Vancouver Whitecaps bullish after tie in New York

The CONCACAF Champion’s League quarter-finals exist in some strange kind of hinterland for the MLS clubs involved; existing as they do just at the end of the pre-season but just before the regular season gets under way.

That makes the games both hard to predict and even harder to parse for harbingers of what is to come.

Nevertheless the Whitecaps 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls was both a pleasing result (even more so considering the home team were given a penalty kick and the advantage of an extra man after Cristian Techera had been dismissed) and offered at least few clues about what to expect from Vancouver in 2017.

The most positive aspect was the somewhat constant movement of the forward line with Hurtado, Manneh, Davies and Techera frequently switching positions and at least giving the Red Bulls backline something more to think about than a solitary striker.

It’s a little easier to see Fredy Montero fitting into that version of 4-2-3-1 than those previously envisioned.

Not surprisingly the pace of both Manneh and Davies always offered a threat on the break and if Manneh could just learn to play the right pass at the right time he would be a guaranteed game winner more often than not.

Defensively the Whitecaps were solid too (or at least more solid than many of us feared) with Parker and Waston looking more like the effective 2015 pairing than the porous 2016 version.

The worrying aspects remain the lack of any creativity or link up play from the defensive midfielders with both Laba and Teibert offering next to nothing going forward and while that may be forgivable on the road it still remains to be seen how dangerous the Whitecaps are when faced with an opponent who sits back and negates their pace.

The red card and the penalty kick (both good calls) also offered a painful reminder of the indiscipline of last year, but at least the ten men held on and that should instill a little more confidence in the ability to close out games in a way they were barely able to do in 2016.

It’s all set up very nicely for the game at BC Place next Thursday and if the Whitecaps can come out of that game advancing to the semi-finals then the mood around the whole club should get both a little lighter and a little more forgiving.

It’s ludicrously early in the season (I mean really, really ludicrously early) to be talking about a game having so much importance but that’s the way it is.

The positive news is that both the result and the performance in New Jersey offered somewhat unexpected glimmers of hope for what is to come.

It’s the hope that kills you of course, but at least it’s a relatively pain free death (until the final moments anyway).

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Ousted-6, Nerwinski-5, Parker-7*, Waston-7, Harvey-6, Laba-5, Teibert-5, Techera-5, Manneh-6, Davies-6, Hurtado-5 (Barnes-6, Williams-5)

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Does the captain matter?

With the Whitecaps still to announce who will replace Pedro Morales as the team captain it at least begs the question of whether it’s at all relevant who is in possession of the armband.

As is so often the case around here the answer to that question is “it depends” because context is everything.

There are some teams where it really doesn’t matter.

Make any player captain of the current Juventus or Chelsea squads for example and it won`t make a difference because they are both experienced, well-balanced squads with clear ideas about what thy are expected to do on the field.

But the Whitecaps didn’t fit that description in 2016 and they likely won’t in 2017 either so who Carl Robinson chooses for the role actually will matter. Not least because of the slightly bizarre behaviour we’ve seen from Morales himself on social media recently.

It’s hard not to conclude that Pedro was a destabilizing presence last year and that, at the very least, a small number of players will have lost respect for him.

That loss of respect may even have seeped through to the coach who selected him and you can bet the players will be a little more interested in who is chosen than would normally be the case.

Will Robinson once again opt for simply naming the highest paid player as team captain? That seems unlikely given that Fredy Montero has only just arrived at the club which leaves the coach with a far more interesting decision.

In his ideal world he would probably have named David Edgar to the position; experienced, vocal and not at the club long enough to have fallen into one clique or another.

But Edgar’s long-term injury takes that option off the table, so the choice will now have to be made from one of last season’s regular starters with Harvey, Waston and Ousted being the most obvious contenders.

There are issues with each one though.

Ousted’s public spat with Pedro must have put a few noses out of place among friends of the latter. So selecting Ousted would put Robinson firmly on one side of the camp and risk exacerbating the tensions of last year.

Waston’s disciplinary record doesn’t bode well in a potential captain and furthermore if any player needed to focus solely on their own play this year then that player would be Waston.

That leaves Jordan Harvey who has the positives of being likeable and honest in post game interviews (something that the language barrier made it impossible for Morales to do) but the negatives are largely that he isn’t the most vocal of players on the pitch.

Tries his heart out sure, can organize a defence definitely, but probably not an imposing enough figure to take control of the whole team.

Still, his work rate would at least be a good example to the rest and given the somewhat limited other options available to him Robinson may have to conclude that if his captain isn’t going to be a transformative figure on the field he can at least pick the player who would do the least harm.

That looks to be Jordan Harvey.

 

Whitecaps fall flat in Portland

Let’s start with the traditional caveat that preseason games should always be taken with more than just a pinch of salt.

But even so the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Wednesday evening was so replete with familiar issues from last season that it probably should have been preceded by some kind of trigger warning for long-suffering fans.

So in the spirit of the performance itself let’s just throw some random thoughts at the wall and see if any of them make any sense whatsoever.

There’s nothing wrong with sending out a team to play defensive football; many of the world’s best coaches do exactly that.

But “defensive” doesn’t just mean sitting back and letting the opposition attack. It means a level of organization in both the defence and midfield and it means at least some degree of connection between the midfield and the forward line.

There was none of that against the Timbers.

As was the case last year the Whitecaps looked like a team that had simply been sent out to play rather than one that was being coached or managed.

In other words, players were playing as individuals rather than as a team with Laba charging around the middle, Hurtado isolated up front, the full backs offering little in the way of attacking threat or defensive cover, the wide players offering the same, Barnes playing in a position that clearly doesn’t suit him and Parker and Waston failing to function as a unit.

Consequently once the first goal went in it was clear that the players lost any faith or confidence in what they were doing.

That still doesn’t explain the appalling sense of stasis that emanated from all quarters however with the defence content to stand and admire Portland’s build up play and the forwards equally content to stand and admire when one of their own had the ball.

It’s one of the basic tenets of football that movement is key to success so it’s hard to know if the lack of it was down to players either not knowing where they should be moving to or simply a lack of interest in doing so.

At the end of the game Timbers coach Caleb Porter opined that “In some ways the game was too easy” to be a useful work out for his players and if that isn’t as damning a comment as could be made then I don’t know what is.

The counterpoint to all this negativity is that both Montero and Bolaños were missing and they are undoubtedly the team’s two quality players, but that absence of quality should have made the rest of the team concentrate on the basics even more.

The first game of the Champion’s League tie is less than a week away and a good result there would change everything but, as of now, the Whitecaps look to be as adrift and as rudderless as they were last year.

 

 

Fredy or not here he comes!

So finally the long and seemingly painful search for a proven goal scorer has come to and end for the Vancouver Whitecaps with the loan signing of Fredy Montero from Chinese side Tianjin Teda FC.

This being MLS the details of the actual deal are about as murky and convoluted as an Oliver Stone movie but at least the former Seattle Sounder has a bona fide record of putting the ball into the back of the net.

The big question now is whether the Whitecaps can get the best out of him.

Carl Robinson has already said that he intends to use Montero as a number nine which begs the question “Exactly what kind of number nine?”.

Play him the way that Octavio Rivero was played (unsplendid isolation) and the Colombian will likely end up as a diminutive tribute act to the Uruguayan; all rolling eyes and forlornly outstretched arms.

But if Robinson can figure out a way to get players in support of Montero then the forward line could be formidable indeed.

And the positive news is that he now has exactly the kind of players to do just that with Reyna, Manneh, Barnes, Techera, Bolaños, Davie, Mezquida et al all far happier going forward than tracking back.

It’s debateable whether the coach will be willing to grant his team that kind of freedom but he could use his favoured double defensive midfield set up to simply allow all those ahead of them free reign.

It’s an exciting prospect for the fan but it’s probably something of a pipe dream.

For one thing Robinson just isn’t that kind of coach and for another the disappointing nature of last season may well instill even more initial conservatism into both him and the players.

Perhaps if he were given a cast iron guarantee that the fans and the media would show patience over the first few weeks if things didn’t quite work out as promised then Robinson would be willing to take more of a risk, but the memory of 2016 and Champion’s League qualifier against the Red Bulls cuts that slack down to almost nothing.

So we’ll probably see Montero playing with a high number ten with the two wide men operating as much as midfielders as forwards.

Not as great from an aesthetic point of view but at least a step up (both literally and metaphorically) from last season.

 

Eight, nine or ten for the Whitecaps?

Imagine for a moment that you’re the one in charge of all the big decisions for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

It’s already been a busy off-season; you’ve given the go ahead for little blue triangles to be added to the new white home shirt and you’re confident that you’ve hired the very best people to handle the streaming of the pre-season games.

But now you’re faced with the biggest challenge yet.

Financial restraints mean only one Designated Player can be added to the team and owners want you to decide if that should be a number eight, a number nine or a number ten.

Despite being  somewhat appalled at their slightly reductive way of looking at tactical positioning you set about pondering their question.

You first remember that a very briulliant blogger once argued that Matias Laba either can’t or won’t be asked to play the purely defensive midfield role so that would make a true box to box midfielder both a bonus and a liability to the team.

True, the team could definitely do with a player who added to the numbers going forward but if that was at the cost of leaving the back four as exposed as it was last year that could mean good money spent simply to stand still.

Anyway, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Vancouver just need a good finisher to make everything okay isn’t it?

Well it kind of is, but while the Whitecaps definitely created chances last season a whole bunch of those chances were created by work rate and pace rather than creativity.

Slot a pure finisher into the lineup and it’s just possible that a numbder of those chances may suddenly disappear making his presence a lot less effective than we all presume it would be.

So perhaps a creative presence at number ten is the answer?

It’s certainly one area where Carl Robinson hasn’t had much success since he took over the coaching role with his two main options either being Pedro Morales (who lacked the quickness of short passing and instinct to get forward) and Nicolas Mezquida (who lacks the inate creativity).

So simply putting a genuinely effective number ten should solve all the problems?

Again what we really come back to is the way Robinson likes to set up his team; he seems to prefer “and a half” players.

In other words he likes a wide man who plays narrow and he definitely likes forwards who can play anywhere along the front line; somewhere between a nine and a ten.

But when he does play a straight up forward man then he prefers him to play facing the rest of the team rather than the opposition goal meaning that he becomes the de facto creative hub for the rest of the attack to play off.

So if the coach genuinely likes these “portmanteau” players then concentrating on signing their exact opposite may be detrimental to the team in the long run.

That means the best answer you can give to the question of whether to sign a number eight, nine or ten is to give no answer at all.

Good work!

 

Darkness before noon for the Whitecaps?

In one of his surprisingly numerous interviews Bob Dylan once referred to great songs as being “like the shadow of a church”.

Now what he meant by that was either “I’m just going to say something randomly enigmatic and hope I get away with it” or he meant that songs don’t create the concrete (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) emotions that an actual church, with all its history and implications, does but rather that the shadow of a church is both more ephemeral and less imposing.

More open to individual interpretation and changing moods.

The same can probably be said of preseason games and they are often barely even a shadow of a football match and they can certainly never be considered great art but the Whitecaps’ 1-1 tie with Minnesota United in Portland on Thursday evening could at least be described as the kind of biting satire the world so desperately needs right now.

Unfortunately, the satire was aimed firmly at the Whitecaps themselves as the game almost perfectly encapsulated all that was wrong with the team last year.

A very bright start failed to produce a goal and after about twenty-five minutes Vancouver suddenly seemed to run out of ideas.

That was mostly due to the lack of link play between the midfield and the forward line and a continued over-reliance on pace over guile.

They then began the second-half with the old familiar torpour of last year until Erik Hurtado produced a startling header.

It was largely startling because he was actually defending a corner and somehow managed, with literally no Minnesota player with six yards of him, to glance the ball perfectly passed a startled David Ousted (See, I told you it was startling).

At least that sparked the Whitecaps back to life and a Russell Teibert laser levelled the score to earn his team a share of the spoils that don’t really exist.

Despite all that negativity though there were still a number of reasons to be a little more positive about the prospects for 2017.

Yordy Reyna looked to be a bright prospect going forward and Matias Laba already looks way ahead of where he was this time last year (Which was actually still in Argentina now that I think about it).

There was also the absences of Nicolas Mezquida and Christian Bolaños to consider with the latter being the only current player capable of providing the guile to make all that pace effective.

We’ll know more as the preseason unfolds with each game becoming more significant than this one.

But nothing means nothing and the main something we can take away from a rain-sodden Portland is that things haven’t yet changed all that much from 2016.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Five milestones to consider

There are only two things I know to be undeniably true.

The first is that any character in a historical drama on TV who starts coughing in Episode One will be dead of tuberculosis by Episode Three at the latest.

The second is that anybody looking at a new Major League Soccer schedule will utter the phrase “Well, that could have been better”.

But I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that if life gives you lemons then you take those lemons and throw them really hard at somebody else until they at least feel even worse than you do.

So with that in mind let’s throw five lemons at the schedule and see if we can’t bruise at least a few of those dates into submission.

The first two home games- Normally it would be ridiculous hyperbole to claim that a Champions League game against the Red Bulls and a League opener against the Union were crucial but the Whitecaps were so bad at BC Place last season that they almost can’t afford to maintain that negative momentum.

If they tumble out of the Champions League and also fail to pick up three points the rot could set in before the clocks have even sprang forward.

Four road games in a row- MLS loves to send teams on expanded road trips and Vancouver get their first taste of this in April when they face Portland, Montreal, Colorado and Houston.

By this time we’ll at least know more about how the team is being set up and although the playoff structure makes it tough to find yourself behind the eight ball this early in the season a bad run of results in these games could at least see them approaching the eight ball with a hint of trepidation.

Four home games in a row- It really is feast or famine with MLS isn’t it? That road trip is then followed by home games against Kansas, D.C United, Atlanta and Dallas.

One of the main flaws with the team in 2016 was that they always seemed to fail to capitalize on their successes, so if they do manage to get a decent amount of points from those road games they need to build on that at B.C. Place.

In short they need to play with far more intensity over ninety minutes than they ever managed to do last year.

August and September- It’s become traditional for the Whitecaps to view these months in the same way a wounded tuna fish views a hungry shark.

Why that is the case is one of the great mysteries of the modern world but it may just be as simple as other teams working out Vancouver and Vancouver being unable to adapt to that problem.

Thus far Carl Robinson hasn’t shown himself to be a master tactician within games so let’s hope he’s used the off season polish his coaching skills.

The final run in- Four of the last fives games are away from BC Place so we could be left looking at a team that is slightly worse off than it appears to be.

If the Whitecaps are hovering around the red playoff line come the end of September then they are more likely to sneak into the post-season than they are to steam into it (and even more likely to miss out altogether).

Again it will come down to how hard Robinson pushes his team before this spell of games and whether he and they refuse to settle for less than they could actually get as they seemed to do far too often in 2016.

So that’s just a few periods of the season that could/might/won’t be crucial to how we feel at the end of the campaign.

But at least we’re nearly at the start now!