Long Tan and Davide Chiumiento arrived in Vancouver to play for the expansion Whitecaps FC by radically different routes. Their disparate seasons illustrate what went wrong for the team in its terrible opening campaign – and why the team might be able to turn it around in 2012.
Chiumiento, 26, came to Vancouver as a star signing, after years in the top tiers of soccer in Italy, France and his native Switzerland. He impressed immediately and his nine assists on the year put him in the league's top five. But Chiumiento is mercurial. His gusto evaporated through the summer as the Whitecaps got mired in last place, and he notched just two assists since June. The Maserati-driving midfielder has been benched for the past three matches.
Tan, 23, earns the league minimum salary of $32,600. He played lower-level soccer in China before doing the same in North America. With the Whitecaps, Tan saw nominal playing time for most of the year. The young striker did get important minutes on the pitch in reserve- and residency-squad games, during which he scrapped to notch eight goals. Such perseverance led to big minutes with the main team this month, topped by his first Major League Soccer goal against D.C. United on Oct. 12.
Tan's header was a game winner – while Chiumiento watched in street clothes, not even dressed for the game. The goal secured back-to-back wins for the Whitecaps, one of the few highlights of a season that comes to a merciful end on Saturday at home against the Colorado Rapids. The Whitecaps began the year with dreams of the playoffs, building one of MLS's best franchises, and hobble to the end in distant last place in the Western Conference, with zero wins on the road and the fewest goals scored.
The team skirted historic ignominy, as its many losses set no records. Attention turns to the potential of 2012 with a new coach, Martin Rennie, promising young players such as Tan, and a core of veterans, such as Jay DeMerit, captain and defender, who was hurt for much of 2011.
Steve Nash, basketball superstar and Whitecaps co-owner, said the team is looking to improve its roster with "winners and leaders, guys that show up every day and work their butts off."
"We've had some bad luck, some injuries, some games that could have gone our way but didn't," said Nash at halftime of the Dallas game. "If we can just find the right chemistry, and put depth at each position, we'll have a much better year next year."
There are two distinct ways a sophomore season can unfold in MLS, a league marked by parity. Vancouver wants to be Philadelphia. After finishing with the third-worst record in its debut season last year, the Union will make the playoffs this year and just narrowly missed clinching top spot in the Eastern Conference. The opposite is Toronto FC, which limps to its fifth successive year out of the playoffs.
Like Toronto, Vancouver has been a winner at the box office. The Whitecaps are No. 3 of 18 MLS sides in attendance, averaging more than 20,000. For the Whitecaps, whose ambition to build a soccer titan remains undiminished, the key is to capitalize on the strong support rather than let it ebb, as has become the case in Toronto.
Vancouver moved into its permanent home, the renovated B.C. Place, on Oct. 2 and plans to start its second year with a big bang, trying to channel the promise of this year's cracker 4-2 opening day win in March against Toronto.
"You've got to re-create the excitement people felt in the first few months," said Whitecaps chief executive officer Paul Barber.
Vancouver hopes wunderkind coach Rennie, a 36-year-old who has several seasons of success in lower-tier soccer, is part of the elusive answer.
While team executives say every player has to fight for their job, one challenge for the team could be to keep striker Camilo Sanvezzo, a 23-year-old whose dozen goals leads the team and ties him for fifth in the league. He makes $132,420 – and has been courted by bigger offers from Asia and the Middle East.
Another immediate task for Rennie will be to assess his key players. MLS holds an expansion draft for the incoming Montreal Impact on Nov. 23 and existing teams are able to protect 11 players, with others possibly protected under other rules. Each team can lose a maximum of one player but the lists will be made public, an early indication of the direction Rennie sees for the woeful Whitecaps.