Vancouver Whitecaps still alive and kicking

From last night but now with a couple of additional notes.

And so the Vancouver Whitecaps remain alive for the season.

More alive than they were before the 2-0 victory over a surprisingly dislikable Austin FC but less alive than they would really want to be.

But, then again, who among is actually as alive as we really want to be?

This was another in what can now be called a series of strong and dependable Vancouver performances and whether that run is down to the slightly tweaked version of the three at the back system that Sartini has started to play or whether it’s down to the radical tactic of playing players in their right positions is a question for another day.

But it’s clear that Luis Martins in the left sided role has improved the attacking quality of the team and Pedro Vite has grown with each game and, in this game, was both a creative force going forward and reliable out ball for a defence that often struggles to find the right pass.

In retrospect the decisions to play anyone but a wing-back in the wing back role feels like an experiment that was more for Sartini’s intellectual curiosity than it was about making the team better. Raposo and Dajome now seem like the square pegs in round holes they undoubtedly were. As Gramsci said “History teaches, but has no pupils”. If Sartini is still in charge next year he needs to learn from his mistakes and value simplicity when it comes to selection.

It seems that playing out of defence to a player who wants to look to create chances is better for the team than playing the ball out to a player who wants to give it straight back to the defence.

But maybe none of this would matter at all if Ryan Gauld is on this kind of form?

The Scot scored the first, created the second and was both a constant threat going forward and a constant menace to any Austin player in charge of the ball.

Gauld might not be a natural leader in the sense of his vocal presence on the field but the highest paid player on the team setting a good example to his teammates certainly does no harm.

Was Gauld making a point in the way he praised Brian White after the game? It certainly felt that he was making a very clear point about who he preferred to play with. Even going so far as to credit White with tiring the opposition defenders out to allow Cavallini to get his goal.

On an unrelated note, Lucas Cavallini returned to the action, played well, scored a goal and was involved in a series of unnecessary scuffles.

One more game left (in the regular season) which is a trip to a slumping Minnesota and, no doubt, an afternoon of scoreboard watching and mental arithmetic.

Time fore the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-6, Nerwinski-5.5, Veselinovic, 6, Blackmon-6, Gressel-4, Martins-6, Teibert-5, Cubas-6, Vite-6.5, Gauld-7.5*, White-5 (Cavallini-5)

The Vancouver Whitecaps stay alive!

From last night but now with an additional sounding on Sartini.

It seems it only took Vanni Sartini thirty-one games to find the right formula for his Vancouver Whitecaps team.

And so they followed up a convincing 3-0 win over the Galaxy with an equally convincing win over the Seattle Sounders (although the score line didn’t really reflect how much better Vancouver were than a surprisingly disjointed Seattle side).

So what is the secret formula?

At first glance it seems to be down to moving away from a back three to a more traditional back four but, in reality, it’s more about playing players in their right positions.

Luis Martins has made a huge difference just because he’s a left footed defender playing on the left (his experience helps too of course) and Pedro Vite being allowed to get forward has resulted in two goals in two games. Both the result of crosses that Brian White failed to get to but having an extra player in the box enabled the Ecuadorian to score.

Who knew that getting players into dangerous positions could result in good things?

The departure of Andres Cubas in the first half seemed to be an ominous sign but Leo Owusu has now produced two games in a row where he’s been able to dominate (well, partly dominate) the midfield.

If Cubas is fit for the next game then a partnership with Owusu should be the preferred choice.

Shout out too to the aforementioned White who works tirelessly for the team and who may not clock up stats that show up in the analytics databases but whose effort allows the likes of Gauld and Vite room to create.

Those of us of a cynical disposition may bemoan that it has taken Sartini this long to free his team in this way, that if he had allowed Vite the leeway he’s allowed some other players and if he’d been less concerned with finding clever answers to selection problems rathe than the simple ones he’d have arrived at the right answer much sooner in the season.

But where does this leave Sartini now?

I wrote here about why they might as well keep him and then, in an amazing feat of cognitive whiplash, here about why they shouldn’t.

I still think there’s significant issues about how he’s coached the team this season and I’d argue that his post game huddle exhortations that “this is what happens when everybody gives 100% in training” point to more underlying issues than just the wrong tactics but, as somebody once said, “You should never mistake the rhythm of your Twitter feed for the pulse of the nation” and, likewise, we should never assume that those of us who follow the games closely share the opinions of those who just turn up to enjoy a game of football.

Anecdotal evidence ahoy but Sartini still seems popular with these poor misguided souls who seem to think that “enjoying things” is somehow the point of life.

Personally, I would still be looking for a replacement but, assuming there’s no more genuinely disastrous performances in the final two games, he’ll probably get the chance to give it another go next year.

But we are where we are.

There’s two games left and the Whitecaps are probably not going to make the playoffs but at least that hope is still alive and we now have two weeks until the next game.

Two weeks of staring at league tables and schedules trying to figure out just what might happen.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-5.5, Nerwinski-5.5, Martins-6. Veselinovic-6.5*, Blackmon-6.5, Teibert-5. Cubas-5.5, Gressel-6, Gauld-6.5, Vite-6, White-5 (Owusu-6).

The Impossible World of the Vancouver Whitecaps

The first half of the Whitecaps 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy was like an M.C. Escher painting come to life.

Players from both sides moved toward the goal with purpose only to find themselves inexplicably back in the centre circle and neither they (nor those watching) could escape from the seemingly eternal sense of nothing happening for ever and ever.

But, in the second half, Vancouver produced one of those performances that is both a pleasure to watch and a tortuous display of what could have been.

Playing players in the right positions helped.

Luis Martins demonstrated the value of having a left footed player in the left back role and Ryan Raposo showed that he’s still a better attacking player than he is a defensive make weight.

Ryan Gauld was allowed space to use the ball and, more often than not, had options to pass to and Andres Cubas shut down the Galaxy whenever it seemed they were making a break forward.

All in all it was a fine example of what this group of players could have been capable of if they had been given the chance to develop some kind of consistency of purpose and clarity of tactical thinking.

They still won’t make the playoffs and the chances are that the coach would rather roll the dice on making changes for the game against the Sounders on Saturday than sticking with what worked so well on Wednesday.

The Whitecaps climbed a fair number of stairs tonight, but let’s not be surprised if they find themselves back at the bottom next time out.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-5.5, Nerwinski-5, Martins-5.5, Veselinovic-5.5, Blackmon-5.5, Cubas-7*, Owusu-6, Raposo-5.5, Gauld-6.5, Vite-5.5, White-5

Is Sartini the wrong one?

Just over a month ago I wondered whether Vanni Sartini was the right choice to continue as Whitecaps coach once this season was over.

The typically searing analysis concluded that the club might as well continue with Sartini. He didn’t appear to be a great coach in terms of improving on what he had but, with better players, he’d get them playing to par when it came to the season as a whole.

That conclusion was based on the Canadian Cup win and the assumption that the Whitecaps would end the season flirting with being just in or out of the playoffs. Not great by any means but enough to justify giving the coach another off season to make things better.

But we know what happens when we assume things right? U make a mess.

In the last few weeks the Whitecaps haven’t flirted with the playoffs, they have ghosted them in the harshest way possible.

It has been, in every way, an unmitigated disaster that speaks as much to the dreaded intangibles as it does to the things we can measure.

From Cavallini’s heavily foreshadowed moment of madness to tepid performances in important games to a series of selection decisions that don’t really make sense, whatever could have gone wrong has gone wrong and, perhaps worse, things that didn’t need to go wrong have gone wrong too.

Let’s look at some of Sartini’s selection decisions that we once thought of as quirky but now regard as just inexplicable.

Why has Alessandro Schöpf been a constant starter when he is so obviously not up to match speed nor in tune with how the Whitecaps intend to play?

Answer: No idea. Perhaps Sartini is just hoping that he’ll gain match fitness and suddenly “click”. But it’s madness to take that risk for so long at this stage of the season.

Why is Julian Gressel constantly moved from the wing back position and why isn’t he effective when he is played in the wing back position?

Answer: No idea. Perhaps Sartini thinks he can bring the midfield creativity that others can’t, but taking one of the best wing backs in MLS away from the the wing back role he was signed to fill is (obviously) hugely counter productive.

Whither Cristian Gutierrez? No idea. But the club’s best left back has become persona non grata in the latter half of the season. Maybe there’s a very good reason for that, but it does feel like another link in a chain of Sartini giving some players free reign when it comes to being selected and others being held on a very tight leash. See Vite and Baldisimo for reference to creative players who have been given (at best) one game to prove their worth before being frozen out for an extended period of time. All of this also hints at a deeper problem in how Sartini manages his players off the pitch.

What has happened to Cristian Dajome? No idea. Dajome was one of the Whitecaps standout players in recent seasons but it seems the constant switching of his role has left him bereft of any confidence at all. Dajome has become eternally frozen between wanting to do too much with the ball when he has it and not wanting the ball when he doesn’t have it.

We could go on.

The messing around with the back three personnel until the tail end of the season giving them no time to gel, the switching of goal keepers on a game by game basis, the inability of the team to play the way the coach wants them to, the astoundingly poor attacking threat that hasn’t been solved (or addressed?), the belief that only winning games at the death is somehow to be celebrated and is a sustainable plan.

We could still go on but we wont.

The Whitecaps are now faced with a choice when it comes to the coach. Back him in the belief that he can get things right next year or take a cold hard look at the season and conclude that this group of players should be aiming for more at this stage of the season than playing for pride and hoping to ruin the playoff hopes of their rivals.

We need so much more than Pyrrhic victories.

Whitecaps write off three points

From yesterday but now with additional chapter and verse.

Stupidity and Lack of Creativity” is the working title of my yet to be published (or written) autobiography but, coincidentally, that is also a pretty good summary of the Whitecaps 3-0 loss to Nashville on Saturday evening.

The stupidity came in the not entirely unexpected form of Lucas Cavallini who decided that, with his team already trailing by three goals, a swift elbow and stamp to the head of an opponent was the order of the day.

The red card was a formality and the subsequent punishment from MLS should be severe.

We’ve probably all enabled Cavallini this season by allowing his goals to distract from his penchant for picking up a yellow card in just about every appearance he makes and we’ve decided to treat this foible with wry amusement.

But if I were running the Whitecaps (huge disclaimer here that I’m definitely not running the Whitecaps!) Cavallini wouldn’t play for the club again this season and he’d be shipped out as soon as possible.

Some things can’t be tolerated, especially from a senior player.

A commenter notes. “That’s totally bullshit about Cavilini. When you bring a premier (designated) player to make a change in 30 mins it’s obvious it’s a lot of pressure that you are putting on your own change maker.”

And there are others who also seem to feel that Cavallini was hard done by because he was just showing his desire to win. But there’s desire to win and there’s self-destructive stupidity and this was clearly a case of the latter.

But you know who else can’t always control their emotions? Vanni Sartini. Last week it was all about MLS selecting the other six teams for the playoffs because the Whitecaps were so good. This week the playoffs aren’t important and it’s all about restoring some honour for the rest of the season.

As a supporter it becomes the better option to switch off from such such highs and lows when coming from the coach and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the players too have started treating every impassioned oration as just so much white noise.

Ryan Gauld certainly seemed to confirm such a theory in his post game comments when he alluded to hearing the same half time speech for much of the season and there were also some comments from the Scot that, to a conspiratorial mind, could be taken as criticism of the coaching staff in general.

It’s certainly odd that everybody on the team knows there’s an issue with how the team start games and yet nobody has got even close to solving the issue.

The lack of creativity came from just about everybody.

Schopf was once again anonymous, Gressel and Raposo never get forward with any belief and Berhalter’s head went out of the game as soon as he gave away the pass that led to Nashville’s first goal.

One assumes that the Whitecaps work on how to break down a defence in training sessions and one also assumes that the theory on how to do that isn’t “pass the ball really slowly ten yards from the edge of the penalty area and then loft a hopeful cross into the goalkeeper’s arms” isn’t what they are supposed to be doing. Yet that is the comfort zone they almost always revert to.

Then everybody’s heads went out of the game when Nashville scored the second goal and the rest of the night was a salutatory reminder of just how bad the Whitecaps are at opening up a defence from open play.

Gauld and Cubas will always work hard and produce competency, but it turns out that not playing Teibert and Nerwinski isn’t the solution to all of the problems in the world of the Whitecaps.

The playoffs aren’t definitely out of reach yet, but Vancouver probably need four points from the next two road games to get themselves back in the race.

Not impossible (it’s MLS after all) but not at all likely.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-3, Gressel-2, Raposo-3, Brown-4, Veselinovic-4, Blackmon-3.5, Berhalter-2, Cubas-4.5, Schopf-2, Gauld-5*, White-2 (Cavallini-0, Dajome-2)

Vancouver Whitecaps go on until they come to the end again

There are points earned by late goals and there are points earned by late goals.

Some are of the “How on earth did we come away from this game with anything?” variety and some are of the “That felt like it has been coming” variety.

And Julian Gressel’s late goal to earn a 1-1 tie with Real Salt Lake was very much of the latter variety.

This was comfortably one of Vancouver’s better road performances. Willing to be on the front foot from the get go and trading chances with Salt Lake without ever looking as though the thought of a low block had even entered their heads.

Cavallini had one of his better games, Cubas was Cubas, and Ryan Raposo looked a constant threat from the left until Sartini moved him to the right.

Moving players around was very much a feature of the night with Gressel playing in (by my calculations) fifteen different positions.

The fact that the goal came from Gauld, playing in the wing back position, crossing to Gressel, playing as the forward, is probably a good indication that the Whitecaps were either playing a very fluid formation or just throwing stuff at the wall to see if it stick.

A hugely positive outing for Thomas Hasal too as the keeper looked to have refound any confidence that may have gone astray during his long absence.

The only real downside was another awful outing from Cristian Dajome.

There have been games in recent seasons where Dajome has carried the team on his back but this year for whatever reason, enforced absences, lack of confidence, too much time in too many different roles, he looks to be the epitome of a player who is really hoping that the ball doesn’t come his way.

A longer break for the Whitecaps to reboot now with the playoffs looking a lot more likely then they were even two short weeks ago.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-6.5*, Dajome-1, Raposo-5.5, Nerwinski-5.5, Veselinovic-5.5, Blackmon-5.5, Cubas-6.5, Teibert-5.5, Gauld-5.5, Schopf-4, Cavallini-5.5 (Berghalter-5, White-4.5, Gressel-6)

Vancouver Whitecaps almost die by their own sword

For seventy minutes the Vancouver Whitecaps produced an excellent home performance against the Colorado Rapids.

They seized the initiative from the start, scored a goal through concerted pressing and Ryan Gauld gave and old school Designated Player display; all energetic hustle, deft touches and quality finishing to go with it.

Julian Gressel too gave an example of his worth to the team, always willing to get forward and always willing to hit the ball where it should be at the earliest opportunity.

In the centre of the pitch Cubas and Berhalter looked to have the makings of a promising partnership. The defensive stalwart that is Cubas aligned with the very welcome progressive passing of Berhalter.

To be fair it’s hard to make an objective judgment on Berhalter. As Bob Dylan sang “I can’t help it if you might think I am odd, when I say I’m loving you not for what you are, but what you’re not”.

It feels that who Berhalter isn’t is almost as important as who he is.

The second half began equally brightly with the Whitecaps looking the far more likely to score the next goal and then, with about seventy minutes gone, Vanni Sartini switched to three in the middle, presumably to shore up the game, and that left Gauld and Cavallini isolated.

All this move did was allow his players to switch to their most comfortable setting of dropping as deep as possible, reacting to events rather than taking responsibility for them and relying on good fortune to act as their twelfth man.

It worked in the sense that the Whitecaps won, but it failed miserably in that the Rapids could easily have scored at least two goals (probably more) in the denouement.

Will lessons be learned?

Of course not, but the three points keeps the season alive for at least two more weeks and that’s good enough for now.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-5.5, Gressel-6, Godhino-5, Brown-5, Veselinovic-6, Blackmon-5, Cubas-6, Berhalter-6, Schopf-4, Gauld-7.5*, Cavallini-3 (Raposo-4.5, Nerwinski-2, Teibert-3)

Vancouver Whitecaps offer an all too familiar echo

From yesterday but now with additional frustration.

It wasn’t really a surprise that the Whitecaps conceded five goals in LA on Saturday evening.

They have started enough games already this season where their heads don’t even vaguely enter the game until they fall behind but, this time around, they couldn’t even manage that.

It probably should be a surprise that a group of professional athletes haven’t been shamed into playing for a full ninety minutes by this stage of the campaign, but they most likely have begun to believe their own mythology concerning stirring come backs and unlikely victories.

From the outside it’s difficult to say just what is causing the team to so consistently fail to perform from the first whistle but it certainly “feels” like a locker room culture issue. With nobody, neither coaches nor players, able to instill a sense of responsibility into the starting eleven until it’s forced on them by events.

Obviously we got the usual post-game cliches abut “learning from this” but safe to say that isn’t going to happen for more than or two games at best.

The problem with mythology however is that isn’t true.

Women don’t turn into swans, there are no half-men, half-bulls hiding in dark mazes and football teams that don’t learn from mistakes won’t get away with it for time eternal.

It should probably also be a surprise that Vanni Sartini continues to treat every game as a chance to experiment with his lineup rather than consolidate a first choice starting eleven.

The coach still seems more enamoured with making “interesting” tactical choices than he is letting his players get to know each other for the most crucial part of the season and, sooner or later, Sartini will discover that consistently winning games (or just consistently getting his team to play competent football) is more important than winning hearts and minds.

On top of these “interesting” choices there also seems to be a mismatch between how some players are treated when it comes to selection and how others are treated. Some have a short leash and some have the fabled “Leash of Infinity”. As a supporter it’s consistently frustrating to watch Russell Teibert give mediocre performance after mediocre performance with no consequence for his starting spot. But how much more frustrating must that be for players wanting to get a fair chance to prove themselves? It’s not just Teibert who gets the favoured treatment, but when the captain isn’t held to as high a standard as some others well, there’s a a recipe for the seeds of a culture of selective disinterest right there.

The good news is that most of the other results of the evening went well for the Whitecaps, but that will all add up to nothing if they don’t even have the professional pride to play to their best at all times.

The nightmare scenario is probably that the Whitecaps sneak into the playoffs and crash out at the first hurdle again. A yearning for just enough to success to not rock the boat has been the drug of choice for the Whitecaps for years. Giving them a shot of just such a thing might do them more harm than good in the long run.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Cropper-0, Gressel-1, Raposo-4*, Brown-3, Veselinovic-2, Nerwinski-0, Teibert-1, Cubas-4, Vite-2, Gauld-3, Ongaro-1 (Ricketts-4, Dajome-2, Blackmon-3)

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)