Vancouver Whitecaps: Sink or Swim?

While on vacation a couple of days ago I was sitting quietly beside the (socially distanced) pool when I suddenly became aware of a commotion in the corner.

There was a squirrel in the hot tub!

“He’s swimming!” Shouted the children, their cherubic faces aglow with delight and wonder at a Disney cartoon come to life before their very eyes. “He’s drowning!” Shouted the adults, their gaunt faces pulled taut across their skulls as the year added yet one more horror to the seemingly endless litany.

I stepped forward to explain the situation.

“You are all wrong.” I said, invoking my default opening to any group of strangers I happen to meet.

“For this animal is neither swimming nor drowning.” I explained calmly. “He is merely representing, through the medium of interpretative dance, the current mindset of the average Vancouver Whitecaps fan.”

The assembled group nodded quietly, thanked me for my assistance and returned to their various activities; attempting to play volley ball in a pool the size of a bathtub, staring with hostility at the couple who had snagged the sun loungers that provided both sun and shade and emitting shrill screams for no apparent reason at random intervals.

I glanced back at the squirrel and, as he sank beneath the scalding bubbles for the final time, I fancied I saw a look of quiet satisfaction flicker across his tiny rodent face at the thought of a metaphor well represented.

For reader, that squirrel was right.

How do we assess what just occurred in Florida from a Whitecaps perspective? A brave battle against the odds? Or just more grist to the mill of unease?

It is, of course, too soon to say from the overall perspective but, for individuals, there were clear winners and clear losers.

In the loss column we have Theo Bair and Ryan Raposo. Neither will likely get a better chance to gain valuable minutes in meaningful games and, while both did get the minutes, neither made best use of them.

Raposo was an ethereal presence whenever he was on the field and Bair flattered to deceive in the role of central striker. Always threatening to hold the ball up and offer respite to his beleaguered defence, but never quite getting the job done (this probably makes Lucas Cavallini a default winner by his much missed presence).

Another big loser was Hwang In-Beom. There’s no player it would be more satisfying to see succeed than In-Beom (and no player the team needed more than somebody who could create something out of nothing, or provide quality chances to the strikers) but I’m not sure we are ever going to see that from the South Korean. Certainly not with any level of consistency.

The winners include Tomas Hasal of course. A third string goalkeeper who made some good saves and rode some good luck to become the feel good story of the tournament for the Whitecaps.

None of this makes him ready for the starting spot on a regular basis, but it may well mean he is mentioned in conversations for roles that, prior to Florida, his name would not even have been an afterthought.

Veselinovic and Cornelius come out well too. Both demonstrating the value of having defenders who think that defending is something to be done at all times and not just an optional choice depending on the game state (the loser here is Khmiri).

And perhaps the most surprising winner of all is coach Marc Dos Santos.

By the end of the tournament there was the sense that he could get the players to buy in to whatever tactic he was selling and use that buy in to get results above the pay grade of the players at his disposal.

That is a huge turnaround from the feelings after the first two games.

We’ve still yet to see any proof that Dos Santos can achieve results over the longer term and we’ve still yet to see if he can make Vancouver anything more than a backs to the wall, hope to get a result against the odds, playing for the playoff line kind of team.

But he left Florida with his stock a little higher and who knows when we will get to judge either him, or the players, again?

Belated Soccer Shorts ratings for the Kansas game!

Hasal-6, Nerwinski-5.5, Cornelius-6*, Veselinovic-6, Owusu-5, Teibert-6, Adnan-6, Dajome-5.5, In-Beom-5.5, Bair-5

Vancouver Whitecaps stay in the bubble

So, as expected, the Vancouver Whitecaps brushed aside the Chicago Fire by a convincing two goal margin to set up a last sixteen game against either Toronto FC or Sporting Kansas City.

Well perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but Marc Dos Santos had a plan and it worked; keep a clean sheet for the first sixty minutes and then introduce the pace of Reyna and Dajome for last half hour to take advantage of tired legs.

This plan was slightly disrupted by an injury to Khmiri and a weather delay, but nothing is ever going to be that simple for this team it seems.

But only somebody with a heart of stone could have watched the game unfold and not felt a sense of delight and relief for a group of players and coaching staff who have gone through so much turmoil over the last few weeks.

And only somebody with a brain of stone could have watched that game and concluded that things were just peachy keen for the Whitecaps going forward.

But this tournament neither signifies nor signals anything.

It exists in an independent reality, separate from both the laws of nature and the laws of common sense.

And, because they are in a Time and Space anomaly, Vancouver somehow progress to the knockout stage without ever looking comfortable in defence in any of their three games.

Nor have they ever looked capable of breaking down an opposition defence that was even approaching competency, but speed and a little bit of luck was enough for them against the Fire.

A mere two day break before taking the field again doesn’t bode well for their chances of progressing further but, given the circumstances, they have already achieved more than they should have done.

So we probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to what might happen further along in the bracket and there will no doubt be smirks of confident satisfaction from whichever of Toronto or Kansas ends up facing Vancouver in the next match.

For now though we should just enjoy a rare and fleeting moment of sporting happiness.

It’s 2020. We need to learn to take what we can.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Hasal-5, Nerwinski-5, Adnan-6*, Veselinovic-5.5, Cornelius-5, Khmiri-4, Teibert-5, In-Beom-4.5, Owusu-5, Bair-4, Raposo-4 (Reyna-6, Dajome-5)

 

Where now for Dos Santos and the Whitecaps?

What does the future hold for this Whitecaps team and this coach?

Well, that can probably be split into three separate time frames. The short, medium and long term, with each of them presenting their own unique challenges.

The Short Term- It’s theoretically possible that a comfortable win over the Chicago fire on Thursday would see the Whitecaps progress to the knockout stage of the MLSisBack tournament.

But words like “comfortable”, “win” and even “progress” don’t really come to mind when thinking of this team right now.

So the sole aim for that game has to be to demonstrate some level of organization. Yes, Vancouver have been hamstrung by the absence of crucial players, but a team in that situation has to control the things it can control.

And that includes the basics such as defending set-pieces, playing as a unit and just doing the simple things correctly.

It’s a frequent post-game lament of Dos Santos that his players didn’t do what he wanted them to do. They sat too deep, they didn’t press high enough up the field, they didn’t track runners.

The coaching staff have to solve the problem of why their instructions are so often unheeded or this team can’t move forward at all. Maybe it’s a matter of communication? Maybe it’s about the character of the players? Maybe it’s about on the field leadership? (More on this later.)

The Medium Term- If we are thinking about the remainder of this season then we don’t know what to think. The Canadian government (rightly) hasn’t allowed the Blue Jays to play home games in MLB, so it’s inconceivable they will allow Canadian MLS teams to do the same.

That means that, if MLS pushes ahead with the season, the Whitecaps will have to station themselves south of the border (Hard to believe the players will agree to this) or “hope” that MLS arranges another tournament in lieu of league play.

That probably leaves the still to be arranged Canadian Championship as the sole arena of competitive football and failure to perform well in that competition will be hard to recover from or explain away.

In essence it’s more likely than not that this squad will effectively lose a season of development.

The Long Term- Nobody would blame the players who opted out of the tournament in Florida for their decision. Indeed, if the team as a whole had decided not to travel it would have been more than understandable. Probably sensible.

But soccer players are human beings. More than that, they are competitive athletes who don’t like to lose.

So, while sitting next to each other in a relaxed team meeting it may well be easy to keep the bond going and the emotions in check, it’s more than likely that in a heated training ground confrontation, or a game that’s going awry, accusations will be unthinkingly thrown.

“Where the **** were you in Florida?”, “You sure this is safe enough for you?” etc. etc.

Throw in the fact that most of the players who elected not to travel were both senior and the best remunerated and it’s not hard to imagine divides occurring if things go (metaphorically) south.

It’s also true that the group of players who did travel and went through the whole debacle will always have that shared experience to discuss and to joke about.

The whole situation is a recipe for cliques and resentments that will be extremely tough to curtail.

So, in the near, medium and long term, Marc Dos Santos needs to get his ideas across more effectively, organize the team more efficiently and develop an atmosphere that makes use of leadership from senior players who may have (even if subconsciously) lost some of their standing among their juniors.

Vancouver Whitecaps by definition

They’ve sentenced us to a life of footballing misery so let’s sum up each of the Whitecaps starting eleven versus the Seattle Sounders in a sentence each.

They lost 3-0 by the way.

Max Crepeau- A good shot stopper who has yet to demonstrate he can command the penalty area or organize a back line.

Jake Nerwinski- A Major League Soccer full back.

Ali Adnan- A left back and consistently the most creative player in the team.

Jasser Khmiri- Not as good on the ball as he thinks he is. Treats defending as optional.

Ranko Veselinovic- A small sample size to make a judgement, but seems to have genuine quality.

David Milinkovic- Too ephemeral in every game he’s played.

Leonard Owusu– Could be good in a better midfield.

Hwang In-Beom- Has the ability to influence games. Hardly ever does.

Russell Teibert- Disrupts more Whitecaps attacks than opposition attacks.

Cristian Dájome– Doesn’t look good enough for Major League Soccer

Yordy Reyna– Has the ability to influence games. Hardly ever does.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Crepeau-4, Nerwinski-5*, Adnan-5, Khmiri-4, Veselinovic-5, Owusu, 4, Teibert 3, In-Beom-3, Dajome-2 Milinkovic-2, Reyna-4

Vancouver Whitecaps: Accepting Chaos

The MlsisBack tournament is a terrible idea.

Sending a bunch of professional athletes to live and work in one of Americas hottest of Covid hotspots is spectacularly dumb.

Throw in the ingredients that two of the teams have had to drop out entirely, many of the league’s bigger stars have decided that not attending was the wiser course of action and that games are being rearranged on a seemingly hourly basis and the whole thing should be a recipe for disaster and embarrassment.

And yet the games have been stupidly entertaining.

The combination of player exhaustion, ill prepared defences and the general chaos that encircles many an MLS game has led to a mixture of tension and laugh out loud comedy that have made the whole thing somewhat irresistible.

It may all still collapse in a heap of metaphorical rubble of course but, for now, the whole thing is a testament to how sport continues to overcome the ineptitude of sport administrators.

So, given all this madness, should we be too harsh on the Whitecaps following their 4-3 debacle against San Jose? They were without key forwards who could have held the ball up and bought the defence time as well as taking even more advantage of a disaster prone San Jose defensive system.

A Cavallini, Montero or Ricketts could have been a difference maker.

But the problem for those of us who follow the Whitecaps is that we have been through this move before.

Failure to take advantage of the weakness of the opposition, failure to think that leading in a game gives players freedom rather than imposing asphyxiating restrictions and failure to use the players on the bench in a way that makes any kind of sense.

Marc Dos Santos has claimed that he is reluctant ti use young players who haven’t earned their time. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of older players who are out on their feet.

The final minutes against San Jose were crying out for fresh legs who could close down the opposition and protect the defence. Sometimes it’s okay to be pragmatic rather than principled.

And speaking of pragmatism.

The news that Russell Teibert has signed a new contract through to 2023 can only be met with a shrug of vague indifference.

No team who want to be challengers in MLS would have Teibert as a regular starter, but most teams would probably be happy to have him in the squad.

And the Canadian has become the footballing equivalent of an annoying Christmas song.

You start off thinking “What’s the point of this?”, transition to “Oh this again?”, before settling on the realization that its continued occurrence provides a strangely comforting sense of familiarity and nostalgia in a world that is constantly changing.

The Whitecaps “journey” through the tournament could end tonight against the Seattle Sounders.

The Sounders have been as poor as the Whitecaps in their two games so far, but it’s likely that the extra game under their belt and the general sense that they want to win the tournament rather than survive, it doesn’t bode well for Vancouver.

Maybe there’s another night of craziness ahead to confound our expectations, but nobody could really blame the Vancouver players if they weren’t thinking longingly of a flight back to Canada and the sweet, sweet release of fourteen days of quarantine.

Vancouver Whitecaps Play a Game of Football!

Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures in the air

Pablo Neruda

The year 2020 has been many things. So many things. But perhaps when we look back on it in the years to come we will remember it most as the year of absence?

Absence from our workplaces, absence from our streets and restaurants and also the absence of sport. That modern day religion that measures out our weeks and months in anguish and joy.

But gradually we are creeping back toward our normal lives. Like animals being released from months of captivity we blink our eyes toward the light and tread softly on the path that leads to freedom.

Are we not in many ways experiencing our own rebirth? Both as individuals and as a society. Sensing a new beginning that…..what? You want me to write about the game? But I don’t want to write about the game! I hate football!

Sigh okay.

The Whitecaps began the MLSisback/MLSIsBack/mlsisback tournament in typical style. Almost like they’d never been away really.

Having been gifted two of their three goals by laughable San Jose defending, the Whitecaps decided that, just for shits and giggles, they would sit as deep as they possibly could and allow San Jose the freedom to both run at them while simultaneously conceding more corners than you’d find in Rubik’s Cube factory on dexamphetamine.

That plan didn’t work and they, with crushing inevitability, conceded in the 154th minute to a former player to lose the game 4-3.

Yes, yes, yes it was their first competitive game for the longest time. Yes, yes, yes they were missing many key players. But no, no, no there’s still no excuse for playing so naively. So contrary to everything that works when defending a lead.

On the positive side Adnan and Veselinovic played well and the latter may turn out to be a ball playing defender of genuine quality, but on the negative side In-Beom once again failed to persuade anybody that his longed for move to Europe is anywhere near to being a reality and too many players gave the ball away when attempting a simple pass.

These aren’t the symptoms of the situation, they are seemingly innate problems that exist within the team.

These problems can be (and should be) solved on the training ground (“Not if they’re innate they can’t be!” scream the pedants at the back). And if a team is constantly not doing what the coaching staff want them to do then the way the team is being coached needs to change.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on players and coaches who are facing a situation that most of us would find close to intolerable?

Nah. Part of the fun of it all is venting irrational anger for nonsensical reasons.

And, to end on a really positive note, if the Whitecaps lose to Seattle in the next game there will probably be no need to get up early for the final game of the group that starts at the ungodly hour of 6.a.m.

Hurrah!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Crépeau-4, Nerwinski-5, Adnan-6, Veselinovic-6*, Khmiri-4, Owusu-5, Teibert-4, In-Beom-3, Dájome-3, Milinkovic-5, Reyna-4

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Feel the Love Go

The CEO of a sports team shouldn’t be an important figure.

Correction.

The CEO of a sports team shouldn’t be a publicly important figure. Their role should be to keep the operation ticking over quietly and not have their every action or interaction clanging an alarm that awakens all.

When a CEO does become a public figure it’s usually a sign that something somewhere has gone awry in the way things should be.

Which brings us neatly to the the Vancouver Whitecaps announcing that their CEO Mark Pannes had been fired from his role last week.

The mere fact that this news hit harder than the run of the mill Front Office shenanigans is indicative of the fact that Pannes had been a breath of fresh air pumped in to a Whitecaps culture that had long been a stale and noxious fug.

He interacted with supporters, he initiated schemes that were both beneficial to the community and to the club and he allowed everybody the breathing room to just be a fan of the team and stop worrying about what the Whitecaps would manage to mess up next.

So, given all that, it’s probably not surprising that the reaction on social media was vehemently opposed to the move. And I’m using the phrase “vehemently opposed” here in the sense of “frothing at the mouth angry”.

The Whitecaps had finally overstepped the mark and retribution and/or remorse were demanded.

And yet.

When the histories of our age come to be written there surely has to be at least one tome entitled “Twitter Was Not Real Life: A Study of how Trending Topics Failed to Predict the Glorious Rise of Our Esteemed World Leader Barron Trump“.

Because if we have have learned just one thing over recent years, it is surely that the echo chamber of a bubble set in the void of irrelevance that is all our lives on social media doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. It’s just that our incoherent noise is reflected back as some semblance of coherent signal and we feel less alone.

And, much like an episode of The Murdoch Mysteries, Twitter has both good and bad actors, with Whitecaps Twitter being no exception to that rule.

It sometimes feels as though many of us should invest in a Victorian fainting couch so dramatically do we react to any instance in which the Whitecaps fall below our Platonic ideal of how the club should be run.

The anger is always bubbling and is always dialed up to eleven making it nigh on impossible to distinguish the petty squabble from the insurgency (But special mention to the people who thought a Whitecaps tweet celebrating Juneteenth was still fair game to attack the Pannes decision) and there are those who seem to have cancelled more season tickets than a Network TV executive has cancelled intelligent and darkly witty Sci-Fi seasons.

But real change comes in the streets not the tweets or, in the case of the Whitecaps, the seats not the tweets and, while it’s hard to be certain if this is really a Franz Ferdinand moment for the club or not, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels more like a phony war brought on by a mixture of incompetence, boredom and anger in need of an outlet.

But what the Whitecaps should be worried about it is the apathy that could set in from the larger fan base given the lack of soccer for the last few months and perhaps their continued enforced physical absence for over a year.

Will it be a case of that absence making the heart grow fonder or will it be a case of out of sight being out of mind?

Sooner or later the club will need to actively engage with all their fans in an effort to get them back on board.

And do you know who would have been great at that? Who would have really understood what needed to be done and how to do it in a way that made ticket holders feel valued and appreciated?

You can take that as a rhetorical question.

We don’t know the ins and outs of exactly why Pannes was fired, but we can at least file it into one of two categories.

It was either a rational business decision the reasons for which the people who made it are incapable of articulating, or it was an irrational business decision that can’t be articulated.

Viel Glück Axel!

Tramps like us (and we like tramps)

Born to Run is one of the great rock songs.

Speaking about the song in later years Bruce Springsteen said that he wanted to make it a combination of Elvis, Dylan and Spector.

And he succeeded.

The song is awash with raw energy and beat poet caricatures driving into a wall of sound.

Bruce has written better songs in his time, but I’m not sure he’s made better records.

But to even speak of words like “better” when it comes to music can be fatuous. Reducing it to the sterility of a balance sheet.

So let’s not say there’s a “better” version of Born to Run out there. Let’s just say there’s a different one.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood were a Liverpudlian band formed in a world where Thatcher’s Britain was intent on punishing those it disliked and distrusted. Their “enemies of the people”.

Frankie were huge at the time, but are now a footnote in the history of popular music (Although maybe it’s the footnotes that define popular music more than anything else?)

And they covered Born to Run.

Their version opens with a spoken exchange based around the Thatcherite ritual of the bored young man heading to the local “dole” office to sign for unemployment benefit and being met with the banal tyranny of equally bored bureaucracy.

“I’m sorry I’ve left me card at home”

“Well you’re late as well, that’s three times on the run. If you’re late again the supervisor said we’ve gotta put you on daily signing”

Then singer Holly Johnson declares a defiant “Ha!” and the song begins.

“In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through the mansions of glory in suicide machines
Sprung from cages out on highway nine……”

And it sounds ridiculous in this context.

Johnson may as well be speaking in tongues so far removed are the words from his everyday life.

Producer Trevor Horn throws everything at the recording, but never achieves either the Spector Wall of Sound or the confidence and bombast of the Springsteen version (There’s a different argument to be made about how such bombast made Springsteen’s other “Born” song so misunderstood by many. I mean, if you’re going to use a song as a singalong anthem for packed stadiums while having the Stars and Stripes draped large behind you it seems somewhat churlish to complain that people are missing the “irony” of the lyrics).

But back to Born to Run.

We only have to listen to Bruce’s version to know that he’s going to get the girl, get the car and get the future he’s dreaming of.

Holly Johnson doesn’t want the girl, can’t conceive of the car and knows he has no future.

Springsteen is driving toward the sun because that’s where he rightfully belongs. Johnson is flying too close to the sun because it’s the only way of forgetting who he is for one brief moment of time.

Bruce is bound for glory, Holly is bound to lose.

So let’s not speak of which version is better. Let’s just say that one version of the song is a celebration of escape and the other is a failed attempt to manifest a world where the word “escape” has meaning.

So where do the Whitecaps come in all of this?

Was it actually Bob Lenarduzzi playing saxophone on the original recording?

Sadly no.

But it seems some of us are destined to follow the “Bruce” teams of this world. The Real Madrids, the Manchester Uniteds and the Seattle Sounders. And some of us are destined to follow the “Frankie” teams.

The teams that live in an imperfect world. Who fail more often than they succeed and who, even when they do succeed, do so in an ephemeral way.

They are not dynasties destined to rule for years, but rebels who storm the castle for one night before being banished to the hills once again.

The footnotes in the history of sport (But footnotes who help to define us).

So, when the Whitecaps return, all we can really ask from them is that when they do fail, they fail bravely and gloriously. Dreaming of what can never be.

Just like Frankie did.

 

Time Added On

Toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the astronaut “Dave” experiences Time as a series of jump cuts. Scenes flashing by devoid of any kind of narrative structure. He is eating a meal, he is watching a glass of wine fall to the ground, he is laying on his bed.

Life in the lock-down can be a little like that.

We move from place to place wondering less about where we are and more about when we are. “Was it yesterday I went to the supermarket or last Friday?” “Why have I lost track of regular meal times?”

And that’s a reminder that Time only seems linear because we try to make it so.

Like fishing vessels adrift on an endless ocean we throw out marker buoys to create the illusion of progress.

The religions of the world have tried to solve the problem of understanding Time by adding circularity to the linear. With their Passovers and Easters and Ramadans and May the Fourth’s and so on and so on ad infinitum.

But those of us who only experience these events as secular points of vague interest are  forced to turn to the only true religion of the modern era.

Sport.

For every sport there is a season and each new season is a reassuring marker buoy to be noted and logged.

But, now that even sport is gone, what is there to give us anchor?

We can no longer make sense of Time because Time doesn’t make sense. Or rather, our senses can’t make sense of Time without the filter of all the “static” events we have carefully manufactured.

Our reality is only comprehensible when viewed through the filter of our illusions.

Gradually though we are creeping back toward the normal, or the “new normal” at least, and we will once again find ourselves secure in the footholds of schedules and tables and team sheets.

We will once again live through Time and not in it.

The last few weeks will no doubt change the way we think about many things. But will it also change the way we think about the way we think about many things?

A Moment of Quiet Reflection

In lieu of me writing anything this week I thought I would share a few of the aphorisms of the largely forgotten “first philosopher of football” Hosel Altobolf  (affectionately known as “Hippo” to his few close friends).

Altobolf died at a tragically young age, but his collected works are still as relevant today as they were when he first penned them while watching construction workers playing hastily arranged games of soccer during their breaks from building Vienna’s Centralbahnhof in the late 1860’s.

I hope they provide at least some solace and guidance in these strange times.

“Even the inverted winger must take the wider path from time to time. Just as we must accept there are moments in life when the longer road is the one that will lead us to our ultimate destination.”

“The wise player knows that the defensive wall is not an obstruction to the free-kick but a guide. And so must we acknowledge that the obstacles we perceive in our lives do not exist to thwart us, but to act as signposts to be followed.”

“The additional time at the end of a game is both finite and infinite. Determined yet indeterminate. All time is thus.”

“A goalkeeper who is unaware of his true position in relation to others will always be beaten. We can only live the successful life if we are aware of our true place within society.”

“The defensive midfielder does not aim to destroy attacks but to create them. To create our true selves we must first destroy the “other”.

“A set piece is a moment of calm and clarity before the resumption of chaos. We must strive to make each morning our own unique set piece.”

“The False Nine can only reach his full potential by being true to the role. We can only reach our full potential in life by being true to ourselves and shunning the labels imposed by others.”

“There is neither honour nor glory in the injured player who refuses to be replaced. He simply weakens the whole. There are times in life when we must accept our own inability to act and rely on the good deeds of others.”

“A player is defined as much by the passes he does not make as those he does. And so in life, the actions we do not take carry equal moral weight to those we do.”

“The wise player knows that he always has more time than seems possible and less time than seems necessary. We must live our lives in the same knowledge.”

All of these (and more) can be found in Altobolf’s seminal work “It is always/never a game of two halves”. Which, though difficult to find, is well worth seeking out.