MLS: No time to think

Of the twenty coaches currently working in Major league Soccer a full seventeen of them got their first top level job in the league itself.

Maybe we can put that down to insularity, maybe we can put that down to penny pinching by the clubs or maybe we can put it down the relative lack of success of coaches who arrive in MLS from elsewhere (Hello Ruud Gullit, pleased to meet you Carlos de los Cobos) but whatever the reason if a young coach wants to cut his teeth in the professional game then MLS is a pretty good place to start.

Or is it? (Ooh! See what I did there?).

MLS may be a league unto itself in terms of the complexity and quirks of roster rules and player acquisition mechanisms but at times it also feels like a league unto itself in terms of how little emphasis is placed upon tactics on the field.

Earlier this week the Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said

“In this league the parity is such that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. The edge that you get in this league is more psychological than it is anything tactical, and when you believe that you’re a good team, and you start to play to that standard, other teams perceive you as that team.”

Mastroeni has taken the Rapids to the top of the standings this season so on one level it’s hard to argue with the thrust of his argument but on another level it’s hard to imagine such an assertion being accepted without comment in many other leagues around the world.

There’s certainly no harm in saying that a team has to believe in what they are doing and, even more specifically, believe in what the coach is asking them to do but when the foundation for that belief is belief itself then we’re wandering dangerously into the area of magical thinking.

What will Pablo do when his side suffer through a couple of bad results? Try to make them believe more?

Fair enough I’m taking him at his most literal word here because I’m sure he and his coaching staff do have some kind of plan going into games, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to think that plan is as important as the confirmation bias he hopes will make the opposition think the Rapids are better than they actually are.

And there was a similar air around the Whitecaps last season as Carl Robinson stubbornly refused to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation which worked so well for two thirds of the year but ultimately failed the team at the business end of the season.

And while stubbornness may be one of the most crucial attributes every football coach needs it’s only valuable when mixed with the right amount of objectivity with regard to reacting to actual results on the field.

So roll on to the 2016 season and the big question wasn’t really how the Whitecaps new acquisitions would adapt to Major League Soccer, it was more along the lines of how Carl Robinson would adapt to the new acquisitions.

And, after a hesitant start, the signs are looking pretty good.

Even when playing 4-2-3-1 Robinson has mostly played Pedro Morales as one of the ‘2’ alongside Laba and thus turning an inherently defensive formation into a far more attacking lineup, but Saturday’s 4-3 win over Toronto kind of felt like a sea change in the development of both the coach and the team.

Social Media and predicting starting elevens is pretty much the old “an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards will eventually create the collected works of Shakespeare” given life but even the great and the good of Twitter et al probably struggled to foresee a 4-4-2 lineup that featured Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado as the two forwards designed to burn a hole through the Toronto central defence, with Pedro Morales in a wide left role which simultaneously moved him away from  the heart of the action while also freeing him from the attentions of both Will Johnson and Michael Bradley.

It didn’t work perfectly (three goals conceded is never perfect) but it still felt like a victory earned for a team based on tactical tweaks rather than TFC’s “give the ball to Giovinco and see what happens” approach.

Whether this flexibility will be a template for the season remains to be seen, but at least the likes of Bolaños, Pérez, Kudo and even a reinvigorated Hurtado offer the potential for Robinson to spring the occasional surprise on the opposition manager.

So what does any of this tell us about the value of being a young coach in Major League Soccer?

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, MLS coaches are not exactly sought after by other countries and no doubt there’s an element of shortsightedness to that disinterest but there must also be the sense that the skills required to coach an MLS team aren’t directly transferable to the rest of the world.

“So Mr. Vanney you’re interested in the Aston Villa job? What are your plans?”

“I’d just buy one brilliant player and let him win all the games for us”

“Next!”

“Hi Mr. Mastroeni. Your plans for Villa?”

“I think once we start playing well we will carry on playing well and other teams will then think we are really good.”

“Welcome to Aston Villa Mr. Moyes.”

I guess the point of all this is to say that while soccer in North America may be taking steps to improve the development of young players, MLS itself is almost inherently designed to stunt the growth of young coaches.

Maybe Carl Robinson has recognized that fact and has decided that a) there are genuine on the field advantages to be gained through tactical flexibility and b) he will learn nothing about himself as a coach by simply accepting that what’s good enough to get into the playoffs is good enough and that’s the end of the story.

It could be that the most fascinating part of this whole season will turn out to be witnessing how the coach continues to grow into the role and how that shapes the Whitecaps as a whole.

(Or it could just be that having a fit and in form Pedro Morales is all that really matters?).

 

 

Whitecaps win seven goal thriller in Toronto

There are times when “It just made no sense” is about a good of a summation as you can make about any game of football and the Whitecaps’ 4-3 win in Toronto pretty much fits that criteria admirably but, for the sake of something to write, let’s see if we can’t at least make an effort to bring some semblance of order to all of that chaos.

With his hand forced on a number of lineup changes Carl Robinson went with an unexpectedly innovative starting eleven. He paired Russell Teibert with Matias Laba in the centre of midfield and he played Bolaños and Morales as the creative wide midfielders with Hurtado and Manneh as the lightning quick forwards capable of hitting TFC on the break.

And, from an attacking point for view, the plan worked like a charm.

Manneh was involved in every goal (scoring two and setting up Morales and Bolaños for the others) and Hurtado proved himself to be a useful foil as one of the attacking two.

The only question is whether Robinson looks at this game and thinks his team as a whole were defensively unsound or whether he thinks every goal conceded was the result of a specific circumstance; a piece of Giovinco brilliance, a Bolaños error, bad marking from a corner.

It’s hard to be a critical of a team that scored four goals on the road however and the coach is in the enviable/slightly awkward position of having a number of ways of setting up his side for the next game in Portland.

Does he stick with what (just about) worked in Toronto? Or does he revert to the more traditional 4-2-3-1 once Octavio Rivero returns to the fold?

Only time will answer that question but what he did learn from this game is that Russell Teibert is capable of being an effective partner to Laba, that Pedro Morales can be just as dangerous playing as a wide midfielder as he is in the deep lying playmaker role and that Kekuta Manneh really is a confident and composed finisher on his day.

Foundations to be built upon or the ephemeral permutations of a one off game?

Probably the latter and, in truth, we learned as little about the players as Robinson did from that mixture of circus and Kyōgen but it did feel as though we were seeing the coach himself become more confident in adapting his team to fit the specific circumstances.

And that fact alone may be even more important than earning three wins in the space of just one week.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-5, Harvey-6, Kah-6, Parker-6, Laba-7, Teibert-7*, Bolaños-6, Morales-7, Hurtado-6, Manneh-7

You can follow me on Twitter: Twitter.com/squadplayer

 

Whitecaps find the cutting edge to down Timbers

There are times when a team finds its best first eleven through careful planning and there are times when it finds it through happenstance and there was probably a little bit of each in how Carl Robinson arrived at the starting lineup that beat the Portland Timbers 2-1 at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

He was certainly keen to continue with Pedro Morales in the deeper role but an injury to Octavio Rivero and a suspension for Kekuta Manneh meant that the players in front of Morales were all of a certain type; they all prefer the ball to be played to their feet.

And lo and behold the Whitecaps began the game playing by far their best football of the season so far with both Morales and Bolaños pulling the creative strings and the only real concern was (once again) the number of chances being spurned.

That concern elevated to Code Red when Nat Borchers gave the visitors an undeserved lead in the thirty fourth minute and there was suddenly the danger that the Whitecaps’ whole season could lurch even more off course than it already was.

We’ve all sat through this movie before of course; Vancouver start well, fail to take advantage of that good opening, concede a goal and then struggle to break down a resolute defence.

This time around though they emerged in the second half looking equally as dangerous as the first with Bolaños drifting inside more and so opening up space for Aird to run into and also give the Timbers’ defensive midfielder Diego Chara a little too much to handle.

Ironically both goals relied on the touch of luck the Whitecaps have been missing in front of goal with a deflection from a Portland defender setting up Kudo to fire home from a tight angle only seconds before he was due to be taken off and the Portland keeper Jake Gleeson allowing a floated Bolaños ball to find its way between his legs and into the net.

Good fortune for the Whitecaps but fortune that was well deserved.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their whole performance though was that taking that lead didn’t entice them into the all too familiar “backs to the wall, we have what we hold” style of play and instead they simply carried on passing the ball, carried on moving and carried on creating chances.

It all leaves Carl Robinson with some interesting choices for the Wednesday evening visit of the Chicago Fire.

Masato Kudo probably didn’t do enough to make himself an automatic starter ahead of Rivero but whereas the Uruguayan prefers to play with his back to goal Kudo always wants the final ball to be played in front of him and that puts the opposition backline in a far less comfortable frame of mind while simultaneously removing the easy long pass to Rivero that has been the staple diet of the team for so long. 

Likewise the absence of Manneh takes away the all too tempting (but low percentage) pass over the top of the opposition defence.

No doubt Robinson will say that it’s nice to have these kinds of tough choices but they really are tough choices because he’s had a glimpse of how well his team can play without two players (and two good players) who have been an integral part of the side for a long time now.

Whatever he chooses to do it was clear at the final whistle just how much this win meant to both the players and the coaching staff and the hope now is that a foundation has been laid that can be built upon with the only concern being that the Whitecaps’ two most complete performances of the season have both come in Cascadian derbies.

That’s great on one level but now they need to prove they can produce the same kind of quality and intensity on a warm Wednesday evening against Chicago.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-6, Harvey-6, Waston-6, Parker-6, Laba-7, Morales-7, Bolaños-7*, Techera-6, Mezquida-6, Kudo-6 (Pérez-6, Rivero-6)

 

Time for the Whitecaps to feel possessed

If there was one thing everybody could agree upon at the end of 2015 it was that the Vancouver Whitecaps needed to find a different way of playing or, at the very least, a Plan B to supplement the Plan A of counterattacking football.

There was also almost universal agreement that the decisions to move Steven Beitashour and Gershon Koffie out of the club were the right ones. The former because his salary limited what else could be done to change the team and the latter because the limits of his ability hindered a change of style for the team as a whole.

The players that were brought in to bolster the side were clearly designed to facilitate change with Bolaños, Kudo and Pérez offering a mix of experience, guile, quality and goal scoring and, yet again, there were few questions raised about these acquisitions.

So why, after ten games, are the Whitecaps sitting outside the playoff places with so few signs of a successful system yet in place?

The easiest answer of all is the disruptions the team has faced through injuries, suspensions and international call ups etc. but that is a) a really boring answer and b) doesn’t quite tell the whole story of the season so far.

It’s clear that Carl Robinson has been trying to switch things up from a tactical perspective (particularly at home) and one of those changes is to try and build from the back.

The problem with that approach for this team is that building from the back requires central defenders who are comfortable on the ball and also good passers of said ball. Unfortunately Kendall Waston is neither of those things and though Tim Parker can lay claim to elements of both his distribution is still too erratic to be relied upon.

So what tends to happen is that one of the midfielders drops deep to become the main outlet in place of the central defenders and if that player is Pedro Morales that’s probably an okay move, but if it’s one of Laba, Jacobson or Teibert the passing quality is still up for debate so then one of the more attacking midfielders also drops deep to receive the next pass leaving the man in possession with the choice of either going back to square one (giving the ball to a central defender) or passing to a player who is almost as deep as he is.

Even if he takes the latter option it means that a nominally attacking player has received the ball far too deep in his own half and any forward ball inevitably becomes a long pass to the eternally isolated Rivero.

It could also be argued that even with Morales in possession the only difference is that the long forward pass is just of a better quality rather than any radically different tactical approach.

Either way it’s a player dropping deep in order to pass the ball to another player who has also dropped deep; no wonder the opposition are so rarely on the back foot.

But the distribution from the back isn’t the only problem in how the Whitecaps are attempting to perfect this style of play because the other big issue is the almost astonishing lack of movement from the team as a whole.

However critical we may be of the passing quality of some players that quality is severely undermined when there are so few options for them to choose from.

Far too often the man in possession is faced with the singular choice of giving the ball back to the man who gave it to him simply because the number of other players actively looking to receive a pass is precisely zero.

This isn’t even what Arsene Wenger once called “sterile possession” because that at least is possession solely for the sake of it. What the Whitecaps have instead is players who are passing to a man because he is the only option available and, because he is the only option available, the opposition know exactly where the ball will be heading and can easily intercept it.

So we’re left with players who aren’t great at passing the ball having to play passes they don’t want to play to players who don’t want to receive the ball.

Not an ideal scenario.

Obviously what I’ve just described is the absolute worst case in game scenario for the Whitecaps but it’s a scenario that has already reared its head on more than one occasion this season (and twice in the last two games) so the question now is whether Carl Robinson sticks with this particular plan or looks to something else.

If he chooses to stick with it then it can only be solved by better movement from the team as a whole while simultaneously convincing the first midfield receiver of the ball to turn away from his own goal the moment he is in possession.

There’s probably an element of chicken and egg about this whole problem in that players will be wary of turning into trouble for fear of there being no options to pass to while other players will be reluctant to make runs if they see the main outlet frequently eschewing them for the safer option, but the coach needs to instil in his players that the current “risk averse” policy in how they pass the ball actually carries more risk than the alternatives.

Robinson could no doubt point out that the return of Morales makes all this discussion moot, but betting the farm on a player with such a chequered injury history would be folly indeed and a Plan B isn’t really a Plan B if it falls apart the moment one player is absent from the first eleven.

Strangely enough it’s quite fascinating watching both the team and the coach attempting to figure this one out (there are moments when you can almost see the gears grinding through a player’s brain as he makes a decision) and it could be that time and a relatively consistent first eleven is all that is needed for the pieces to finally slot into place.

But it might not be a bad idea if somebody from the coaching staff was regularly ensconced in the locker room working on at least Plans C and D.

Whitecaps battle for a point against Kansas

The Whitecaps 1-1 tie with Sporting Kansas City at BC Place on Wednesday evening can go down as one of those games in which Vancouver probably should have won but were also quite happy to leave the field with a point.

In a way the game hinged on the red card for Kendall Waston in the fifty first minute but there were turning points galore before that too.

The Whitecaps started brightly and earned a deserved lead when Christian Bolaños volleyed home a Cristian Techera corner in the fourteenth minute and the stage was set for the home team to build on Saturday’s 3-0 victory and produce another statement performance.

Instead they reacted to taking the lead by playing as though the game was as good as won and the subsequent lethargy allowed the visitors to get back into the contest. No surprise then when Diego Rubio levelled in the twenty seventh minute.

By the start of the second half it was clear Kansas had worked out that the Whitecaps wanted to play the ball short from the back four but didn’t really have the players to pull that off and began pressing in earnest and after surviving one or two unnerving moments, the Whitecaps luck finally ran out when they turned their own free kick on the halfway line into a desperate chase to clear the ball for both Waston and David Ousted.

Waston got the man and not the ball and therefore a second yellow card.

Fortunately the dismissal seemed to affect Kansas as much as it did Vancouver and from that moment on the game dissolved into a series of spats and penalty appeals as referee Armando Villareal struggled to have any control at all.

In retrospect the most interesting aspect of the evening is to consider how the first eleven changes made by Carl Robinson stacked up.

Pedro Morales showed glimpses of his class but is still better suited to a deeper role than the traditional number ten position and pushing Morales forward meant that Russell Teibert played alongside Matias Laba in the centre of midfield.

Teibert will always be a willing worker but he offered almost nothing going forward and no home team can afford to be a midfielder shy when it comes to the attacking areas of the pitch.

Kudo looked lively without really doing anything to make him an obvious starter ahead of Rivero and Bolaños scored a lovely goal but faded out of the game just at the time the Whitecaps needed him the most.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the performance was how unsettled the back line looked when dealing with crosses with Waston and Parker both relying far more on the hasty clearance than the calm one but Fraser Aird and Jordan Harvey both had solid games.

In fact it’s credit to Aird that after trying to attack down his flank for most of the first half Kansas switched to trying to find a way through on the other side of the field in the second period.

In the end though it was an unsatisfactory evening for a number of reasons and I think we’re allowed to say that the 2016 Vancouver Whitecaps are still very much a work in progress.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-7*, Harvey-7, Waston-5, Parker-5, Laba-6, Teibert-6, Bolaños -6, Techera-6, Morales-6, Kudo-5 (Kah-5, Manneh-6, Rivero-6)

You can follow me on Twitter: Twitter.com/squadplayer

 

I was considering the last game

And while I am probably higher on Kekuta Manneh than many it still seems odd how little on field connection he actually has with the other forwards in terms of where runs and passes should be made; not even with Jordan Harvey who he regularly plays with on the left side of the field. The only player who seems to regularly connect with Manneh is Pedro Morales who tends to look for him as his first option for those raking cross field passes of his.

And while we are on the subject of connections, the small sample size we have indicates that Christian Bolaños and Blas Pérez are two players who seem to “get” each other. Bolaños has only really looked effective in Seattle (when Pérez was on the field) and in the closing minutes against Dallas (when Pérez was on the field). Carl Robinson will probably stick with Octavio Rivero again on Wednesday evening but it would be interesting to see Bolaños and Pérez given a solid sixty minutes at the start of a home game just to see how their presence affected the Whitecaps’ style of play.

And is it just me (and whenever people say “is it just me” you can bet they think everybody else feels exactly the same way) but are the in game announcements more intrusive this season at BC Place? I get that these have to be made and I get that soccer is a nightmare sport in which to predict exactly what will happen in the next ten seconds (witness the number of TV directors who miss vital live action in the name of showing us a yellow card tackle for the third time) but there was a moment on Saturday when Dallas were swarming the Vancouver area amid the sound of the 50/50 draw result being announced. It was all very jarring.

And I’m also not a fan of announcing that an opposition player has been yellow carded for “diving” as happened when Max Urruti was cautioned on Saturday. No reason is ever given for any other bookable offence and “diving” isn’t even mentioned in the official rules of the game so it all seemed unnecessarily self-satisfied. But this time around I honestly think it might really be “just me” who feels that way about this one.

And aside from my own outpouring of pedantry and joy killing the major question for Wednesday’s game is whether the Whitecaps can build on the way they finished against Dallas or whether they revert to the way they began. I doubt Kansas will come out all guns blazing in the way that Dallas did so we should get to see how this team deals with trying to break down a defensive opposition and that’s partly why I like the idea of the Bolaños and Pérez combination because they should have the experience and the patience to avoid the frustration and loss of focus which frequently fazed the Whitecaps last season whenever the first twenty minutes failed to produce a breakthrough.

And that’s your lot.

 

Vancouver abuzz about the Whitecaps

I used to think that the most contemptible of all the creatures on this planet was the September wasp; that annoying piece of anger and sting which ruined every late summer barbecue and patio beer.

But then I stumbled across an outline of their life cycle and suddenly developed a new found empathy for my eternal nemesis.

It turns out that those creatures relentlessly swooping down on your craft beer have been dealt a pretty rough hand in life for, having spent the whole year helping to keep their colony alive, these “worker wasps” (for that is who they are) are heartlessly abandoned once enough new queens are produced to allow a fresh period of hibernation to begin.

The nest effectively shuts down and there is suddenly no food source for the poor souls who have toiled all their lives for others.

Naturally they immediately embark on a desperate hunt for any source of sugar to keep themselves alive which, in most cases, means the alcohol in your glass or the food on your plate.

Hard to blame them for being so angry and so persistent isn’t it?

I still kill them of course but whereas I used to think of my battle with the wasps as being akin to the Second World War (my heroically defiant battle against an unprovoked aggressor) I now see it as disturbingly similar to the Great War of 1914-18; a series of senseless slaughters in which neither side will ever make any significant physical or moral headway.

And as with the wasps so it is with supporters.

Not that I want to embark on the senseless slaughter of soccer fans you understand but it turns out they need wins and goals just as much as a worker wasp needs that sugar and without those wins and goals the poor supporter become irritable and sometimes aggressive.

Anyone sitting enjoying cool al fresco beer in these balmy April Vancouver days may have found the experience somewhat ruined by the angry buzz of a Whitecaps fan unhappy with the team or the tactics or the coach.

Thrown a surprise spring barbecue for friends? Then perhaps it was disrupted by the sting of criticism for the way the Whitecaps have either been defending, attacking or conducting their stadium security measures.

Biology is a powerful decider.

Yet so is the pervading culture and the pervading culture of the current day is to live and die by each game without ever taking the time to see anything within the context of the whole season, so it’s not hard to imagine how three bad results in a row has set the regular Whitecaps fan on edge.

Yet this isn’t me looking down on such behaviour because I’m exactly the same as I obsess over minor tactical changes, study the body language of the players and parse every Carl Robinson phrase for semiotic or semantic clues.

Fortunately the difference between us and the wasps is that they really do have no hope; there will never be a nest for them to return to no matter how hard they try to prolong the last few hours of their existence.

But we at least know there will eventually be wins and goals along the way because MLS is a parity league and because the law of averages is as reliable a guide as the law of gravity and so, when Saturday comes, we’ll be back among the safe swarm of the colony that is BC Place and no doubt we’ll all feel a lot better about things.

But let’s just hope that if there is a sting in the tail of that game it arrives in the form of Blas Pérez and not Mauro Rosales.