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After dismal start, Whitecaps arrive as a work in progress

Interim coach finds that stringing together wins is no easy task
by: SUBMITTED PHOTO

With the worst record in MLS, the Vancouver Whitecaps are finding out just how hard it is to be an expansion club.

The challenge of adjusting to a higher level of competition was compounded by having to adjust to a new coach. After the Whitecaps began the season 1-5-6, Vancouver fired coach Teitur Thordarsan. Tom Soehn, the Whitecaps' soccer operations director, took over as interim coach.

'I've never taken over a team in the middle of the season,' Soehn says. 'We had to learn our tactics while we were playing every three days, and that was a tough transition.'

With the Whitecaps now 3-12-9, 18 points, the club is still a work in progress.

'There's a learning curve to go through as far as the players you bring into the league understanding what MLS is about and how athletic it is and the travel,' Soehn says. 'You have to grow into that.'

Soehn is in the odd position of knowing that this will be his only year at the Whitecaps helm. This month, Vancouver announced that NASL Carolina RailHawks coach Martin Rennie will take over in 2012. That does not change the way Soehn approaches his job, though.

'It gives me a unique perspective to be able to coach these guys and learn not only the talent level of the guys but the mentality of the guys,' Soehn says. 'You know what we need or what we need to build off of.'

With no real chance of making the playoffs, Saturday's 7 p.m. Northwest derby match at Jeld-Wen Field against the Portland Timbers (7-11-5, 26 points going into Wednesday night's match against Sporting Kansas City) could be either a highlight or a lowlight of the season for Vancouver.

'All of us take this Northwest rivalry pretty seriously,' Soehn says. 'There's a real pride that goes along with it. Those games seem to have more of a playoff mentality.'

Soehn credits the Timbers' fast start at home for the disparity in the two expansion clubs' records.

'Bottom line is they won a lot of home games early and we didn't,' Soehn says. 'That gave them a good start to the season, although both of us have found being an expansion team is very difficult and there's a lot of work left to do.'

Despite the Whitecaps' record, the Timbers should not be expecting a cakewalk match. After playing for Soehn for several weeks, the Whitecaps are becoming more comfortable with what he wants them to do.

'They understand a bit more what we're trying to accomplish,' he says, 'although we're still fragile in the fact that stringing wins together has been difficult.'

By the end of the season, the Whitecaps' inaugural MLS campaign will be remembered as much for its struggles as anything. But it seems that is a process the Whitecaps have to go through to achieve their goals.

'The thing we've set out to do is build a team that the city and the fans can be excited about,' Soehn says. 'A team that plays an attractive brand of football and has success.'