Vancouver Whitecaps end the season on a high

The Vancouver Whitecaps game against the Portland Timbers on Sunday afternoon at BC Place felt a bit like the last day of a particularly disappointing vacation.

That day trip to the historic village? Tourist trap full of tourist tat. That fish restaurant everybody recommended? Food poisoning. That cruise around the charming harbour? Thirty minutes on a barely renovated car ferry.

Yet on the last day of the whole vacation you not only stumble across the best beach party ever but you also finally get some “quality time” with that guy/gal you’ve been helplessly staring at for the last seven days.

Okay, the Whitecaps 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers wasn’t quite that good but it did at least ease away a little bit of the pain of all that had gone before.

And that easing of pain was helped even more thanks to four of the best goals of the season; a left foot rocket and a right foot pass into the net from Giles Barnes, a howitzer from Pedro Morales and a twisting run from Nicolas Mezquida.

A churl would say that the Timbers (who haven’t won on the road all year) just weren’t very good, but Vancouver have managed to lose to not very good teams all season.

That same churl would also say that being able to produce your best performance when there was nothing of any significance on the line was actually a sign of weakness rather than strength.

But the Cascadia Cup and a little bit of pride were on the line and the trick for Carl Robinson and his coaching staff is to learn the right lessons from the game and not the wrong ones (and if there were an end of season award for stating the obvious then that sentence would easily sweep all before it).

The wrong lesson to be learned is that there are no fundamental issues with this team that can’t be fixed with a small attitude adjustment and a little bit of luck.

The issues run far deeper than that.

The right lesson to be learned is that playing a lone striker can work if the lone striker works as hard as Erik Hurtado (but with a better end product) and if each one of the three behind him is constantly willing to offer support when the ball goes forward.

It also doesn’t hurt to actively try to add to a lead rather than to hope one goal will always be enough.

But there’ll be time enough in the coming weeks and months to delve into what needs to change (a lot) and who needs to leave (a few) because today we can all sit back and relax as our metaphorical plane takes off from our metaphorical runway and our metaphorical whimper of  a vacation comes to an end with an unexpected metaphorical bang.

But seriously let’s never go back to that place again.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings

Ousted-6, Aird-7, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Morales-7, Bolaños 7, Mezquida-7, Hurtado-6, Barnes-7*

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: Part Three

Here’s a tip for you.

If you’re ever unlucky enough to face the death penalty but lucky enough to choose your own mode of execution then make sure you opt for death by a firing squad comprised solely of Vancouver Whitecaps strikers.

You’ll probably live for another fifty years.

I’m joking of course (you’d last five years maximum) but I’m using humour to slam home the point that the Whitecaps weren’t very good going forward this season.

But that’s not necessarily the fault of the men playing nearest to the opposition goal (though it is partially their fault) because the system that Vancouver play does about as good a job as it can do of setting them up to fail.

The season began with Octavio Rivero back in his world of perfect isolation and when he threw down his tools and headed to the land of Colo Colo it was pretty much a case of “striker by committee” from that point on.

Erik Hurtado got the nod for most of the games and he did what he always does; hustled well, got into good posiitons and then mostly made no use whatsoever of said position.

It’s clear that Carl Robinson admires Hurtado’s workrate but no team is going to achieve consistent success with Hurtado as the lone striker.

Ah the “lone striker”; that most beloved of all Carl Robinson’s tactical ploys.

The problem with that being the team just don’t have anybody who can play that role with any degree of substance.

Blas Perez maybe could have done a couple of years ago but now he needs somebody near him and anyway he’s mostly been consigned to the Rober Earnshaw school of “signing  an experienced and proven goalscorer and then mostly leaving him on the bench”.

Nicolas Mezquida certainly can’t play that role, although the few times he started as a number ten he at least provided some kind of support when the Whitecaps were going forward.

And as for Masato Kudo?

If any signing summed up the issues with the current team then it’s the unfortunate Japanese striker.

Even leaving aside his horrific injury it soon became clear that if he was going to make it in MLS (and that’s a fairly big “if”) he’d need somebody to play alongside him.

But his chances of playing the solitary front man role were zero.

Either the Whitecaps signed Kudo  without giving any consideration to how he would fit into the team or they signed him with the intention of adapting their style of play and then swiftly abandoned any such plan.

If there has to be one guiding principle for the team to follow in the coming months then it surely has to be attempting to bring in players who genuinely fit whatever system Carl Robinson favours in 2017.

Don’t pick the players they want, pick the players they need.

Giles Barnes arrived as a kind of second prize in the mid-season lottery and proceeded to play like the fifth prize in the mid-season lottery and so now the decision to be made is to judge whether his inability to shine was down to him or the broken nature of the team.

But signing him for another year would be a huge, season defining, gamble.

The only person who came out of all this with any positives is Kekuta Manneh (mostly because  he stopped playing due to injury).

Bizarrely Manneh never quite looked right from the very start of the season but even more bizarrely he was still greatly missed once he was no longer available.

Having Manneh back next year will be a bonus but the problem is that he tends to cover up deficincies within the rest of the team (both technical and tactical) because having a player who can run very quickly with the ball is still a pretty effective weapon to hold in MLS.

So figuring out how to get a good finisher and then how to get that good finisher into postions where he can actually finish has to be priority number one for the Whitecaps right now.

The problem though is that isn’t an easy task and it’s exacerbated by the knowledge that the track record in that department is borderline abysmal.

But the law of averages has to kick in at some time I guess?

 

Vancouver Whitecaps play a game of soccer in San Jose

There are two ways of looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon.

It was either a meaningless end of season game which meant nothing to either team and so drifted predictably into nothingness or, alternatively, it was a fascinating insight into the mind of Carl Robinson has he prepares for 2017.

If you think the former then stop reading now (and that is the course of action I strongly recommend) but if you think the latter then please follow me deep into the the rabbit hole of speculation and supposition.

What was with that starting eleven for example?

No place for any of the late season “playoff push” signings of Edgar, de Jong and Barnes was surely an indication that that particular experiment had failed.

And the decision to play Nicolas Mezquida in the wide left role was one that we can clearly class as “brave” given that Mezquida almost certainly can’t play that position and that he definitely certainly didn’t want to play that position on the day given how often he drifted infield.

And are we back to 4-4-2 as an option again or was that just a way of ensuring that Erik Hurtado can’t be removed from the eleven no matter what the circumstance?

It was nice to see Paolo Tornaghi get a start (and a clean sheet) but how nice was that for David Ousted? This may have been a meaningless game but it was still a competitive game and the Dane is nothing if not a competitor.

And why, all of a sudden, is Fraser Aird back at right back ahead of Jordan Smith? There have been multiple occasions when this change would have made more sense than right now.

And Marco Bustos coming on as a substitute after playing for WFC2 the day before?

Yet none of this does signify anything of course because the Whitecaps season is beyond significance and maybe Robinson was taking this opportunity to throw out a few favours to a few players knowing that such an approach wouldn’t be tolerated in the final game against Portland.

That makes some sense I guess.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-6, Waston-6, Parker-6*, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-6, Techera-6, Mezquida-5, Kudo-5, Hurtado-5

Whitecaps Season Review: Part Two

If there is one thing the Vancouver Whitecaps will have learned from the 2016 season (though hopefully they will have learned more than just one) it’s that the margin for error in Major League Soccer is no longer as wide at it once was.

Even the generous playoff format wasn’t enough for the Whitecaps this year and much of that failure stemmed from the poor performance of the midfield (and the defence and the attack).

The middle of the park is supposed to be the engine room for any team but this season it felt less like an engine room and more like a vaguely useful cupboard that is sometimnes used for storage when unexpected visitors stay the night.

In other words the midfield didn’t propel Vancouver forward it merely offered a little bit of space for Uncle Billy to store his suitcase and those golf clubs that we’re all pretty sure he never actually uses.

But even though that generalisation sums up the year with devestating accuracy let’s delve a little bit deeper into the individual performances.

Sometimes it feels as though Carl Robinson’s ideal formation would consist of all ten outfield players playing as deep lying midfielders but even he wasn’t inclined to go that far.

In the end it was only  Laba, Morales, Teibert and Jacobson who spent significant time in the role (with a brief early season cameo from Kianz Froese).

And it was that early season cameo which offered the hope that the Whitecaps were moving away from a duo of defensively positioned central players and incorporating the oft dreamed off “bos to box” midfielder.

The experiment was short lived however as a mixture of suspension, concussion and coaching reluctance effectively removed Froese from the scene.

That left Laba and Morales as the default setting and unfortunately Laba had easily his worst year as a Whitecap.

For much of the first part of the year he was less a terrier chasing after the ball than he was a terrier chasing after where the ball used to be. Maybe he was unnerved by the inconsistent officiating but it took him until the final couple of months of the season to begin to look like his old self again.

Morales started the season with a flurry of penalty goals but that only served to cover up his deficincies and it felt as though Carl Robinson spent the rest of the season frantically trying to find the best formation to cover up those deficincies.

He never found it though and the red card for an unnecessary elbow agasint the Sounders felt like the symbolic last act of his time in Vancouver even if it wasn’t his literal last act.

Andrew Jacobson could make a convincing case that he was the signing of the off season given how competent he was whenever he took the field but it’s exactly that same level of competence that condemns Russell Teibert.

It’s still hard to know what to make of Teibert but he tends to play as though he’s doing the things that he thinks a player in that postion should do.

Drop back to pick up the ball from the central defender, play a safe ball to another central defender and then dart into space to pick up the ball once more before returning it to the first central defender and then rinse and repeat.

Possession hasn’t been lost but neither has anything positive been gained.

It really does feel as though a new start in a new team might make Teibert a more effective and well rounded player.

Christian Bolaños arrived with genuine pedigree; European Champi0ns League and World Cup experience offering the hope he could pair up with Morales to create a genuinely inventive attacking midfield.

That never quite happened (partly down to Morales’ poor form, partly down to the way the team was playing and partly down to Bolaños himself).

The Costa Rican is a technically gifted player who likes to slow the game down playing in a team that (by season end) wasn’t technically gifted and was reliant on getting fast passes to a fast man up front.

In the last game against Seattle Bolaños played in the number ten role and there were signs that he could fit that position effectively. indeed, a platoon of Bolaños and Mezquida playing in that most crucial of MLS positions might well allow the Whitecaps to spend money on other areas of the team.

That would be somewhat of a risk to be sure but if Bolaños is to stay then he needs to be in a team that makes the most of his talents rather than stifling them.

Perhaps the most disappointing of all the regular midfielders though was Cristian Techera as the Uruguayan followed last year’s terrific effort with an insipid and inneffective year.

Except in the Champions League of course where he scored goals on a regular basis.

That at least leaves some doubt about whether he’s worth another year as well as leaving even more doubt about why the team didn’t get the best out of him in MLS (or why seemingly every good CONCACAF perfromance he put in was followed up with two or three games back on the bench).

And so we end with Alphonso Davies.

I’m nowhere near the hype train bandwagon (“Hype Train Bandwagon” would be a great name for a band by the way) that many are on, mostly becasue Davies tends to get graded on the curve of his age.

Fire a good chance skywards and he hears ” Oh well. He’s only fifteen you know?”, produce a lovely bit of skill and he hears “And he’s only fifteen!”.

He clearly has immense talent but I’m not sure that playing as an intermittent starter and substitute is the best way to develop that talent over the long term.

I am sure however that it would be madness for the Whitecaps to base next season’s planning on the assumption that Davies will continue to grow (as a player) and so assume that no further upgrade or backup is required in the wide role.

Davies was certainly one of the few “feel good” stories for the club in 2016 but let’s hope that isn’t the driving force with regard to how his career develops.

So let’s leave the midfield there; hastily scambling to intercept a fairly average through ball while simultaneously standing statuesque still while the ball is in the opposition penaly area.

Next time out it’s the forwards!

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