At the beginning of the season the quintessential (maybe even existential) question surrounding the Whitecaps midfield was “How would Gershon Koffie be replaced?”.
Koffie’s leaving may have been at Carl Robinson’s behest but the Ghanaian had been an essential bulwark in helping to create the best defensive record in the league in 2015.
Robinson’s answer has been to (mostly) play Pedro Morales in the deep lying role alongside Matias Laba and that approach has (mostly) worked.
Morales isn’t the defensive liability he might have been and playing deeper has granted him the freedom to influence games far more than he does when playing just behind the forward line.
It could just be that a fit Pedro Morales will be effective wherever he plays (as he was on the left against Toronto) but it seems that deep lying position not only suits his own game but offers the rest of the team more flexibility in how they lineup for any particular game.
Nobody could claim that the loss of a purely defensive minded midfielder hasn’t impacted the team in terms of goals conceded however and so perhaps there needs to be an examination of just how Laba is playing in the new set up.
Last year Laba’s attacking influence was somewhat underrated if only because he wasn’t so much involved in forward thrusts as initiating them; not through a clever pass or a well-timed run but simply because he frequently broke up opposition passing moves and so created the perfect opportunity for the counterattack.
His hustle and bustle style of play was ideally suited to a side happy to concede possession, especially with the comfort zone of Koffie alongside him.
This year there may have been an expectation that Laba would be a more static presence in front of the back four; more of a watchdog than a hunter.
But that hasn’t been the case and even though (after a rocky start) he has settled down to being just as good as last season at breaking up plays that may not be quite what Vancouver need from their only defensive midfielder.
Maybe Laba can’t play any other way? Maybe Robinson doesn’t want him to play any other way? But a defence that has been so vulnerable could well benefit from the constant presence of a more reactive Laba than the occasional presence of his proactive alter ego.
Elsewhere Russell Teibert has been Russell Teibert; reliable enough without ever looking capable of being the difference maker he needs to be to become a regular first team player and Kianz Froese’s season was thrown off the rails by a suspension and a concussion and he now seems to be well down the pecking order when it comes to first team minutes in MLS.
New signing Andrew Jacobson has been “as advertised” but may well find that his minutes in midfield are surpassed by his time spent in central defence given the plethora of suspensions, injuries and mishaps that have become the calling card of that particular section of the team.
And perhaps the biggest disappointment in the middle of the park has been Cristian Techera.
Last season Techera was a mid-season breath of fresh air as he proved to be just about the only Whitecaps with a genuine eye for the half chance; where others were back on their heels Techera was on the front foot always ready to pounce on an opposition mistake.
This season though he has reacted to every chance with diffidence and deliberation; always taking one or two touches too many and though that’s probably a confidence thing for “The Bug” rather than a feature a goal needs to come soon before that confidence drains away entirely.
And while none of the Whitecaps wide players are spectacularly good at helping out in defence Techera has been noticeably poor in that area too and he now has the second-half of the season to prove that Robinson’s faith in him wasn’t misjudged.
The good news though is that the arrival of Christian Bolaños has been a huge upgrade for the team and although the Costa Rican may never win any “Look at me I’m trying really hard” awards he has settled down to be exactly the kind of player the newly redesigned Whitecaps needed; capable of creating and scoring goals while also being able to slow the game down to his own pace when required.
There have been tantalising glimpses that he could form a formidable partnership with Blas Pérez if given the chance but, for now, when Bolaños and Morales are on the pitch together the Whitecaps have a genuinely enjoyable and watchable midfield.
Who would have thought it?