Vancouver Whitecaps: For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen

Well at least we know one thing for sure after the Vancouver Whitecaps scoreless draw with the LA Galaxy on Saturday evening.

Carl Robinson hasn’t changed.

Give him an opposition decimated by injuries, suspensions and international call ups, throw in the most abundant collection of attacking talent he’s had at his disposal since he became coach of the club and he will still send out a team whose only chance of scoring a goal is from a set-piece or an opponent error.

But maybe in a world of increasing unpredictability we should all be grateful that the Whitecaps have a man in charge who steadfastly refuses to learn from the lessons of the past and continues to make the same mistakes over and over again?

It’s reassuring in a way.

Robinson can’t have been surprised that LA would sit deep and try to stifle the game and yet he still sent out a team designed to feed off the scraps of Kei Kamara knock downs.

The only problem with that approach (apart from the obvious one that it was never going to work) is that Kamara was operating in less than splendid isolation and any balls he did win in the air tended to result in Cristian Techera desperately scrambling to get beyond two or three Galaxy defenders.

Felipe’s role was a bit of a mystery too.

He was sitting deep, presumably with the intention of acting as the deep-lying play maker, but given his only option was almost always the long ball to Kamara it’s hard to imagine exactly how that plan was going to come to any kind of fruition.

Or it could just be that he was asked to sit deep because he looks a little bit like Russell Teibert? And that reason probably makes just as much sense.

Elsewhere Yordy Reyna looks bereft of confidence, Efrain Juarez continues to be great entertainment in his ongoing battle to reeducate MLS referees on the finer points of the game and José Aja showed glimpses of his capability to bring the ball out from the back.

But it’s dispiriting to leave BC Place and hear so many people remark on how little they enjoyed the game and while it may not be in Carl Robinson’s remit to make entertainment his primary concern it should be in his remit to get his side to play with more imagination and wit than anything we saw from them in this game.

There must have been at least one or two Whitecaps players walking back to the locker room at the final whistle and thinking “Footballing brain the size of a planet and I’m asked to play hopeful long balls to an isolated forward”.

We interrupt this blog for  bonus thoughts from the day after.

Was moving Davies to left back the right call? Well, it kind of worked in Atlanta since he provided an attacking threat even from deep.

But the Galaxy weren’t playing the same way as Atlanta and, given that Brek Shea is a player who thrives when given space to run in to, his introduction was odd in a game in which there was no space to run in to.

And let’s hope that just “moving Alphonso to a different position” doesn’t become the default replacement for any actual tactical acuity.

Hard to know what it was about that performance to make the coaching staff think no changes were warranted until the seventy-fifth minute but even when the changes came they merited something more innovative than just putting another big man up front.

Switch to three at the back and use Davies and Nerwinski as attacking wing backs? Get Felipe to play as an actual number ten? Pass and move?

Speaking of coaching, Saturday’s game between New England and NYCFC featured a genuinely interesting tactical battle between one team who wanted to play out from the back and another who were employing the high press.

One more sign that MLS is moving on when it comes to coaching.

That’s something we’ve yet to see from Robinson in any meaningul way and Sigi Schmid must have relished getting bonus sessions at the gym simply because he was able to dust off his 2015 game plan on how to stop the Whitecaps at home.

And back to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings!

Marinovic-5, Nerwinski-5*, de Jong-5, Maund-5, Aja-5, Felipe-4.5, Juarez-5, Techera-5, Davies-5, Reyna-4.5 Kamara-5

Vancouver Whitecaps: Through a Glass Darkly

If you’re the kind of Whitecaps fan who sees that the LA Galaxy will be decimated by injuries and suspensions for their upcoming visit to BC Place and thinks ‘Uh, uh that means Carl Robinson is going to think the whole thing is a dastardly ruse and so he’ll get his team to bunker down and happily settle for a point” then give your head a shake.

Seriously, just give your head a shake as it may help to dislodge that fragment of déjà vu that’s been stuck there since the last time the exact same thing happened.

It’s become a bizarre trope of the Whitecaps under Robinson that they seem incapable (almost reluctant) to kill off a wounded opponent.

Part of the reticence to really go for the throat is down to the style of play the coach prefers; reactive rather than proactive, creating chances from opposition mistakes rather than their own creativity.

But this season that creativity is more readily available than ever.

Reyna, Davies, Techera, Felipe et al are all capable of doing something with the ball beyond the simple constraints of trying to find the big man up front.

So will the Galaxy game be the one to see Robinson give the more free-flowing talent in his team free rein?

Well that depends on the Galaxy.

If they decide to take the cautious approach then Vancouver will mirror that.

If the Galaxy go Gung-ho then the Whitecaps will mirror that.

Robinson got some props for his (short-lived) experiment of three at the back in Atlanta last weekend but, once again, he was simply reflecting the formation he saw in front of him.

And, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with setting up a team to cancel out an opponent with symmetry of form and function but there are times when it just becomes the unnecessary application of a brake when stepping on the gas is what’s really needed.

This Saturday feels like exactly one of those occasions.

The first twenty minutes should see the Whitecaps take the game to LA and use the home crowd as fuel to the fire on an opponent that’s been reduced to the status of kindling.

But what should happen isn’t always what does happen, so don’t be surprised if the Whitecaps play a waiting game that ultimately sucks the life out of the whole occasion and ends with a desperate search for an elusive set-piece winner in the final ten minute flourish of attacking substitutions.

Just something to reflect on.

Whitecaps Stand Tall in Atlanta but Glad They’re Not Going Back

The Spanish author Luis Magrinyà once wrote that “Behind literature there is only literature”.

And I think that what he was trying to convey was the notion that a work of art can be considered to exist within (and to have been created by) a very specific universe.

Books beget books beget books.

And if we search for insights or influences that go beyond the limits of the fictional written word then we are riding on a train for which disappointment is the only destination.

I don’t know if Magrinyà is right or wrong about this (and I’m not even sure I understand what the hell he’s trying to say anyway) but if he were one of the worldwide audience watching the Atlanta United versus Vancouver Whitecaps game on Saturday evening he would undoubtedly have turned to his companion and exclaimed “You see! There is nothing we can learn from this other than what it is! This game tells us nothing about anything except the game itself!”

Words that were no doubt echoed around the Province of British Columbia as fans of the Whitecaps watched (one of) their major officiating antagonists, Ismael Elfath, decide that at least four and half minutes of prevarication over a video was enough to decide that Kendal Waston committed a “clear and obvious” foul and thus merited a red card in addition to the penalty kick that was awarded.

Let’s not get into the contentious VAR discussion again except to say that I was very definitely right about the whole thing.

I think that we can at least agree on that!

But what if we were to put aside the musings of Magrinyà and try to figure out if we could take something of value from Vancouver’s 4-1 defeat?

Well, we could say that the team showed a degree of spirit that will probably bode well in the coming season. And while there’s usually nothing more enervating than listening to a coach praise the “character” of his team. In this particular case Carl Robinson would at least have some merit on his side.

Alphonso Davies was once again the Whitecaps best player.

He started as a wing-back beside a back three but slotted in as left back once the red card was issued.

It feels like a huge waste of his talent to play Davies as a pure defender but if Robinson ever does fully settle on the three at the back system then Davies would be the best wing back in the league.

Elsewhere Jordan Mutch and Felipe both offered little other than the occasional bullet of a long forward pass that brought to mind the glory days of Pedro Morales.

And while it’s hard, at this stage, to see the value in starting both of them in the same game the fact they possess that weapon in their locker makes the thought of figuring out a way to make that combination work an interesting prospect.

It’s tough to say much of value about anybody else given the early timing of the sending off.

Blondell and Mezquida were invisible and the ultimate central defensive pairing of Maund and Aja were constantly sliced in two by the slick passing of Atlanta.

That may have happened no matter what the numbers on the field were so all we can really do is shrug and put this one down to the vagaries of a referee who was keener to make the big decision than the right decision.

And can we please promise to never speak of Brek Shea’s decision to not shoot from the edge of the six yard box when the score was at 3-1?

We interrupt this blog for three bonus thoughts from the day

The early red card not only ruined the game it also meant we were unable to see the three at the back experiment in any meaningful way which is a shame because it has the potential to make the Whitecaps a far more interesting side than the “dig deep and bunker” variety we have grown used to.

The Whitecaps will be “feisty” this season. The additions of Felipe and Juarez has already upped the ante to the likes of Reyna and Waston when it comes to getting under the skin of the opposition and that means Vancouver will be an even less popular team with opponents than last year and that’s no bad thing.

It seems increasingly probable that when Aly Ghazal returns from injury he will spend as much time in central defence as central midfield. Waston will face international (and suspension) absences. Maund is a third choice central defender and Aja and Henry still have much to prove for varying reasons. Throw in the three at the back scenario becoming a more regular occurrence and the plethora of central midfielders now in the side and the Egyptian just seems to make more sense in the defensive role.

And now we return you to your regular blog.

On to the next game.

Time for your Soccer Shorts player ratings

Marinovic-5.5, Nerwinski-5.5, Davies-7*, Maund-5, Aja-5, Felipe-5, Juarez-6 Mutch-5, Mezquida-5, Blondell-5 (Shea-5.5)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Before this river becomes an ocean

The best thing about the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 road win against the Houston Dynamo was that it garnered our heroes a valuable three points from one of the toughest trips in Major League Soccer.

The second best thing is that it helped allay any of those “the Whitecaps will be a more possession based team this season” theories that sprung up after last week’s game against Montreal.

Nope.

Vancouver were back in their familiar territory of conceding chance after chance while somehow managing to win the game thanks to a penalty kick and a breakaway goal.

At this point I’m not sure who the universe is really playing the long con on; the Whitecaps fans who think that this time around Carl Robinson has figured it all out and it will be different in the playoffs this year or Robinson himself who must surely feel that he’s cracked the secret of road success in MLS.

The results may make a convincing argument that he’s done just that but, like a faith healer who strikes lucky with a cancer remission or two, causation and correlation can make convincing bedfellows even when they live in separate cities.

There were times in Houston when the Whitecaps could barely string two passes together. There were even times when they weren’t even interested in stringing two passes together but somehow every Houston foray except one either found a Whitecaps boot or head, a Marinovic glove or the wrong side of the goalpost.

Good defending to be sure but good last-ditch defending and certainly not, in any way shape or form, a composed away performance.

But for all this complaining there were some standout showings.

Alphonso Davies was forced to drop back to cover the left back position when Marcel de Jong was forced to leave the field in the first half and when the youngster did get caught out of position his pace allowed him the opportunity to recover.

Stefan Marinovic produced at least two saves he only had half a right to make and Brek Shea once again proved that when he’s given the chance to break beyond the opposition defence he’s as cool a finisher as the club has.

Less impressive was another display of listless anonymity from Yordy Reyna which must have left Cristian Techera watching from the bench and wondering why the Peruvian got the nod over him.

Aaron Maund still looks capable of getting caught hopelessly out of position and Felipe was the victim of tactics that are in no way designed to get the best out of his particular style of play.

No matter.

Six points from the first two games gives the team a decent cushion for what is actually a pretty tough opening schedule and there’s always the chance that Robinson will integrate the newcomers to the squad in a manner that improves the overall quality of play.

He probably won’t do that of course and come season end we’ll all once again be wondering why the Whitecaps couldn’t break down a stubborn opponent at BC Place.

For now though let’s just enjoy the sense that the plan is working.

We interrupt this blog for five bonus thoughts from the day after

Felipe was advertised as a box to box midfielder (and is) but didn’t get anywhere near the Houston penalty area unless it was to trot over to take a corner kick.

The Whitecaps didn’t complete a single pass inside the Houston penalty area

Robinson got his substitutes spot on. Moving Davies to left back, introducing Blondell for Kamara when the latter looked in danger of picking up a second yellow and giving Mutch the opportunity to wrest a semblance of control back to the game all worked perfectly.

It’s to Kamara’s huge credit that he somehow got a goal and an assist from that game but even a natural number nine can only do so much in isolation.

The rest of MLS is already producing results that are so batshit crazy it kind of makes any attempt at rationalization superfluous.

And now back to your regular blog.

Time for you Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Marinovic-6.5*, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-5, Waston-6, Maund-5, Teibert 5.5, Juarez-5.5, Davies-6.5, Reyna-4, Felipe-5, Kamara-5.5 (Shea-6)

 

 

 

Carl Robinson will choo choo choose who?

Back at the turn of the century a Business Professor and a Psychology Professor conducted an experiment in a California supermarket.

On one day they set up a stand with twenty-four gourmet jams on display and on another day they set up the stand with just six.

What they discovered was that while more people stopped to peruse the larger selection only 3% of those who did so actually purchased any jam.

Of the fewer who stopped at the smaller selection the number who shelled out some cash was 30%.

Too much choice, it seems, can be a disincentive when it comes to making a decision.

And too much choice is one of the defining factors of the world most of us now inhabit, be it household goods, insurance options, streaming services or restaurant menus that traverse the globe and back again in just the appetizer section.

No matter what we ultimately attain we can’t help but feel the pull of what was left behind.

Somewhat ironically, studies on the psychology of choice are now so prevalent that selecting just one to use as an illustration at the start of this piece simply left me thinking things like “I should have used the one that examined the difference between hedonic and utilitarian goods!”

You can see where I’m going with this right?

Seriously, can somebody tell me where I’m going with this please?

Oh yeah. The Vancouver Whitecaps.

Before we get to the choices facing Carl Robinson in the coming weeks let’s first think about whether the 4-2-3-1 system he employed in the 2-1 win against Montreal worked.

“Yes and no” is the right answer to that I think.

In the first half the visitors bunkered down and the only chances the Whitecaps created came from unforced Impact errors. We’ve seen that movie before of course, where Vancouver’s best option is to hope that the ball over the top hits the one in fifty chance of landing in the right stop.

To be fair it did at least feel as though they were passing  those long balls rather than simply hitting them, but even so it’s a low percentage strategy for a team playing at home.

In the second half Montreal were far more confident and thus far more open and Alphonso Davies and Cristian Techera both found the kinds of space they never got close to in the first forty-five minutes and two goals ensued.

So perhaps it’s fair to say that the 4-2-3-1 remains an option for road games and games where we know the opposition are willing to play more open football and that, given the arrival of Kei Kamara and the initial promise of Davies, it will at least be a better option than it was last season.

But sooner or later Carl Robinson is going to have to switch things up if he wants to find a starting spot for newcomers Jordon Mutch and Felipe Martins.

On Sunday he switched Felipe with Reyna but let’s hope we don’t get into the situation where a box to box midfielder is being shoehorned into the number ten role simply for the sake of formational orthodoxy.

And that would mean the coach being faced with what could well prove to be a paralyzing plethora of choices.

Sacrifice one of his wide players to accommodate one more central midfielder while simultaneously reducing the number of crosses delivered to the head of Kamara?

Experiment with three at the back and nullify some of Davies’ attacking threat by using him as a wing back?

Go to a traditional 4-4-2 which would mean two of Juarez, Ghazal, Felipe and Mutch not making the starting eleven?

Employ a 4-3-3 that keeps the wide players in the side and allows a true holding midfielder to play with either Felipe or Mutch as the more attacking option and Juarez as the conduit between the two but only allows a place for Reyna in the more disciplined wide role?

Right now it’s the latter option that probably makes the most sense but Robinson will indeed be faced with the thoroughly modern dilemma of an abundance of choice as well as something akin to that aformentioned decision between the hedonic and the utilitarian when to comes to the type of teams he selects.

And of course there are far too many studies in that particular area to enable us to make any kind of prediction as to which one he will ultimately opt for although, if I were going to switch disciplines for a moment and be the other person in his hell, I’d say he’ll go for the utilitarian option.

Vancouver Whitecaps: One down, thirty three (plus playoff games, MLS Cup Final and victory parade) to go

There was a fifteen minute period at the start of the second half when the Vancouver Whitecaps game against the Montreal Impact felt disturbingly familiar.

Vancouver had dominated the first half without ever really creating a clear cut chance and the second half began with the Impact on the front foot while the home team played with a kind of listless torpor.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Alphonso Davies whipped in a cross from the left and Kei Kamara produced a bullet of a header to change the tone completely.

Seven minutes later Davies slotted home his first ever MLS goal and only the sense that the whole team seemed to feel the job was done allowed Montreal to get a goal back and give fans of the Whitecaps a far more nervous than necessary final ten minutes.

They hung on to that lead however and concluded a mostly satisfactory day at the office.

So what were the main lessons learned?

Well, Kamara certainly doesn’t have the technical skill of Fredy Montero (there were times when his efforts resembled a unicorn trying to control a particularly feisty hedgehog) but that probably won’t matter if he can get on the end of crosses the way he did for the first goal.

Alphonso Davies had by far his best game as a Whitecap as he finally transformed “potential” into real world achievements.

He still takes the wrong option every now and then but he seemed far more interested in hurting the opposition than he has in the past. Let’s hope that level of ruthlessness is  a feature of his season.

Efrain Juarez was fairly anonymous in the first half but about twenty minutes into the second he appeared to suddenly come to his senses and began to get involved in the game both with the ball and as an organiser/coach whenever he could.

I’m not sure the MLS era Whitecaps have ever had a player who fills that kind of pseudo “Captain” role in the centre of the field and it will be an interesting dynamic to watch as the season progresses.

The biggest area of concern has to be the form of Yordy Reyna.

Yes it’s only the first game of the season, but he ended the last with exactly the same kind of lethargic display.

At his best Reyna thrives on devilment and speed of thought and foot and all three were missing on Sunday afternoon.

He probably just needs time to get his form up and running but there are new players waiting in the wings who could well push the Peruvian out of the picture if his overall play doesn’t improve.

Elsewhere Aaron Maund used the ball well from the back but was caught out of position on the Montreal goal and Russell Teibert had one of his better games as he even used the option of the forward ball from time to time.

It’s worth bearing in mind that a 2-1 win against a very poor Impact team is hardly the stuff of  legends in the making but the Whitecaps have failed this kind of test more than once in recent years so it would be churlish to be hyper-critical of the three points no matter how it is was earned.

Two tough road games to come that will no doubt give us a better idea of how Carl Robinson intends to slot his new signings into the team but, for now, all is good in the world of the Whitecaps.

Time for your Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-6, Waston-6, Maund-5, Teibert-6, Juarez-6, Davies-6.5*, Techera-6, Reyna-4.5, Kamara-6

Jordon: The Comeback

The first game of any new season is, at best, a vague foreshadowing of what is to come but for the Vancouver Whitecaps Sunday’s game against Montreal is likely to be even less instructive than that.

One week ago there was the sense that the Whitecaps had finally built a team specifically designed to play in a manner suited to the way Carl Robinson likes to set up his side but then, two days before the season opener, that was all blown out of the water by the signings of Jordon Mutch and Felipe Martins.

Both are the kind of box to box midfielder the coach has consistently said he would like in his team without ever giving any indication that he wanted the players at his disposal to play in that way.

So it will be interesting to see how Mutch and Felipe are used.

Unless he’s suddenly been possessed by the spirit of Pep Guardiola it’s hard to see Robinson fielding a team filled with false number nine’s so the likelihood is that Mutch and Felipe will either share the playing time or at least one of them will be asked to curb their attacking instinct.

That still leaves a whole host of questions around how the team will be set up and who will still be in and who will mostly be out but it does feel slightly bizarre to be stocking up on central midfielders at the very moment Vancouver have finally acquired a target man who loves to feed off crosses from the flanks.

There will be injuries and suspensions and international duty of course but Robinson’s much vaunted (mostly by himself) ability to keep players happy will be severely put to the test.

It’s unlikely that either Mutch or Felipe will feature against Montreal which probably means we’ll see the more familiar setting of 4-2-3-1 with Juarez and Teibert sitting deep and Davies, Techera and Reyna playing behind Kamara.

Perhaps the main question (besides who will play alongside Kendall Waston in central defence) is whether the coach can figure out a way to make use of the expected crowd of 27,000.

This is the first game back at BC Place since that performance against Seattle which saw the sheer lack of ambition of the Whitecaps kill the atmosphere and any semblance of home advantage along with it.

There’s at least a chance that they will come out of the traps flying on Sunday though and an early goal would force Montreal forward which is basically tactical catnip to the way Vancouver play.

If that early breakthrough doesn’t come however let’s hope the Whitecaps don’t pull back into the shell of defensive security that has been their wont in recent seasons.

Right now it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that the recent flurry of moves have been based on who was available rather than who was needed or wanted, but the second best case scenario for Sunday is that the Whitecaps post an entertaining win that provides Robinson some time to integrate the new signings into his team before the Galaxy arrive here later in the month.

The best case scenario is me winning the 50/50.