It was at this time last year that the Whitecaps opened a new era in professional soccer in Vancouver with a 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Rampage. A sold-out house on a beautiful spring evening witnessed the rebirth of one of Vancouvers great sports success stories. Everything was positive last spring leading up to the opening of the A-league season, and the Whitecaps delivered. A superb second half of the season saw the local team establish themselves as a power in the league......however, a very unceremonious dumping at the hands of the Hershey Wildcats in the league semi-finals ended a stellar year.
There was alot of optimism, however, going into the off season.......but something happened. The owners were making rumblings of huge losses, GM Bobby Lenarduzzi was let go, and coach Dale Mitchell took up a position with the Canadian Nationals. Also gone were Darren Tilley, Chris Franks, Kevin Holness, Rick Titus, and Didar Sandhu. A major change was in the works and for the first time in ages, there was a degree of uncertainty surrounding the health of the team.
But there was a good side to all this: Jim Larkin was acquired and represents a huge upgrade in goal (our weakest position). Tilley was replaced by Niall Thompson. The departure of Holness meant that fan favourite David Morris would be getting a strong look as a starter, and just recently Chris Franks announced his return to the fold. The new head coach, Tony Fonseca is well known as a players favourite.
But a small degree of unease still existed as the Whitecaps took to the field against the Minnesota Thunder for their home opener friday night. Thompson, defender Nico Berg, and forward Chris Craveiro all were nursing injuries and were unavailable. Franks will join the team in a few weeks, and midfielder Johnny Sulentic was still in Croatia on a tryout for NK Zagreb. So the home team were definately not fielding the strongest possible lineup in terms of experience, and the home opener represented maybe the first game since the start of the preseason that had the full team playing a game of significance.
The other reason to be a little worried was the quality of the opposition. The Minnesota Thunder have been a league powerhouse for years, and one can imagine that their poor season last year would not be sitting well at all with them. It was an easy bet that the team would be significantly better than last year.
But the Whitecaps, even with the shorthanded lineup, were equal in every respect. Jim Larkin's first touch of the ball in goal was a save off of a Johnny Menyongar penalty early in the first half. Jason Jordan was a sparkplug all evening, and the game was decided on his terrific strike from the right edge of the penalty area halfway through the first period. Rookie defenders Kevan Cameron and Spencer Coppin were solid all night, playing a simple game and staying out of trouble. The Thunders' Menyongar had moments of brilliance in the first half, but the Whitecaps defense never faltered and other than the penalty, Menyongar never really had a good look at goal. Forward Tiarnan King was hustling all night, and though he never really got through clearly on his runs, he made Thunder defender Mark Schulte work for his money all night. Schulte was perhaps the Thunders best player over the whole evening: he ran miles and worked really hard to limit the home teams chances.
The game was at times fast and furious, at times scrappy, and always a close marking affair. Not really the most technically sound game to be sure, but both teams came to play and the 1-0 final was a fair result. The crowd of just under 6,000 went home happy, and with the return of Thompson, Craveiro, Berg, Franks, and Sulentic on the horizon, things are definately looking up for the Whitecaps. They look fit, they really chase the ball, and when the timing gets a bit better on the field this is going to be a strong contender this year.
The Thunder will consider themselves unfortunate. They worked hard all night, but maybe the biggest problem is a lack of imagination and drive in front of goal. The team enjoyed good spells of posession and outplayed the Whitecaps for a fair bit, but you never really had the feeling that the 1-0 lead was in any danger. Coach Buzz Lagos will have to address that problem soon.
Vancouver (All white w/ blue trim) Larkin; Lyall, Coppin, Cameron; Morris, King, Dailly, Kindel, Hall; Veer, Jordan
Minnesota (all blue w/ white trim) Lowery; Eyre, Schulte, Biddle, Gores; Fenger, Martins, Gentile, Magee; Llamas, Menyongar
photos by Tim Henschel
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