Only so much room at midfield
Former Toronto FC player’s arrival means Caps battling for fewer spots
Carl Robinson was asked Wednesday what the arrival of Argentine Matias Laba would mean for the rest of his central midfield group.
“The strong will come through,” he said, “and the weak will probably drop out.”
In one sense, it’s as simple as that. The players will determine what it means.
But it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s another shoe to drop because Laba joins a squad that already has Nigel Reo-Coker, Russell Teibert and Gershon Koffie hungry for minutes in similar roles, while young Canadian Bryce Alderson is desperate to prove he can play in MLS.
That doesn’t factor in where veteran Mehdi Ballouchy might fit once he’s recovered from knee surgery in a few weeks. Ballouchy can play anywhere in midfield. Matt Watson’s another guy who can fill in at various midfield spots. After three years of trying to establish a strong central midfield in MLS, this has to be considered a good problem for the Whitecaps. But keeping everyone happy — if the Caps retain all the players — should be an interesting challenge for the new coach.
Robinson made sure the Laba trade wasn’t a surprise to the locker-room, and players were saying all the right things after Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes at the Rose City Invitational in Portland.
“The boss is bringing in quality players and Laba’s only going to make the team stronger,” said Teibert.
“I know a couple of the boys at TFC and they spoke very highly of him. I think everyone’s excited to have his quality here.”
Added Koffie: “Whitecaps is a big family, so whoever we sign, he’s part of the family, if he’s willing to help the team.”
It all sounds wonderful in theory.
Teibert has been among the best Whitecaps throughout pre-season, but if Laba arrives as advertised — tough and efficient — one suspects it will be Laba and Reo-Coker lining up as the deeper-lying midfielders in Robinson’s 4-2-3-1 formation on March 8 at B.C. Place.
Teibert’s versatility will help him find minutes. He can play on either wing. And Robinson’s expected to implement a diamond midfield 4-4-2 as well, which means three of Laba, ReoCoker, Teibert and Koffie could certainly play in the same midfield at times.
Alderson, the 20-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., might be most affected by Laba’s arrival. If Alderson seemed closer to his first MLS minutes a few weeks ago, he’s now looking at another rung to climb. He looked nervous in Wednesday’s first half.
Koffie’s also an intriguing one because he earned $176,000 last season and, in MLS, you don’t pay many players that much to sit on the bench too often.
Koffie enjoyed an excellent 2012 season but last year was uneven and frustrating for the Ghanaian. He had three goals and three assists in 21 starts, seven fewer starts than his two previous MLS seasons.
There were rumblings that Koffie was dealing with personal issues. He was injured at times, too.
“It wasn’t what I planned, but it’s all good,” said Koffie, a Canadian permanent resident who signed a multi-year contract extension a year ago. “I want to put last year behind and focus on this year.”
Despite the struggles, Koffie was the Caps’ man of the match three times last season. He’s also been accused of switching off defensively at times, and Robinson said that consistency remains Koffie’s biggest challenge.
“I’m one of Gershon’s biggest fans because I believe he’s got a huge upside,” said the coach. “If he does push himself, he can go on and be one of the better midfielders in the league. And if he doesn’t, then he becomes an average midfielder, and there’s 100 of them in the league.
“It’s a challenge for Gershon, and I think he’ll meet that challenge head on.”
Ultimately, it’s too simplistic to look at all the Caps midfielders and assume one has to go. There are so many moving parts to MLS rosters, and the rules, that many other things could affect Robinson’s decision.
Will the Caps carry 30 players or take the extra cash and carry 29?
Who’s going on loan to Charleston? Do the Caps want to make room for a residency midfielder — either Kianz Froese or Marco Bustos?
The certainty for now is this: Robinson can smile about heightened competition in training, as well as what Laba’s expected to bring to games.