Vancouver Whitecaps: Reviewing the Situation

While the current World Cup blinds us all to every other sporting event rather like an alien spaceship hovering over the horizon intermittently blocking out the sun and intermittently dazzling us with its reflection, it’s easy to forget that the Vancouver Whitecaps are back in training and preparing for a game in Philadelphia next weekend.

And how much better the mood must be now the team are finally scoring goals and trying to win games?

Carl Robinson certainly deserves credit for adjusting his team to play in a manner just about everybody else said they should have been playing from the first game of the season and the question now is whether he left that change too late for the season to be genuinely successful.

Hopefully the coach hasn’t used his time away from the players to dwell on the number of goals they’ve conceded too much, but hopefully he has been dwelling on how to use the best group of players he’s had at his disposal.

So what are his options?

Firstly, let’s take the players who should always start if fit.

Marinovic, Waston, Henry, Felipe, Davies, Reyna and Kamara.

That might be harsh on Techera (who is in a hot streak of goalscoring form) Aja (who has been fine in central defence) and Mutch (who has been very good when available) but the named seven are the ones who have done enough to always be pencilled (Damn it man just write it in pen!) to the starting eleven.

There’s nothing much wrong with continuing to alternate the full-backs until the business end of the season as each one of Nerwinski, Franklin, de Jong, Levis and Shea have strengths and weaknesses and can be picked and chosen to suit the demands of the day.

In central midfield Felipe’s “What kind of player is he really?” quality can be useful in platooning other players in.

In Colorado he worked very well with Juarez in controlling the pace of the game (and keeping the ball) and Ghazal or Teibert could slot in as more defensive cover to allow Felipe to move forward when needed.

In home games though the ideal scenario would be Felipe sitting deep as a putative defensive midfielder, while still able to play passes that release the pacy players in the team, with Mutch as the attacking box to box midfielder.

Mutch made much difference when he came on as a substitute against Orlando simply because his first instinct is to always get forward.

The Whitecaps have needed that kind of player since before the Gods that made the Gods were made.

That just leaves the right side of the midfield to be covered and while Techera will (and should) play more games than most here’s where the opportunity for Robinson to switch things up presents itself.

If he wants to pair Blondell with Kamara up front he can switch Reyna out to the right (or play Blondell out there if he feels like it). If he wants to use Shea on the left he can get Davies to switch flanks. If he desperately wants to play an extra defensive midfielder he can use Felipe, Davies and Reyna as the three behind Kamara.

It still feels as though the team are one more really good wide player away from being the real deal (which kind of makes the desire to stockpile central midfielders somewhat strange) but Robinson has far more options than many coaches in MLS.

Let’s hope that turns out be a blessing rather than a curse.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps bring Orlando to heel

Before we get too carried away we would do well to remember that the last two teams the Vancouver Whitecaps have beaten have amassed the grand total of zero points from thirteen games combined.

Still, beating bad teams has been the Achilles Heel of this team since Homer was a lad so credit where credit is due.

For about seventy minutes the game against Orlando was going according to the well established script.

The Whitecaps played okay in the first half but were over reliant on the pace of Davies to create any realistic chances and they then began the second with gusto but missed the chances they created before losing all sense of focus when Orlando were reduced to ten men.

It’s indicative of the mindset Carl Robinson has instilled in his team that they regard the weakening of the opposition as a moment to sit back rather than to strike and their “possession for the sake of possession” football handed the impetus to the visitors and the inevitable equalizer arrived.

Thankfully that goal prompted the coach to make a double change and the arrival of Mutch and Mezquida switched the dynamic back in favour of the home side.

Mezquida is nothing if not a constantly lively presence and Mutch is a central midfielder who genuinely wants to get forward and the floodgates promptly opened.

Alphonso Davies won’t get the kind of space he was given on Saturday afternoon very often but he exploited it to deadly effect.

Maybe coming face to face with fellow Canadian Will Johnson acted as a spur, but this was the young Canadian’s best game for the Whitecaps by some distance.

We know he’s quick and can get by almost any defender but this time around he was quick and taking note of where his fellow forwards were. Maybe that’s a sign of growing maturity or maybe it’s just that there’s a chemistry developing between players given the chance to play together on a regular basis?

Whatever the cause Vancouver now look like a team who are capable of scoring in any game (and who would have thought that a few short weeks ago?)

They also look like a team capable of conceding in any game too of course and their ultimate undoing will no doubt be the amount of space this 4-4-2 system concedes in the middle of the park but if they are going to be a mess then at least let them be an entertaining one.

Elsewhere Brek Shea also had his best game as a Whitecap. When he arrived from Orlando Shea made it pretty clear he didn’t really enjoy playing the left back role but now that the “Alphonso Davies offers an attacking threat at left back” train has trundled out of town Shea’s only chance to start is either in defence or as cover for when Davies needs a rest.

Does the upcoming two week break comes at a good or bad time for the Whitecaps?

They’re in good form so probably want to play as soon as possible but they also have plenty of time to try to figure out the defensive issues (hopefully without curtailing the attacking threat) and two weeks of feeling good about themselves won’t do any harm to anybody.

The main thing now is that Robinson doesn’t over think things from a tactical point of view.

Since he moved to the 4-4-2 formation his team have become enjoyable to watch and actually likeable again.

That will do for now.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Rowe-6, Nerwisnki-6, Shea-6, Henry-6, Aja-6, Ghazal-5, Felipe-5.5, Techera-5, Davies-8*, Reyna-6, Kamara-6 (Mutch-6, Mezquida-6)

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Driving in their car

Is their any love greater than the love of a driver for a really good rental car?

That thrill as the shock of unfamiliarity melts into the excitement of the new and as the initial sense of dislocation and confusion gives way to the right switches always being flicked and buttons being pushed.

And then, just when it all seems perfect, the unspoken sense of an ending descends into the interior and suddenly it’s over.

And yet, although it only lasted a few days, the sheer density of the relationship seems to have bent and stretched the time spent together into meaninglessness.

And the best thing of all is that there’s no bitterness upon parting. No recriminations, just the two going their separate ways secure in the knowledge it always had to be this way.

Maybe in the coming weeks and months the outline of a familiar form will be glimpsed from the corner of the eye, but it won’t be them. In your heart you know it can’t be them.

But that won’t stop the Proustian rush of mountain roads and ocean sprays circling the synapses for a second or two before the real world reasserts itself once again.

And, in almost no way imaginable, isn’t being the coach of a soccer team a bit like being the driver of a rental car?

Trying to figure out what goes where and how to get the best out of this strange and unpredictable beast without the whole thing grinding to screeching and disastrous halt.

Safe to say if we extend this metaphor to Carl Robinson he would be the kind of driver who, no matter what car he was allotted or how many free upgrades he received, would immediately set the cruise control to 58 mph and sit in the passing lane of the freeway oblivious to the tirade of abus from other motorists.

Slow and steady might not win the race but it gets you there in almost the exact time predicted by Google Maps and that’s a victory of sorts.

Except that now he’s started to experiment with putting his foot on the gas occasionally. Maybe even using the passing lane for passing instead of it being just a really nice drive because you never have to think about overtaking any other vehicle.

Sure, he’s occasionally setting the windshield wipers to maximum when he’s really trying to find the AOR channel on the radio and his discomfort is apparent whenever his attempts to open a window result in the gas cap popping open, but at least the car is going somewhere close to the speed it should.

But do you know what the best thing about driving these days is?

The car pretty much does all the work itself.

It’s smart enough to let you know if another vehicle is in your blind spot, won’t force you to turn your head when reversing and will sound a shrill warning if the traffic in front is getting too close.

In other words, the best way to drive a modern car is just to get in and do as little as possible.

And right now Robinson has a squad of players who seem capable enough of figuring things out for themselves when they are on the field. All he really has to do is make sure there’s enough gas in the tank and the oil is changed at the right times and the rest will pretty much take care of itself.

No car will ever fully function to its potential with a passive driver at the wheel but better that than a driver who perpetually has their foot resting gently on the brake pedal for fear of something going wrong.

Less is almost certainly more when it comes to this coach and this team it seems.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Scroll down for more

Now with added “murmurings” from the day after.

One of the things to do in Denver right now is see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Museum of Science and Nature.

The museum itself is great, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition not so much.

Any science museum using the word “miracle” to describe the discovery of one of its displays has crossed a line it probably didn’t want to cross.

And anyway (and this is just a personal preference of course) it’s far more awe-inspiring to see how human beings figured out how to land a working exploratory vehicle on the surface of Mars than it is to walk passed a collection of pots and cups from centuries ago.

Yet the fragments of the Scrolls themselves are a marvellous thing to behold.

The thought that back in the day somebody scribbled down a mix of religious belief, poetry and “I bet they’ll like this bit” in a way that somehow formed the basis of so much of our intellectual world today can’t help but transcend glib observations and ingrained cynicism.

Today those fragments of parchment are safely guarded beneath thick glass but in the 1950’s the archeologists of the time tried to piece them together using nothing but a “can do” attitude and Scotch Tape, leaving future colleagues the unenviable task of trying to remove modern-day sticky tape from arguably the greatest find their field has ever had the opportunity to deal with.

Yet who can blame those Fifties pioneers?

The need to make coherent sense from isolated fragments of information is kind of what religion is anyway and it’s certainly what Carl Robinson is doing right now with his Whitecaps team.

In Colorado he stuck with the 4-4-2 system but this time pairing Blondell and Reyna up front and Juarez and Felipe as the central two midfielders (oh and Brek Shea at left back just for shits and giggles).

And it worked pretty much perfectly.

In the first half the Whitecaps looked dangerous every time they went forward and only a short spell toward the end of the first half, just after the Rapids had pulled a goal back, produced any sustained pressure on the Vancouver defence.

In the second half the Whitecaps managed the game about as well as it’s possible to do on the road with a one goal lead with Juarez and Felipe being particularly effective in both slowing the game down and keeping possession (and how nice was it to see Vancouver play short, simple passes in lieu of the hoofed ball up field?)

Doneil Henry looked impressive in central defence in his first full start for the club and Yordy Reyna is as close to back to his best as makes no difference and that may well explain the recent upsurge in offensive threat as much as any change of formation.

If Henry stays fit that will surely mean Aja will make way for the return of Kendall Waston from World Cup duty. That would arguably be the best central defensive pairings the Whitecaps have had in the MLS era.

But it also opens the possibility of Robinson playing three at the back and making full use of the pacy full backs he has. That would be a risk if the current system continues to produce goals but not a crazy one if the current systen continues to leak goals.

On the debit side Alphonso Davies still needs to learn to make the right decision more often than not and although Brian Rowe will be pleased to finally be on the winning team his lack of presence in the area feels like it invites more pressure than is warranted.

A disappointingly quiet outing for Anthony Blondell as well, although it could be that the current plan is to have the target man play deep in order to create space behind for the onrushing Techera, Reyna, Davies etc.

I’m not sure if we should be grateful Robinson has finally made use of the attacking talent at his disposal or frustrated that it took him this long to do so.

The idea of two central midfielders feeding simple passes to the four attacking players in front of them has changed the whole dynamic of the team.

And the last few games must surely have dispelled the theory that the coach was simply playing the way he did becasue of the players he had. Turns out they could actually pass the ball all along! They just weren’t being allowed to do so.

A rare case of players getting the best out of their coach perhaps?

Nobody should get carried away with a win against the worst team in MLS but a win is a win is a win and watching the Whitecaps right now doesn’t feel like the exercise in futility it has done for so much of this season.

This makes the next home game against Orlando all the more important. If the Whitecaps want to drag themselves back into serious playoff contention they need to win that and go into the World Cup break on something of a high.

The schedule from now on doesn’t get any easier but Vancouver have an uncanny knack of playing to the level of their opponents making a fifth or sixth place finish a distinct possibility (a top four finish seems too much of a stretch given the games played and those yet to come).

Carl Robinson seems to have found a system that just about works so let’s not go ripping off any of the tactical sticky tape holding it all together just yet.

We might discover none of it makes any sense and then it will all just collapse beneath the weight of its own nonsense.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe- 5.5, Nerwisnki-5.5, Aja-5.5, Henry-6, Shea-5.5, Felipe-6, Juarez-6, Techera-5.5, Davies-5.5, Reyna-6.5*-Blondell-5

Vancouver Whitecaps do just enough to not do enough (again)

Now with updated “considerations” using the power of hindsight.

At least the Vancouver Whitecaps are entertaining now.

True they’re entertaining in a The Fall of Rome, Krakatoa erupting, Hindenburg conflagration, Nuclear explosion in a fireworks factory kind of way, but at least they’re entertaining.

They’re still not good enough though.

Yet another home tie (this time a 3-3 against the New England Revolution) was another nail in the coffin of their playoff hopes and leaves Carl Robinson hoping his team can somehow string together a run of three or four consecutive wins to keep them in any kind of meaningful contention.

Robinson stuck with 4-4-2 once again for this game and while Yordy Reyna at least had moments where he looked capable of creating danger Kei Kamara seemed to have decided his main role was to keep the ball out of the New England net.

His first miss at the very beginning of the game was poor given the amount of time he had but his second, where he somehow contrived to send the ball away from goal when all he had to do was kick it forward, was even worse.

That should have been enough to get him replaced but the coach thought not and the arrival of Anthony Blondell simply shifted Reyna to an area of the field where he was far less likely to do any damage.

The main experiment of the night (sadly not a thought experiment but an actual real life one) was allowing Aly Ghazal to audition for the role of central defender to fill in for the World Cup absence of Kendall Waston and it’s safe to say Ghazal flubbed the audition and really shouldn’t be getting the part.

His own goal was poor if perhaps forgivable, but his giveaway for the third and his constant ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time does not bode well should Robinson decide that valour is the better part of discretion when it comes to team selection.

The more one thinks about the decision to play Ghazal in central defence the more perplexing it becomes. Carl Robinson said the Egyptian “needed a game” but the Whitecaps needed a win much more, so switching Waston to the left side of the centre of defence to give another player playing time only created even more instability in a back line desperate for cohesion.

It’s even odder given the Whitecaps have a natural central defender in Aaron Maund who hasn’t done much wrong but seemingly can’t get near the starting eleven.

It will be fascinating to see who Robinson selects at the back next week (and by “fascinating” I mean morbidly not intellectually). 

Elsewhere everybody else did fine without really impressing.

Except for Cristian Techera of course who seems to be on one of those goal scoring tears he goes on from time to time and he certainly provided a lesson in finishing for the rest of the team to ponder over the next few days.

No doubt we’ll hear a lot about how this team has once again shown “character” in coming back from a deficit and no doubt everybody will ignore the cold hard truth that real character is displayed by not going behind in the first place.

That reacting to events is so much easier than initiating them and that this series of Pyrrhic ties have blasted away the foundations of the season.

Robinson did indeed mention “character” with almost his first words of his post-game question and answer session.

But  more interesting was how he revealed how aware he is of the quite specific criticisms aimed at his team and coaching style and the manner in which he discussed the possibility of ever getting a 1-0 win ever again.

For Robinson speaks of 1-0 wins the way other people speak with time-stained wistfulness of the charms of the long-lost love who will forever remain untainted by the scars of familiarity or the passage of time.

It’s clear every fibre of his being is yearning to return to the carefree days of two genuine defensive midfielders, the sunlit afternoons where a lone striker battled insurmountable odds and those half-remembered, half-imagined evenings where two central defenders headed away cross after cross after cross.

If he does leave the club at some time this season perhaps his biggest regret will be that he abandoned (or was forced to abandon) the one footballing tactic he genuinely believes in?

That would be quite poignant in a way,

And nothing gets crowds flocking to football games more than the possibility of poignancy (or “PoP” as it’s known to all those who follow advanced stats).

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-5.5, Franklin-4.5, de Jong-5.5, Waston-5, Ghazal-3.5, Teibert-5.5, Felipe-6, Davies-5, Reyna-6, Techera-7*, Kamara-4

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?

Perhaps.

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!)