Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review (The Attack)

It’s tempting to make jokes about the phrase “Vancouver Whitecaps Attack” being an oxymoron like “Charlton Athletic” or “Translink Schedule” but there was at least some attack out there some of the time.

Mostly when the opposition allowed it to be by playing open football but it was definitely there because we all saw it.

So how did the players who comprised that attack fare this year?

Fredy Montero- All signs point to Montero not being back with the Whitecaps next season, which is a shame because Carl Robinson finally found somebody who could prosper in his lifelong quest to prove John Donne wrong.

Maybe “prosper” is overstating it but Montero produced his best ever goal tally in MLS and displayed enough on field savvy to make his isolation not quite the optimism killer it was for those who went before him.

We’ll probably always wonder how much better the team would have been if Montero had been granted more support more of the time but the Whitecaps would likely have been much closer to the basement of the table without his presence.

Good luck replacing him with a cheaper option!

Season rating- 7

Yordy Reyna- There’s a school of thought that can’t help but wonder how the Whitecaps would have fared had Reyna been fit all season.

“About the same” is probably the right answer although maybe the Peruvian would have developed a little more understanding with his teammates given the extra time.

When he was finally fit Reyna showed he had both the devilment and desire to make Vancouver just a little bit unpredictable.

But his end of season form was an indication that opponents had figured out that deploying men to mark Reyna out of the game was enough to extinguish the Whitecaps attacking threat.

Like Montero he’ll need far more support if he really is going to be the “difference maker” he’s advertised as.

Season rating-6.5

Erik Hurtado- What can we say about Hurtado? He’s a player who works hard, has power and pace and even improved his all round game in 2017.

But for all that the fact he featured as often as he did in 2017 is an indication of just how bare the Whitecaps attacking bones were.

Hurtado’s work rate and attitude alone mean he deserves some success in his career but if he’s still an option off the bench for Vancouver in 2018 something has gone horribly wrong with the offseason recruitment.

(Narrator’s voice: “Something went horribly wrong with the offseason recruitment”).

Season rating- 6

Nicolas Mezquida- Mezquida isn’t a great player by any stretch of the imagination but he’s a more than capable replacement for either a forward or number ten if needed.

But the reason he seems to be so popular with the fan base is because he plays the game in the exact same way we all imagine we would if given the chance.

He always gives everything, is overjoyed when the team win and devastated when they lose.

Mezquida is like the Spirit Animal of the supporters’ Id; desperately straining at the leash to express himself despite the limitations imposed by the team’s style of play.

Season rating- 6

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: The Midfield (Part Two)

There are some couples who only manage to stay together because they are constantly “doing something”.

Renovating the kitchen, building a new deck or turning that small space at the back of the house into an “office slash craft room”.

Because as long as they’re “doing something” they never have to stop and think about the mind-numbing pointlessness of their everyday existence. Never have to question the very fabric of their relationship.

Although I wonder what fabric one would use for the throw cushions in an “office slash craft room”? Why not take a chance and choose a Japanese print from Etsuko Furuya’s Echino line?

It’s bold, but no so bold that it overpowers the space entirely.

Anyway, the early indications are that the Vancouver Whitecaps are very definitely going to be “doing something” when it comes to player movements this off-season, probably in the hope that both they and us will be distracted from the crushing inevitability of another season in which not being able to fault the effort of the players is a high point.

So before a whole bunch of them depart on their merry way let’s begin part the second of our look back at the midfield class of 2017.

Christian Bolaños- Bolaños is the most cultured player in the Whitecaps squad (possibly by some distance) and he’s the only one who looks genuinely comfortable on the ball at all times.

But this season his influence and attitude was a notch down from his impressive debut year.

Put that down to the distractions of World Cup qualifying, a series of injuries or just not fitting into the system the team is playing but whatever the reason if Carl Robinson decides to bring Bolaños back it has to be with an idea of how he will be played in a far more effective role.

It’s telling however that for all the negativity Bolaños was still joint leader on the team in assists for 2017.

Season rating- 5.5

Cristian Techera- The other team leader in assists Techera very much had a bounce back year in 2017.

His set-piece delivery was a crucial factor and he was the only player consistently able to provide quality service to Fredy Montero from open play.

Techera’s form dropped at the tail end of the season but a positive year for him all things considered.

Season rating-6.5

Brek Shea- Shea is about as one-dimensional a footballer as it’s possible to be. He runs hard in the direction he’s facing and offers no nuance or intelligence in his game at all.

On the positive side he proved to be quite a useful substitute during road games, but the impression that he loves what he gets from the game rather than the game itself still lingers.

It’s hard to imagine he will be back in 2018 given his contribution and his salary and his final outing as a bizarre substitute at left-back in Seattle was a fitting tribute to a player who never once looked like finding a permanent role in the team.

Season rating- 4

Bernie Ibini- Ibini’s season felt a lot like Shea’s but with a far more positive spin. An effective substitute who did at least look like he knew what he was doing when he came onto the field and even offered glimpses of quality.

Yet he still lacked the ability to make an impact on a regular basis and “a useful player to have in the squad” might be the best thing we can say about him.

Every squad needs that kind of player of course so perhaps that faint praise isn’t the damning it first appears to be, but the overall impression of Ibini is that he would have been a good signing for an MLS team in 2014 but fortunately/unforunately the league has moved on since then.

Season rating-5 

Alphonso Davies- Maybe now that Davies has turned seventeen he will begin to be analyzed as a footballer rather than simply as a young phenom? Seventeen isn’t that young to be playing professional soccer and next season will be a huge one for Davies in terms of how he grows as a player.

Right now his pace and power cover up his less than perfect first touch and his somewhat perplexing inability to fully slot into the pattern of the team.

Those failings aren’t helped by the sense of expectation that greets his arrival in any game at BC Place and it would be nice if the club toned down the whole “we want to protect Davies while simultaneously mentioning him at every opportunity” vibe.

The best thing next year would be for Davies to be treated like every other player on the squad and incessant media narrative be damned.

Season rating- 5.5 

Nosa Igiebor- We haven’t seen enough of Nosa to make a definitive decision about his qualities but we have seen enough to know that he arrived being touted as a box to box midfielder before being played in a far more defensive role.

His pedigree is undoubtedly good but let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be yet another attacking threat immolated on the bonfire of Carl Robinson’s defensive vanities.

Season rating-5.5

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: The Midfield (Part One)

The Vancouver Whitecaps acquired midfielders this season with more voracity than Bono’s accountant acquires companies in ethically dubious offshore tax havens so, for your benefit dear reader, I will split the review of the 2017 midfield into two parts.

And part the first will be devoted to Carl Robinson’s drug of choice; the defensive midfielder.

Matias Laba- Laba’s season ended with an injury just when it seemed a move away from the club was on the cards. What that means for his future remains uncertain but the players who have arrived since that day make Laba’s presence here in 2018 very unlikely.

There’s an argument that’s a good thing given the fact that he hadn’t really developed beyond the midfield terrier persona he arrived with.

There’s a counter argument that says he would actually have been a very good foil to the more static presence of Ally Ghazal.

That will likely be moot though and we may well have seen the last of one of those Laba challenges that are specifically designed to leave everybody thinking “That could be an MLS red card”.

Season rating-5

Andrew Jacobson- A useful presence in that he can play in the midfield or at the back, Jacobson was one of those who fell out of favour come season end.

That might have been somewhat harsh since he offered at least as much as Tony Tchani as a holding midfielder and a little bit more going forward.

But Jacobson is yet another who will be moving on and he may be missed a little more than many of us think.

Season rating-6

Tony Tchani- No player was given more leeway for poor performances than Tchani this season.

Clearly Carl Robinson saw something in Tchani he wanted to nurture (or maybe he just enjoyed bawling instructions at him from the sideline. “Want the f””ing ball Tony!” being a particularly apposite such shout).

Yet despite his four goals (three of which came from set-pieces) Tchani offered next to nothing  as an attacking presence in open play and his defensive contribution can be best summed up as “being there to get in the way”.

Right from the get go he looked like a man who wasn’t quite sure why he was here or what part he was supposed to play and that culminated in him being dropped for the final game against Seattle.

Much like the French Revolution it will be generations before people can really understand what the meaning of  Tony Tchani in Vancouver actually was.

Season rating-5

Russell Teibert- If Russell Teibert didn’t try so hard and take it all so seriously it would be all too easy to be amused by his exertions.

Like a three-year old pretending to do the job a of a grown up Teibert goes convincingly through the motions without ever really knowing the why or the wherefore of what he’s doing.

The Canadian Premier League is almost specifically designed for his talents and if he ends up there he will no doubt thrive.

But if safe passes to a central defender were suddenly declared to be currency Teibert would be the new Bitcoin.

Season rating-4

Ally Ghazal- Have we had enough time to evaluate Ghazal yet?

Probably just enough to know that he’s a genuine defensive midfielder who is stronger than he looks and who is also capable of making one really horrendous pass in every game.

He should be a useful component next season though (with the proviso that at least one other player in the midfield is allotted to, you know, get somewhere near the opposition penalty area).

Mostly though he deserves credit for the double headlock on Lodeiro and Alonso in the first playoff game at BC Place.

Kudos!

Season rating -6

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: The Defence

In another timeline I don’t get to write up the season review of the Vancouver Whitecaps until early December, but these particular versions of ourselves have ended up in this God forsaken temporal cul-de-sac so this is what we get.

Don’t forget though that you can apply for timeline reassignment by sending Form T4867(a) to the Trans Temporal Authority during the month of December (memo to self: make sure this particular timeline has acquired knowledge of Temporal Jumping before publishing this).

So let’s take a look at how the Whitecaps defenders have performed this year.

David Ousted- Maybe some people would have guessed that Ousted would be out of the club at the end of the season given his contract status but very few would have predicted that his ousting (pun intended) would come before the season end.

The signing of Stefan Marinovic gave Carl Robinson the opportunity to replace Ousted, but what made that opportunity genuinely credible was the fact that mistakes were creeping into Ousted’s game.

Not huge blunders, but enough to justify a switch.

In the end it made no difference and Ousted can leave the team (assuming he does leave) with his head held high.

He was a player who always cared, always wanted to win and who could speak about games in a manner the supporters could relate to.

Season rating-6

Stefan Marinovic- We haven’t seen enough of Marinovic’s body of work to make any genuine assessment of how he will be next year but what we have seen is reassuring.

He was at fault for at least one goal in Portland but apart from that one blemish he has played with confidence.

Less combustible than Ousted he should instill a calm authority to the back line in 2018.

Season rating-6

Sheanon Williams- During the opening spell of the season Williams seemed to be exactly what the Whitecaps were missing from last year.

A steady, experienced right back who could often get forward to augment the attack.

He also appeared to be a positive locker room presence who was genuinely excited by the challenge of playing for a new club.

Then in June an alleged domestic incident led to Williams being suspended and assessed by MLS’ Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and, from a playing point of view, it was effectively the end of his season.

His occasional start after that revealed a player who was either physically or mentally no longer capable of being “in the game”.

A sad state of affairs for so many reasons.

Season rating-4

Jake Nerwinski- Nerwinski arrived as a promising backup to Williams and ended the season as one of the first names on the team sheet.

It was the very definition of a player making the most of his opportunities.

There were even games where Nerwinski seemed to be the Whitecaps most potent attacking threat thanks to his boundless energy traversing up and down the right side of the field and a total of five assists from the right back posiiton is no mean feat at all.

The one area of concern is that both Portland and Seattle targeted him with some success in recent games  and he’ll need to learn how to deal with that kind of pressure as his career progresses.

But he’s shown that he is a smart enough player to take those lessons on board and his play was one of the genuine bright spots of the season.

Season rating-6.5

Jordan Harvey- Maybe some people would have guessed that Harvey would be out of the club at the end of the season given his contract status but very few would have predicted that his ousting (not even a pun) would come before the season end.

Marcel de Jong’s Gold Cup gave Carl Robinson the opportunity to replace Harvey at the business end of the season, but what made that opportunity genuinely credible was the fact that mistakes were creeping into Harvey’s game.

Not huge blunders, but enough to justify a switch.

In the end it made no difference and Harvey can leave the team (assuming he does leave) with his head held high.

He was a player who always cared, always wanted to win and who could speak about games in a manner the supporters could relate to.

Season rating-5.5

Marcel de Jong- The Canadian was given the chance to earn a starting spot in the late summer and he grabbed itwith both feet.

He offered more going forward than Harvey, was defensively solid and was also one of the few on the Vancouver back line who was genuinely capable of playing passes of consistent quality.

Throw in a decent shot and set-piece delivery and de Jong has placed himself at number one for the number three role in 2018.

Season Rating-6

Kendall Waston- There were some (including me) who thought the club would be better off trading on Waston’s reputation in the off season in the hope of getting a decent return for a player who had been somewhat of a liability in 2016 given his predilection for red cards and overreaction.

But whether it was the captaincy, a different way of playing or simply Waston taking stock of where he had gone wrong he was a vital presence in 2017.

His threat from attacking set-pieces obviously helped his cause but, far more importantly, he was once again defending as a defender rather than as a player who wants to be noticed.

His heroics with Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying may alert the attention of bigger clubs around the world but Waston is ideally suited to MLS; big and strong but limited in his passing range

If he chooses to stay in Vancouver for the rest of his career he could become one of the clubs iconic players.

Let’s hope that’s the path he chooses.

Season rating-7  

Tim Parker- It says a lot that Tim Parker had perhaps his least consistent year for the Whitecaps since he arrived here and yet was still in no danger of losing his starting spot.

Not that Parker was terrible. It was just the odd moment where he seemed to switch off or find himself out of position.

And while Waston’s passing can be described as “limited” Parker’s is “unlimited” in that the ball really could go anywhere.

If he could figure that out (or be played in a system that doesn’t rely on him to hit the pass that starts attacks) he would be one of the best central defenders in the league.

Season rating-6 

Next time out it’s the midfield (and there’s a lot of them!)

 

Frankly, Mr Robinson

“Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor”. Bill Shankly

Carl Robinson will almost certainly be back as coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps next season.

After all, he’s a safe pair of hands who can do enough to get them into the playoffs most years and who is happy to talk down the potential of his own team to ensure nobody gets too upset whenever they fall short or fail to perform.

But if there’s one metaphor to sum up his tenure thus far it’s those “ceilings” spoken of by Bill Shankly.

There’s the ceiling of his own coaching ability which is limited to one particular style of play no matter who is in the squad.

The illusion that a forward of genuine quality and a dynamic creative presence would allow Robinson to play more attractive football has been shattered by the realization that Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna are still playing in a team that is specifically designed to isolate them.

Neither does it matter who is touted as a box to box saviour because Robinson won’t want them to play as a box to box saviour. He will want them to sit deep and stifle the midfield.

And in every game of consequence he has been out coached to an alarming degree, largely because the way he sets up the team is so predictable.

Don’t give away silly fouls near your own penalty area, don’t push too many men forward and the Whitecaps just won’t be able to beat you.

There’s the ceiling his style of play imposes on young players.

It can be argued that defenders such as Parker and Nerwinski have flourished under Robinson but not a single young attacking player has improved.

What that means for the future of Alphonso Davies is cause for concern.

Is playing in a team that doesn’t want possession good for his long-term growth? Is playing in a team that seems to value his defensive contribution over all else beneficial? Is playing in a team in which the coach constantly thinks the opposition are to be feared no matter who they are or where the game is played good for his confidence?

The answer to all those questions is “No” by the way.

There’s the ceiling of how much the club can grow under his stewardship.

It’s true that Robinson’s main focus has to be on getting results but the first leg against Seattle was so devoid of ambition that very few of those “Whitecaps curious” attendees among the 27,000 will be coming back.

Play conservative football and win and perhaps something limited but substantial can be built. Play conservative football and lose and the foundations will begin to shift.

Right now the Whitecaps are at the limit of how far they can go in terms of crowd numbers with this style of play (actually, that limit may have already been reached last season and this year could be the start of the decline).

Whatever the case, more of the same next season will see those numbers dissipate just a little bit more.

There’s the ceiling of his relationship with the supporters.

It’s kind of odd that Robinson, who clearly has a very good relationship with his players, has never really connected with the Whitecaps fan base.

Part of that is because he treats all interviews and press conferences as a way of either saying nothing or as a way of dissembling.

And again, just like his preferred style of play, that’s his prerogative.

But if you don’t engage with the fans by acknowledging their concerns or speaking in a way that elicits or invites empathy then those poor performances are so much tougher to get through.

It could be that his whole “we are up against it” philosophy precludes him from this kind of engagement or it could be that he regards his own knowledge of the game to be so far above those who pay for tickets week in and week out that they don’t merit consideration.

But if Robinson displayed the same openness and willingness to engage with the fans as he does with an opposition player taking a throw in he might be given a little more slack when things go awry.

And finally there’s the ceiling of his own ambition.

Maybe he’s not to blame for this particular flaw because it could be the club ethos as a whole but the overwhelming sense is of a coach who once he’s reached a level he thinks is acceptable for the season regards anything else as simply a bonus.

From the moment the Whitecaps reached the playoffs this year Robinson began to tinker with team selection and tactics and lo and behold the performances dipped.

Instead of asking more of his players he asked less. He left in-form performers out of lineups and seemingly saw the final three games of the campaign as the chance to decide what his best eleven should be.

Which is kind of crazy once you really think about it.

Unsurprisingly any momentum was lost and we ended up watching the team turn in those two performances against Seattle.

So after four years of observing his body of work as a coach we can conclude that while Robinson really wants to win games and trophies he doesn’t really need to win them.

He’s more than happy to hit whatever preseason target the back or front office assign him and then explain with a smile that his players just aren’t as good as their opponents.

Despite all of the above though he will probably be back in 2018 and there will no doubt be talk of new signings and rumours of departures and then the preseason advertising campaign will proclaim how much everybody involved with the Whitecaps cares for the club and for the supporters and for the history.

And then this time next year Carl Robinson will once again be shrugging his shoulders and giving a “Well, what can you do?” grin while our Cascadian rivals celebrate in the background.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps lose: But look at the cute moose!

It was probably fitting that the Vancouver Whitecaps season should end with a whimper of a 2-0 defeat to the Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the Conference semi-final on Wednesday evening.

After all, Carl Robinson’s whole philosophy is based around making his team as tedious to watch as possible and he achieved the zenith of that ambition over these two games.

Although he must have been disappointed to see a half-hearted Christian Bolaños header count as the only shot on goal over the full 180 minutes when the perfect zero was so nearly on the cards.

What’s left to say?

If you don’t try to win games you won’t win games?

If you don’t think a Cascadian derby playoff series is reason to get your team fired up to score then what is?

Bringing on Davies and Shea who haven’t played ten minutes of good football between them in the last two months displayed typically poor in-game management?

A bizarre end to the season which saw the team lose any rhythm and cohesion due to a constant switching of personnel and tactics?

The belief that relying on “fine lines” is the only way to win games?

The lack of belief in players, constantly speaking of them as underdogs and asking them to play a style of football that sucks the life out of their creativity?

The mind numbing limits to any sense of ambition both on the field and off it?

I could go on, but there will be time enough for that and more over the coming weeks when we can consider whether the “fire Robbo” tweets of this evening are the wounded sighs of unhappy creatures or something containing more substance.

For now though it’s on to a Winter of player moves and speculation, which is always fun in itself I guess.

But how we must all wish we were back in the height of Summer, drinking a cold beer in our Whitecaps themed gazebo and dreaming of what might be.

But “what might be” always turns out to be an illusory stop on the road to “what is”.

But oh for a just a few more shots on goal!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5.5, Nerwinski-5, de Jong-6*, Waston-5.5, Parker-5.5-Nosa-5.5, Ghazal-6, Techera-4.5, Bolaños-5, Reyna-4, Montero-5 (Harvey-5)

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Cue Fanfare

I wonder if anybody has ever walked away from a chess match and said ‘Wow! That was a real game of soccer”?

Almost certainly not because, you know, the comparison would be ridiculous.

But not when the situation is reversed apparently because whenever a really tedious game of football has been played somebody somewhere will opine that “it was a real chess match”.

Maybe sometimes they’ll even stretch to “that was one for the purists” but the chess match metaphor seems to be the main phrase to go to.

That’s not to say that some games can’t be genuinely interesting tactical battles with coaches switching formations and counter punching each other with every substitution, but let’s not try to pretend that Sunday’s 0-0 tie between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Seattle Sounders fits into that category.

Straight from the first whistle both coaches set their team up not to concede rather than to score  and that didn’t change at all for the full ninety minutes plus change.

That’s hardly the famous Fischer vs Spassky “Alekhine’s Defence” game now is it?

One positive for the Whitecaps was that they were able to keep possession pretty well, notching up the most passes and highest completion rate of the season.

That probably undermines Robinson’s previous assertions that he just doesn’t have the players to play that kind of football but I don’t think anybody really took those claims at face value or were under any illusions about what kind of football the coach thinks is effective at this stage of his tenure.

It’s certainly possible that his caution will pay dividends in the return leg on Thursday evening and there must be fans of the Sounders who are equally frustrated about their own team’s unwillingness to push for what would have been a vital away goal.

So there’ll be a whole bunch of “what ifs” and “why didn’t yous?” once the dust has settled on this tie as a whole.

And that’s the thing with such a negative approach to any game.

If it works the fans are consoled by the result, but if it doesn’t work they are left with the sense that the team they root for and love has failed to step up to the plate when it really mattered.

And that’s a bitter taste to linger in the throat during the whole of the off-season.