John Knox has been involved with Whitecaps soccer and the Vancouver Southsiders, the largest supporter’s group, for several decades. He picked up the passion after the Whitecaps dissolved as a team in the North American Soccer League. He’s been following the team since it was called called the ‘the 86ers in the 1980s and ’90s, and he’s been there when the team decided to return to its original name — the Whitecaps. He was there when the team won several USL-1 championships and he clearly relishes the team’s move uptown to Major League Soccer. He’s been a key member of the Southsiders and is currently its spokesman. These are his view from the stands.
What can you say about the team, so far?
They have 11 players that I know of. There could be more who have been inked already, but the official announcement might be coming in the new year. We have Jay Demerit as our first outside signing, plus five from our USL squad, plus five expansion draft picks who are still on the roster.
Do you agree or disagree with the players they’ve picked so far?
DeMerit is an excellent signing, not just for his play, but for the leadership he’ll bring to the back line and the locker room. (Jay)Nolly has been an outstanding keeper during his time here, and although Joe Cannon has an excellent reputation from his time in MLS, I truly feel this should be Nolly’s position to lose. (Wes) Knight is quick as hell, and can run for days before he looks tired. His throw-ins get just as much distance on them as a corner kick normally would, so he is always a threat to make plays. (Phillipe) Davies has phenomenal potential but must work on his finish to succeed at the MLS level. He’s a young kid with amazing passing ability who has stood out in a league with much larger, stronger and experienced opposition bearing down on him. Lots of time for this kid to put his game together. He’ll be a great playmaker if given the playing time to build his confidence. (Terry) Dunfield will fill that void that Martin Nash left with his retirement. He’s a local guy who has returned from a promising career in the UK to play for his hometown. He’s the sort of player who leaves it all on the pitch regardless if it’s a friendly or a championship final. (Greg) Janicki is a warhorse who played several matches this past season with his head in bandages. He took advantage of some injuries on the roster to claim the CB spot as his own, and he’s made the best of the opportunity. He’s really defined himself as a smart and physical player who eats strikers for breakfast.
Who besides Jay DeMerit has impressed you beyond the USL-1 Whitecaps players?
Nizar Khalfan and Cornelius Stewart are versatile mids/ forwards who bring different elements to the game. Khalfan is a Tanzanian international who’s emerged as a smart, sure-footed playmaker who puts himself in good positions to score. Stewart is a St. Vincent & Grenadines international who could outrun a cheetah. If he’s not a scoring threat on a play, his speed is forcing defenders into mistakes that open up other scoring opportunities. Mouloud Akloul is an Algerian center back who broke his ankle 18 minutes into his first match for Vancouver last year. In fact, he broke his ankle while scoring a great goal. For those 18 minutes you could see that he was a class above division two play. He absolutely dominated out there. I’m hoping he has a successful camp so that we can get another look at him. It seems likely that we will be signing Davide Chiumiento and Alain Rochat. Both came to us from the Swiss Super League. Chiumiento played a few matches last season while struggling with injury, but we have not seen Rochat yet (he was signed last year, and immediately loaned back to his original club… he’s due in Vancouver in January).
What kind of team do you think the Whitecaps are trying to create? A star-studded attacking team? A defensive, hard working team?
The USL Whitecaps have fielded three substantially different rosters under Teitur Thordarson during his time here, but we’ve seen a common theme that I’m sure will manifest again in the MLS squad: guts and speed on the backline, and sharp minds in the middle. Teitur builds his teams starting from the back, and that’s why we made two championship finals in three years under his watch. When you have a defensive fortress at the back feeding the ball forward to some very smart playmakers in the midfield, it means you can have a counterattack down the pitch in the blink of an eye. What we need now are some polished and capable forwards and strikers, and I think we’ll end up with a speedy, attack-minded team that is difficult to score against.
How would you like the team to reflect its long tradition that dates to 1974?
The NASL folded in 1984, which means I grew up watching the Vancouver 86ers. It was a team comprised mostly of local players that included some of the NASL Whitecaps players and personnel. That club packed a tremendous amount of speed and firepower, and it was not uncommon to see them demolish their opponents by a three-goal margin or more. I would love to see a team like that again, but I think the availability of international talent to North American teams has leveled the playing field quite a bit.
What kind of players would you like the Whitecaps acquire going forward? What do they need to do competitive from day one?
We need some offensive firepower. I think the building blocks for the rest of the team are largely in place.
What rumors are you hearing about big-name or European players that Vancouver is looking to sign?
Robbie Keane’s (Irish international forward) name has been thrown about by media across the UK, but I can’t see the Caps outbidding the likes of other UK clubs who are in the hunt for his services. There was a completely unsubstantiated rumor about Petr Cech coming here that can be traced back to a joke on Twitter that spread like wildfire. Other than that, the club has been very quiet about who it is pursuing. Teitur Thordarson and Tommy Soehn have been spending a lot of scouting time in Central America, so I would not be surprised if we end up bringing in some unknown youngsters before signing well-known DPs.
What’s your take on Teitur Thordarson, the coach?
He’s a marvellous guy who always makes time for the Southsiders. Supporters could not ask for a better coach at the helm, because Teitur believes in what we do. He knows we can impact the play and morale on the field, and he has brought players out to many of our membership events as a way of reciprocating the support we bring to the matches. As far as his coaching style goes, he places a very high emphasis on fitness. His running drills are grueling, but it always pays off later in the season. The Whitecaps always seemed to look fresh before every match, even when playing a ridiculous schedule of four matches in seven nights as was the norm for USL. I’ve always liked the fact that he had the guts to go against the typical North American sports mentality and field some teenagers against opponents in their late 20 and 30s. The kids have the legs to run all day long, but they lack the experience to compensate for what they give up against their opponents on the physical side. They won’t get that experience sitting on the bench, and Teitur isn’t afraid to give them a chance.
What’s his style of play?
His style changes with the roster available to him, and the opponent he’s facing. Vancouver has had major roster changes three years running, and it will be four years next season. His defensive work has been rock solid, but I know he enjoys an attacking style of play with lots of holding pressure around the box. MLS teams would be wise not to underestimate him – he has an excellent coaching pedigree and loads of international experience.