Watching your football team lose game after game is a terrible, soul destroying business. The Whitecaps started 2011 with some exhilarating football, and the man who drove it along for the brief period when it all looked good, was Eric Hassli.
The mad Frenchman brought us the most delight of any player on the pitch. While the club made American Jay DeMerit captain of the team and its chosen star, the fans chose Eric Hassli instead. While DeMerit struggled with injury and poor form, Hassli brought buckets of controversy and passion to the team: he was the hit of 2011.
Hassli started by scoring two goals in the Whitecaps first match in Major League Soccer, and immediately became a club legend. He then got sent off in his next match. While coaches hate to see players get sent off, we fans like someone who is willing to get nasty for the team: Hassli has mean and nasty in abundance. He broke a player’s nose in the home match against New England, and generally threw himself about with abandon.
After getting sent off in the second match of the season against Philadelphia, Hassli got sent off again in the fourth match against New England when he threw his jersey into the crowd after scoring on a penalty when he was already on a yellow. At the time, we all questioned his sanity, and the Whitecaps appeared to have nightmare on their hands: their designated player could not keep himself on the pitch. Hassli was a powder keg.
Hassli paid the club off for their patience with goals in early and mid season, including an incredible cracker of a goal to save the match on the road against the Seattle Sounders.
He scored two goals against the Chicago Fire on August 7th at home, but that was it for 2011. For the last third of the season, Hassli went off the boil, and could not score goals. Stories of personal problms and domestic issues surfaced. His explosive emotional side surfaced again in the away match against the Portland Timbers on August 27 when he stormed off to the dressing room after being substituted. After this incident, he rarely looked dangerous in front of goal again and could not score. It has to be said that Hassli looked disinterested at this point, and towards the end of the season was benched more often than not.
It remains to be seen whether the Whitecaps can get the best out of Hassli in 2012. I, for one, am pulling for the big man to return the early season form he had in 2011. For new coach Martin Rennie, Hassli will be the biggest man-management challenge he will face. How can he get Hassli to play with emotion and aggressiveness without going overboard and getting sent off on a regular basis? Can he keep Hassli interested? If Rennie can keep Hassli on the pitch and scoring, we will be well on our way to a successful 2012.
It is no coincidence that the most talented players often have a dark side which makes them frustratingly unpredictable. With Hassli, the very quality of emotion which makes him play well is the same quality which gets him into disciplinary trouble. Hassli plays emotionally on the razor’s edge, which is what makes him so exciting to watch and a fan favourite.
When I look at our current roster, the player who is most likely to give the fans the football thrills and chills we all want in 2012 remains Eric Hassli.
The history of the Vancouver Whitecaps is a complicated, disjointed history. The team began in 1974, died in 1984, made a modest comeback again in 2000, and took a bold step back into the big leagues by playing its first season in Major League Soccer in 2011. While it was a bit of a disaster in footballing terms, make no mistake about it, 2011 was a monumental year for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Sadly, two of the people who had the courage and vision to create the institution we all love today by making it all happen back in the 1970’s died this year. Herb Capozzi died in November, and, very recently, Denny Veitch died. Capozzi was the owner who purchased a North American Soccer League franchise for Vancouver back in 1973; Veitch was the team’s manager from 1973 until 1977 and was the one who came up with the name “Whitecaps”.
It is fitting that the return of the Whitecaps into the MLS makes us remember and revere the people who conceived of the idea of the Whitecaps back in the past all the more. I hope they were both able to bask in the glory of seeing their idea catch fire again in the city they gave so much to.
For giving birth to the idea of the Vancouver Whitecaps, and for steering the ship back in the early days, we owe these two wonderful gentlemen so much. To Herb Capozzi and Denny Veitch all I can say is thank you for having the courage and the vision to create such a great Vancouver institution. My gratitude will last; I will not forget what they brought to our city.
Their families have so much to be proud of.
When a new coach takes over at a soccer team, obviously he will want to surround himself with staff and players he can trust. When Rennie took over he fired Colin Miller, a coach with a great deal of local knowledge of BC Soccer. Miller was replaced with Paul Ritchie, Rennie’s assistant from the Carolina Railhawks. I had expected Rennie would bring in some players from Carolina as well. Now he has, signing Railhawks midfielder Matt Watson. In Watson, Rennie will have a player who is loyal to him, and one he knows and can trust. Even if he does not play, he will work hard in training and do what Rennie tells him, keeping the other players honest.
Is Matt Watson a wise acquisition for the Whitecaps as a player? He certainly has size, at six foot, and weight, at 180 pounds, which is what we need being a club with such a small roster. He is English by birth but played in the US College level of soccer. While this level produces great athletes who are fast and physical, it does not produce players who are especially technically gifted in soccer skill.
I have hoped the Whitecaps would pick up a gifted Central or South American playmaking midfielder. These types of players have proven to be highly valuable in Major League Soccer: if you look at teams such as FC Dallas (David Ferreira), Real Salt Lake (Javier Morales) and Seattle Sounders (Alvaro Fernandez) you will find such players. Matt Watson does not fit this pedigree. Professionally, He has only played in the lower divisions in the USL/NASL and in indoor soccer in the Major Indoor Soccer League.
What we can expect from Watson is a big, tough, fast guy who works hard. We had a lot of these guys back when the Whitecaps were in the USL/NASL, and none of them are left on the roster because they simply did not have the technical skills necessary to play at the MLS level. I fear, at the age of 26, that Watson does not have a lot of time to develop technically. He will either sink or swim at the MLS level. We already have a great holding defensive midfielder in Gershon Koffie, and the question still remains: who will make the plays we need from midfield to win games?
I feel that Watson’s signing will tell us a lot about Rennie’s coaching judgment. If Watson falls flat on his face, Rennie will look like a guy who does not know what he is doing. Rennie is taking a risk, but then again, all successful people take risks.
As a supporter, I hope both Watson and Rennie succeed and put all of my doubts to rest. Watson’s signing does not, however, fill the gap our squad has in terms of technical skill and creativity in the midfield. For this we so far rely, to our peril, upon the moody, unfit and inconsistent Davide Chiumiento.
While I was off on vacation the Whitecaps announced the signing of Young-Pyo Lee, one of the giants of Korean and Asian football. Lee’s signing warms my heart, because there is no doubt this guy has superb character. His playing skill cannot be questioned, as his impressive run of 127 international appearances for Korea Republic demonstrates. A number of those caps came as a player in the 2002 World Cup in which Korea Republic stunned and delighted the world by going all the way to the semi-final at home before losing a close match to finalists Germany. On the way to the semi-final they beat European powerhouses Spain and Italy.
I loved that Korea team because of their heart, determination, character and pride. To play in that side under Gus Hiddink each player had to have these qualities.
My only doubts with Lee are his age: he is 34. The last club he played with was Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia. His club career is very impressive indeed up to that point, with time spent at top European clubs PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund. But why was his last team Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia?
Soccer leagues in the wealthy Arab Middle East pay former stars whose careers are over at the top levels of the game in Europe handsome fees to play in their leagues. These leagues are where great soccer players go to die. They collect million dollar paychecks they can no longer command in Europe on their way to their death as players. Argentina’s great striker Gabriel Batistuta, and other great players, have cashed in on this kind of deal.
Having gone to this elephant’s graveyard of football, why does Lee want to get back into serious football in Major League Soccer? The MLS is a fast league with a reputation for hard physical play. Will Lee’s body be able to stand up to the challenge? He can’t be coming here for the money, because his pay check here in Vancouver will be nowhere near what it was in Saudi Arabia.
I can only guess that Lee, at the age of 34, has decided he is not through with serious football yet, and that he still feels the need for serious competition. Word is that Lee will be played at right fullback. Does he have the pace and fitness that a full back needs to get forward and put crosses in? Or will he be more of a stay at home player who will work to organize the defence? I suspect it will be the latter; new coach Rennie has made it clear that making the team hard to score on is job number one.
One thing that Lee will bring to the team is a wealth of experience playing in big leagues and in big matches, something our team lacks. As a player in our squad he will have the most experience in big matches. This kind of experience is invaluable in a team.
It has been great to see the reaction of the local Korean community to Lee’s signing. He is clearly revered amongst Koreans, and I suspect the Whitecaps will have another thousand or so season ticket holders, as well as many more individual ticket buyers strolling up.
While I do have my doubts about Lee’s age, I have none about his character. Hopefully, when he pulls on his Whitecaps jersey, the latter will trump the former.
I think we have signed a winner. Welcome to Vancouver, Lee!