Whitecaps Season Review: Part One

Is it me or are the post season post mortems getting earlier every year?

It is just me because they aren’t, but let’s hope that 2016 is an outlier and that it’s a long time before the Whitecaps season is over again with still two games of the regular season to play.

But a season that leaves us all wounded does at least give us the chance to constantly pick over the scars of that wound until it just won’t stop bleeding (and that’s a good thing right?).

So time for the first part of the Soccer Shorts Season Review which looks at the defence.

Just to note that I won’t be looking at the financial impact of each player because

a) I can’t be bothered to delve into the deliberately opaque intricacies of the MLS rules

and

b) The moment I see more than one number in a paragraph I immediately revert to my high school math(s) self and feel an uncontrollable urge to carve obscure band names into the nearest wooden surface.

Let’s kick off part one with a look at the defence.

That should probably have read “defence” though given how poor it was this year with almost every major player guilty of one or more egregious errors.

But there comes a time when so many individual errors add up to a collective problem.

Organization? Preparation? Collaboration? Afforestation? Hard to say for sure but it definitely seems to have ended in “tion” and it’s one of the major areas that needs to be addressed in the off season (the others being the midfield and the forward line).

So how did it go position by position?

Goalkeeper- David Ousted had a mixed year alternating between brilliant saves and inexplicable errors but is still considered the de facto number one and is almost worth that designation for his willingness to call out the team when it plays badly (a trait he had to employ on far too many occasions this year)

Paolo Tornaghi is almost the Platonic Ideal of a backup keeper; content to sit enthusiastically on the sidelines and capable of competence when called into action.

The biggest shadow hanging over this position though is Spencer Richey.

The twenty-four year old has done well for WFC2 this year and has looked more than comfortable when called up to the CONCACAF Champion’s League.

If (and it’s a huge and almost impossible to imagine “if’) the Whitecaps did feel they needed to offload Ousted then Richey offers a tantalizing replacement option.

In many ways it would be a disappointment if he wasn’t the number one keeper in 2018.

Right back- Other wise known as the “Yikes! What was he doing there!” position.

The role has essentially been switched between Jordan Smith and Fraser Aird for the majority of the season and it’s been an exercise in hope over expectation for much of that time.

Except that, as the season wore on, Smith wasn’t that terrible.

He still got caught out of position too often and his ability to get forward was mitigated by his inability to hit a genuinely dangerous cross and also the phrase “wasn’t that terrible” isn’t going on anybody’s résumé.

But for all that I’m not sure Smith made many more mess ups than many of his colleagues and having Bolaños in front of you is hardly a recipe for solid defensive cover.

As for Fraser Aird it’s hard to say if he flattered to deceive or deceived to flatter as the season wore on but it was a curiously stop/start campaign for the Canadian youngster.

He definitely looked better in a more forward role where his pace probably wasn’t used as effectively as it might have been and it will be interesting to see how he develops if given another year with the team.

In summary, if Vancouver can find a better right back (and they probably can) they should sign him but a combination of Smith and Aird is something that can just about be lived with.

A ringing endorsement if ever there was one!

Central defence- This was, without doubt, the Whitecaps strongest area in 2015. So imagine our surprise when it turned out to be the weakest in 2016.

The previously solid partnership of Kendall Waston and Tim Parker melted into a formless gloop of nothingness and the arrival of David Edgar merely served to preserve the formless gloop but with more shouting.

There’s a huge decision to be made about this position in the coming weeks and months.

It seems as though Edgar is here to stay (partly due to said “shouting”) and that leaves one of Parker and Waston out of the loop (and out of the gloop as well I guess).

Both will want to be playing regularly and both have some kind of value as trade bait.

A pairing of Parker and Edgar feels like the right move; an experienced player alongside a quicker youngster.

But the concern is that Carl Robinson will continue to favour Waston over Parker and leave the Whitecaps stuck in the continual hinterland of suspensions and retro-suspensions.

Maybe Parker will decide to stay if that’s the case? But it’s hard to see how that would be good for his overall development.

The back ups for this role are refreshingly competent. Cole Seiler has been steady when called on and hopefully Christian Dean will be ready to go after recovering from injury.

There may be need of extra cover if one of Parker or Waston do leave but Sem de Wit could make the transition from WFC2 (maybe more faith in more WFC2 players might not be a bad mantra for 2017 as a whole?).

Left back- Jordan Harvey hasn’t been perfect this year but he has been far and away the most dependable of the regular defensive core.

Somewhat ironic then that his position may be the most tenuous of all the back line.

The arrival of Marcel de Jong immediately offered a legitimate rival to Harvey and the impressive play of Brett Levis when called up to the first team poses another threat to Harvey (has any Whitecap looked as consistently comfortable on the ball as Levis has this year?).

Similar to the Parker and Waston situation both de Jong and Harvey have some kind of trade value and there really is no right or wrong decision concerning who to let go (obviously we will all call out the decision as right or wrong but there you go).

Harvey offers reliability and experience in MLS and would be a great mentor for Levis and possibly another candidate in the “turning experienced players into coaches” that is clearly a part of the Whitecaps model.

While de Jong is younger, slightly better at getting forward and can also play in Robinson’s much loved defensive midfield role.

Whatever happens if Levis isn’t the starting left back come the tail end of the season then I vow to spend at least one hour a day studying the MLS salary structure.

Next time out it’s the midfield!

A fitting end to a fitful season for the Whitecaps

It was fitting that the Vancouver Whitecaps shambolic season ended in a game which featured two red cards, two penalty kicks, some dubious refereeing decisions and a finale which found the home team adopting chaos theory as a form of tactical approach.

Carl Robinson may be fond of arguing that “formations don’t matter” but this was taking things to the nth degree.

The game ended with a 2-1 defeat to the Seattle Sounders meaning that Vancouver are finally and officially eliminated from the playoff picture and that their current home record is an astonishingly bad five wins, five losses and six ties.

Five home wins in an MLS season is one way to guarantee a terrible year and the Whitecaps have nothing left to play for in their remaining two games other than the pride that too few of them have shown throughout the season thus far.

The game actually began quite well for Vancouver as a nice piece of play from Alphonso Davies resulted in a penalty kick which Pedro Morales slotted home with ease.

So this would be the perfect opportunity to go ahead and try to finish off a Sounders team who were missing both Dempsey and Lodeiro right?

On the contrary.

The Whitecaps immediately lost all interest in attacking and sat back to allow the visitors to find a foothold in the game, which they did through an Ossie Alonso goal in the thirty-ninth minute.

For the rest of the half the Whitecaps suddenly woke up again but when Jordan Harvey spurned a great chance to restore the lead just before the break the omens weren’t good.

It’s hard to know if their reluctance to press on after taking the lead is down to the players on the field or the instructions off it but, whatever the reason, it’s a flaw that desperately needs to be remedied next season.

The Whitecaps began the second half in their characteristically lethargic style and the game only really came back to life once Pedro Morales was red carded for an “elbow” in the fifty-third minute.

I say “elbow” because it was the kind of challenge that would have been a yellow card (at most) in a CONCACAF game, but the Captain has been around the league long enough to know how MLS refs operate so he probably has less cause to complain than it initially seemed.

Even down to ten men the Whitecaps weren’t that troubled by a prosaic Seattle side but a hard hit cross hit Jordan Harvey on the hand and the subsequent penalty-kick was dispatched to drive the final nail into the Whitecaps playoff coffin.

To be fair to Robinson he did throw all hands on deck at this stage (too little too late?) as he moved to three at the back but by now the game more resembled a pick up game in a local park than it did any kind of professional display.

It’s tempting to say that this was the latest in a long line of disappointing performances from this Vancouver team but the time for disappointments has passed.

We can no longer be disappointed because this is exactly who they are; a group of players who collectively just aren’t good enough for Major League Soccer.

Big changes are needed in the next few months.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Edgar-6-, Parker-5, Harvey-5, Laba-6, Morales-5, Bolaños-6, Davies-6*, Hurtado 5, Barnes-4

 

 

Whitecaps are not through the Looking Glass

What a refreshing cool drink of water the CONCACAF Champions League tournament has been for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.

And that water was no less clear and fresh for the 4-1 victory over Central FC at BC Place on Wednesday evening.

But what if the reflection of the team we could see wasn’t from that sparkling liquid? What if  that reflection was actually from a deep dark mirror offering a gateway into another Space-Time continuum?

A parallel universe where the Whitecaps played every game as though they both wanted to win and were enjoying the experience of playing football? Where fear of conceding goals was outweighed by the rush of adrenaline of getting players forward into the box at every opportunity? Where the burden of expectation didn’t seem to weigh on every shoulder and where eleven men played as a team rather than a collection of individuals?

Sadly this isn’t the place to explain the entire cosmological thinking behind such a theory but safe to say that isn’t what has been happening to the Whitecaps this year.

But if Carl Robinson can figure out why virtually every performance in the Champions League has been more enjoyable to watch than virtually any performance in MLS then he’ll have gone a long way to solving the problems of the season.

A cynic might say that it’s simply down to facing inferior teams but that’s probably a little too generous to MLS while ignoring the fact that Vancouver themselves have never put out their (so called) first eleven in the competition.

It may simply be the case that they haven’t taken the tournament too seriously and that lightness of spirit has transferred into a brightness of play.

Where MLS games have been burdened by fear of conceding the first goal every CONCACAF game has been buoyed by the hope of scoring the first goal and perhaps the overarching lesson to be learned is that to get the best out of this group of players liberation is better than the leash.

As for the game itself nobody played badly for Vancouver but Blas Perez looked like  a man with something to prove and Brett Levis once again out in a composed and confident performance.

Levis is twenty-three so it seems odd to speak of him as a newcomer but even so he looks far more “MLS ready” than any other WFC2 alumni have done thus far (and yes that even includes Alphonso Davies).

It’s just his misfortune to be playing in the one of the few areas of the field where the Whitecaps have genuinely impressive depth.

Next stop for the Whitecaps is at home to Seattle in a game as much about pride (and the Cascadia Cup) as it is about  clinging to faded playoff hopes but (once again) the Champions League performance has pointed the way to go.

Maybe this time the rest of the team will follow that direction?

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-6, Waston-6, Parker-6, Levis-7*, Jacobson-7, de Jong-7, Techera-7, Mezquida-7, Perez-7, Kudo-6 (Bustos-6, Greig-6) 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Player of the Year nominees

It says a lot about how this season has gone for the Vancouver Whitecaps that of the four players nominated for their Player of the Year two aren’t considered as regular starters, one is almost the definition of an MLS journeyman and the other is an international midfielder who has probably under performed relative to his ability.

It says even more about the season that there isn’t one other player in the squad who could seriously be considered for the shortlist. Kekuta Manneh if he had stayed fit perhaps?  But every other possible contender has thrown a howler into the mix for every seeming act of redemption.

But that’s where we are and that’s where we will stay. So let’s break down the four lucky finalists.

Christian Bolaños- Bolaños may not be everybody’s cup of tea (his languid style can often be mistaken for lack of effort) be he leads the team in assists and is joint top scorer of goals from open play (alongside Kekuta Manneh which also says a lot about the season).

More importantly perhaps Bolaños is one of the few players on the team who always wants the ball and is always comfortable with said ball when he receives it.

His acquisition was designed to add the element of guile missing from last season but  we’ve only really seen that guile in glimpses this year.

It’s hard to predict what the Whitecaps will look like next season (although recent signings seem to indicate a move toward pragmatism over playmakers) but if Carl Robinson can find a way to get the best out of Bolaños on a consistent basis he could be a genuine difference maker rather than the fitfully enjoyable player to watch he has been in 2016.

Jordan Harvey– Harvey hasn’t had a perfect season (he was beaten on a couple of crucial back post headers that cost points for example) but compared to the rest of the backline he’s been a model of consistency and calm.

When all around him were losing their heads Harvey carried on carrying on as one of the more reliable left backs in the League.

He’s also matched every Whitecaps central striker for goals scored (two) and is always willing to get forward when given the chance.

More than all that though Harvey always plays as though the game is important to him (which hasn’t necessarily been true of every player this year) and he always plays as though he’s enjoying the fact that he is paid money to do something he loves (which hasn’t necessarily been true of every player this year).

In that way he’s as much a pleasure to watch as many more technically gifted players.

Andrew Jacobson- It’s possible to make the argument that Jacobson has been the Whitecaps best central defender, best defensive midfielder and best box to box midfielder this season.

He may have been acquired for his versatility but the failings of others has meant that versatility has been tested to the nth degree and far more often than Carl Robinson planned for.

In central defence he’s a calming presence, as a defensive midfielder he’s happy to sit and just do the job assigned to him and as the partner to a defensive midfielder he’s willing to get forward far more than any other player (like Harvey he has two goals.

Jacobson can probably feel a little unfortunate not to have received more starts given the solidity of his performances and the fragility of others, but at the very least he’s proven just how valuable he will be to the team in the coming years.

Nicolas Mezquida– It seems as though there’s always a player like Mezquida at every club. A player that the fans think should be starting almost every week but, for whatever reason, the coach just doesn’t quite share the same enthusiasm.

Mezquida may not be a great “number ten” but he’s the best the Whitecaps have by some distance, if only because of his willingness to constantly pressure opposition defenders and his willingness to play in the space that a “number ten” is supposed to play in.

It’s only when Mezquida is on the pitch that it feels as though there is a genuine link between the midfield and the forwards and although he’s not a prolific goal scorer (three this season) and his assist play leaves something to be desired he does at least always make a positive difference when he’s on the field.

Another player who can consider himself unfortunate not to have had more starts.

So who should win?- There really is no right or wrong answer for this one. None of these players have been lights out stellar but each one of them deserves to be on the shortlist.

If I were forced to choose I would just favour Mezquida over Harvey but if you asked me the same question tomorrow I would probably just favour Bolaños over Jacobson and so on and so on.

So just vote for whoever you think should win (probably should have just put that at the start really).

The Vancouver Whitecaps accept chaos

There are some games of football that can be broken down into tactical match ups or can easily be seen to have turned on a specific incident or two.

Then there are those that seem only to exist to confirm the fact that we live in a meaningless universe devoid of meaning and/or coherence.

The Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 tie with the Colorado Rapids at BC Place on Saturday slotted firmly into the latter category.

In (yet another) must win game the Whitecaps were (yet again) listless and unimaginative in the first half and (yet again) conceded a goal in which at least three players probably had some kind of culpability and (yet again) Carl Robinson decided to give all eleven of those listless and unimaginative players another fifteen or twenty minutes to put things right.

This time around though that philosophy actually worked as Kendall Waston headed home a Bolaños corner in the fifty-first minute and suddenly it was game on again.

Except it wasn’t because less than five minutes later a simple ball over the top of the Whitecaps defence induced Waston into bringing down Badji and Gashi slotted home the resulting penalty kick.

Then just when it felt as though the whole stadium was drifting into a pleasant autumnal slumber Pedro Morales cropped up in the opposition penalty area and scored a goal from open play and suddenly it was game on again.

Except it wasn’t because less than five minutes later Gashi slammed home a great free-kick for the Rapids and that was that.

Except it wasn’t because with the last meaningful touch of the game Erik Hurtado headed home a Jordan Harvey cross and we were level once again.

Never was a last minute equalizer greeted with such a mixture of consternation, celebration and confusion. Mainly because it was all too little too late to save the season.

If this game does anything then hopefully it will finally put to rest any lingering ideas that this Whitecaps squad has any kind of genuine fight or character in them.

It’s remarkably easy to show fight and character when you are down to ten men with your backs against the wall.

There’s noting to lose and nobody will blame you if you fail.

Teams with actual fight and teams with actual character display those virtues from the first whistle and take games like this one by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them to the ground until they are begging for mercy.

The current Whitecaps squad wouldn’t know the scruff of the neck of a game if it came up to them in the street and slapped them in the face with a wet fish (although to be fair such an occurrence would be both terrifying and symptomatic of some kind of psychotic and hallucinatory episode so we should probably give them a pass on that particular scenario).

Should we mention the substitutions?

Parker for Smith and Jacobson for Bolaños felt odd in a game that the team simply had to win but then again they worked in that the Whitecaps did get back into the game.

Leaving Mezquida on the bench until the eighty-fourth minute felt equally odd when he provides energy, work rate and the possibility of creating a goal scoring threat but, as we posited at the start, this wasn’t a game that made much sense at all anyway.

All the Whitecaps have to play for now in MLS is the Cascadia Cup and three games against teams who are battling for playoff spots which at least gives the opportunity to enjoy an element of schadenfreude (insert joke about Schadenfreude being a decent box to box midfielder here).

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5, Smith-5, Edgar-5, Waston-4, Harvey-5, Morales-6, Laba-6, Bolaños-6, Davies-6, Barnes-6*, Hurtado-5

The Vancouver Whitecaps are trying to break your heart

As Jeff Tweedy sings on the new Wilco album Happiness depends on who you blame” so there should be no shortage of opportunities for happiness for the Whitecaps and their fans as this car crash of a season (Champions League success not withstanding) draws to a conclusion.

Actually scrap the “car crash” analogy and replace it with a runaway truck scenario because that’s mostly what it has felt like since the opening game.

Individual errors were compounded by red cards and retrospective red cards and injuries and more individual errors until at times Carl Robinson seemed more like a man desperately trying to right a ship that had already sailed way passed the dock.

So we should probably discard the “runaway truck” analogy and replace it with one of those metaphorical oil tankers that take so long to turn that they still keep going forward for miles and any actual movement is barely noticeable.

Except in this case the movement has certainly been noticeable as the Whitecaps have struggled to find any kind of identity throughout the season, an issue that was compounded by mid-season signings that seemed as much a case of wanting to be seen to be doing something as actually addressing genuine deficiencies and resulted in a seemingly endless series of changes which always ended up back in the same place.

So let’s dispose of the “oil tanker” analogy and go with the painting the Forth Bridge scenario where no sooner does one piece of the structure seem to be fixed than it’s back to square one again.

Actually the “Painting the Forth Bridge” analogy doesn’t quite work either because Carl Robinson has mostly felt like a man desperately trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the finished picture in front of him and with the disturbing knowledge that at least one of the pieces is definitely lost behind the couch.

Yeah, let’s stick with the jigsaw puzzle analogy.

Because if you were to ask one hundred Whitecaps fans to name their favoured starting eleven and formation it’s a reasonable wager that you would get 20 or 30 different combinations (maybe more?).

And that’s the real indictment of how the team has progressed with only four games of the season remaining.

Where do they go from here?

Try to win the remaining games of course (especially the home CCL game against Central FC which would guarantee Vancouver to be a top four seed in the quarter-final stage) but the off season feels more like it needs to be a purge rather than a rebuilding and maybe as much of a mental purge as  anything else.

The idea for 2016 was to create a team that wasn’t just reliant on the counter attack and could break down the stacked defences that proved to be their undoing last year and the signings of Bolaños and Kudo were the main planks of this plan.

It hasn’t worked out for a number of reasons (one of which was Kudo’s horrific head injury) but too often Bolaños has felt like a luxury player in a team designed for prosaicness, a player who slows the game down in a team where the quick break is everything (and often the only thing).

The ideal world would have seen Bolaños linking up with the likes of Morales, Techera, Rivero and Kudo to create something akin to the kind of one touch football that relies as much on speed of thought as it does on speed of foot but alas and alack that ideal world failed to materialise and with every passing failure (and every failure of a pass) the Whitecaps have reverted more and more to their default setting of being a reactive team.

The problem though is that they just aren’t built that way anymore and the absence of Kekuta Manneh for the second half of the season effectively killed off their chances of any kind of success.

So the plan for the off season has to be for Carl Robinson and the club in general to figure out just what they want that completed puzzle picture to look like in 2017.

If the coach is only comfortable playing counter attacking football then so be it (some of the most successful teams have done exactly that) but any new acquisitions have to be brought in with that knowledge in mind; at least one more very quick wide player and a central midfielder who can get forward for example.

But if the plan is to grow into something more expansive then the possible acquisitions are a little trickier; a genuinely creative number ten, a central midfielder who is comfortable both with and without the ball maybe.

Yet if we also give those late season signings a little more credit than we did earlier (Barnes, de Jong, Edgar) then it seems as though the plan may be to become a more “MLS” team founded on the twin pillars of experience and physicality.

Ultimately  the real issue is that this team and this squad could morph into any one of the three options above (and maybe more) and although a few pieces are in place for each iteration there’s nowhere near enough of those pieces to “complete the set” for each tactical option.

So decide on a style of play and buy and sell accordingly should be the astonishingly mundane conclusion to be drawn from all of this (Waste of time reading it really wasn’t it?).

This should cheer you up though.