Monday, May 20, 2013

It's been a few weeks since we brought you a Vancouver Whitecaps update in out 'View From Abroad' feature.

During that time, the Whitecaps have had a very mixed start to the 2013 MLS season, and their young Scottish manager, Martin Rennie, is now under the first spell of real pressure, not just in his Vancouver managerial career, but throughout his whole time in the North American game.

Last year the Whitecaps made history by becoming the first Canadian side to reach the MLS playoffs. They may have bowed out after just one game, losing 2-1 to eventual winners Los Angeles Galaxy, but they showed great improvement from their first season in the League, where they finished bottom of the pile.

With that feat achieved, going backwards in not an option, and with an ownership group who have already shown that they will act quickly to replace underperforming managers (Rennie became the third manager in the Caps' short MLS era), the team's start to the latest campaign has the masses chattering.

This season couldn't have started better for Vancouver. Back to back home wins, had the team sitting joint top of the Western Conference but then the wheels slowly started to come off, brought upon by what has been the Caps' achilles heel in the past three years - away games.

The Whitecaps are an awful team away from home. They didn't win any of their 17 away games in their first season in MLS and although they did muster three in their second year efforts, they have failed to win in their first five attempts this season.

Since joining the League in 2011, Vancouver have an 7.7% winning record on the road, taking a meagre 16.2% of available points (19 from 117 - I love me some stats!).

Both records are the worst in MLS by some way.

After their winning start to the season, five of their next seven games were away from the home and the club has struggled, going on a seven game winless streak and dropping to the bottom of the Western Conference.

To make matters worse, and keeping on the achilles theme, the Whitecaps lost their captain, American international and former Watford hero Jay DeMerit, to what seems to be a season ending achilles injury just eight minutes into the season.

The injury woes continued when Kenny Miller picked up a hamstring injury that he just can't seem to shake off. It may surprise many who have seen his recent games with Scotland, but Miller was proving to be an inspiration to the Whitecaps this season and showing some of the form from earlier in his career, with two goals in the three games he did play.

Both of these losses to injury have hit Vancouver hard and a couple of concussions, some other injuries and a horrendous run of form by their top striker, Jamaican international Darren Mattocks, haven't helped the team's form either.

Whereas these injuries have caused Rennie to make adjustments to the team, a lack of form of other players has seen the Scot become a tinkerer that would make Claudio Ranieri's teams seem settled.

The problem seems to be that Rennie does not know who his best starting line up is and the talent and depth of the squad he has put together has been quickly found out to not be anywhere near the strength that many thought after some good pre-season form. His rigid tactics, especially his yawn inducing away ones, are being increasingly questioned.

Whereas other clubs have added some strong, experienced players, Rennie has built up a squad of young talent. Most of the strikers are under 24, with many straight out of college. They're struggling with how to get out of an early season slump.

One of the few bright spots for Vancouver has been the addition and form of former West Ham and Aston Villa star Nigel Reo-Coker.

The former England U21 international was once thought to have a very promising career ahead of him. For whatever reasons, his star has started to fade in recent seasons, and at only 28 , many thought that his best days were long behind him.

He joined Vancouver fresh from not making the grade at Championship side Ipswich Town in a short loan spell, and the reaction of many online Tractor Boys was that they were glad to see the back of him.

Reo-Coker though was not finished as a top footballer just quite yet and saw the chance to move across the Atlantic as the perfect opportunity to kickstart his career out of the limelight a little.

Some footballers have left the UK to go to MLS for a final payday. Kenny Miller is on $1.1 million with Vancouver, Tim Cahill is on $3.6 million with New York and his team-mate Thierry Henry is on $4.35 million. This is not the case with Reo-Coker, who reportedly turned down some big money offers to stay in the UK to sign for Vancouver for $200,000 for the year.

His deal will see him move on to Designated Player status, and the big buck that go with that, if he performs well this season. That's how all contracts should work. Play well and you'll be paid well.

It seems to have worked with Reo-Coker who is producing some of the best form for many a year.

He's also ruffling a few feathers along the way, describing his team-mates as being "too soft" after a recent defeat away to Real Salt Lake, in what was a really dire performance to be the fair to the Londoner.

His words, and the subsequent dressing room dressing down from Rennie seemed to work, as Vancouver returned home to BC Place on Saturday and beat Los Angeles Galaxy 3-1, for their first win in eight games.

It showed what the side is capable of but the key now is how they go on and build from that.

The Whitecaps are about to enter their most telling month of the season, with a string of huge games coming up.

This Saturday they play one of the in-form teams in MLS, their Cascadian rivals Portland Timbers, in a huge derby game that will see 1500 travelling fans make the seven hour trip north of the border from Oregon. Seven hours away may not seem much like a derby game, but trust me, it is!

Before that, tonight in fact, Vancouver play another derby, this time a Canadian one, as they travel to Montreal Impact in the first leg of the final of the Voyageurs Cup.

This is the Canadian Championship/Cup, with the winners qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League and ultimately the chance to go and play alongside the world's elite at the FIFA World Club Cup.

Vancouver have never won the Voyageurs Cup and is their main goal this season along with reaching the playoffs once again.

The problem is Montreal are probably the other form team in MLS alongside Portland and have stacked their team with a host of former talented Italian internationals who seem to be enjoying a new lease of life in Quebec.

After the second leg on May 29th, Vancouver face two tricky away games, in New York and in Seattle.

It could be a case that the Whitecaps are looking at three straight MLS defeats and a loss in the Canada Cup. If that is the case then, both their goals for the season could have all but vanished by mid June.

And if that does happen, we could see the Scottish experiment in Vancouver ending more abruptly than anyone expected.

The next month is going to be huge for Vancouver Whitecaps. If you want to get your summer fix of fitba, then keep an eye out for them.

[You can get daily news on all things Vancouver Whitecaps, including our podcast, on AFTN's Canadian website at: www.aftn.ca]

[This blog post first appeared in the East Fife programme 'The Bayview' on Wednesday May 15th 2013.]

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ah, playoff time. Love them or loathe them, the playoffs are here to stay.

If you're on the fence about them then your thoughts may be shaped one way or the other come 5pm on Sunday evening.

I've always been pretty torn about them. Hate the Scottish ones, but love the English ones. Playoffs in the Scottish League seem pointless when you only have ten team leagues, although I am starting to warm to them.

My view has always been to just let the runners up go up and the second bottom team go down. They both deserve and have earned their fates. If that meant East Fife lost the chance to go up or were horribly relegated, then so be it.

Of course, that was my view before East Fife actually found themselves in a relegation playoff. Now I'm torn again, but I think deep down, I feel we should already be down.

But we're not. Them's the rules that we all knew when we started out on this long and horrible road last summer. We now have a second chance at life and we can only hope that each and every player grabs that opportunity with both hands and embraces it with all their might.

There is no doubt that the playoffs add a bit of excitement to what is sometimes an otherwise dreary end of the season and the games do throw up some cracking matches. Better cup ties than some cup ties.

Anyone who was at Bayview on Saturday will long remember the emotions they felt when they saw the ball leave Liam Gormley's foot and into the back of the Berwick net.

Speak to any Dunfermline fan, or Forfar one for that matter, about the emotions that were running through them last Saturday at East End Park in a truly remarkable match.

You don't get that in many League games and now we have the chance to enjoy two more.

Maybe the playoff buzz that the English ones generate are finally starting to catch on here in Scotland. Maybe I am starting to come round that they are a good idea and prevent a huge spate of meaningless matches at season end.

There is no doubt that there is still a long way to go before we'll be anything like what they have down south.

The ending to the Championship playoff semi between Leicester City and Watford was simply unreal.

I thought I'd seen it all at the end of the regular season with the League One game between Brentford and Doncaster when it came to dramatic endings, but that playoff game was even more stunning than that. It was simply one of those wow moments you're glad you saw and won't forget in a hurry.

Maybe not as dramatic, but equally as fantastic to watch, was the Blue Square Premier playoff between Newport Country and Wrexham, with County scoring two goals in the final five minutes to seal their place in the Football League after 25 years of heartbreak.

I've long had a soft spot for Newport County going back to my days swapping fanzines with their "Never Say Dai" one. I'm a member of their Supporters Trust and so very glad that they now have their place back where they belong.

So what will tonight and Sunday hold in store for fans of East Fife and Peterhead? One half will be joyous beyond belief, the others heartbroken.

We have fought so hard in recent weeks to be where we are tonight. It's been a hard season, with many more downs than ups, but the players deserve the credit for sticking with it and having us on the brink of staying up.

Without adding more pressure on them, it's imperative that we do. We can't afford to miss out on the gate money from Rangers and possibly Dunfermline games and we can't afford to return to the dregs of Scottish football that we fought so hard to escape from.

We don't have a great record in the playoffs but let's change that tonight. To the fans, I say support the team, no matter what, through 180 minutes and more if needed. To the players I say, do this for the fans, for the proud history of the Club, but most of all, do it for yourselves and prove ALL of your doubters wrong.

'Mon the Fife. Let's get this done together.

[This article first appeared in the East Fife programme 'The Bayview' on Wednesday 15th May 2013]

Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow AFTN on Twitter