Is Sartini the right one?

We’ve had as near as makes no difference the equivalent of a season’s worth of games with Vanni Sartini in charge of the Vancouver Whitecaps, which is ample time to make sweeping judgements abut the nature of his his tenure.

On the positive side of the ledger he’s the first Whitecaps coach since Teitur Thordarson to connect with the fans in a meaningful way.

While Rennie and Dos Santos were mostly locked in with their own internal demons and Robinson felt he was far too much a real football person to stoop to the level of pretending to care about a Canadian soccer team, Sartini lives every moment on the outside.

Too exuberant at times? Not really. Modern coaches have become shamanic presences as much as tactical masterminds and Sartini appreciates that he’s as much a part of the game day experience as any of his players.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t tactically interesting too.

He only wavered from his preferred three central defenders for a few games and has been willing to play just about anybody in those roles if needed. Almost never successfully of course, but Javain Brown is a much better defender with the game played in front of him than having to track back following a forward run.

Similarly his love of a wing back has led to the transformation of Ryan Raposo into a surprisingly disciplined left sided defender.

But Raposo isn’t a long term solution in that position just as Dajome isn’t a solution on either side of the pitch. The issues on the right side have been solved by the arrival of Julian Gressel and one suspects that the left side will be solved by acquisitions rather than coaching.

And the issues in the centre of the field have been solved by the arrival of Andres Cubas rather than anything that Sartini did tactically. And “issues” is a fairly unassuming description of the debacle the midfield had been until Cubas arrived (and still is in his absence)

The biggest problem by far however is the inability to get the team to play for ninety minutes.

This is a carry over from the Dos Santos era, but whereas the Dos Santos version of the Whitecaps seemed to be hamstrung by fear the Sartini version seem to be hamstrung by lack of intensity.

Constantly needing the shock of adversity to up your game isn’t a strategy for long term success and it isn’t indicative of “character” either and if Sartini doesn’t figure out a way to fix this problem then it will be his downfall in the long run.

Overall we are left with a mixed bag that mostly leans toward the positive and the Canadian Championship win showed that he could be single minded about an objective in a way that displayed admirable determination.

Sartini will probably turn out to be a coach who needs players to solve his problems rather than anything he does in coaching sessions but he’s still on a learning curve, he’s likeable and he’s achieved some success already.

That’s a huge improvement on his recent predecessors.

Vancouver Whitecaps stop making sense

So once again we were forced to watch another shameful first half performance from the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Sleepwalking their way to conceding an early goal while failing to produce anything remotely approaching a respectable passage of football.

Only the hustle of Julian Gressel offered any redemption.

His crosses may have been terrible but at least he was making the effort to kick the ball into the opposition penalty area

The second half wasn’t much better.

Houston sat back and allowed the Whitecaps to pass the ball very, very slowly without any real intent and perhaps occasionally float in half-hearted crosses that were gobbled up by a defence specifically designed for such a purpose.

Meanwhile the visitors looked dangerous every time they sprang forward.

It’s true that Andres Cubas was sorely missed, but having two central midfielders who are incapable of even remotely understanding where the ball will be in the next five seconds seems like a dangerously casual approach to the basics of the game.

It became increasingly obvious that the Whitecaps had neither the will nor the guile to create even the shadow of meaningful chance let alone score an actual goal.

A disgraceful display all round.

Oh, and then they scored two late goals and walked away with three points that keeps the season very much alive.

Nothing makes sense any more.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-3, Gressel-4*, Raposo-3.5, Brown-1, Veselinovic-1.5, Blackmon-1.5, Teibert-1, Owusu-1, Vite-1.5, Gauld -3, Ricketts-2 (Baldisimo-2, Cavallini-3.5)

Whitecaps don’t let the wheels fall off!

Any other team would probably get a pass for not being fully focused in their first game back after a big cup win.

But “not being fully focused” is so much a part of the Whitecaps DNA that this felt more like business as usual.

Simple passes weren’t completed, runs weren’t made and opponents were left to roam free and the inevitable goal was conceded.

After thirty minutes Vancouver decided that they would finally give it a go and began to creep back into the game

Gauld fired shot after shot wide and/or high, Cubas began to intercept the ball and Gressel hit first time cross after first time cross while his teammates wondered why he wasn’t taking an extra touch and passing the ball back to the player who gave it to him.

When the equalizer came it felt both inevitable and surprise.

Inevitable because Nashville invited pressure when they didn’t need to and teams that do that almost always pay the price and a surprise because Vancouver looked incapable of breaking down the that defence no matter how hard they tried.

A Javain Brown knee into the back of the net was a fitting conclusion to a game where both teams were more keen to display their weaknesses than their strengths but, for the Whitecaps, it was a perfectly satisfactory road point to keep the season trundling along.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-6*, Gressel-5, Raposo-4, Brown-5.5, Veselinovic-4, Blackmon-4.5, Cubas-5, Baldisimo-3, Vite-1, Gauld-5, White-3 (Owusu-4.5, Dajome-4.5)

All hail the Vancouver Whitecaps!

And so it came to pass that the Vancouver Whitecaps would win the Voyageurs Cup.

Not without the inevitable angst and a few doubts along the way but, in the end, the Whitecaps were deserved winners over Toronto FC in the Canadian Championship final.

But there must have been more than a few Whitecaps fans who felt a shiver of trepidation when the starting lineups were announced.

The thought of Jake Nerwinski lining up against Lorenzo Insigne felt like a recipe for chaos on the right side of the Vancouver defence but, like all recipes these days, the preamble and promise did not live up to the taste test.

Nerwinski reduced the Italian to an ephemeral presence who was forced to drop deep to get into the action and, somewhere in Insigne’s subconscious, there must have been the ominous foreshadowing of games to come where teammates make all the wrong choices at all the wrong times.

Nerwinski and the whole defence were once again helped out by the tireless presence of Andres Cubas who, at one stage, seemed so intent on harrying TFC back toward their own goal that it didn’t seem impossible that he might force the ball into the back of the net with a tackle.

But everybody contributed. Dajome and Raposo did sterling work in the wing back roles (and Gressel gave a pleasing cameo of just how good his delivery can be) while White and Cavallini were a constant annoyance to the TFC backline.

The star of the show though was Ryan Gauld, particularly in the first half. The Scot ran rings around a lumbering Michael Bradley and helped create enough chances to push Vancouver to a bigger lead than the slender one goal they held at the break.

The second half turned out to be a salutatory reminder of the weaknesses this team still possesses.

The inability to build on a lead, the overwhelming desire to drop far too deep and the frustrating habit of misplacing even the simplest of passes when the pressure is on.

They bent but they did not break however and, while being forced to a penalty shootout was probably rough justice based on the tenor of the game as a whole, it is by far the best way to win (and worst way to lose) any important game of football.

Whether this game gives the team the self-belief it so clearly needs or turns out to be yet another false dawn remains to be seen.

But Tuesday evening was a reminder of why we go to the games, why we follow the team no matter how terrible they can be and why the reward of the good times is worth the endless risk of the bad.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-6, Dajome-6, Raposo-6, Nerwinski-7, Veselinovic-6.5, Blackmon-6.5, Teibert-6, Cubas-7, Gauld-7.5*, Cavallini-6, White-6.5 (Gressel-6, Baldisimo-5.5, Godinho-6 Ricketts-5)

The Whitecaps do bad things

From last night but now with additional catharsis.

So here’s the theory.

The Whitecaps, as a group of players, are neither tactically smart enough nor mentally strong enough to raise their game to the levels they are capable of unless they are facing some kind of backs to the wall scenario

Ask them to battle for a point in Portland and they’re fine, ask them to fight back from a goal down and they’ll give it a go.

But ask them to take the initiative in a home game against an Eastern Conference team and they fall to pieces.

This “taking the initiative” things is such an incomprehensible riddle to solve. I can only think of the second half against LAFC as a time when the Whitecaps genuinely went at an opponent at BC Place this season. Not just trading chances or outperforming them in xG, but actually riding the crest of their own momentum.

And so it was against Chicago on Saturday evening as the Whitecaps were out played, out thought and out fought for all but twenty minutes of the second half.

Time and time again lazy passes were played, runs weren’t made and opponents were left to roam free.

If this was a one off display of incompetence and disinterest then fine. But throw in the games against Minnesota, Seattle and Columbus (and pretty much any first half for the rest of the season) and there’s a pattern of, well let’s call it what is , “unprofessionalism”.

Is that too harsh? I don’t think so. If you allow an opponent to work harder than you and don’t learn from that at the first attempt then that’s unprofessional. How many times have we heard Sartini tell his team that they need to focus for the full ninety minutes? Yet still they continually fail to do just that.

There are some groups of players who would see the coach’s decision to rest regular first team starters ahead of a Cup Final as a chance to prove a point.

The Whitecaps just saw it as a chance to sleep walk through the game and resort to complaining to the official when the opposition did what any half-decent football team would do on the road.

Why are they so mentally brittle?

Partly it has to be down to the coaching staff. A stronger coach would definitely have made changes before half-time in this game and there never seem to be any real consequences for playing this badly. Just more praise after the inevitable bounce back performance.

First team places certainly don’t seem to be assigned based on first team performances. How dispiriting must it be for a bench player to see Russell Teibert be virtually undroppable? Or to see Cristian Dajome get as many minutes as he has given his tanking form this year? Doing well in training seems to be the only metric used when naming the first eleven.

But it also has to be an issue with the players themselves.

There doesn’t seem to be any sense of accountability within the squad when they do play so poorly. Just enthusiastic hand claps and cliched words of regret in the post game media appointment.

That’s exactly what we got. But this time they will definitely learn from their unacceptable performance it seems.

Winning the Canadian Championship on Tuesday evening will be a huge boost for the club, but even that won’t take away from the fact that this squad takes what it can get and simply isn’t prepared to go the extra mile to get more.

If Sartini doesn’t win on Tuesday and the Whitecaps fail to make the playoffs it’s hard to see how he keeps his job. But there have been too many games he has treated as free passes this year. Early season road game against an Eastern Conference opponent? Meh. Game before a Canadian Cup contest? Meh.

Almost no team in the world can afford to turn their competitive spirit on and off at will and this team most definitely can’t.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Boehmer-3, Gressel-2, Godinho-2, Jungwirth-1, Nerwinski-2, Brown-1.5, Cubas-4.5, Owusu-1.5, Vite-1.5, Dajome-1.5, Cavallini-2.5 (Gauld-4.5*, Teibert-3, Blackmon-2)

Vancouver Whitecaps play more than “prevent defence”

The 1-1 tie with Portland on Sunday evening was comfortably the Whitecaps best road performance and (taken as a whole) the best overall performance of the season too.

No doubt the return of Andres Cubas helped the defence remain solid, but Ryan Gauld looked back to his best and that also helped Brian White give one of his better showings too (the benefit of White is that other players always know where he will be on the pitch and that is especially helpful to Gauld it seems).

Isaac Boehmer had another stellar night in goal with only a penalty-kick able to beat him and Veselinovoic and Nerwinski were stalwarts at the back.

Triston Blackmon though continues to veer between looking supremely comfortable on the ball and then unthinkingly playing a pass that puts the opposition in a great position. If he can figure out how to concentrate for the full ninety minutes he’ll be a much more useful a defender.

There was also some frustration that the Whitecaps sat a tad too deep as the game wore on but that’s often the nature of the game and, to their credit, they continued to look to create chances whenever the opportunity arose.

The arrival of Julian Gressel can only make them stronger and there’s now probably only two more roles that Sartini needs to figure out to make the team as good as they can be.

Who to play alongside Cubas and how to set up the front three?

One scenario would be to have Baldisimo in the former role (a very good passer of the ball alongside a very good ball winner is the dream ticket) and it should be a toss up between White and Cavallini as the lone striker playing in front of Gauld and Vite or Dajome.

My take is that White (as above) is easier to build a system around than the more maverick Cavallini, but both have shown strengths and weaknesses this season so a mix and match approach isn’t that terrible an idea.

All in all, and given the injuries they have faced this year, the Whitecaps are in a pretty good place right now.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Boehmer-6.5, Dajome-5, Raposo-5.5, Nerwinski-5.5, Veselinovic-6, Blackmon-4.5, Cubas-6.5, Teibert-4.5, Gauld-6.5*, Cavallini-5, White-5.5 (Baldisimo-5, Godhino-4.5)

The Whitecaps hit the ground like sacks of wet cement

So we can at least agree that soccer makes no sense?

In the first half of the 2-2 tie with Cincinnati the Vancouver Whitecaps were mostly awful as Vanni Sartini deployed a brave line of magical thinking by believing that a midfield two of Teibert and Jungwirth would be adequate cover for the absence of Andreas Cubas.

It was not adequate cover for the absence of Andreas Cubas and Vancouver were lucky to go into the break only one goal behind.

They were also unlucky again with injuries, although one does begin to wonder if so many injuries is related to the way they train and if so many freak accidents is related to a lack of cohesion on the field.

It could all just be the role of the dice (memo to self: leave “role” in there as is, it’s pleasingly pretentious) of course so no definitive answer will be forthcoming.

In the second half the Whitecaps were much better defensively (maybe they had lulled Cincinnati into a false sense of security?) but the game really turned with the arrival of Brian White, who provided some energy up front and particularly Michael Baldisimo, who provided some forward passes to a front line desperate for even the smallest sliver of hope.

By the end of the game it was the Whitecaps who looked the more likely to grab the winner and while a point isn’t a season changing tally it does at least keep them ticking along just when it looked as though the season may fall away from them.

It may still do just that of course but, for now, they are still a viable option to sneak into a playoff spot.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-3, Raposo-4.5, Dajome-4.5, Brown-4, Godoy-3.5, Blackmon-4, Teibert-2.5, Jungwirth-2, Vite-2, Gauld-5.5*, Cavallini-3 (Boehmer-5, Nerwinski-4, Baldisimo-5, White-4.5)

To have only one suitable midfielder may be regarded as a misfortune; to have so many unsuitable midfielders may be regarded as carelessness

Look, we all know that the Whitecaps could take four points from the next two road games and suddenly be sitting pretty in the Wester Conference standings. That’s just how MLS works.

But the performance against Minnesota outlined that the problems the team faces are still larger than the solutions they have.

Let’s set aside the fact that in the post game interviews everybody involved thought that trading half chances in a home game against a team on the same points is a “good performance” (it’s adequate at best) and focus instead on the more obvious deficiency.

The central midfield.

Because although the arrival of Andres Cubas has helped alleviate the issues faced in that area his absence for the second half on Friday evening exposed the flaws with startling clarity.

It was a throwback to earlier in the season as we were once again treated to the sight of opponents strolling through the centre of the pitch while the Whitecaps midfield looked on with bemused alarm.

But let’s first look at what the options are when Cubas is on the the field?

Russell Teibert- there’s something quite endearing about the way that Teibert has refused to grow as a player in his time as a Whitecap. Admittedly he has added the first time pass into a wide channel to his repertoire of late but that feels more like a new line of code in his programming than any inherent understanding of what is happening on the field.

Mostly he continues to revert to the simplest backwards directed pass available no matter how many colleagues are free ahead of him or how much pressure this pass puts on the poor player receiving the benighted ball.

One assumes that Sartini keeps playing Teibert due to his work rate and earnest demeanour. But it’s tough to watch this kind of play week after week.

Leonard Owusu- Owusu has had games where he seems able to dominate the midfield and be just what the doctor ordered for the Whitecaps. But he has had many more games where he has no real influence at all and far too many games where he has been downright dangerous to the health of the team’s defensive solidity.

A swing and a miss when it comes to the recruitment team here (ditto the above for currently out on loan Janio Bikel).

Ciao Alexandre- there seemed to be an online backslash to Alexandre when he did finally make a couple of brief appearances earlier this season. That’s probably down to his stock rising so highly when he was absent that many had come to see him as the miracle cure to what ails the team.

But while it’s still impossible to make any kind of definitive assessment about how useful Alexandre would be, it is possible to say that he is not the kind of player that Sartini wants to see in his midfield anyway.

Making his availability more of a moot point than it has often seemed to be.

Michael Baldisimo- neither is Baldisimo the kind of player that Sartini wants in his midfield. At least not the Baldisimo that exists in real life. The coach wants Baldisimo to be a deep lying playmaker who can also defend but Baldisimo is not that and the Whitecaps don’t have the luxury of time to turn him into that.

His whole tenure in Vancouver feels like a waste of talent that would be better suited to a club that wants the skill set he has.

Sebastian Berhalter- another player blighted by injury but one that may at least partly fit the profile that both the coach and the supporters want. A defensive midfielder who can at least hit a forward pass, it’s tempting (wildly disillusioned?) to think that Berhalter could develop into a very decent MLS midfielder playing alongside and learning from Cubas.

The options when Cubas isn’t on the field?

Revert to a back four with three in midfield and ask Florian Jungwirth to stand in front of the central defenders and to not, under any circumstances, venture forward. Nobody wants to see the German haplessly chasing an opponent the full length of the field ever again.

It’s true that none of the above is an inspiring set of circumstances.

But a fit Cubas at least renders the situation sustainable until the team can figure out how to find a better partner for him.

An unfit Cubas however is a recipe for a situation that is farcical (but not comical).

Whitecaps revert to type

After the surprisingly positive performance against LAFC last week I ended my sparkling review of the Whitecaps win with the line “Now they just need to bring the same energy to a Friday night game against Minnesota”.

It’s amazing what truth can be gleaned from a desperate attempt to find a pithy ending to a blog post because reader, they did not bring the same energy.

What they brought instead was the more typical half-hearted attempts to press for a goal and an over reliance on being able to defend competently.

But one moment of quality did produce a goal for Cavallini in the second half and it would have been preferable/nice/wise if Vancouver saw that as an opportunity to build on their advantage and press for that rarest of beasts, a second goal.

They did not do this.

Instead they fell victim to believing their own publicity concerning their defensive prowess and simply allowed the visitors to score three unanswered goals without offering a shot in anger themselves for the rest of the game.

The absence of Cubas for the second half certainly didn’t help but the Whitecaps are built this way.

They are built to eke out wins by the odd goal while relying on fate and an abundance of defensive midfielders to see them through.

That’s why they will never reach the upper section of the Conference table.

Too happy to to settle for adequacy and live in the hope that the breaks go their way, too content to pas the ball in safe areas and not brave enough to try any take any game by the scruff of the neck.

Maybe a giant picture of Max Crepeau should be hung behind each goal to persuade the team that they still have something to prove and that working to win games is preferable to being afraid of losing them?

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-4, Godinho-4, Dajome-3, Nerwinski-3, Brown-5, Veselinovic-4.5, Teibert 2, Cubas-5, Vite-5*, Gauld-4.5, White-4 (Owusu-3, Cavlalini-4, Raposo-3.5)

Vancouver Whitecaps find a formula

So much time is spent on this site writing about what went wrong with a Vancouver Whitecaps performance that it feels almost ominous to detail the things that went right.

But the 1-0 win over LAFC is the perfect opportunity for a healthy dose of reluctant optimism.

The first half was “mostly fine”. The Whitecaps kept the visitors at bay without ever looking like scoring themselves, but the second half was a different story as they threw tradition out of the window and pressed to try a win a a game of football.

So what did go right in the second half?

Cavallini off- Credit to Sartini for having the nous to remove the Canadian forward before LAFC and an overly persuadable referee did the job for him. The change allowed White to play as the lone forward and give the attack a structure that was sadly missing in the first half.

White wasn’t great by any means but suddenly Gauld was playing with his teammates rather than alongside them and there just seemed more space for the rest of the team to run in to.

It’s possible that keeping Cavallini on and taking White off would have had the same impact but the White/Cavallini pairing looks to be an experiment that would fail a fairly basic peer review test.

Vite on- The coach has shown a latent distrust of Vite up to now, mostly reluctant to use him even when attacking guile was needed. But his introduction on Saturday added impetus to the Whitecaps already building momentum.

Always looking to play the quick forward pass it was somewhat disconcerting to see Vite and Gauld pinging passes to each other both confident that the other would control the ball and use it equally quickly.

It was a compelling case for the two playing behind a lone striker as the default tactical setup for the rest of the season.

A composed central defence- Given Godoy’s inability to play regular games it’s possible that the back three of Brown, Veselinovic and Blackmon is the best option right now.

Blackmon can be sloppy with his passing but at least is trying to make the right passes. Veselinovic has become a reliable regular and Brown has been a revelation in the centre of defence.

The erstwhile wing back has become a defensive rock and if he and Blackmon can utilize their abilities to get forward more they could add another string the the Whitecap’s attacking bow.

Andre Cubas- All of the above were hugely helped by the play of Cubas who makes it easier for everybody.

Those playing behind him are no longer faced with opposition players running freely at them while the midfield two scurry frantically in chase. Those in front of him are helped by his always opting for the forward pass if it’s on (and having the ability to play said pass).

It was fitting that his goal arrived thanks to him intercepting yet another opposition pass.

All in all it was a hugely positive night.

Now they just need to bring the same energy to a Friday night game against Minnesota.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-6, Godinho-6, Raposo-5.5, Brown-6.5, Veselinovic-6, Blackmon-5.5, Teibert-6, Cubas-7*, Gauld-6.5, Cavallini-5, White-5 (Vite-6)