Gone Laba Gone?

Any good therapist will tell you that when faced with an unpleasant situation the best thing to do is to ignore it completely until it goes away.

And that’s how we must all deal with the Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to New England at the weekend.

We must never speak of it again.

But what will we speak of?

Well, let’s just shoot the breeze on a few different topics should we?

Yes.

Here we go then.

Now?

Yes, now.

Laba leaving?- Rumours are a-swirling that offers are a-brewing for midfielder Matias Laba.

There was a time when losing Laba would feel like a hole being blown right through the heart of the team but now his salary hit and the acquisitions of Tchani and Ghazal would make his loss feel a lot less painful.

And, like quite a few others, Laba hasn’t really grown as a player during his time in Vancouver so it’s yet another move that might be best for all parties.

And not just Laba? The signing of Stefan Marinovic is clearly a move made to deal with the expected departure of David Ousted and with Jordan Harvey in the last year of his contract and Christian Bolaños failing to turn back the hands of time (and with a World Cup year coming up) it’s tempting to think that their recent omissions are as much to do with positioning for their leaving as it is to rest them.

All speculation of course but there does seem to be the odd sense that the Whitecaps are a team in transition just as the business end of the season kicks into gear.

It will be interesting to see how Carl Robinson manages such a situation.

VAR has a bad weekend-  This is a great summary of just what went wrong with the Video Assistant Referee program over the recent games.

I was innately sceptical of the move when it was announced but the first weekend reassured me somewhat given how effectively it was used.

There was always the fear of unintended consequences however and they have reared their ugly head(s) with a vengeance.

One of the skills of a referee is that he has to manage a game and that means that certain calls are made differently during different games (and even during the same game should the situation require it).

VAR offers no such subtlety and places the already pressurised ref under even more pressure by forcing him to make a decision he doesn’t really want to make.

Maybe a solution would be to always pair the same ref and  VAR together to allow them to build up some kind of working relationship?

But whatever the solution it needs to be addressed to prevent the somewhat ironic outcome of the man in the middle losing even more of his authority in the eyes of the players and the fans.

Doing the business at home- We’ve all spent countless hours wondering just why the Whitecaps are so bad at breaking down teams at BC Place but one obvious reason is that they are incapable of forcing the opponent to lose their defensive shape.

In theory the arrival of Jordy Reyna should help that.

His willingness to drop deep to pick up the ball offers far more of a challenge than the tried and tested low percentage long ball over the top of the defence.

And if he and Tchani and Jacobson can somehow find a way to link up the defence with the midfield and the midfield with the forward line then we may not be faced with the frustrating sight of Vancouver desperately hoping for a last minute set-piece to solve their inability to score goals in their own stadium.

Is that  it?

Yes, that’s it.

You sure?

Yes, I’m positive. You can go now.

You’re not going to carry on when I leave?

No.

Okay. Bye.

Bye.

 

Whitecaps lose and the world turns

The Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to the New England Revolution on Saturday evening was the kind of game that makes a person ponder how MLS could be structured in a way to make such occasions cease to exist.

Not just because it was a terrible game to watch (it was, but all leagues have those) but because there was a general air of “couldn’t care lessery” about the Whitecaps that was clear from the moment the starting eleven was announced.

There were seven changes in all with Stefan Marinovic getting his debut in goal, Jordy Reyna left on the bench and double switches at both full back and wide midfield positions.

But what made this general lack of concern more galling is that it probably made strategic and tactical sense from the overall perspective of the season.

The Whitecaps were at game three of a three game road run, had already picked up the decent tally of four points against two Western Conference rivals and were soon to embark on a run of six home games out of the next seven.

But perfect sense from a tactical point of view makes for perfect agony for us poor saps who invest their emotions into every game.

Anyway, New England were equally as bad as the Whitecaps but they did manage to complete one good cross and finish and that was that.

What can really be said about players in a team with so many changes that cohesion and clarity were always going to be aspirational rather than attainable?

Not much, but both full backs were solid, with Nerwinski’s crosses the most likely source of a Vancouver goal, Techera was lively on one wing and Shea was invisible on the other and what Reyna and Montero’s nascent striking partnership really needs is more time playing together than benching Reyna allowed.

At least Carl Robinson will have to pick teams that want to win for the next run of games, but the history of this team leans toward them following a decent series of road games with something of a let down at home.

That can’t happen this time around if the season is to be a success.

And just one more word to the wise, there’s now a small group of MLS teams who don’t treat a significant portion of their season as irrelevant and any teams who stay stuck in the old MLS way of thinking of assuming that you can always play catch up with a decent run of results at the end of the season will soon find that they are fighting this year’s battle against last year’s enemy.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, de Jong-6, Waston-6, Parker-5.5, Nerwisnki-6.5*, Laba-6, Tchani-5.5, Techera-6.5, Shea-5, Mezquida-6, Montero-6, (Jacobson-6, Reyna-5.5)

 

Not another Manic Maunday for the Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps trades during the recent signing window may not have set the pulses of fans throbbing like a badly maintained air conditioning unit in an oven factory* but they do at least address one obvious issue as well as one other issue that may have been less obvious but could turn out to be even more of a game changer.

We all knew that the over reliance on having both Kendall Waston and Tim Parker on the field at all times was a weak link for the side and the arrival of Aaron Maund from Real Salt Lake addresses that to a significant degree.

Maund is a natural central defender (which Andrew Jacobson isn’t) and has genuine MLS experience (which Christian Dean didn’t) and while it’s highly unlikely that Maund will be a regular starter his presence does at least give Carl Robinson some leeway if something should go awry with either of his two main men.

It also means that the coach has the option of switching to three at the back if he so chooses. That would be an out of character move for Robinson, but no so out of character that it’s impossible.

There can’t be many of us though who thought that what the Whitecaps really needed was another defensive midfielder and while there also can’t be many of us who can give genuine insight into how good Aly Ghazal actually is his CV suggests that he should be an upgrade on those who are already here.

On paper, and based on extensive viewing of You Tube clips, Ghazal poses the biggest threat to Matias Laba given that he seems to be able to both tackle and pass the ball rather than just tackle.

Laba has been a huge player for Vancouver during his time here and there’s a decent argument to say that when he is on form the Whitecaps are on form, but MLS is moving on and one trick ponies will soon be getting less and less saddle time and more and more pasture time.

That doesn’t mean we’ve approached the end of the Laba era in Vancouver, but we may well be at the beginning of the end of that particular time period.

And if the arrival of Ghazal means anything else to anybody it surely means the time has come for Russell Teibert to make a move.

Like Dean he has reached a plateau at the club that can only really be raised by a new challenge elsewhere because his meagre playing time here just took yet another hit.

Overall the Whitecaps now appear stacked in every position apart from the lone striker role meaning that Fredy Montero’s fitness and form becomes the most critical bellweather of success and failure going forward.

But a decent transfer window in the end for the club I think (but don’t plan the parade route just yet).

*Yes I know that oven factories are not actually any warmer than any other kind of factory. It’s call artistic licence!

 

Vancouver Whitecaps get a Rocky Mountain High/Low

The thing about going to see a tribute act is that the experience can go one of two ways.

Either you end up standing on a beer stained vinyl floor watching five aging and hairy men desperately trying to recreate the magic of Rollermania while thinking to yourself things like “Where did my life take such a wrong turning?”, “I really hope these stains on the floor are just beer” and “Isn’t this actually the original Bay City Rollers?”

Or the experience can offer at least a glimpse of transcendence.

One more chance to recreate the thrill of a youth long gone with a Proustian rush of bass guitar and drum, or the opportunity to be a time travel tourist and live briefly in a world of vinyl and videotape.

For the Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday evening’s 2-2 tie with the Colorado Rapids fell somewhere on the outside of even those two experiences and they must now know how Brian Eno would feel were he to walk into a bar and discover that the headline act of the night was Proxy Music.

Because the Colorado Rapids were nothing if not a tribute act to the 2016 Whitecaps (The “Vancouver Might Caps” maybe? I don’t know I’m still work shopping names).

Anyway, the Rapids were overly cautious in a home game they needed to win, scored from a set piece and a counter attack and, having taken the lead, decided to sit back and allow the opposition back into the game before hanging on for a point that no doubt their coach would describe as “Well deserved against a good team”.

It was probably too much to hope that Vancouver would recreate the magic of that 4-0 win in Dallas but it felt as though they might when Tony Tchani gave them the lead after just five minutes.

This time around though the wide men didn’t support Fredy Montero enough going forward and it was only when they were 2-1 down that the introduction of Shea and Techera really changed the focus of the game.

Shea was once again a threat down the left flank and Techera’s trademark left footed delivery from the right finally gave Montero a few scraps to feed upon and he eventually connected with one of them to level the score.

After that it all got even scrappier than it was before with both teams looking capable of scoring more through luck than judgement although by the final whistle it was the Whitecaps who looked like being the luckier of the two.

A point on the road in MLS is never a bad thing but the “what ifs” of a Kendall Waston start and better performances from Ibini and Bolaños may just keep Carl Robinson awake a little longer than usual in the coming days.

Elsewhere Sheanon Williams looked rustier than he did in Dallas and Tchani’s goal was a delightful side footed finish from outside the penalty area but the game still leaves the coach trapped in the hinterland of being content with the knowledge he has game changers on the bench and frustrated that selecting which of those game changers to start seems to be something of a lottery.

But four points from the first two road games of a three game stretch already puts the team at par and whatever happens in New England next week is now less important than how the Whitecaps deal with being back at BC Place.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams-5.5, Parker-6, Jacobsoon-5.5, Harvey-6.5, Tchani-6, Laba-6, Bolaños-5.5, Ibini-5.5, Reyna-6, Montero-6, (Techera-6.5*, Shea-6.5)

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: What is the best eleven?

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?

Let’s see.

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.

 

Dallas let Bernie in and the Whitecaps feast

“Once you taste the geometry of a church in a cul-de-sac

you’re going to want to sit with the bad kids in the back”

Dallas-Silver Jews

It’s hard to say exactly what the Silver Jews meant in that lyric but it makes at least as much sense as the Vancouver Whitecaps travelling to Dallas in the heat of July and coming away with a 4-0 win.

But that’s what happened on Saturday evening and although Dallas may well point to a penalty kick and a red card as being decisive, the reality is that both decisions were correct and the Whitecaps were the better team before either and both incidents.

So what went right?

Well, either Carl Robinson made a series of brilliant tactical changes or he left out a few senior players for a game he didn’t think his team could win and somehow produced a nugget of gold from the base metal of pragmatic squad rotation.

But the coach gets the criticism when things go wrong so he deserves the praise when he gets it very, very right as his side produced a textbook road performance.

Actually, “textbook” doesn’t seem strong enough a term. It was more a “textbook that has all the answers in the back and incriminating pictures of the examiners in the dust cover just in case” road performance.

Having Kendall Waston back in central defence certainly helped and both Williams and de Jong provided steady if unspectacular cover in the full back positions.

In central midfield Laba had one of his better games at breaking up play and Tony Tchani is beginning to establish himself as a neat player who will almost always take the simplest pass available (but in a good way).

It was in the forward line though that the Whitecaps really looked like a fresh team with Ibini, Shea, Reyna and Montero displaying the kind of movement that has been sorely missing.

Reyna played closer to Montero than anybody else has this season and it can’t be a coincidence that the Colombian subsequently had his best game for the Whitecaps.

Reyna’s willingness to run at defenders also offered something new for an attack that, for once, didn’t rely on the hopeful punt forward to create chances.

It’s far too small a sample size to make any kind of definitive judgement but it may be that the Reyna, Montero axis will work better with “natural” rather than “inverted” wide players since that should force the opposition defence to play less narrow in the centre allowing Reyna room to run and Montero room to both create and poach.

After the 1-0 win in Los Angeles I wrote that the game appeared to be a turning point in the Whitecaps season and they promptly followed that up with a display against Portland that was so devoid of anything positive that it almost qualified as a piece of performance art.

That can’t be allowed to happen again but how Robinson selects his next team is anybody’s guess because there were at least four players in Dallas who made a very good case for being drafted in from the fringes and offered another chance at a role in the main production.

Let’s just enjoy this game for now though, ending as it did with Nicolas Mezquida nutmegging the goalkeeper with an overhead kick from a ludicrously tight angle.

It was just that kind of night.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6.5, Williams-6.5, de Jong-6.5, Waston-6.5, Parker-6.5, Laba-6.5, Tcahni-6.5, Shea-6, Ibini-6.5, Reyna-6.5, Montero-7*, (Techera-6)

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The clip show

You know those sitcoms that always have one episode which is just a series of clips of other episodes?

We all love those because it shows just how much effort has gone into creating something special for the viewer. Right?

Right.

So think of this particular post in similar lines. It’s really just a collection of thoughts that either could have been (or have been) just as well expressed in tweet form.

But, because I really care about each and every one of you, here are the expanded and less pithy versions.

The Whitecaps don’t need to sign any more players- Now that it’s pretty much confirmed that there will be no more Designated Player signings this season that leaves any other additions the team might make as more likely to be “squad strengtheners” than “game changers”.

And the last thing Carl Robinson needs right now is more players to think about.

He still hasn’t figured out a way of fitting Brek Shea into his starting eleven, let alone found a consistent role to use Bernie Ibini in.

The recent return of a number of players from injuries seems to have thrown the coach into a fevered state of throwing square pegs at round holes in the desperate hope that one will somehow fit.

More square pegs for the same number of round holes definitely isn’t the answer.

The Gold Cup Golden Boot is a double-edged sword for Alphonso Davies- It’s great that the young Canadian picked up this trophy (and the “Young Player of the Tournament” as well) but that shouldn’t hide the fact that his overall play just wasn’t that stellar.

He did confirm that he was a very good finisher however because Davies always seems to pass the ball into the net rather than opting for the hit and hope style we’ve all come to know and love at BC Place.

But the accolades will only lend more credence to the voices who already think that simply starting the youngster will solve all of the Whitecaps issues.

It won’t.

And what he needs more than anything else right now it to start in a few selected games where he’s able to develop some kind of chemistry with his Vancouver teammates.

That’s hard to do in the heat of a playoff race and it’s even harder to do in a team that plays as though an incisive short pass is a great idea in theory but that nothing beats the effectiveness of frantically trying to pick up knock downs from long punts forward.

Would a coaching change help the Whitecaps?- Last season the Seattle Sounders struck gold by firing Sigi Schmidt and now the LA Galaxy have announced that they hope to find the same gold by..er…hiring Sigi Schmidt.

And after four seasons we know the limits of Carl Robinson as a coach.

For all his brief flirtation with open football earlier in the year he will always revert to his natural belief that benefiting from errors is a better way to go than creating chances organically.

That’s worked well in home games against Atlanta, LA and Seattle who all played with a degree of openness but the tradition is that in the second half of the season the better coaches will have sussed out their opponents and know the best way to shut them down.

One of Robinson’s biggest issues is that he just isn’t a very good “in-game” coach. He rarely makes effective or timely changes and seems mostly incapable of either seeing that his team is playing poorly or even acknowledging the fact.

I could add that an awful of the coaching that he actually does during a game revolves around telling individual players where they should be at any given moment and that’s indicative of either futile micro management or a lack of preparation during the week because these are the things that should come naturally to a well-drilled side.

This is a great read on that particular topic by the way.

For all that though the decision to replace Robinson should only be made if there’s somebody really good in the wings ready to go and who has been well researched by the club.

That’s a highly unlikely scenario, so the best hope for now seems to be that either the current coach can somehow find a way to change his tactical ways in the next few weeks or that a serendipitous quirk of fate throws the best formation into his lap one beautiful Vancouver morning.

Next time out we’ll return to regular programming.