Vancouver Whitecaps: Think of a word

What a strange old season it has been for the Vancouver Whitecaps so far.

A heady mix of goal fests, injuries, suspensions and trades with the promise of even more to come, but if we were to stop for a moment and reflect on all that has happened thus far how would we define it?

Or, more specifically and purely to get out of this section of the piece, consider this question.

“If you had to use one word to sum up the season so far what would that word be?”

There’s lots of contenders I guess, “Chaotic”, “Exciting”, “Disappointing”, “Confusing” and there are certainly no right answers (although saying something like “Elephant” would definitely count as a wrong answer).

Anyway the word I have chosen is “Focus”.

“Focus” because for the first third of the year it felt as though the Whitecaps were under the specific scrutiny of the MLS Disciplinary Committee as cards and retro suspensions were handed out with abandoned glee (or gleeful abandon).

“Focus” because you really do have to mentally squint to try and see just what this team actually is as all that aforementioned disruption has meant almost no consistency in team selection or tactics.

Are the Whitecaps an attacking team or just a team that is not very good at defending? Are they tactically flexible or just tactically undisciplined?

But mostly “Focus” because that’s the attribute which has been notably absent this season.

That’s evident on an individual level as a series of “unforced errors” from a number of players has cost the team vital points and it’s been evident on a team level given how they seem to drift in and out of games with a capriciousness as unpredictable mayfly on methamphetamine.

That lack of focus was never more evident than in the final seconds of the Voyageurs Cup when at least half the team appeared to mentally switch off before the final whistle had been blown, but that’s the canary in the coal mine rather than the gas leak itself as we frequently see intensity levels fluctuate throughout the ninety minutes.

So what’s the cause and what’s the cure?

There has to be some responsibility placed with the players on the field. There’s enough experience to not allow peaks and troughs of performance to become the norm but (perhaps David Ousted aside) they seem to lack an organizing presence; a player who can keep everybody on point no matter what the circumstance.

Yet on field showings are often the result of off the field culture and while none of us on the outside can ever truly know what the locker room vibe is really like there are times when it feels as though Carl Robinson is still a little too close to his playing days.

Like a policeman turned judge he’s so used to leaning toward one side of an argument that the other side tends to fade into the shadows.

Keeping players happy is an honourable goal (which clearly has specific benefits) but keeping players happy shouldn’t be attained at the expense of team results.

A player has had a dreadful first half? Take him off and don’t give him another fifteen minutes to redeem himself.

Striker not scoring? Give somebody else a chance in the role.

Star defender making mistakes? Bench him the same way you would bench a second string player.

And yet maybe there are emerging signs that the tide of Robinson’s brain waves is turning? The “message” sent to Kekuta Manneh by leaving him out of the eighteen for the game in LA felt a very un-Robinson like public dressing down for a player and the mooted moves of experienced Canadian internationals into the team may well indicate a desire to tackle that on field inconsistency with the presence of somebody who has “been there and done that”.

Maybe as Robinson drifts further from his playing days he will start to think more and more with his coach’s head than with his player’s heart and the good news is that mental lapses are probably easier and quicker to remedy in a player than physical limitations will ever be.

So the message for the second half of the season?

Focus!

 

So farewell then Octavio Rivero

The Uruguayan striker is heading to Chile to join club side Colo Colo to bring to an end a strangely dissatisfying spell with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Rivero began his time in Vancouver like a house on fire but then continued by being more like a house in which the central heating is governed by a frustratingly capricious thermostat; cold when you don’t want it to be but offering enough spells of warmth to make a disgruntled homeowner believe that a replacement isn’t really needed.

But it was and ever since the mooted Kei Kamara move of earlier in the season it’s probably the case that both parties were willing to take any move that fitted.

After all why would Rivero stick around if there was the possibility of him being shipped somewhere against his will?

Better to head to Chile and control his own fate than to wake up one morning to find he’s booked on a flight to DC or Salt Lake City.

But how will we judge his time in Vancouver?

The biggest issue is that he just isn’t a natural finisher (and certainly not a clinical one) as he almost always looked to simply steer the ball on target rather than to make the save as difficult as possible for the goalkeeper and the proof of that is implied by the number of headed chances he has had saved this season.

Good for him for getting into the right positions to create the chance but truthfully he could have had three or four more goals if those headers had been aimed at the corner of the net rather than the safe centre.

His hold up play was generally very good but his first and second touches aren’t always so assured and too often he lost possession for the team a little too easily and was reduced to appealing forlornly for a foul that was never going to be given.

And yet for all those faults it’s hard to dislike Rivero as a player; he worked tirelessly whenever he was on the field and never once gave up on his role as the first line of defence.

It may even be the case that in a team of better players (or in a team of players of a similar ability to his own) he becomes an incredibly useful striker, but in MLS if you’re a Designated Player then you have to be one of the better players and you have to make those around you look good.

Without that DP tag then perhaps Rivero would have eased through his troubles with greater ease and there would certainly have been less pressure on him to produce goals on a regular basis and probably less pressure on Robinson to select him even when he was clearly out of form.

In retrospect what the Whitecaps got with Rivero was exactly what he was when he signed with them; an intermittent scorer of goals who could do a job on the field even when he wasn’t scoring but his failure to progress beyond that level eventually meant his stay had to be limited.

Now the interest turns to who Carl Robinson brings in as his replacement.

Signing a young DP has a potentially enormous upside because if you snag a rising star at a fairly early age the subsequent transfer fee alone could fund a solid rebuild of the team but the downside is the risk that youthful promise fails to transcend into anything more and that’s particularly true once you take the risk of moving a player into a new league.

Time will tell if this experience has made the coach more inclined to sign experience (be it in terms of age or from within the League) in the Designated Player slot but Rivero’s time in Vancouver can probably be defined as “a worthwhile experiment which ultimately failed”.

Best of luck to him in the next phase of his career.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps continue to confound

It’s been a rough few days for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Losing the Voyageurs Cup in such heartbreaking fashion and then following that with a 2-0 MLS loss to the LA Galaxy on Monday evening.

The game began with an air of mystery surrounding the absence from the eighteen of Kekuta Manneh (the official reason given was “coach’s decision”) which means that either the youngster was absent because Carl Robinson wanted to send a very specific message or he’s become involved in the same kind of transfer imbroglio that has kept Octavio Rivero out of the picture in recent weeks.

Time will tell I guess.

Yet the Manneh no show wasn’t the only mystery of the evening so, as the fireworks and confetti slowly dissipate from the hallowed grounds of the StubHub Center, come with me as we delve deep into the riddles and enigmas of this particular Independence Day (actually don’t come with me, you can just stay right where you are and just read the rest of it).

The Mysterious Case Of Blas Pérez – With Rivero and Manneh unavailable it’s an unassailable fact that Blas Pérez is the best striker the Whitecaps have, yet time and time again Erik Hurtado gets the nod for the starting eleven.

I get there’s an argument that his power and pace can unsettle a team but his inability to finish probably settles them right back down again. Pérez for sixty minutes and Hurtado for the last thirty just seems a much more effective way of using each player.

And the fact that Pérez almost immediately goaded Nigel De Jong into a horrendous red card challenge makes one wonder how he would have fared against a relatively inexperienced backline from the get go.

Pérez was played as a starter for Panama in the recent Copa America and if it’s good enough for them….

The Strange Case of the Jekyll and Hyde Team- It really is quite amazing how many times the Whitecaps play a second half that is so very different from the first. Occasionally they get noticeably better but more often than not they take two steps back.

That was certainly the case in LA where they reverted from a team that was constantly creating chances in the first forty-five minutes to one that was huffing and puffing more in hope thaN expectation in the second.

Sure the second LA goal didn’t help but it’s hard to know how eleven players can change so much in so short a time. Tactical adjustments from the opposition maybe?

The Bizarre Curse of Kendall Waston- I’m not sure how many mirrors Waston broke in the offseason but he can’t catch a break this season to save his life.

He probably should have closed down Robbie Keane for the opening goal, attacking corners rained down on to his head like (well, rain I suppose) yet he couldn’t get near to one in any meaningful way and to top it all of he produced a “trademark” sliding tackle in the final minute which escaped punishment on the day but may well get the DisCo mirror ball spinning this week (maybe he actually broke a DisCo mirror ball?).

He can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.

The Astounding Case of the Vanishing MLS Security- Major League Soccer has been very big on stadium security this season with the list of what is and isn’t allowed into grounds approaching Draconian levels and yet in LA at least two fans were allowed to run onto the field and approach players.

Now that’s a genuine security risk.

Oh well, time for the less than mysterious Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 6, Smith-5, Waston-5, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-7*, Bolaños-6, Morales-5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-5 (Pérez-5)

 

Heartbreak for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Well that was a rough one to take if you’re a Vancouver Whitecaps fan.

Losing the Voyageurs Cup with essentially the last kick of the game on away goals to Toronto FC can now be added to the litany of ways this trophy has mostly eluded Vancouver over the years and this game simply built in tension and excitement as the game wore on.

That wasn’t that hard to achieve given how terrible the first half was with Carl Robinson reverting to the two defensive midfielder set up which saw Russell Teibert and Matias Laba sitting deep and Pedro Morales in the more forward number ten role.

The problem with that formation is that Morales tends not to get his foot on the ball when playing behind the striker and neither Laba nor Teibert offer any realistic and consistent attacking threat and it was only an injury to Teibert (who had played well in the defensive third of the pitch) that forced the coach’s hand and saw the introduction of Nicolas Mezquida.

The fact that Mezquida scored within minutes of the restart is almost beside the point because suddenly the home team had men forward all the time and loose balls were being picked up on the edge of the Toronto penalty area rather than the edge of the Vancouver one.

All the momentum was with the Whitecaps and when Tim Parker latched on to a long Matias Laba clearance/pass to slide the second goal home all Vancouver had to do was to keep the visitors at bay to retain the trophy.

Easier said than done of course (especially for this Whitecaps team this year) and there are probably a number of moments the Whitecaps will look back on and wonder what they could have done differently.

Score from one of their many breakaway chances is the obvious one, but the introduction of fifteen year old Alphonso Davies immediately after taking the lead may be something Robinson will regret.

It felt like he was making the change based as much on the potential narrative as he was the game situation and while we certainly can’t say that Manneh or Cristian Techera would have made better use of the chances that fell to Davies it always felt as though the youngster was (both literally and metaphorically) finding his feet for the time he was on the field.

The Whitecaps bench also indulged in a little too much “clever” time wasting by throwing balls on to the field whenever the game was stopped and while they may claim the referee played over the allotted four minutes of stoppage time that unnecessary time wasting is almost certainly the reason why.

Nevertheless with four minutes gone the ball was with David Ousted to take a goal kick and there’s no way that same ball should be pumped back into their own penalty area less than five seconds later.

That’s partly because Ousted kicked the ball into the centre of the field and not out of play and partly because at least two or three of the Whitecaps players had their arms in the air celebrating the victory as soon as it was kicked.

“Play to the whistle” may not be the oldest adage in the football phrase book but it’s not far off.

Of course maybe when the ball did come back in Ousted should have punched rather than trying to catch it and colliding with Kendall Waston but the real damage had been done earlier.

This is all unnecessarily curmudgeonly to be honest because the game was terrific entertainment in the second half; the Whitecaps attacked with verve and may even have found the answer to their defensive woes with the back four of Parker, Waston, Jacobson and Harvey.

Last season the Whitecaps won The Voyageurs Cup and it felt as though their season faded away almost immediately after that, this season the trick is to use this anguish as the fuel to push them on to better things.

After all tomorrow is another day.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Ousted-5, Parker-7*, Harve-6, Waston-6, Jacobson-6, Teibert-6, Laba-6, Morales-5, Bolaños-6, Hurtado-6, Manneh-6 (Mezquida-7, Davies-5,)

 

 

Whitecaps find some Philadelphia freedom

You know those “five things we learned” articles that tend to appear after every major game?

Well I’m not convinced they have much value at the best of times but I’m even less convinced they have a value when being applied to Major League Soccer games which are, more often than not, a series of random incidents masquerading as a football match.

Okay I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect but the Whitecaps 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union was about as disjointed a game as you could wish to see even though it was brightened by a couple of well taken goals for the Whitecaps.

So instead of five things I learned let’s just go with five things I noticed. That seems more reasonable.

Octavio Rivero wasn’t missed- With rumours swirling about a move to Chilean side Colo Colo Rivero wasn’t even in the eighteen for this game and his deputy Erik Hurtado did a very good job as the target man.

Hurtado isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (he isn’t even most people’s idea of a target man) but against Philadelphia he kept things simple, used his strength and his speed to good effect and even helped set up the third goal for Bolaños.

He may not be the long term solution as first choice striker but he’s getting more and more convincing as a very useful member of the squad.

Manneh showed why he always has to start- He may not have been all that involved in the game but essentially won it near the end of the first half when he picked up a ball near the halfway line and ran with it to the edge of the Union penalty area before firing home.

He’s the only player on the Whitecaps who can do that and it’s an invaluable asset for any coach to have.

A new central defensive partnership- It’s almost certain that Kendal Waston will be back in the team when he returns from suspension but Jacobson and Parker are starting to look like the better option.

Two goals conceded isn’t great but neither was down to those two and they have a solidity and calmness that Waston has been lacking all season.

The big Costa Rican hasn’t earned the right to start but the weight of his salary may prove to be too much for Carl Robinson to ignore.

Morales and Bolaños are casual but smart- It was a Morales giveaway which ultimately led to the opening goal for Philadelphia and Bolaños always seems to have at least one moment per game where he tries a no look pass that ends up at the feet of an opponent in a dangerous attacking position but it was Morales who played the ball that set Manneh free (Manneh still had tons to do but at least the ball was played in front of him rather than to his feet) and Bolaños kept his cool near the end to effectively seal the game with some chest control and a smart finish.

Both have flaws but the Whitecaps are always a better team when both are on the field together.

So who next? Assuming Rivero does leave it’s in inconceivable (or incomprehensible at least) if there isn’t another striker in line to replace him.;

Who that player is will tell us a lot about how Carl Robinson sees the team developing for the rest of the season.

Do we see another young gun with something to prove? A proven MLS goal scorer? Or maybe even a “name” player from Europe?

Whoever it is will probably define the remainder of the season.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Laba-5, Morales-5, Manneh-6, Mezquida-5, Bolaños-6, Hurtado-6*

Glass half full for the Whitecaps?

The 1-0 victory for Toronto FC over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of The Voyageurs Cup is a result that probably leaves both sides in a state of emotional flux.

The home side probably feel they could have got a second but will be equally relieved they didn’t concede an important away goal whereas Vancouver will be pleased to have survived an early second half onslaught from TFC but must be ruing their inability to find the net.

All to play for at BC Place next week then.

It was no surprise to see Carl Robinson ring the lineup changes but perhaps it was a surprise to see Kah and Waston both starting in central defence and Teibert and McKendry both getting the nod in midfield, but the Whitecaps were the better team in the first half and were unlucky to fall behind to a deflected Giovinco shot.

The second half was a different story however as TFC gradually turned the screw and we were once again faced with the sight of Octavio Rivero becoming more and more isolated as the rest of the team began to sit deeper and deeper inviting pressure on to them.

Robinson doesn’t always get his substitutes right but this time he did as the introduction of Pérez for an ineffective Morales and Manneh for Davies almost immediately wrestled the momentum away from the home team.

The Whitecaps never really looked like fashioning a clear opening from that point on but neither did Toronto and the game ended with both sides torn between the Scylla of pushing men forward and the Charybdis of leaving men back.

No wonder there was no further breakthrough.

For the Whitecaps there was a decent outing from Ben McKendry, a much needed one for Sam Adekugbe and fifteen year old Alphonso Davies once again didn’t seem completely out of place among a field of professionals.

It was also good (and a relief) to see both Waston and Kah have solid and uneventful games at the back and any team that nullifies Giovinco to one lucky strike over ninety minutes is doing something right.

Carl Robinson can take a fair degree of satisfaction from the evening; he rested important players, gave returning players valuable minutes and his team are still in a good position to retain the Cup.

But that lack of away goal may be the one thing to really play on his mind when he looks back at this game.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-5, Adekugbe-6*, Waston-6, Kah-6, Teibert-5, McKendry-6, Bolaños-6, Morales-5, Davies-5, Rivero-5

Whitecaps play a game about nothing

There’s a sense in which there is no point in analysing the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

After all the Whitecaps were without three starters due to suspension, had players returning from the COPA America and this was also the first game back from an extended break.

But maybe there is no sense in analysing any game of soccer?

Fabricating a narrative from a series of random occurrences may have helped humanity create cohesive and coherent societies but when applied to people kicking a ball around it seems futile at best.

So let’s go with a Festivus style “Airing of Grievances” instead and pick out individuals to complain about; that seems much more in tune with the current zeitgeist.

Ismail Elfath- Yes it’s tedious to keep going on about MLS refereeing but the current EURO 2016 tournament has been a timely reminder of what good officiating looks like.

Elfath isn’t one of the worst referees in the League but on Saturday he turned a fairly benign affair into a fractious occasion simply because he seemed to be operating an “if in doubt blow the whistle” policy until the shrill sound of his small ball oscillating in air simply became the signal for exasperation and confusion.

Let the players play.

Erik Hurtado- Hurtado has been a pleasant surprise this season proving himself to be a useful member of an MLS squad.

But he just can’t play the lone striker role effectively. His hold up play may have improved but his link up play is still lacking and he should really only be used as either a late substitute or as one of a pair of forwards (as he was with Manneh in Toronto where his own nuisance value created space for his partner).

Actually none of this is his fault and the blame should go to Carl Robinson for the tactical lineup against New England but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Russell Teibert- It’s hard to know where Teibert goes from here on in. Like Hurtado he’s a useful member on an MLS squad (which is fine for the Whitecaps) but he’s not progressing as a player.

He may in fact be regressing because his play has become as predictable as his media interviews.

And if we were forced to choose one word to describe Teibert it would have to be “safe” because he almost always opts for the safest pass possible and even his crosses are designed to be lofted into the right area rather than pose any actual danger.

There was a time when Teibert could whip in a genuinely threatening ball, and obviously he still has that ability, but somewhere along the line he appears to have lost the confidence to try it anymore.

There was also a period late in the second half when New England were sitting deep yet both he and Matias Laba were still occupying space closer to the centre circle than the opposition penalty area. The Whitecaps were crying out for an extra body further forward but to no avail.

The blame for that is certainly as much on Laba and Robinson as it is on Teibert but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Cristian Techera- Techera may well be taking the prize for “least return for salary spent” in the Whitecaps squad at the moment as he has transformed from a player who last season was a constant goal threat and all around nuisance (in a good way) to a player for whom the most positive thing we can say is that “his set piece delivery isn’t bad”.

In a game where the Whitecaps spent a deal of the second period peppering the opposition penalty area Techera never once came within a sniff of a chance.

That would have been unimaginable last season and he’s surely lost the right to a place in the starting eleven.

Hopefully we all feel better for venting and before we move on to the “Feats of Strength” here are the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6*, Laba-5, Teibert-5, Techera-4, Mezquida-6, Manneh-5, Hurtado-5 (Pérez -5, Bolaños -5)