VANCOUVER — One theme kept popping up when the Vancouver Whitecaps began the autopsy on a lost 2016 campaign in late October — leadership.
"It's easy to find your leaders when things are going well," head coach Carl Robinson said at the time. "It's hard to find them when your back's against the wall."
The Whitecaps took a first step in passing the leadership torch Wednesday, announcing they have declined to exercise their contract option for captain Pedro Morales in 2017.
At one time the club's most popular player, the decision to cut the Chilean midfielder loose after three seasons in Vancouver doesn't come as shock.
Morales burst onto the scene in 2014 after signing from Spanish La Liga side Malaga, posting 10 goals and 12 assists with the Whitecaps — he was named captain midway through the year — before being honoured as Major League Soccer's top newcomer.
But things would go south from there, mainly due to injuries and inconsistent play. When healthy, Morales never seemed to truly embrace his role, often looking like a passenger when the Whitecaps' ship would wobble, instead of a man eager to grab the wheel.
And as a designated player with an annual salary in the neighbourhood of US$1.25 million for a team that counts its dollars and cents, the writing was on the wall.
"Since the day Pedro joined our club he has been an excellent professional and one of the most naturally gifted players I have ever coached," Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. "We are thankful for his contributions to the club and city."
Morales leaves Vancouver with 25 regular-season goals and 22 assists — a franchise-best mark — after starting 71 of 86 MLS appearances.
The Whitecaps set a number of club records in 2015, including a first home playoff game, but there was a grocery list of issues this season.
They were horrible defensively, didn't score enough at the other and were undisciplined at key times, finishing with a 10-15-9 record and out of the playoff picture with three weeks to go on the schedule.
"At the very least you need to compete," club president Bob Lenarduzzi said after the season. "I think there were times this year when that didn't happen."
The 31-year-old Morales wound up with a team-high nine goals, but six of those came from the penalty spot.
The frustration felt around the Whitecaps seemed to come to a head when Morales and goalkeeper David Ousted, one of the club's most vocal players and a possible successor as captain, came nose-to-nose in disagreement during a late-season training session.
While the disappointment can't all be pinned on Morales it was also clear a void existed at the top, one that Vancouver will look to fill when it resumes training next year ahead of the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals in late February and early March.
The club's second captain since joining MLS in 2011, Morales said in an open letter posted on the team's official website that it was an honour to play for the Whitecaps.
"I hope to remain in the memory of those who knew my football skills, but more so to those who knew me as a person," Morales wrote. "Along with my family, all I can say is that we were happy here in Vancouver and we want to wish the club much success in the new season."
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press