Vancouver Whitecaps: Something we learned yesterday

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 half time lead over Minnesota United on Saturday evening wasn’t so much a vindication of Carl Robinson’s switch to 4-4-2 as it was a statistical anomaly caused by a penalty kick and another set piece goal.

A better coach (Or even a more proactive one) would have cashed in his chips at the break and reverted to the 4-1-4-1 system that has served the team well in recent weeks.

That didn’t happen though and the home team came out with something to prove and levelled the game with relative ease.

Fortunately that seemed to be the limit of their ambition and from that moment on the game felt like two broken down boxers taking half-hearted swings, each more concerned with feeling the mind numbing force of the knockout punch than landing it.

I’m not sure what it will take for Robinson to realise that Brek Shea is unable to play the central attacking role effectively, but Brek Shea constantly being unable to play the central attacking role effectively doesn’t seem to be it.

Against Minnesota he and Fredy Montero weren’t so much supporting each other as drifting in orbits dictated by a differing gravitational pull.

And though it’s good that the team are now so effective from set-pieces sooner or later they will have to figure out how to give Montero some actual service or risk turning their Designated Player into yet another journeyman forward scampering for space where none can be found.

Elsewhere Alphonso Davies provided a modicum of momentum when he was on the ball and Tony Tchani finally produced a goal without ever offering much of an attacking presence from the middle of the field.

And the makeshift defence did what we expected it to do; be largely solid while always hinting at the possibility of conceding when under genuine pressure.

Whether we see this game as two points dropped after being 2-0 up against one of the League’s less impressive teams or a point gained on the road during an injury crisis will largely depend on the tale of the table at the end of the year.

But next week’s trip to Chicago and the following home game against New York City will be much tougher tests than the one faced on Saturday and just doing enough to get by won’t be doing enough against either of those opponents.

Injuries and suspensions are no doubt a cause of much of the malaise but those injuries and suspensions seem to be tempting Carl Robinson back to the comforting cloak of safety first football that he looked to have discarded earlier in the season.

Let’s hope not.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6, Nerwisnki-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Tchani-6, Davies-6.5*, Techera-6, Shea-5.5, Montero-6

 

 

 

 

VAR from the Madding crowd

We all want certainty in our lives.

As we fight through the maelstrom of the modern world we become increasingly desperate for something, anything, to cling on to.

Just one solitary thing we can know without having to grapple with the uncertainties of subjectivity or moral relativism. A line in the sand that, once drawn, can never be breached or obliterated.

A moment when we can say without fear or fuss that a thing is true. Definitively, certifiably true.

Which is probably why the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) is being introduced into football.

Well, it’s either the search for clarity in a fragile world or the numerous sponsorship opportunities and lucrative contracts that the innovation creates.

Hard to choose between the two really.

I’ve always been very much in the anti VAR crowd so don’t expect anything approaching objectivity here, but a few games into the Confederations Cup have done little to quell my unease.

So let’s look at a few of the issues the current “test” raises.

“It’s only a test”– If somebody taking their driving test smashes into a shop window while texting their mother with their feet they don’t get to say “But it’s only a test! You can’t fail me for that!”.

Yet VAR seems to have that out every time. Players should have been red carded but weren’t? “It’s a test!”. Acres of time spent making a decision that is usually made instantly? “It’s a test!”.

We all know it isn’t really a test of course. There’s no way the authorities will have invested this much time, money and free lunches for it to fail now.

But if there’s any time for genuine criticism of the system then that time is now. None of this “It’s a test!” nonsense anymore please.

The effect on referees”- Most of us are used to driving with a GPS by now (Another driving metaphor? Weird) and we all know how that changes the way we perceive the world.

We pay less attention to our surroundings because we really don’t need to be looking for that church we need to turn left at because the GPS will tell us.

I’m not sure if that makes us worse drivers than before but it definitely makes us different drivers.

And I’m equally not sure that the match official in the Mexico v New Zealand game which descended into a brawl in the Confederations Cup would have acted any differently had there not been VAR

But it definitely felt as though he was willing to abrogate responsibility to the voices in his ear.

Over time that would very much change the way a game is officiated and I’ll leave it to you to decide if having a referee less mentally connected to the action is a good or bad thing.

It doesn’t eliminate controversy  One of the main selling points for the system was that it would eradicate endless debates about goal decisions, penalty calls and red cards.

The limited evidence so far is that it does no such thing.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise when the instances of “I’m seen them given” penalties are so numerous in football but for some reason there was the assumption that somebody looking at a replay seconds after the actual incident had occurred would be able to achieve a the kind of omnipotence only the gods can usually lay claim to.

So VAR won’t reduce arguments about the game at all, but it will at least make them far more tedious.

The law of unintended consequence VAR proponents were thrilled when a Portuguese  goal was recently rescinded because Pepe was shown to be a sliver of shoe offside.

“See!” they said “That worked!”.

And indeed it did. But what will be the eventual repercussion of that kind of decision?

For one thing I doubt that Assistant Referees will be raising their flags for marginal offside calls for much longer.

Why would they? Get it wrong and the tape will show that they stopped a legitimate goal scoring opportunity.

But if it was offside and a goal is scored it can always be reviewed. And if it was offside and no goal is scored then there’s no harm done right?

But what if it was offside and the subsequent attack leads to a corner which then leads to a goal?

Do we go back and review the offside call? You bet we will once something like that happens to a Real Madrid or a Manchester United in a big game.

And what if the corner was given incorrectly anyway? Review that if it leads to a goal? Same answer as above.

In short, a system that was originally promoted as only intervening in the most crucial of decisions is already displaying the kind of mission creep that makes most American inerventions in the Middle East look like well planned military exercises.

The MLS version is even worse- Getting the match official to trot over to a TV screen on the side of the pitch to review an incident should prove to be a bizarre mix of technology and farce.

At least it will provide a few laughs during the longueurs of waiting for an actual decision to be made I suppose.

Roll on August.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: We Better Talk This Over

One of the many reasons why Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the modern era is that, despite being hailed as a genius and the “voice of his generation” for at least fifty years, he has somehow been able to maintain a sense of his own fallibility within his lyrics.

Be it the “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” of 1963’s One Too Many Mornings, the “So many things we never will undo, I know you’re sorry, I’m sorry too” from 2001’s Mississippi or “Maybe it’s the same for me as it is for you” from 2012’s Long and Wasted Years.

Even at the end of one of his most bitter songs (1975’s Idiot Wind) after ten minutes of berating the partner in a failing relationship he concludes by accepting his own culpability in all that’s gone wrong; “We’re idiots babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves”.

There’s little doubt that Dylan hasn’t lived up to these lofty ideals throughout his entire personal life but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less valid (“Never trust the artist. Trust the tale” as D.H. Lawrence would have it) and anyway, rock stars get a pretty clear pass when it comes to the “being a role model” part of the job.

Excess and imperfection are not so much tolerated as expected in guitar heroes and modern day minstrels.

That leeway doesn’t apply to sporting figures however and it’s not quite clear why that is.

Maybe because they represent athletic achievement? Maybe because we often celebrate that achievement with our families and friends? Maybe because we feel we know them far more than we really do after watching them play week in and week out and listening to sound bite interviews?

Whatever the reason that sense of personal connection paradoxically makes us feel the pain of any supposed betrayal more keenly while simultaneously making us more eager to forgive and move on from any hint of indiscretion.

It’s a complicated set of emotions stemming from a weekly diversion that we ultimately want to be simple. We want “our” guys to be the “good” guys and we want “their” guys to be the “bad” guys and when the narrative doesn’t quite slot into that simple little niche we feel strangely bereft of any true moral compass.

And we tend to feel even more bereft when the facts surrounding a situation are (rightly) kept from public view, leaving us to clutch at innuendo and intuition as we clamber for some kind of ethical foothold to keep us upright.

We all still have our opinions of course (it almost feels like a facet of human nature to take sides in any situation).

But time and circumstance will cause those opinions to either harden or melt as the weeks and months go by until we finally lose track of what we knew we knew to be true way back when.

The only thing we can say with any certainty is that football is a simple game played by people who are just as complicated as you and I.

 

Good Times Bad Times for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Given that the Vancouver whitecaps were without three of their more impressive players of the season thus far in Waston, Bolaños and Williams the 1-1 tie with FC Dallas on Saturday evening was a satisfactory result.

It was even more satisfactory given how the game played out on the night as the Whitecaps created virtually nothing from open play and were once again forced  to rely on a set-piece to get them out of trouble.

Given all the absences Carl Robinson opted to move Andrew Jacobson into central defence and make Russell Teibert Jacobson’s replacement in the middle.

That was the most logical move in theory but in practice it didn’t really work out.

Jacobson was at least partly responsible for the Dallas goal and the team’s attacking options were effectively neutered as Teibert barely approached the opposition penalty area and when Tony Tchani did get an opportunity to play a dangerous pass he failed miserably.

It’s hard to know if that failure was down to technique or a mental block but either way Tchani’s progress in that role took a step back this week.

Things only really changed with the introduction of Alphonso Davies for Teibert as the youngster at least displayed a willingness to run at Dallas through the centre of the field.

It was only a cameo appearance for Davies but it could be that the central midfield suits him best in a team with a surplus of wide players. The Whitecaps certainly need somebody in there whose first thought is to get forward rather than to turn back.

Elsewhere Brek Shea filled in well for Bolaños without getting near his creativity and Jake Nerwinski did a steady job at right back without offering the attacking threat his pace can provide.

Vancouver now move on to two road games in struggling Minnesota and not struggling Chicago and it could be that the coach liked what he saw from that lineup when it came to defensive solidity.

Let’s hope not though.

The Whitecaps have prospered this season when they have shown initiative and a willingness to take the game to the opposition, but in times of trouble we all tend to revert to whatever our personal default position happens to be and there’s little doubt that Robinson’s is “safety first”.

Although “safety first” when it comes to players getting injured might not be a bad mantra for the rest of the season.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Newinski-6, Parker-6.5, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Laba-7*, Teibert-5.5, Tchani-5.5, techera-6, Shea-6.5, Montero-6 (Davies 6.5)

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Season So Far (The Forwards)

The female mosquito has six separate needles with which to extract our blood.

Two that are used to saw through the skin, two to hold that skin apart, one to drip saliva into the blood to keep it flowing and finally one to act as both a straw and a filtration system that separates the water from our blood and immediately excrete it; thus allowing as much top quality red blood cells as possible to be ingested.

We can say two thing about this.

Firstly, since it is sucking our blood while urinating on us the mosquito is a perfect metaphor for modern capitalism.

Secondly, we can only wish the Vancouver Whitecaps had such an efficient system for cutting through any kind of defence.

At least things haven’t been quite as bad this season and so we can conclude our ratings of the players so far with a cursory glance at the forwards.

Fredy Montero- 6.5 There must have been time earlier in the season when Montero felt as though the three attacking players consisted solely of Him, Himself and He.

Things have improved as the year has developed with both the wings and even the central midfield offering support on an almost regular basis.

The most positive thing about Montero has been the amount of work he puts in to every game. After all, the highest paid player could well have fallen into an extended sulk at not having the whole game plan revolve around him but Montero has never let his frustration show for more than a fleeting moment.

There have even been times when he’s effectively been playing both the number ten and the number nine role and that probably explains his slightly disappointing return in terms of goals scored but it’s inconceivable to imagine Vancouver being anywhere near as effective if Montero was absent for any length of time.

Brek Shea-6.5 Shea is a bit of an odd duck. There are times when he displays the qualities of the Premier League player he was for a few years and then there are times when he reacts to being given the ball with the same sense of alarm and despair I display when handed the bill at the end of a hearty meal with friends.

Shea hasn’t been helped by being played out of position in the central attacking role and nor has he been helped by injuries, suspensions and the good form of those currently ahead of him in the pecking order.

The optimistic view (And probably the right one) is that there is still much more to come from a player who should display fewer red card inducing fits of pique as he gets nearer to peak fitness.

Nicolas Mezquida-6.5 We have enough of a sample size to know that Carl Robinson doesn’t regard Mezquida as a regular starter and the coach may just be right about that.

Mezquida certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into the current formation for example.

There are times though when it feels as though he’s the last option to be considered from the bench when a game is crying out for his input.

Mezquida excels in both defending from the front and creating chances out of nothing through the sheer persistence of his pressing of defenders.

What he offers is the opportunity to move to two central forwards without losing too much of the defensive solidity through the middle and although he doesn’t have the most exquisite of touches he at least appreciates where the ball should be played and which runs should be made (Naming no names here).

He’s out of action for a few weeks so this is moot at the moment but if there was a trophy for “Most underappreciated by the coach and most overappreciated by the fans” (Let’s call it the MUBTCAMOBTF Trophy for the sake of simplicity)  then Mezquida would win it hands down.

Kyle Greig- 6  The only other forward to get any kind of meaningful minutes of first team action is Greig who looks a little too slow and a little heavy of touch to make it at the MLS level but does at least offer the possibility of being the “big man up front” for a desperate final five minute push for an equalizer.

It’s certainly better to have him playing that role than trying to force the ill-equipped Shea to do so anyway.

So there we have it.

Like the midfield the forward line has improved in 2017 (Though maybe not quite as much).

And like the defence the midfield has improved in 2017 (Though maybe not quite as much).

Next time out I predict there will be an actual game of football to talk about.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Season So Far (The Midfield)

In a world of increasing tumult and uncertainty how reassuring it is to have the Soccer Shorts player ratings to turn to.

Oh sure, the “Nobody lower than a 6, nobody higher than a 7” policy hints at a kind of Orwellian dystopia but Orwellian dystopia is pretty much the best we can hope for in this particular timeline.

Last time out we assigned numbers to the defence, so this time out I predict that it will be the midfield to step into the firing line.

It is! I was right!

Christian Bolaños-7 The absence of Pedro Morales has turned Bolaños into the creative hub of the team.

Carl Robinson has even flirted with playing the Costa Rican in the central number ten role but it’s clear that he is far better suited to the more open spaces of the wing.

The 4-1-4-1 has also reduced Bolaños’ defensive duties and the combination of him, Montero and Techera is showing signs of developing into a trio that can produce goals in a number of different ways.

The bad news is that Bolaños picked up a shoulder injury during his international appearance with Costa Rica and while (At the time of writing) it’s too soon to say just how long he will be out for it would be a huge blow for the team to lose their most inventive player for any length of time.

Not least because of his set-piece delivery.

Alphonso Davies-6.5 One player who could step in to replace Bolaños in the wide role is Alphonso Davies although there remain a couple of question marks hanging over his sixteen year old head.

Sure, much of the hype is well deserved but Davies still seems to have problems in linking up effectively with team mates on a regular basis as he often tries to beat one tackle too many when a simple pass would be the better option.

That may be a result of still learning his trade at the higher level or it may be a result of too many years spent as by far the best player on the field in his younger days.

Either way it’s an area of his game that needs to grow.

The other problem facing Davies is that he seems to be caught in the hinterland between being too good to drop down a level while being not quite good enough to earn a regular starting spot at this level.

He probably needs more minutes than he’s getting but Robinson would be brave to sacrifice team results in the short term in favour of individual results in the long term.

We shouldn’t worry about Davies too much though; he’s clearly a talent. But maybe we could worry about the success the Whitecaps (And Robinson) have had in improving young attacking players over the years?

The next two years will define Davies’ career so it’s vital that the right moves are made.

Cristian Techera-7 This felt like a make or break season for Techera because, after a bright start in 2015, he was well below average for most of 2016.

Would he be able to justify his salary in 2017?

The answer so far is an unequivocal “yes”.

Techera has been almost as effective as Bolaños at creating chances and his trademarked “Pick up the ball on the right wing, stop, shift the ball onto his left foot and whip in a perfect cross” may be a poor man’s version of Arjen Robben’s “Cut inside and shoot” when it comes to things that defenders know will happen but can’t seem to stop, but it has been a remarkably potent weapon.

The starting spot is now his to lose.

Andrew Jacobson-7 It has often felt as though Carl Robinson hasn’t really valued Jacobson in the past. Seeing him as a kind of Russell Teibert clone who can do a job if needed but not often needed to do a job.

That’s all changed this season however as Jacobson has slotted into the midfield while offering both attacking and defensive attributes.

He’s certainly not a flashy player, but he reads the game well enough to always contribute and it’s become hard to see the current 4-1-4-1 system functioning without his presence.

That’s quite an upgrade.

Tony Tchani-6 Tchani arrived in packaging that advertised him as the kind of box to box midfielder the Whitecaps have been lacking since the dawn of time.

It hasn’t panned out that way though and, if anything, he’s the more defensive partner in his pairing with Jacobson.

Tchani still seems to be coming to terms with his role in the team (At least once a game Robinson calls him over for a fairly lengthy chat about positioning for example) but there’s at least a sense that he is growing into the role.

He’s still a ‘6’ for now but if you have to bet on where he will be at the end of the year I recommend you bet higher (Please note that betting on the Soccer Shorts player ratings is strictly forbidden!).

Russell Teibert-6 Teibert can do a job if needed but is not often needed to do a job.

Mauro Rosales-6 His brief appearances have indicated that Rosales is good for twenty minutes of football at best and is probably more valuable sitting on the bench as an influence than coming off the bench to actually kick the ball.

This is his last season as a player for sure.

So that’s the midfield. Maybe not as big a success story as the defence but, once again, it’s an improvement on last season when the whole enterprise felt like a constant attempt to fit a square pegged Pedro Morales into an increasing number of round holes.

I predict that the it will be the forward line who will be evaluated next.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The season so far (The Defence)

With the Whitecaps having the weekend off to frolic in the summer sun this seems as good a time as any to assign some random numbers to how each player has performed so far in 2017.

Before we get to that though let’s first acknowledge that this season they have found a formation and a way of playing which definitely suits them.

Is it perfect? No.

And there are still adjustments to be made and tweaks to be tweaked when (Or if) everybody is healthy but for now the Whitecaps can look back with some satisfaction on the fact that they have re railed a season that threatened to careen off those rails in the early stages.

But enough waffle! To the ratings!

David Ousted- 6.5 It’s a testament to how much better the whole defence has been that we have seen far fewer of those patented “standing on his head’ Ousted saves this season.

But he has been solid (Maybe a little weak on shots down low to his left?) and goalkeepers who do less work are often doing a better job of marshaling their defence than those who catch the eye week in and week out.

But life isn’t fair so Ousted gets a 6.5 when there’s a good argument for him really being a 7.

Sheanon Williams- 7 There’s a case to be made that Williams was the best signing of the off-season. There’s also a case to be made that simply signing a decent MLS full back is one of the smartest moves any team can make.

Williams has erased all the bad memories of left wingers running riot against the Whitecaps last year while also offering a threat going forward

In addition he’s obviously made life easier for every other defender on the field (Kendall Waston in particular).

And he also seems like a perfectly nice chap to boot! (Just to clarify that I’m using “to boot” to mean “in addition” there rather than stating that he seems like a good candidate for a kicking).

Jordan Harvey- 6.5 If you don’t like Jordan Harvey then you need to take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror. Not pleasant is it?

He’s clearly a guy who gets what it is to be a professional footballer and also who gets what the games mean to the fans.

Having said that he’s now approaching the downward spiral of his career given that he’s lost a yard of pace and is often targeted in the air by the more savvy opponents.

He will still do a job for at least the rest of this season however but both Brett Levis and Sam Adekugbe should be picking up the enticing scent of Harvey’s blood dripping tantalizingly into the water.

Kendall Waston- 7 At the start of the season I was very much in the “Waston is expendable given his salary and his performance last year” camp.

How wrong I was.

Credit has to go to Carl Robinson for taking the decision to make Waston captain and credit too to Waston for accepting the mantle with the requisite responsibility.

Gone are the wild challenges that seemed to be as much about proving his worth as having any tactical value (Maybe now that he’s captain Waston doesn’t feel the need to prove as much?) and although his long and aimless balls forward remain a source of frustration to many, his defensive solidity has been a corner-stone of the campaign so far.

Tim Parker- 7 Parker may be my favourite Whitecap right now.

Sure his passing can be as agricultural as Waston’s but his strength, speed and ability in the air make him an invaluable asset.

Like Waston he’s also a constant goal threat from attacking set pieces and if both stay healthy the Whitecaps will have enough security at the back to make a run to the playoffs an awful lot more likely than it ever was last year.

Matias Laba-7 Let’s throw Laba into the defensive pool if only because there are so many midfielders the next post will be a pain for me to write.

Last season Laba was a bit of a mess in a team that was probably a lot of a mess.

We can debate which of those was cause and which was effect but this year we have the old Laba back.

There was some debate (Mostly within my own head) as to whether he could play as a lone defensive destroyer but the presence of Tchani and Jacobson in the midfield means that he’s both functioning and not functioning in that role.

Laba may well be the main bulwark protecting the back line in the centre of the pitch but he’s also free to roam around and into tackles as he loves to do because he knows that (Or at least hopes that) there will always be somebody to cover.

They also served- Jake Nerwinski and Marcel de Jong have each had more than one or two run outs this season and while de Jong (6) is still a limited player Nerwinski (6.5) looks to be a very good backup for Williams given his pace and willingness to get forward.

Spencer Richey (6) did a decent job of covering for David Ousted when required but he very much slotted into the “goalkeeper you notice” category.

That may have been because he was playing with personnel he wasn’t used to but he did demonstrate either a reluctance or an air of indecision when it came to coming off his line.

All in all though we can say that the defence has been the biggest success of the season so far and while that may not sell tickets at the box office it does make everything else about the game so much easier.

Next time out it’s the somewhat crowded midfield who come under scrutiny!