One of the great mysteries that plagued the Vancouver Whitecaps last season was how the team could regress so far from their stellar 2015 campaign. All the key players were still there, the team had ostensibly been improved in certain areas, so why did the 2016 Whitecaps finish with 14 fewer points than the 2015 club, seven points out of a playoff spot?
A quarter of the way through the 2017 season, one major possibility presents itself: a dependable, reliable Kendall Waston is spending more time on the pitch and less time in the press box.
First, some context.
As an imposing, physical defender, Waston’s game is one fraught with contradictions. He must dominate opposing attackers without being a liability in the penalty area. He must assert his physicality without drawing countless fouls. He must exert an aura of intimidation without losing his cool.
It’s almost like being an elite professional athlete is hard or something. Go figure.
And while the towering Tico has made a name for himself as a bulwark of the back line, it’s the subtext to that name where things fell apart in 2016; namely, Waston’s reputation as a foul-happy card machine was amplified by his inability to control his temper.
Remember this doozy from Portland?
Waston gets a red for this challenge AFTER THE FINAL WHISTLE WAS BLOWN. pic.twitter.com/XKJDQQxFX3
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) May 22, 2016
Sure, Kendall. You didn’t hear the whistle. Okay. (Please don’t hurt me.)
It’s important to note that Waston’s performances were not the sole inhibiting factor to the overall malaise that gripped the ‘Caps in 2016. Heck, if you only looked at Waston’s stats, you’d think he was having a fairly by-the-books year, if not slightly improving.
However, Vancouver players were underwhelming across the board in 2015, not just Waston. This made Kendall’s three(!) red cards in 2016 hurt that much more, to say nothing of the repeated suspensions handed down by the MLS Disciplinary Committee (DisCo).
Fast forward to 2017 and Waston has received a grand total of… one yellow card.
One card in nine games while remaining on pace for his yearly fouls total? That’s downright angelic behaviour from Waston. Combined with rebound years from defensive midfielder Matias Laba and goalkeeper David Ousted, it’s no wonder the ‘Caps are holding their own in 2017’s vicious MLS Western Conference.
One could look at the decision by head coach Carl Robinson to hand Waston the captain’s armband as a key moment. With the captaincy comes no small amount of prestige and commensurate responsibility. Specifically, to wear the armband during a game means being the team’s representative to the referees – and good luck getting a fair shake from the referee if you’re losing your cool in every challenge.
It’s a major vote of confidence for a defender who still has a reputation that, at times, produces some baffling decisions from referees.
— Mike Martignago (@MikeMartignago) May 13, 2017
Apparently, standing your ground and being a large person are infractions now. Lovely.
And yet, despite that reputation, Waston has taken on the captaincy with model stoicism, showing none of the temper issues of 2016 while retaining all the hard-nosed defending that serves as the hallmark of his playing style. It’s a fine return to form for Waston, and one that has the potential to put the Whitecaps back in the thick of the playoff hunt like they were in 2015.
As luck would have it, a stern test of that narrative will be this weekend against Sporting Kansas City, home of noted rabble-rouser Dom Dwyer.
In case you forgot… pic.twitter.com/TyDO9K13Zb
— Andy Edwards (@AndyEdMLS) July 15, 2015
Ugh. No, Kendall. No. Dom gonna Dom. So long as you don’t take the bait, Vancouver gonna win.