Monday, July 23, 2012

The MLS Grinder: Is Martin Rennie sandbagging everyone?

The 'Caps are being remade. In Rennie's image.

I tried.

So hard did I try to dislike everything the 'Caps had done over the past few weeks. I, like many others, looked at Martin Rennie with the kind of narrowed eye one gives to a dog who'd just festooned the carpet with the contents of its stomach. None of it seemed to make any sense. None of it fit the narrative. I hold no particular ball of hatred in the pit of my bowels for Vancouver, and there was no reason I didn't want these moves to work. I just didn't think they would. After a miserable expansion campaign Vancouver drifted through the first two and a half months of the season in relatively fine form. The 'Caps were in playoff position in a difficult West and playing relatively well, if somewhat listlessly at times up top. This was good, positive, forward-stepping stuff from Vancouver, which seemed to find some kind of path forward. And then everything went haywire. As it turns out, Rennie had been planting the depth charges for months.

A prime question everybody had for Rennie at the time is, quite simply, "Why?" Not a lot was expected of Vancouver this year, though the 'Caps were most certainly expected to be better. It was presumed that Rennie had a long leash. Relatively speaking, he had time. This was his first season in MLS with a second-year MLS franchise. Nobody expected this. Nobody expected Rennie to begin molding Vancouver into his image this fast. And he's a damn sly dog for doing it.

What we knew then

In the wake of the following roster moves, allow this section to represent the immediate whiplash reaction that went up across the league in large quantity. Right or wrong.

The 'Caps fired the first salvo through Scottish midfielder Barry Robson, who recently joined after an early agreement. Robson, 33, arrived amid notes of caution from those who knew his game best, telling 'Caps fans to pump the brakes on the massive expectations that generally pair with DP tags. You saw a lot of "system player" talk and "does a lot of little things" banter and generally heard phrases spouted from people who are cautiously optimistic that a broken down player on the downslope of his career could do anything but drag down an offense that gradually seemed to be adding RPM's to its dash anyway. After Mustapha Jarju's epic flameout it was all Vancouver fans could do to not betray the look of worry on their collective face.

That's what it sounded like then, anyway.

Then went mercurial (but occasionally brilliant) midfielder and pontificator of all things important Davide Chiumiento, sold back to his native Switzerland (FC Zurich) on July 11, just weeks after Robson's grinning face was splashed all over Canada's fish wrappers. On the surface, Vancouver got nothing from the deal to sweeten its roster and lost one of the true talents of the league on his day. At 27 it was presumed Chiumiento still had a ceiling to reach. And the tantalizing well of untapped potential seemed to lay just beneath a thin layer of rocky topsoil before the gusher sprouted and the 'Caps hit oil. His stats may not have always been there, but few were more fun to watch in MLS (was anyone more fun to watch?). From the standpoint of substantive creativity it was hard to imagine anybody making a legitimate addition by subtraction point here. Chiumiento had 14 assists in less than two seasons.

Later that week, a bizarre trade went off that sent Sebastian Le Toux to New York for speedy winger Dane Richards. The first thing I'd heard about this deal was not that Le Toux had just made New York's front line the best in the league or why the hell Vancouver would trade a goal-getter but rather that Hans Backe was almost sure Richards was headed to Europe after his MLS contract ran its course at the end of this season. Le Toux was also out of contract, but New York essentially had its way with Vancouver in that Backe likely thought he had a better chance to re-sign Le Toux than he did Richards. For Vancouver, it had the long-term look of a salary dump... for a team in the thick of playoff contention. At mid-season. 'Caps fans still reeling from the sale of Chiumiento had another raw nugget on which to chew, and this one didn't taste quite as good. Was rookie Darren Mattocks ready? He'd have to be now.

Kenny Miller. Where to start? I'd heard horror stories from my Scottish friend about Miller missing sitters like he was bullet dodging in the Matrix. YouTube is replete with these horror shows, like this one, this one, this one, and this one in which he acknowledges it all. Trenchant he is not. He has a reputation as a pacy runner who can get goals but who, in his advanced age, had become more liable to crank a six-yard breakaway into the 20th row than slot it calmly into the upper corner. To top it off, he struggled mightily toward the end of his spell with Cardiff last year and netted just once in his last 22 appearances. To no one's surprise, Miller's introduction spelled the end of the Eric Hassli era in Vancouver. Much like Chiumiento, Hassli had the ability to produce moments of brilliance but was not a Rennie player, so he had to make do as a sub. It would not do to have a DP making $800,000 coming off the bench, and thus off Hassli went. It all had the look of a surreal movie where the interlocutor floats through a scene as a ghost. It didn't feel like all this was actually happening. It was too fast.

To sum up. Davide Chiumiento, Vancouver's exclamation point and provider of an exquisite number of goals, left for aged handyman Barry Robson who, at 33, had an unknown amount of juice left in the tank. Sebastian Le Toux, a proven MLS goalscorer and known quantity with four goals in 19 matches in Vancouver, was swapped out for the technically bereft, aged Kenny Miller up top. And Eric Hassli was off to a Canadian rival and was essentially replaced by Dane Richards, who most people in the know seem to think is bolting from MLS after this season. What was happening in Vancouver?

What we know now

Things are not quite as rotten in Vancouver as they seem on first blush. In fact, it's a different story entirely. Recent results bear this out (2-1 over San Jose on Sunday night is a warning shot to the rest of the conference; Vancouver is third in the West now and rising), but so does recent individual form. This, for the sake of comparison, is the part where we shed the perception and gain some appreciation for the symphony of strings the 'Caps' front office just pulled. You can call it tinkering. I'll call it contending.

We'll start with Robson who, as the first domino in this summer avalanche of moves, should be viewed as its kingpin. And the early returns on the Robson era are good. Robson has played two home games in Vancouver. He has two goals, the latter of which was a game-winning penalty against the aforementioned West-leading Quakes. He's been tremendously steady since coming on, giving all those who talked about his penchant for the "little things" a heady nod. In the 29th minute of Sunday's first half, 'Caps fans rang out with an "Er-ic, Hass-li" chant in honor of the departed No. 29 who was the team's first DP and produced a wonder goal last year that (in my opinion) was the goal of the year. He may have been flighty, but he was beloved in Vancouver. By the second half Barry Robson had his own chants going, which signaled a key shift in the demographic. Right or wrong, Vancouver's first year-plus in MLS will forever be known as the Hassli Era. We are now in the Robson Era in Vancouver, which is off to a surprisingly on-point beginning. All hail the king.

The Davide Chiumiento deal went beyond the immediately recognizable storyline that Vancouver had just had a major pillar kicked out from under it. Chiumiento wanted to return to Switzerland, yes, and had plenty of incentive (family) to do so, but as in most cases the decision was forged over money. Chiumiento was on the verge of triggering an option clause in his contract that would've plumped it up considerably. Consider this: Chiumiento's pay accelerated from $280,000 in 2011 to $300,000 this year, and we heard the option clause kicking in would've jacked that rate up substantially. It is not unreasonable to believe it would have threatened the DP threshold of $350,000. At the very least it would have taken an even bigger bite out of Vancouver's cap space, and it was obvious that Rennie had other plans for the midfield. Speculation aside, Chiumiento's contract was eating up a sizable hunk of the 'Caps' salary and, for a player Rennie wasn't involved in signing, his position as a foreign player on the team's rolls was too much to bear. With Robson crashing through challenges in the middle of the park, Chiumiento could be dispatched with. And as with his form, the ups generally came with crashing lows. Two sides to that penny.

Eric Hassli's contract was worse. A quagmire at $800,000 and with no deal on the table extending beyond the end of this season, it was unlikely that Vancouver could've justified bringing Hassli back. Especially knowing what we know now with Rennie. With that in mind, Vancouver opted to get something from Hassli instead of letting his deal expire without recourse. So Vancouver took Toronto's 2014 first-rounder and picked up an extra slot for a foreign player. It is deals like these that in hindsight make kings of front offices.

As for Kenny Miller and Dane Richards (who has also already scored in the Whitecaps' white), neither are being counted on to save Vancouver, which will free up both for some potentially spectacular results later in the year as legs tire. Miller has his place in Rennie's up-the-channel offense, which places a high prize on speed and technical skill (and need I even mention Richards' bona fides in the speed category here?). Miller can provide the former in spades, while Camilo and the surging Mattocks (Montreal, WTF???) have a tit-for-tat ability to push back lines both vertically and technically in the interim. Rennie brought on Miller for Mattocks late on Sunday, which could be a fruitful marriage as the players learn to complement each other as they should be able to do. Time will tell. But I have no qualms about saying that if you can get past the immediate whip reaction of, "Too many moves, guy," and really look at what Vancouver is now sitting on, this could be trouble for the rest of the West. When you add into the picture that the Whitecaps' U-18 academy team just played for the USSDA final, things look bright.

Life is not lived in stark blocks of black and white but rather in gradients between, and so it is with Vancouver's transfer market dealings. It's not all good and all bad. Chiumiento will be missed in the sense that his post-match pressers were always entertaining and his on-field play had the potential to dazzle. Le Toux, too. And it's still early. But there can be no doubt that Martin Rennie's one-sided mirror made the last transfer window an interesting one in Cascadia. If the rest of the West hasn't yet taken the effort to properly size up Martin Rennie, now may be the time.

- Will Parchman

1 comment:

Nicolas Dunbar said...

Great article. Wonderful breakdown. I still giving up Seba was a bad move, but I understand the intent.