After the recent 4-0 debacle in Seattle I wrote the following about the Vancouver Whitecaps
“This game should be a reminder that they need to work hard every day at everything for the rest of the season. But recent history suggests they will just work hard for a few games and then revert to type once a good result or two is achieved.”
And so, after two wins, the Whitecaps did indeed revert to type. As it was written then so it came to pass.
Fortunately the New England Revolution aren’t as clinical a team as Seattle, but a 0-0 home tie against a mediocre Eastern Conference team is exactly the kind of result that prevents Vancouver from reaching any height other than “still within a chance of the playoffs”.
To be fair the Whitecaps started brightly and for (let’s say) fifteen and a half minutes that played with a degree of urgency.
They they stopped.
Players receiving the ball with acres of space to run into would pause, take a look around and ultimately decide to play the ball backwards or (if they were feeling adventurous) sideways to a teammate who followed suit.
The late arrival of Brian White gave them some impetus in attack but they still proceeded to make more bad decisions than a Junior Accounts Manager at his first Vegas conference.
Simple passes were overhit, shots were taken when a pass was the better option and crosses were floated into the box in a way that would make the goalkeeping coach of an under twelve’s team bemoan that this was all a bit too easy for his charges.
Next up is LAFC and no doubt the Whitecaps will be energized by the return of Crepeau and the absence of Bale.
But this desultory performance against the Revolution continues to define them more than the inevitable post game talk of being better and working harder.
Vanni Sartini has gone all in on the Canadian Championship this season and he did so again on Wednesday evening against York United, starting all three of his Designated Players.
And it sort of worked.
In the first half the Whitecaps rarely looked troubled defensively, but were diffident going forward allowing the visitors ample time to regroup while Vancouver knocked the ball around with little real urgency.
That changed in the second half and with Raposo and Gauld both making runs in behind the York defence to create two much needed goals for Brian White and the game looked to be a done deal until substitutions were made and, as in the game against Dallas at the weekend the Whitecaps went from being on control to resorting to hacked clearances and hopeful punts forward.
The difference can’t all be down to the withdrawal of Andres Cubas but it feel as though the midfield suddenly went from anticipating where the ball would be to running to where the ball had just been.
Elsewhere Cristian Dajome continues to struggle displaying a bizarre mix of thinking too much and not thinking at all whenever he has the ball, but Ryan Raposo continues to grow in the wide role and is now much more of an attacking threat than he ever was before.
These games are always tough (as the Whitecaps have demonstrated in the past) but a final against Toronto is a fitting reward for Sartini’s willingness to invest so much into a tournament that has been mostly a source of angst for this team.
From yesterday but now with additional meanderings.
There are few things more dispiriting in life than settling down to watch a perfectly competent TV series only to suddenly discover that, horror of horrors, this is the “Dream Sequence” episode!
Any narrative arc and character development will be cast aside as we are forced to watch the main character wander through a door that isn’t really there to discover the rest of the cast (dressed as various summer vegetables) dancing a slow waltz around a swimming pool filled with water the colour of blood. Meanwhile, the main character’s mother scream insults from atop a turquoise coloured elephant while the camera zooms in and out with all the grace of said elephant navigating an Olympic level slalom course.
Whether all these shenanigans are due to the writers believing they have something interesting to say about the subconscious world of the hero or are just a way of padding out the season to the full ten episodes is irrelevant.
For the hapless viewer the whole thing is disorienting and disjointed.
And every Vancouver Whitecaps game is essentially a dream sequence episode writ large.
It may be a case of of confirmation bias but the Whitecaps always seem to be worse immediately after an extended break. Almost as though time spent on the training ground thinking about how they should be playing disrupts their synapses and they need the cold reality of actual games to get themselves back up to speed.
A team that was clueless in one game can be tightly disciplined in the next, players unable to control the ball in one game are killing passes with the outside of their foot in another and a defence that once resembled a secondhand sieve suddenly resembles a sturdy shield.
A big part of that shield were the performances of Godinho and Brown. In recent games the former has looked to be the epitome of an attacking wing-back and the latter the embodiment of a solid right sided central defender. One can only assume that some kind of mind/body transference experiment has taken place between the two of them.
And so it came to pass in the 2-0 victory in Dallas on Saturday evening.
The team that was criminally poor in Seattle became legally good in Frisco as they limited the home side to hopeful crosses and less hopeful shots.
New arrival Andres Cubas certainly helped in shoring up the midfield, but so did Russell Teibert. And a back three of Brown, Veselinovic and Blackmon benefited from the cover provided and kept their shape with aplomb for most of the game.
So who will Sartini ultimately partner Cubas with? A defensive minded Teibert or Berhalter or a more attack minded Alexandre or Vite (or Gauld)? Or does he see Cubas as offering enough going forward to retain the security of the two man midfield cover? Recent history suggests the coach is reluctant to free up his central pairing to do anything more than offer the odd foray going forward.
Up front Cavallini, Dajome and Caicedo worked hard without ever really creating anything from open play after the early goal. But that is of no import.
The road trip was salvaged.
Only a fool would definitively say that this team were now on the up, but they are at least not on the down and the sight of Gauld and White coming off the bench indicated that this is a squad that can probably achieve more in the second half of the season than it has in the first.
Neither Gauld nor White have settled into the season yet, but the thought of both Cubas and Gauld (two players who can genuinely read the game) both playing near the top of their form is not an unpleasant one.
But we would do well to remember that they still remain as unpredictable as a third rate writer’s room and that they will always be just one game away from doing something that makes no sense at all.
While it’s subjectively frustrating to watch the Whitecaps lose to a Cascadian rival, there’s nothing objectively terrible about losing to the Sounders in Seattle.
After all, they are a good team run by a competent organization.
But it is immensely frustrating to see the Whitecaps lose in the manner they did on Tuesday evening.
Mentally switching off within the first few minutes to concede an early penalty, the inability to play even the simplest of passes, allowing acres of space in the midfield, one player pressing while the rest of the team look on with disinterest, the inability of the forward line to keep possession, no creativity or movement, a lack of intensity, no discernible game plan and no real urgency to get forward at any stage.
The list could go on.
It felt like the whole team believed that winning a couple of games thanks to a couple of penalty kicks meant they no longer had anything to prove and that just turning up in Seattle would be enough.
But, in the end, they barely even turned up.
This game should be a reminder that they need to work hard every day at everything for the rest of the season. But recent history suggests they will just work hard for a few games and then revert to type once a good result or two is achieved.
It wasn’t Carl Robinson appreciation night at BC Place on Saturday evening, but it could well have been.
Because the Welsh maestro would surely have appreciated a Whitecaps team that showed little or no creativity, allowed the visiting team to dominate the game and yet still come away with all three points thanks to a long throw routine and a last minute penalty kick.
That’s how you succeed in MLS!
In the end it was the substitutes who stole this game for Vancouver. A little bit of quality from Ryan Gauld and a little bid of savvy from Luis Martins to draw the challenge that won the PK and the game was theirs.
But it was also Cody Cropper making a couple of good saves and projecting the sense that the game isn’t going to run away from him when things go wrong in the way they have tended to do for Thomas Hasal.
And so, poor performance against Salt Lake aside, the Whitecaps enter the international break in a much better position than seemed possible at the start of May. Within touching distance of the playoffs and the possibility of a full strength squad once they resume in a couple of weeks.
That availability of players is one thing that will determine the success or failure for the rest of the season. The other is Sartini himself.
There’s still a sense that the coach has a need to look for problems to solve even when no such problem exists. A tactical tweak here, a positional adjustment there that do as much to unbalance the team as they do to improve it.
The good news is that the last two games have offered a blueprint for stability.
Play a defensive minded midfielder in the front of the defence (not Baldisimo!) and play two central forwards that have a licence to roam.
Andres Cubas will be able to slot in for Jungwirth (who has shown that “running around a lot” isn’t necessarily the hallmark of an effective defensive midfielder) and if White and Cavallini can figure out how to play together consistently then Gauld should have more freedom to play behind them and create space for others.
A back three of Godoy, Veselinovic and Blackmon with plenty of options at wing back and you have the making of a perfectly competent MLS team.
Sartini has done wonders for the overall “vibe” of this team. Has he now got the restraint to allow them to be the thing they are meant to be?
Could it be that Vanni Sartini has found the secret to getting his Whitecaps team to defend competently?
And that secret may be having a defensive midfielder in front of the backline who can read the game well, organize the players around him and use the ball in a way that doesn’t constantly place his teammates in peril.
The assumption has been that the player in question would be new signing Andres Cubas but, since the club continue to employ the law firm of EasyVisaForYou.com the Paraguayan has remained in work permit limbo and it was Florian Jungwirth who stepped into the breach to become the player the team needed.
It’s also possible that that the secret to getting the team to defend competently is to play an opponent who are not very good at attacking.
And watching Sporting KC labour to try and find openings thanks to a lack of movement and limited ball control must have left a strange sense of vicarious unease for many a Vancouver supporter.
But three points is three points and there were more positives from this game than just beating a poor opponent.
Javain Brown is getting back to the player he was last year; a good one on one defender with the potential to provide an attacking threat. Marcus Godhino is growing into a dependable MLS wing back and Lucas Cavallini has gone from unlovable wastrel to loveable rogue.
If and when Sartini gets a full raft of players to choose from then this Vancouver squad has the potential to be a little bit more than decent.
They also have the potential to revert to type and blow the whole thing in some entirely unpredictable manner.
Every Vancouver Whitecaps road game represents the Platonic Ideal of why they are not very good on the road.
A promising start with a few good chances missed. The confidence and energy levels drop and mistakes start to be made both in and out of possession. A goal is conceded. The Whitecaps then wake up again and begin to play the way they should have been playing when the scores were level.
And so it was against Cavalry in the Canadian Championship but, luckily, Vancouver have finally found something they are good at.
All five spot kicks were slotted home with a sense of aplomb sadly missing for most of the game.
But, before then, Vanni Sartini must have been regretting building this game up as the “biggest of the season” as his team reverted to type and allowed an inferior team (and how novel that must have been!) to push them all the way before the surprisingly competent denouement.
If the Whitecaps go on to win the trophy then this game will fade into the mists of time. Actually, it will fade into the mists of time even if they don’t win the trophy given how forgettable it mostly was.
I barely remember it even now.
But it’s best if we think of this win as a reprieve rather than a redemption. An escape rather than an escapade.
It’s hard to know what to take away from a game where the Vancouver Whitecaps were so depleted by a combination of injuries, suspensions, visa issues and health and safety protocols.
But, perhaps surprisingly, by the end of the 2-1 defeat in Charlotte it felt like points unnecessarily dropped rather than a brave defeat in the face of impossible odds.
After an initial flurry of attacks following an early Whitecaps goal Charlotte turned out to be pretty terrible at breaking down the Vancouver backline and stand in goalkeeper Max Anchor was more troubled by set-pieces than he was by the opposition creating clear cut chances.
But, just as the game looked to be stumbling to a dull conclusion, Ranko Veselinovic decided that kicking the ball away from his own six yard area was the ungentlemanly thing to do and the game was lost.
That felt like a brutal blow for the rest of the players at the time but maybe if the team as a whole had taken the game to Charlotte a little more such a mistake would have counted for less?
And maybe if they had kept the ball better when they were in possession that kind of tired error wouldn’t have occurred?
Inactions have as many consequences as actions.
This may be a defeat that the coach can point to as caused by the astonishing array of off the field bad luck that is following this team around at the moment. But it was also caused by his team failing to do the basics when it mattered.
They got away with such sloppiness over the recent home stand, but the moving finger of fate is very big on rewrites and ethically appropriate denouements and so it came to pass.
Time for this team to change the script.
It’s also time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!
In some ways it’s hard to know how the Whitecaps ended up with all three points from the game against FC Dallas on Wednesday evening.
In the first half Vancouver followed the usual pattern of starting with enthusiasm but then failing to capitalize on half chances before shambolic defending allowed the opposition to score.
But there is an explanation for how the victory was ultimately achieved.
Firstly, Dallas sat deep in the second half and allowed the Whitecaps to gain the momentum they struggled to maintain in the first.
Secondly, the arrival of Brian White and Leonard Owusu provided some much needed energy in the forward line and the midfield.
And, finally, the Whitecaps worked really, really hard.
They didn’t work smart in the way that Dallas did (their pressing was far more systemic than anything Vancouver could ever achieve) but they covered the acreage of BC Place in such a way that they eventually wore the soccer gods down and the deities that we all know exist reluctantly allowed the match official to give a penalty-kick for a foul on Veselinovic and then blow the final whistle much earlier than he probably should have done.
This performance wasn’t a recipe for any kind of future success but it did at least provide the base for a a cake that might be edible once all the ingredients are available.
(That’s a clever reference to the players who aren’t available for those of you with more literal minds than you should have).
“The game against TFC was one that the Whitecaps could have lost 3-0, won 3-0, tied 3-3 or any of the variants in between.”
So it was written following the Whitecaps last home MLS game and so it also came to pass on Saturday afternoon as Vancouver and San Jose Keystone Kopped their way to a 3-3 tie.
The first half was less Mack Sennett though and more Senate filibuster as the Whitecaps tried in vain to prevent the passage of the ball through their midfield.
It’s hard to know if the Vancouver defence is just flat out bad or whether they are made to look worse than they are by having no cover from the players in front of them.
It’s probably a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B, but it must get tiresome to constantly see the opposition charging toward you while your midfield chases them in vain like, well, like the Keystone Kops.
At half-time Vanni Sartini decided that having two defensive midfielders who can’t defend the midfield is a worse option than having one defensive midfielder and one creative midfielder who can’t defend the midfield and the game exploded into a myriad of examples of why neither of these teams will achieve anything more this season than hoping to squeak into the playoffs with a late burst of good form.
At least it was entertaining.
And it also raised the distinct possibility that Lucas Cavallini may not be a terrible signing after all. While Brian White struggles without a sense of order and competence in the build up play, Cavallini thrives on chaos and he was the catalyst for almost all the good things the Whitecaps did on the day.
The opposite can be said for Cristian Dajome as the Colombian continues to struggle to find any kind of form this year. Maybe that’s the result of being played in so many different positions but, whatever the cause, his decision making and final ball have been consistently poor for too long now.
The impact of Ryan Gauld’s absence can’t be overstated as the Scot makes the rest of the team more “intelligent” by making the runs and passes that force the right on field decision to be made. And neither can the poor off-field off-season be discounted.
Too few deals made too late have left the team at the mercy of the Fates and the Fates rarely have any mercy and so injuries, visa delays and Covid protocols are conspiring to make the Whitecaps merely the sum of some badly assembled parts.