As we approach the business end of the Major League Soccer season now is the time for coaches to look back on the first half of the season and try to glean a modicum of order from the inevitable chaos that has gone before.
New signings will have either been bedded in or weeded out of contention, tactical experiments will have burned brightly and sparkled, burned brightly and crashed or arrived pale and still born with their passing neither mourned nor mentioned.
But now the decision making becomes less about aspirations and wishes and more about the nuts and bolts of what actually works.
So has Carl Robinson seen enough to formulate a “best” starting eleven for his Vancouver Whitecaps team?
We’ll start with the players who are definitely among the select group that will always be on the team sheet if fit.
David Ousted, Tim Parker , Kendall Waston, Christian Bolaños, Jordy Reyna and Fredy Montero.
Nobody can dispute that Ousted, Parker and Waston are the key defensive players for the team; lose any one of these three to injury and the side is weakened.
And while Bolaños can be a mercurial presence he is clearly the best technical player the team has and in a side that has relied so heavily on set-pieces for their goals his delivery from those alone justifies his presence.
Reyna may only have provided a brief body of work on which to judge but there’s enough substance there to conclude that he offers a much needed fresh approach to attacking. He can run with the ball, turn up on any part of the pitch and gives Montero the support he has been sorely lacking.
Montero then must be relishing the possibility of spending the run in to the playoffs being less of an attacking island dweller then he has been thus far.
But now to the trickier decisions that Robinson will have to make.
At left full back Jordan Harvey is as close to being a definite starter as makes no real difference. Marcel de Jong has mostly filled in well when asked, but a decent Gold Cup performance won’t be enough to convince the coach that he should eschew Harvey’s MLS experience just yet.
At right back though the decision gets more complicated for a whole host of reasons.
Sheanon Williams was playing as a potential All Star before an off the field incident meant he was unavailable for a number of weeks and that allowed Jake Nerwinski to grasp the chance at first team action with both hands.
Williams was back in the lineup for the 4-0 victory in Dallas and although the coach may decide to alternate the starting spot for a few more games yet it’s hard to believe that, when push comes to shove, he won’t opt for experience over promise and make Williams the first choice for the run in.
Do we call them defensive midfielders or central midfielders?
That’s a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the Whitecaps but, right now, there are three decent options available to fit into two available spaces and they each offer something slightly different.
Matias Laba is a terrier who can break up opposition attacks with his chasing and when he’s good he’s very good and although he may not offer anything obvious from an attacking perspective his ability to break up play and set up a counter attack is often one of the Whitecaps most effective weapons in creating chances.
But when Laba is off his game his mistimed interventions can leave him way out of position and the back four perilously open to runners (their nightmare scenario).
If Laba could achieve consistency he’d be one of the best defensive midfielders in the league but, as it stands, he’s a decent option whose inclusion always contains an element of risk.
Carl Robinson has shown more patience with Tony Tchani than maybe any other player, which means he must see something there that will be of value over the long term.
And in the last few games maybe that “something” has begun to emerge as Tchani has developed into a neat midfielder who can keep possession and act as the conduit between the more creative players.
He’s still to offer any meaningful attacking presence during open play but he is always a danger from set-pieces.
Andrew Jacobson is something of an amalgam of Laba and Tchani. He can play the purely defensive role (albeit with less vigour than Laba) and he can play the conduit role (albeit with less involvement than Tchani).
He is though the only one of the three who seems to possess a genuine attacking instinct when the Whitecaps have the ball and he too is a set-piece threat.
In an ideal world Carl Robinson would be selecting which two of the three he selects based on the needs of an individual game but in reality Laba will be a certain starter with Tchani likely to be ahead of Jacobson based on Robinson’s faith in the ex Columbus Crew man.
So if we accept that Bolaños will start as one of the wide players, who will fill the other wide role?
Cristian Techera has first dibs there right now given his effective start to the season but Carl Robinson can’t have failed to notice how much more effective his team were when Montero had the support of Brek Shea and Berni Ibini on the wings.
Ibini was probably brought in to be one of those players that all coaches love; can be slotted in anywhere along the front line.
And his role for the rest of the season is likely to be as either an impact substitute or the occasional starter when one of the regulars need a rest.
For a Designated Player Shea has been severely underused thus far but the game in Dallas felt like a calling card for the rest of the year.
Shea wasn’t spectacular in that game by any means but his play supported Montero and his willingness to stick to the touch-line meant that Dallas were stretched in ways that few other opponents of the Whitecaps have been this season.
Carl Robinson loves his inverted wingers but Shea on the left and Bolaños on the right may prove to be the most effective way of getting the best out of Reyna and Montero.
Shout out too to Alphonso Davies whose recent injury either means that physically he will struggle to be a regular feature or the club will decide it’s not worth the risk of pushing so valuable an asset too hard with so many other options available.
Either way Davies as a late substitute still has the potential to turn a game or two around.
Those not mentioned in dispatches thus far can consider themselves as useful (to varying degrees) bench players.
Mezquida, Teibert, Hurtado et al will no doubt feature to some degree down the stretch but the core eleven will surely be made up of the sixteen named above.
Ultimately there isn’t a right answer to the best eleven because circumstances change from game to game so I guess I’ve asked a question I couldn’t answer (as Morrissey probably wrote at some time) but no definitive right answer doesn’t mean that there isn’t a definitive wrong one.
And that’s the answer Carl Robinson desperately needs to avoid coming up with.