If there is one thing the Vancouver Whitecaps will have learned from the 2016 season (though hopefully they will have learned more than just one) it’s that the margin for error in Major League Soccer is no longer as wide at it once was.
Even the generous playoff format wasn’t enough for the Whitecaps this year and much of that failure stemmed from the poor performance of the midfield (and the defence and the attack).
The middle of the park is supposed to be the engine room for any team but this season it felt less like an engine room and more like a vaguely useful cupboard that is sometimnes used for storage when unexpected visitors stay the night.
In other words the midfield didn’t propel Vancouver forward it merely offered a little bit of space for Uncle Billy to store his suitcase and those golf clubs that we’re all pretty sure he never actually uses.
But even though that generalisation sums up the year with devestating accuracy let’s delve a little bit deeper into the individual performances.
Sometimes it feels as though Carl Robinson’s ideal formation would consist of all ten outfield players playing as deep lying midfielders but even he wasn’t inclined to go that far.
In the end it was only Laba, Morales, Teibert and Jacobson who spent significant time in the role (with a brief early season cameo from Kianz Froese).
And it was that early season cameo which offered the hope that the Whitecaps were moving away from a duo of defensively positioned central players and incorporating the oft dreamed off “bos to box” midfielder.
The experiment was short lived however as a mixture of suspension, concussion and coaching reluctance effectively removed Froese from the scene.
That left Laba and Morales as the default setting and unfortunately Laba had easily his worst year as a Whitecap.
For much of the first part of the year he was less a terrier chasing after the ball than he was a terrier chasing after where the ball used to be. Maybe he was unnerved by the inconsistent officiating but it took him until the final couple of months of the season to begin to look like his old self again.
Morales started the season with a flurry of penalty goals but that only served to cover up his deficincies and it felt as though Carl Robinson spent the rest of the season frantically trying to find the best formation to cover up those deficincies.
He never found it though and the red card for an unnecessary elbow agasint the Sounders felt like the symbolic last act of his time in Vancouver even if it wasn’t his literal last act.
Andrew Jacobson could make a convincing case that he was the signing of the off season given how competent he was whenever he took the field but it’s exactly that same level of competence that condemns Russell Teibert.
It’s still hard to know what to make of Teibert but he tends to play as though he’s doing the things that he thinks a player in that postion should do.
Drop back to pick up the ball from the central defender, play a safe ball to another central defender and then dart into space to pick up the ball once more before returning it to the first central defender and then rinse and repeat.
Possession hasn’t been lost but neither has anything positive been gained.
It really does feel as though a new start in a new team might make Teibert a more effective and well rounded player.
Christian Bolaños arrived with genuine pedigree; European Champi0ns League and World Cup experience offering the hope he could pair up with Morales to create a genuinely inventive attacking midfield.
That never quite happened (partly down to Morales’ poor form, partly down to the way the team was playing and partly down to Bolaños himself).
The Costa Rican is a technically gifted player who likes to slow the game down playing in a team that (by season end) wasn’t technically gifted and was reliant on getting fast passes to a fast man up front.
In the last game against Seattle Bolaños played in the number ten role and there were signs that he could fit that position effectively. indeed, a platoon of Bolaños and Mezquida playing in that most crucial of MLS positions might well allow the Whitecaps to spend money on other areas of the team.
That would be somewhat of a risk to be sure but if Bolaños is to stay then he needs to be in a team that makes the most of his talents rather than stifling them.
Perhaps the most disappointing of all the regular midfielders though was Cristian Techera as the Uruguayan followed last year’s terrific effort with an insipid and inneffective year.
Except in the Champions League of course where he scored goals on a regular basis.
That at least leaves some doubt about whether he’s worth another year as well as leaving even more doubt about why the team didn’t get the best out of him in MLS (or why seemingly every good CONCACAF perfromance he put in was followed up with two or three games back on the bench).
And so we end with Alphonso Davies.
I’m nowhere near the hype train bandwagon (“Hype Train Bandwagon” would be a great name for a band by the way) that many are on, mostly becasue Davies tends to get graded on the curve of his age.
Fire a good chance skywards and he hears ” Oh well. He’s only fifteen you know?”, produce a lovely bit of skill and he hears “And he’s only fifteen!”.
He clearly has immense talent but I’m not sure that playing as an intermittent starter and substitute is the best way to develop that talent over the long term.
I am sure however that it would be madness for the Whitecaps to base next season’s planning on the assumption that Davies will continue to grow (as a player) and so assume that no further upgrade or backup is required in the wide role.
Davies was certainly one of the few “feel good” stories for the club in 2016 but let’s hope that isn’t the driving force with regard to how his career develops.
So let’s leave the midfield there; hastily scambling to intercept a fairly average through ball while simultaneously standing statuesque still while the ball is in the opposition penaly area.
Next time out it’s the forwards!