance, but the die-hards are taking a more jaded view. Given Vancouver's inexperienced players and lack of scoring punch, the best we can hope for from the Whitecaps is that they are credible: that they at least chase a playoff spot and give any team in Major League Soccer a scare on any given night. The spot where we're most hoping to make some noise is in the Voyageurs Cup, where victories over our Canadian rivals Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton could give us a CONCACAF Champions League spot and some meaningful soccer to cheer for even if the playoffs fade away.

Whose performance do you think will be most indicative of the season as a whole?

The strikers in general. Be they Harris, Sanvezzo, Long Tan, Davide Chiumiento, or whoever you like. Vancouver's defense will be good enough when they gel, and their midfield looks promising. But nobody has any faith in this team's ability to finish off scoring chances. If the strikers are better than expected then that will be what sees the Whitecaps into challenging for a playoff berth. If not, then another off-season of hoping for a veteran forward awaits us.

Which returning second-division player will make the biggest impact on the Whitecaps?

Chiumiento is probably the most promising second-division Whitecap: anybody who's been called the Swiss Ronaldinho has to have some quality and Chiumiento has constantly stood out even in opposition match reports as a diminuitive but talented player who can strike terror into opposing defenses. But Chiumiento played only 118 minutes last year: it's questionable just how much of a returning player he really is.

Of those who played a core role in last season's team, Terry Dunfield is likely to be the most important. He's a hard-nosed central defender who tackles viciously and picks up his share of cards but can also pass like a dream, hit the ball well on a free kick, and play first-class defense. A veteran of the lower tiers of the Football League, Dunfield joined the Whitecaps last year and became an instant star. Every indication is that he'll be given a chance to keep that up in MLS, where he'll be expected to go box-to-box and make life difficult for opposing attackers while also contributing to the offense. The question with Dunfield is injury: he was healthy last year but he had a history of knee problems in England.

Which Whitecap has the most to prove in 2011?

Last year, 20-year-old midfielder Philippe Davies played more than 1,500 minutes for the Whitecaps, mostly at right wing. Though not the quickest player and clearly raw, Davies showed plenty of quality as a passer combined with surprisingly good defensive player which won him a contract as Vancouver's first ever home-grown player. Davies isn't expected to get much playing time to start 2011, as former Philadelphia Union man Shea Salinas has been a revelation in midfield. However, those of us who saw him in 2010 know his quality, and certainly Teitur Thordarson wasn't afraid to rely on him. Davies took corners and free kicks semi-regularly; both skills we're lacking with the retirement of Martin Nash. Moreover, though he played last year as a right winger he is natively a central midfielder. If either Dunfield or Thorrington struggle, Davies could be in line to stake his claim to a starting place.

- Report by Benjamin Massey of Eighty Six Forever (Vancouver Whitecaps blog)