The sun not yet down on the Vancouver Whitecaps

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The year 2016 certainly feels as though it’s one where decades are happening in almost every week; but what would Lenin have said about the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the CCL on Wednesday evening?

“There are whole seasons where nothing happens: and there are games where whole seasons happen” perhaps?

We will probably never know what he really would have thought but safe to say  he would have left BC Place that night with the palpable taste of revolution on his tongue.

Now before we go any further let’s first acknowledge that people living in the very heart of historical moments are almost universally incapable of perceiving their import and that sometimes it can be the seemingly insignificant moments that actually dictate the path of history’s narrative (“Turn a different corner and we never would have met” as George Michael once sang (possibly in reference to the fateful meeting between Lenin and Trotsky in London in 1902?).

But with such caveats acknowledged it’s hard not to escape the sense that the aftershocks of this game could rumble on for weeks and maybe even seasons.

So what will have changed?

Two up front- Carl Robinson has been more attached to the lone striker than a barnacle to the bottom of  a banana boat but the win against Kansas offered definitive proof that his team could prosper with a forward duo (as they also did in both Toronto and Philadelphia by the way) as the running of both Hurtado and Kudo kept Kansas constantly confounded.

It may be too much to hope that he sends out a similar system in LA on Saturday but the following home game against the Red Bulls has to be pencilled in for a repeat showing given just how poor the team have been at BC Place this year.

Robinson got a “performance” by using the stick and not the carrot- It’s pretty clear that Robinson is an “arm around the shoulder” kind of coach by instinct, but something finally broke last week and he made Matias Laba pay that breakage by leaving him out of the roster for the MLS trip to Kansas.

Laba was back in the eleven on Wednesday and also back to his best as he set out with something to prove from the very first whistle.

If Robinson learns the lesson that different players need to be motivated in different ways then it bodes well for the rest of his time here and bodes ill for any players who have been coasting by on reputation alone.

The new Manneh?- It’s been somewhat shocking to find out just how much the Whitecaps miss the presence of Kekuta Manneh. Sure we all knew he offered something different to anybody else in the team but the plodding nature of the attack without him is remarkable.

The smart money was probably on Alphonso (“he’s fifteen you know”) Davies stepping into Manneh’s shoes but against SKC Fraser Aird looked much more like the heir apparent.

Like Manneh he has blistering pace and, like Manneh, he doesn’t lose much of that pace when he actually has the ball at his feet.

He doesn’t always make the right choice with his final pass (like Manneh) but whether as a starter or a late substitution Aird does at least offer a rough approximation of the speed from deep that the team has been profoundly lacking.

A change of mood?- Up until Wednesday the whole season seemed to have drifted into a kind of all encompassing mixture of lethargy and angst with most of the discussions surrounding off the pitch issues and potential hirings and firings.

Suddenly though Vancouver are clear favourites to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League and (somewhat unbelievably) are still only two points away from a playoff spot.

Admittedly of the four teams chasing that single position they are the least well placed but sometimes the best that you can hope for is just to keep the season alive for as long as possible and the season suddenly seems to have a few more weeks than recently seemed possible.

Their next game isn’t even a “must win” (although the one after that certainly is) but if they do somehow manage to find a way to be a “coupon buster” in LA as Carl Robinson put it (no doubt confounding many people unfamiliar with British gambling vernacular) then who knows what could happen.

You gotta have faith! (Which was the original title of Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” I believe).

Whitecaps find a ray of hope!

Well we all needed that!

The long dark midnight of the soul that has haunted the Whitecaps in recent weeks was split asunder by three blinding shafts of light in the form of two goals from Christian Techera and one from Erik Hurtado as Vancouver took full control of their CCL group by beating Sporting Kansas City 3-0 at BC Place.

Maybe that’s a smidgeon of dramatic overkill but it’s been weeks (months?) since the Whitecaps played with this much verve and purpose in any competition.

Carl Robinson rang the changes, most notably by switching to a 4-4-2 with Kudo and Hurtado up front and while the Japanese striker was lively it was Hurtado who stole the show with his breakaway goal and a scintillating display of the full range of his tricks and flicks throughout the game (Wait? What did I just write?).

It’s genuinely hard to find anybody who played badly but special mentions go to Techera who looked more like his lively goal scoring self again, Brett Levis who displayed a remarkable degree of comfort on the ball in his first game since signing an MLS contract and Jordan Smith who spent half the evening breaking up attacks with his sliding challenges and the other half causing havoc with his rampaging runs down the wing (Wait? What did I just write?).

Shout out too to Matias Laba who responded to being left out of the MLS squad with arguably his best performance of the season.

From the first minute it was clear that Laba was up for this game and this was a timely reminder of not just how useful his defensive qualities are but also how valuable his interceptions can be in launching the Whitecaps on the counterattack.

And let’s not forget Carl Robinson who has certainly been under scrutiny of late but responded by getting the best out of the eleven players he fielded and his biggest headache now is just who he selects for the upcoming game in LA.

He’s certainly indicated that if players put in a performance then he will reward them and on this showing the whole back four, Laba, Techera and Hurtado (at the very least) deserve to start.

That probably won’t happen but at least this game should be a reminder to a few senior players that taking a game by the scruff of the neck and all working together is a better recipe for success than whatever it is they have been trying of late.

Those speculations are for another day though because, for now, let’s just enjoy a Whitecaps performance that was not only fun to watch but also looked like fun to play in.

It’s something to build on at least.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Tornaghi-7, Smith-8, Levis-8, Parker-7, Waston-7, Laba-8*, Teibert-7, Techera-8, Aird-7, Kudo-7, Hurtado-8

 

 

Whitecaps fail when the chips are down

Perhaps the worst thing to happen to Carl Robinson at the start of his career as head coach was that so many of his early signings produced positive results on the field.

Morales, Beitashour, Laba, Mezquida, Waston and even Sebastián Fernández provided valuable contributions to Robinson’s first season in charge and created the sense that the Whitecaps had a coach who could pick up quality Designated Players from the lower end of the salary cap spectrum along with bargain buys from Central and South America.

But as the seasons have progressed that has proved to be less and less the case as the likes Rivero, Rodriguez, Smith and Flores have all turned out to be busted flushes when it comes to MLS play.

And the decisions to sign Smith and Flores after both of them struggled for the previous season felt a little like watching a Blackjack player who once got lucky by hitting a two when he already had nineteen in his hand try to recreate that moment with more and more desperation.

Recent signings have indicated a move away from the philosophy that all problems can be solved by a Uruguayan but they are too little too late for this season (and may well be too little for next as well) and when every new player is designed to fix a problem rather than improve the team then glory is most certainly not on the horizon.

Perhaps the best thing to happen to Carl Robinson at this stage of his career as a head coach (and I’m talking long term here) is how much of a disaster this season has been.

If we had to define his core philosophy it would probably be that a happy team is a good team; if a coach stands up for the players then the players will stand up for the coach.

Well that isn’t happening this season as time after time the Whitecaps fade out of games once they fall behind or fail to kill off a team once they get the lead (it is possible for the Whitecaps to take the lead, I’ve checked the record books).

Now there are those who will say, who do say, that these failings are caused because the players don’t care enough about the team or the shirt or the crest, but it seems to be less about caring and more about the lack of concern any of them really have with regard to their position at the club or in the team.

Even the decision to drop Matias Laba for the game in Kansas was signaled so far ahead of time that it can’t really have shaken the player up all that much.

But sooner or later Robinson is surely going to realise (going to have to realise) that some players play well when they are happy and some players play well when they are scared and there just isn’t a one size fits all to getting the best out of a team.

If that message sinks home then the off season should at least be interesting as both he and the Front Office need to come up with a new vision as to what this team actually wants to be.

Anyway all this rambling is to avoid mentioning the 2-0 defeat in Kansas on Saturday evening where the Whitecaps didn’t play that badly but never really looked like scoring and always looked capable of conceding.

That’s how far the bar has fallen this season. A performance like that counts as “not bad”.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6*, Aird-5, Waston, 5, Edgar-5, de Jong-5, Jacobson-5, Morales-4, Mezquida-4, Bolaños-5, Barnes-6, Perez-4

 

 

 

 

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy .All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy .All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

  1. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  2. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
  3. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

 

 

Pedro: Not deep or deep?

Most of the talk this week within the Whitecaps camp has concerned the kind of intangible states of mind which ultimately add up to “grit”.

And while there can be no doubt that the team has been desperately lacking something from a psychological point of view in recent weeks we haven’t yet got the stage where we have access to CAT scans of players emotions throughout the game.

So, in the absence of such fascinating data, let’s stick to the mundane facts of what happened on the field

There’s been pretty much universal agreement that Pedro Morales needs to play in the deep lying midfield role if he is to be effective and that’s what happened against San Jose last Friday.

The good news is that the Captain got much more time and touches than he ever does when playing the number ten role but (and it seems there’s always a “but” with the Whitecaps this season) how effective that time and those touches were is open to question.

Stats show that Morales sent most of his passes to Christian Bolaños  and the second most to Matias  Laba followed by Giles Barnes and Kendall Waston.

Passes to the front two you ask?

Here’s a shot of his passes to Masato Kudo

 

mezquida

And the same for Nicolas Mezquida

kudo

So the teams most creative player hit the grand total of six passes to the two forwards of which two were inside his own half and the only pass to finish in the penalty area was from a corner.

Now we can argue whether this deficiency is down to Morales or whether it’s down to Mezquida and Kudo but the truth is probably that those two forwards just don’t play the game in a way that fits with the way Morales plays the game.

They both want quick, short passes in front of them whereas Morales wants to hit longer, searching passes across and up the field.

We can save the debate of why a Designated Player needs to be accommodated so specifically for another time but right now the Whitecaps are where they are, and where they are is needing to find something (anything) that works.

And that means giving Morales the forwards who suit his game.

There were hints against San Jose that Barnes could use his pace to fill a kind of surrogate Manneh role and it’s probably time that the in game savvy of Blaz Perez was used to full effect.

That gives a front two with both pace and height (the ideal targets for Morales to hit) and should also mean that Vancouver are able to hold the ball far more effectively up front than they have been in recent road performances.

It would be rough on Mezquida to make him pay the price for the overall troubles of the team, but it would mean that both he and Kudo could start the CCL game against Kansas that could well be the main priority for the season by the time that Tuesday rolls around.

It all feels very “make do and mend’ for this team at the moment and the fact that with nine games remaining nobody (and I mean “nobody”) can confidently name the best starting eleven is a startling testament to just how awry this season has been.

But sometimes if you throw enough things at the wall one of them will actually stick.

You should get the FourFourTwo app by the way, it’s a great way to find out the kind of info about a game that can bore people to death for hours (just mention my name to Siri when you go to the app store).

We’d like to help you learn to help yourself

Only the most optimistic of Whitecaps fans will have come away from the 2-1 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday evening thinking that Vancouver’s playoff hopes were still alive.

Sure they could get a win in either Kansas or LA and maybe be back in the hunt but realistically this looks like a team that is as good as done when it comes to the MLS season.

But instead of plodding over the same old ground about what went wrong on the night (the shambolic defending, the inability to finish, the lack of any cohesion) let’s maybe take a step back and take a look at some of things that have gone awry with Carl Robinson this season.

What are the issues that the coach needs to address in his own performance?

Locker room culture- Robinson loves to sign a player who is “good in the locker room” but ultimately that culture has to be set by the coach and his staff and not by surrogates.

I doubt that anybody has watched the Whitecaps this year and seen a group of players who are all on the same page.

That doesn’t mean there’s internal strife and it doesn’t mean they are unhappy (they may even be too happy) but it does mean that something isn’t working.

The breaks haven’t always fallen for Vancouver this year but there are two ways of dealing with adversity in all sport; you either use it to make yourself better and stronger or you use it as an excuse for defeat.

The Whitecaps have leaned on the latter far too often in 2016 and that’s a culture that needs to be changed from the top.

The inability to change a game- If there is one thing that separates the great coaches from the good coaches and the good coaches from the average then it’s probably the capacity to take a step back from the emotion of a game and view it as an objective observer.

That’s how the really top coaches earn their salaries; with small tactical switches and substitutions at the right time.

Robinson is still learning the role but it can be so frustrating to watch the Whitecaps clearly making no inroads in a game and yet there is still a reluctance to make a change.

By the sixtieth minute against San Jose (for just one example) it was clear that the Whitecaps had run out of attacking ideas but it took another Earthquakes goal before a substitution was made and that was too little too late.

If Robinson can’t see that the changes need to be made then he needs to seek the advice of someone who can and if he can see that the changes need to be made but is reluctant to make them for fear of damaging a player’s confidence or upsetting team chemistry then he needs to be braver in making the switch.

Which leads to.

Picking names over form- Every manager will deny that they do this but every manager probably does; they all have their “favourites” and that’s fine to a degree.

The problem for Robinson is that his seeming “favourites” are really not playing well at all and so we are faced with the situation where the likes of Waston and Laba keep getting the start whereas the likes of Mezquida and Parker are either shunted into unfamiliar positions or out of the team altogether.

The coach hinted earlier in the week that he would drop one of these regular starters but that didn’t happen on Friday.

He hinted the same thing immediately following that defeat so let’s see what happens, because this policy has haunted him and hurt the team in the last few weeks.

Attitude on the road- If MLS is anything then it’s a League where any team can beat any other team on any given day yet too often this year Vancouver have gone into road trips with, if not a defeatist attitude, than at least an attitude that exudes “settling for a draw at best”.

I get that the travel is tough but enough teams have come to BC Place and outplayed the Whitecaps to make a person believe it isn’t quite that tough.

Keep talking about how hard a game or a trip will be and you give players an excuse for not performing and a lot of players will be all too happy to fall back on that excuse.

Which leads to.

Abdication of responsibility- Not in the sense of taking the blame for poor results (he definitely does that) but in the insistence that “fine lines” etc are what decide football games.

They often are but there’s a kind of “it’s out of our hands whether we win or lose” disposition that, once again, must seep through to the players and give them an easy out if things do go badly.

Players shouldn’t look for these get out clauses but they always do and they always will and it’s up to the coach to deny them the chance.

There are probably other things I could mention; the lack of any effective touchline presence and the failure to recognize that the modern coach needs to be a tribune for the fans frustrations as much as a defence counsel for the players.

But the counterbalance is that he has also had dreadful luck with injuries, suspensions and all around MLS weirdness that offers up some kind of mitigating factors, but the room for error is getting less and less roomier with every passing defeat.

It may already be too late to turn the League season around but there is still the Champion’s League to try and progress in and a core of players who can still achieve something (there was no lack of effort against San Jose, just a lack of organization) so now is the time for Robinson to make brave choices both before and during the remaining games.

If not now when? If not him who?

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-4, Parker-4, Waston-5, Edgar-4, De Jong-5, Morales-6, Laba-4, Bolaños -6*, Mezquida-6, Barnes-5, Kudo-4 (Davies-5, Perez-5)

D-Day for Robinson and the Whitecaps

“Must win game” is one of those eternal footballing cliches that is almost never literally true but does occasionally speak to the heart of the matter.

And Friday evening’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes very much fits into the “not literally true but it sure enough feels like it” category for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Whitecaps really aren’t in a good place right now (apart from Vancouver which is great right!?) with new signings having little time to settle in and a coach who seems to be struggling to settle on both a first eleven and a preferred way of playing.

So if Vancouver do fail to beat the Earthquakes then the two subsequent MLS road games (Kansas and LA) could see them drifting away from the red line of competence that constitutes the playoff marker and down into the murky depths of “there’s always next year” land.

How we’ve got to this situation is up for debate; players either not getting or not buying into how the Robinson wants them to play, a fundamentally conservative coach who is trying to get his team to play more expansive football but just can’t figure it out, key players failing to perform all over the field, a series of unfortunate incidents beyond the control of anybody.

There is probably something to be said for all of those scenarios (and many more) but while we can all have fun theorizing and hypothesizing Carl Robinson just doesn’t have that luxury.

He needs to get it right on Friday (and beyond).

And that probably means a return to the comfort zone for both the coach and the players and that means 4-2-3-1 (obviously) but with Giles Barnes in the “Manneh” role on the left.

Barnes doesn’t have the pure pace of Manneh but he can at least run with the ball and he can at least make other teams worry about his presence and force them to be a little more cautious when pushing forward. Couple that with a return to Mezquida and Kudo as the front two (who actually do provide the kind of “defence from the front” that one would assume Robinson would like) and if Morales has to play then play him deep alongside Laba or Jacobson.

 
There’s a decent argument to be made that what the Whitecaps defence need more than anything right now is just for somebody to sit in front of them and thus guarantee some kind of shield and Jacobson could probably do that job better than the more proactive Laba.

None of this solves all the problems of course. The right back roulette and the lack of cohesion just about everywhere on the field, but at least getting back to the basics of what the coach feels comfortable with may at least imbue some of that comfort into the team.

There’s still time for the Whitecaps to turn this thing around (and the pieces are definitely there to coalesce into a genuinely threatening MLS team) but the time for trying things (and players) out is well and truly over.

The only way the Whitecaps are going to get into the post season is by returning to what they once were.

Forward to the Past!