Vancouver Whitecaps: In the Land of Pain

Julian Barnes once wrote this about grief

“…you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine ……. you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life”

That’s far too elegant a description of far too important a feeling to cheapen by employing it in a blog about a soccer club but if recent world events have taught us anything it’s that class gets you nowhere and crass gets you everywhere so let’s go with it.

And anyway, Barnes’ words can legitimately be applied to things other than grief.

Because we’re tarred and feathered by everything in one way or another.

Even the mundane inanity of living in a society where commercial transactions can be regarded as both sacred and profane leaves a mark. The simultaneous celebration and denigration of commercialism can’t help but seep inside us.

And the strange thing about sport is how it somehow manages to fall somewhere in the centre of the sacred and the profane.

Or rather, it somehow manages to occupy both states at once.

Nobody can attend a Vancouver Whitecaps game at BC Place and not feel the cloying clasp of commerce on their shoulder.

But neither can one watch a game and not sense the spirit of something more intangible. The joy at a moment of magic, the laughter at a moment of farce and the sense that those around you, in that instance at least, feel the same or something similar.

And perhaps that’s why a football team can leave us tarred and feathered by their faults far more than something like a cable company or an airline.

We’re happy to accept the latter as purely monetary transactions while the former, for many of us, is closer to (pick your own word here) community, art, religion, history etc. etc.

So when it goes wrong for a football team we feel it more because it means more.

If we were to play a word association game with regard to the Whitecaps season thus far I think “dislocation” would fit the bill.

The sense that things aren’t quite aligned correctly.

Like watching a 3D movie without the glasses on we see that all the characters are in place but their actions are blurred and without focus.

To the extent that when things happen we really can’t say for sure whether they are for good or ill.

Every result seems to have a multitude of meanings because no single thing can ever mean more than the dislocation of the whole.

And that sense of dislocation begins to manifest itself in strange forms.

In the same way that in any domestic relationship the arguments about who should have bought the milk and how the dishwasher should be loaded aren’t really about milk and dishes but simply ways of dancing around bigger issues without embracing them then so the Whitecaps now find their supporters bickering over posters and apps and player Tweets and things the coach has said.

Perhaps things can be turned around?


But the sense of an ending that’s been hanging over everything almost since the season began means they won’t be turned around with minor adjustments to formations or using different words in post-game interviews.

Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and fly straight through that oil slick if you want to get back into the light.

Scream if you want to go faster!

What a strange ghost pepper of a season it’s been thus far for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Until recently Carl Robinson persisted in playing a formation and style that was not only deathly dull to watch but also wasn’t working.

Time after time the Whitecaps sat back against teams who there for the taking and time after time they were undone by their passivity leaving the coach to bemoan singular moments in games which should have produced a plurality of chances.

We also saw new acquisitions who could barely function for the way the team was playing and an almost pathological desire to switch players in and out of the starting eleven irrespective of form or performance.

Then, just when it seemed the whole enterprise would collapse beneath the weight of its own tedium, Robinson switched to playing two up front and the games began to get a little more entertaining.

A series of 2-2 ties is nowhere near enough to drag them back to the top of the table but at least they seem to be trying to score goals when they go forward (and they do actually go forward from time to time).

Do we give the coach credit for this change of attitude?

If we must I suppose but it really does feel as though it’s been thrust upon him by either circumstance or decree from on high because if you ask Siri “What is a defensive coach?” she will still send you a link to Carl Robinson’s Wikipedia page.*

So full credit to him for straining against every sinew of his being and beliefs for the last few games.

It almost certainly won’t end well of course.

One only need look at his notion that Bernie Ibini is good enough to be an occasional starter to realise the flaws are still there (on the field Ibini mostly looks like a man who is aware of the concept of soccer but has yet to ever see it played) and, like an habitual smoker who craves “just one more” before giving up for good, Robinson will no doubt return to his defensive ways should the Whitecaps somehow scrape in to the playoffs and we’ll all be left shaking our heads in dismay that it’s come to this again.

So maybe it’s best to treat this period of the season the way the child of parents who argue their way through the misery of their marriage treats a trip to Disneyland?

What’s gone before can’t be changed and what’s to come will inevitably be the same as what’s gone before and probably worse but, right here and right now, they are riding on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the warm California wind feels great in their face.

*She doesn’t of course. She gives a link to NFL coach George Edwards (The level of research I put into this blog really is quite astonishing!)

Vancouver Whitecaps in Familiar Territory

So the Vancouver Whitecaps played reasonably well in Dallas to earn their third 2-2 tie in a row.

Sure the defence still looked capable of conceding whenever they were put under any pressure and Brek Shea and Bernie Ibini offered virtually nothing in the wide areas and both Brett Levis and Jake Nerwinski showed the folly of leaving them out of the side for too long a period.

But Teibert and Felipe were neat in  the centre of the field on a day when keeping possession was essential given the Texan heat and Yordy Reyna once again demonstrated that his sudden bursts of pace can unsettle any team.

All the good looked to be for nought however once Dallas took a two goal lead with just over ten minutes to go but an own goal and a penalty kick (with the last kick of the game) were enough to earn the Whitecaps an unlikely but deserved point.

Can this result be a turning point for the season?

That depends on how coach Carl Robinson approaches the rest of the campaign. He was brave to stick with 4-4-2 at such a difficult place to visit and it ultimately paid off.

But from the limited evidence of this game it may be that the movement of Anthony Blondell is better suited to that formation than the back to goal style of Kei Kamara.

There’s no way that will happen of course but it would be interesting to see Blondell and Reyna get a run of games playing together as the front two because they both do the one thing the rest of the Whitecaps seem to find it so hard to accomplish; move off the ball.

It’s also clear that the best midfield two right now are Teibert and Felipe but, once again, that requires the coach to leave a shed load of salary sitting on the bench and that brings all kind of problems in terms of squad harmony as well as questioning the way this team was built in the off season.

What can’t continue to happen is the kind of mix and match team selection we’ve had all season where players are given no real chance to get to know each other in a competitive game.

It’s hard to know if we should be cautiously optimistic or optimistically cautious after that game but if the coach can settle on a starting eleven, stick with it bar one or two necessary changes and give them the okay to play football then the season may not be the right off it so clearly seemed to be.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-5, Nerwinski-5, Levis-5, Waston-5, Aja-5, Teibert-6*, Felipe-6, Ibini-3.5, Shea-3.5, Reyna-6, Kamara-5 (Davies, 5 Blondell-6)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Ball of Confusion

So where we are now is that we have a defensively minded coach who hasn’t been able to effectively organize his defence this season and is now forced to play an attack minded team (he almost certainly doesn’t believe in) in a desperate attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of what has gone before.

Oh and he hasn’t fielded the same starting eleven once this season.

Is it any wonder the Vancouver Whitecaps still haven’t got a definitive identity even though the World Cup is just around the corner?

Fittingly they followed up the 2-2 tie with Houston (a very poor road team) with another 2-2 tie against San Jose (another very poor road team) and no doubt we’ll get to hear the same blah, blah, blah about chances missed and lessons learned over the next few days while the season continues to ebb away with all the certainty of Carl Robinson making the wrong substitution at the wrong time.

At least the starting line up this time around was promising and the team did play some decent one touch football, created two goals from open play and mostly looked like they wanted to win the game rather than not lose it.

But a defensive lapse just before half-time allowed San Jose to equalize and then the home coach got to give his team talk.

It’s hard to imagine just what it is Robinson does say to his players in the interval but time after time after time the Whitecaps begin the second period flatter than a pancake that is the victim of a hit and run steamroller .

As per usual it took the opposition doing something (this time scoring a  goal) to wake them back to life and Yordy Reyna leveled it up with a nice header to set up the by now customary hustle to try and get something more from a game that should have been a fairly routine outing for a team of substance.

We interrupt this blog to bring you some ponderings from the next day.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Whitecaps really messed up in how they used the salary cap this season.

It’s hard to imagine an effective lineup in which Ghazal ($700,000) and Juarez ($620,000) both get to start in the centre of midfield or what Bernie Ibini ($300,000) gives the team more than Erik Hurtado ($150,000).

And of course there’s Brek Shea on $745,000.

What more could have been done if just two of those deals had been turned into a player of genuine quality?

Perhaps not much given Carl Robinson’s rather odd selection policy this year.

The coach has always emphasised that he’ll judge a player on performances yet Russell Teibert had his best start to an MLS season and has been rewarded by being frozen out of the side completely.

Even when he does come back (probably in Dallas) it will be tough to pick up where he left off in terms of form.

And the same can be said of Jake Nerwinski and Brett Levis to an extent. Two young full backs who have done nothing worse than any other member of the back line but have been relegated to the sidelines in favour of experienced players who still can’t help the team to keep a clean sheet.

And can we please stop defining “character” as having the ability to come back from a  deficit?

A team full of character would have built on that early lead against San Jose and cruised to a three or four goal victory.

But, like everything else about this team, their moral fibre is reactive not proactive.

We now return you to your regular blog.

Random thoughts?

Reyna finally found some spark to his game so it was baffling to see him substituted with less than ten minutes to go.

Sean Franklin offered virtually nothing going forward and Jake Nerwinski would have been a far better option in this game at least.

Both Davies and Kamara were really poor when it came to the final pass/shot.

Felipe looked good again as the one player who can find a decent pass from anywhere on the field.

Waston and Aja were terrible in their distribution.

And it’s hard to know what Brek Shea did in the previous game to convince Robinson he could turn this game around.

So it’s on to Dallas in an attempt to keep the fatally injured season alive for just a little bit longer.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-5.5, Franklin-5, de Jong-6, Waston-5, Aja-5, Juarez-5, Felipe-6, Davies-5, Techera-5.5, Reyna-6*, Kamara-5




Vancouver Whitecaps: Assessing the Newbies

A third of the way into a new season should be a pretty good time to take a look at the players the Vancouver Whitecaps added to the roster for 2018 and see just how they are fitting into the team and the system.

One small problem with that however is that right now the Whitecaps don’t so much have a “team” as they do a random collection of players who trot out on to the field from one game to the next.

Another small problem is that more than one of those players didn’t really seem to be acquired to fit into the system at all.

Nevertheless it says in The Bible that “judge not lest ye be judged” doesn’t apply to professional athletes so let’s go ahead and condemn or condone our fellow human beings with impunity.

Sean Franklin (Guaranteed Compensation-$150,000)- The veteran MLS defender was probably acquired as experienced back up to Jake Nerwinski at right back. But in the last few games he’s earned the starting spot and has shown a nice blend of defensive solidity and attacking prowess.

It’s a shame the presence of the old American prevents the young American from getting in to the team but overall Franklin is a slightly better defender than Nerwinski and a slightly less effective attacking presence and Carl Robinson can’t really be faulted for preferring the former over the latter in this instance.

Worth the money? Yes so far

José Aja- ($240,000)- Aja has become the de facto replacement for Tim Parker as Kendall Waston’s central defensive partner, quickly moving ahead of Aaron Maund in the pecking order.

Aja is nowhere near as reliable a defender as Parker was but he is also nowhere near as bad on the ball as Parker was.

Ostensibly he’s the ideal partner for Waston given their combination of brute force and passing ability but they’ve still to really settle as a consistently effective defensive pairing with every game bringing at least one moment to give the opposition hope.

Whether that’s something that can be fixed with time and familiarity or whether it’s just a feature of the way the two will always play together remains to be seen, but Waston’s departure for the World Cup will make Aja the senior man in whoever his new work buddy turns out to be.

That should tell us a lot more about how good a signing he was.

Worth the money? Yes so far

Efraín Juárez-$620,000- This is where it gets complicated. Juarez arrived in Vancouver after playing as a right back for much of his career but was touted as a central midfielder.

Juarez can play in the midfield of course, it’s just not his best position and its hard to know if Robinson chooses to play him there because he thinks he can add to the team or if he plays him there because that’s where the player wants to play.

Safe to say that whatever the reason the Mexican has yet to show anything other than glimpses of talent and flashes of petulance.

Yet Juarez definitely has the talent and experience to prosper in Major League Soccer and it’s not inconceivable he could turn out to be a pivotal player for the remainder of the season given a fair wind and the right mix of players around him.

But we will probably end up chalking this signing down to another example of the club forlornly hoping their coach could get something out of a player that previous coaches couldn’t.

Worth the money? Not yet no

Jordon Mutch- $285,000-  It’s tempting just to type “see previous entry” for this one. Mutch arrived on loan from Crystal palace having barely played a game for the EPL side and with no obvious role in the way the Whitecaps play.

Yet when he has seen the pitch both his strength and quality have shone through and it was as frustrating for fans to see him pick up another injury as it was for the player.

The pessimist that lives inside every football fan will have looked at that moment and shrugged and thought “that’s going to be his season in a nutshell” but the optimist who keeps hammering the pessimist over the head with inflatable unicorns will be hoping the Englishman can find full fitness and form during the latter half of the season.

Worth the money? At that price yes

Felipe Martins- ($425,000)  I doubt Carl Robisnon has ever seen a player who is comfortable on the ball and not thought “he would make a good deep-lying defensive midfielder”.

For much of this season the Brazilian has been an expensive version of Russell Teibert and, to be fair, he’s done the job just as well as Teibert does the job.


Felipe may not have been stellar when he has played further forward but he has at least offered some degree of guile in an attack that desperately needs it and some service of genuine quality in a team that prefers to play the ball to “areas” than to feet.

Whether the way the team played at the end of the Houston game will convince/force Robinson to be more adventurous is anybody’s guess but it would be frustrating to watch the team’s best passer of the ball tootling ineffectively around in his own half for another ninety minutes.

Worth the money? Depends where he is playing

Vancouver Whitecaps: Shea Stadium

The release of the MLS Player’s Salary details this week provided a perfect storm of confirmation bias for fans of the Whitecaps.

For they now knew they had an ownership group who weren’t interested in keeping up with the new spending levels in MLS and a coach who was more than happy to use that lack of ambition as an excuse for the unimaginative way his team played week after week.

And, for the majority of the game, the visit of the Houston Dynamo did nothing other than confirm the arrival of said storm.

The Whitecaps struggled to play any kind of coherent football, missed any half chances that came their way and conceded to a nicely constructed move only to grab a scrappy goal in return just before half-time.

Those of us who wondered if Vancouver would build on that late goal were left disappointed as we simply got more of the same disjointed attacks and half-hearted flurries forward.

But then, without about twenty minutes to go, Juarez and Reyna came on to the field and out of nowhere the Whitecaps looked as though they were actually interested in playing some decent football and actually wanted to score a goal.

A previously lifeless Davies suddenly looked a threat and a previously frustrated Felipe suddenly started playing passes in dangerous areas.

For for the first time in a long time the Vancouver Whitecaps were almost fun to watch.

Obviously they missed all of their gilt-edged chances and conceded a late goal and even a very, very late Waston equalizer couldn’t hide the fact that a home tie against Houston isn’t going to turn around any kind of slump.

But let’s hope those twenty minutes somehow convince the coach that actively trying to score goals isn’t that bad an idea at home and that playing some kind of football along the turf isn’t really the highfalutin madness he sometimes seems to think it is.

Will he send out a more attacking lineup against San Jose on Wednesday evening?

We interrupt this blog to bring you some thoughts from the following morning.

In his post-game presser Robinson spoke of how he asked his team to player quicker at half-time and how he was pleased with the way in which the fans got behind the team.

Let’s assume he realizes (or somebody tells him) that those two events are not unrelated and that playing on the front foot at home can often be a very effective strategy (especially against a very poor road team).

Imagine a world where the Whitecaps try to win a game from the get go at BC Place? Can such a wondrous place exist?

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about the aftermath of that game though is that we are still nowhere close to knowing what the best eleven for this team is.

There are those within the Whitecaps organization who will opine that it really doesn’t make any difference who is on the field, such is the flatly balanced ability of all in the squad, but it really does.

A team can’t find coherence if it’s constantly being switched around to keep everybody happy or if the coach is far too frequently reacting to the last game or the last game but one.

From a supporter’s point of view the best case scenario right now is that the players who can somehow break out of Robinson’s tactical passivity all get to start and that means the likes of Davies, Reyna and Felipe.

Those tantalizing glimpses of pleasant football we saw on Friday evening need to be converted in to something so much more from here on in.

Will Robinson encourage that kind of play against San Jose on Wednesday evening?

We now return you to your previous blog.

Almost certainly not, but we can at least dream.

Finally a special shout out to Brek Shea (a Designated Player and the second highest earner on the Whitecaps) who produced a startling cameo in which he missed the easiest chance to score a goal in the history of humanity before cleverly setting up Houston for their second goal with a nice cross field pass.

That’s efficiency right there.

Time for your Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-6, de Jong-5.5, Franklin-6, Aja-5.5, Waston-6*, Felipe-5.5, Ghazal-5, Ibini-4, Davies-5.5, Blondell-5, Kamara-5 (Jaurez-6, Reyna-6, Shea-2)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Can’t See the Wood

Shinrinyoku is a Japanese phrase meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or, if you want to charge people an exorbitant amount of money for a one day experience, “Forest Bathing”.

It’s really just referring to the restorative qualities of being in nature. That combined sense of permanence and impermanence, growth and decay that in some inexplicable way is strangely reassuring.

And it might not be a bad idea for the next Whitecaps in-game promotion to offer fans a free Shinrinyoku experience for every time a cross in to the box finds a solitary striker being marked by at least four defenders given how frustrating that sight has become.

Better still, they could plant a tree for every errant pass and solve the problem of climate change in ninety minutes.

It’s not just that the 1-0 defeat to ten men Minnesota was bad (I’m even willing to listen to arguments that it was fair to mediocre) it’s simply that it reaffirmed everything we know to be wrong with this team.

Can’t break down a deep-lying defence? Check.

A coach who can’t react to a change in the game state? Check.

Mental indiscipline? Check.

Inability to pass and move? Check.

Post-game interviews speaking of “regrouping”? Check.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Carl Robinson’s media appearances has become that before a game he’s all too willing to talk down his team whereas after a game he’s all too willing to say how well they played.

This week’s iteration began with him asserting they were at the same level as Minnesota (an injury ravaged expansion side from last season) and ended with him opining that his team were “excellent” (while simultaneously throwing individual players under the bus).

Without being in the locker room it’s hard to know how the players feel about this plethora of mixed messages but they’re infuriating to hear as a fan of the team.

On the pitch Nicolas Mezquida once again confirmed he’s a valuable substitute rather than a starter, Anthony Blondell showed enough to indicate he can offer a lot more than simply being a big presence up front and Yordy Reyna at least displayed some liveliness even if he was hardly ever given the option of a teammate showing for him or creating space.

And then we have Felipe.

Robinson seems to like him as a defensive midfielder but in the second half the Brazilian did move forward more and yet still created little of value with seven passes in to the Minnesota penalty area of which only one landed successfully.

Not for the first time we see a player with the ability to create something being hampered by tactics purposefully designed to limit creativity.

Oh well.

The Whitecaps now have two home games in which they will probably do just enough to prevent the level of criticism reaching an unbearable level but the depressing reality is that they won’t play well in those games because that’s not what they are set up to do.

At the start of this campaign Robinson said this was the best squad of players he has had at the club and he’s right.

There’s so much more potential contained there than being reduced to scratching around for half-chances and knock downs against one of the worst teams in MLS.

Maybe we should all just go hug a tree?