The Vancouver Whitecaps got back to winning ways last weekend, defeating the league-leading Seattle Sounders 1-0 on Saturday at BC Place. While the Sounders fielded a depleted lineup - they were missing five players who would otherwise be named in their starting lineup - Vancouver did what was needed to win the game.
Defensively, the partnership of Johnny Leveron and Carlyle Mitchell comfortably dealt with everything the Sounders threw their way, while David Ousted turned in another strong performance in goal.
The central midfield duo of Matias Laba and Gershon Koffie controlled the area in front of the back four, while attacking midfielder Pedro Morales returned to his customary role as the Whitecaps' maestro. Had Erik Hurtado managed to convert a second-half breakaway, Vancouver's victory would have been more emphatic.
With Vancouver's victory, many will believe that normal service has been restored. Led by players like Morales, Laba and Koffie, the Whitecaps have played entertaining football at BC Place this season. A 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids – where Laba was sent off for two yellow cards with the Caps leading 1-0 – is the only home defeat of the season for Vancouver.
However, it can also be argued that Vancouver has perhaps punched above their weight this season.
Just look at the Sounders. If the roles had been reversed and Vancouver – minus its top five players – played a full-strength Sounders lineup in Seattle, it is reasonable to expect the margin of victory for Seattle to be much more comfortable than 1-0. The Sounders have a much deeper squad than Vancouver – deeper than virtually every other team in MLS, in fact.
Vancouver's reality is this: they do not yet have the depth to challenge the top sides in MLS over the course of an entire season.
‘Yet' being the key word. Vancouver's head coach, Carl Robinson, knows that he needs to address this shortcoming. However, his hands are tied – or at least his salary cap space is - to three players.
Injured skipper Jay Demerit, central defender Andy O'Brien and midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker have all played a role in Vancouver's solid start to the season. But it is difficult to see a future in Vancouver for any of the three beyond this season. In the case of Demerit and O'Brien, age is simply not on their sides. 34 and 35 respectively, they are coming to the end of their outstanding careers. Reo-Coker, on the other hand, has seen his playing time decrease considerably this season, due in large part to the impressive form of both Laba and Koffie.
Collectively, the salaries of Demerit, O'Brien and Reo-Coker tally over $1 million – a third of Vancouver's salary cap space. The club simply cannot afford to have so much cap space tied up in three players whose roles are diminishing with time.
This is the harsh reality of professional soccer; players are commodities to be bought, sold, bartered for and traded. Teams that are successful know that they have to constantly be searching for additions and upgrades to make their squad stronger. It is what Seattle did in the offseason, and they are reaping the rewards this year; the Sounders sit atop the MLS standings with 35 points from 17 games.
If the Whitecaps are going to continue to move forward and build on their impressive start to their campaign, they need to add quality signings to their squad of promising young players. A central defender, a wide midfielder and a proven goal scorer are all on the shopping list, but unless Vancouver can create cap space, those signings might have to wait until the offseason.
For now, Vancouver goes into Saturday's home game against Chivas USA (TSN2, 10pm ET, 7pm PT) in buoyant mood. With just one loss in their last 10 games, the Whitecaps have every right to be confident taking on the visitors. However, Erick ‘Cubo' Torres is one of the hottest strikers in MLS right now – his fantastic stoppage-time goal sealed a 1-0 win for Chivas over the Montreal Impact last weekend – so Carlyle Mitchell and Johnny Leveron will need to keep a watchful eye on the Mexican front man if the Whitecaps are to keep another clean sheet.