Whitecaps: Completing the puzzle

There have been times this season when trying to figure out the Whitecaps best starting eleven and formation has been a bit like trying to complete a “Connect the Dots” game in which the dots are constantly moving and even the ultimate picture itself is in a state of flux.

Glance out of the side of your eye, squint a little and you may get an idea of a shape or a shadow but then it all slips away again leaving nothing but a frustrating sense of fluctuation and an unsettling sense of unsteadiness.

And the imminent arrival  of Fabian Espindola from DC United does little to clarify the picture.

Are we looking at him playing alongside Kudo in a two man forward line or is he to be the new lone striker (a kind of Rivero 2.0) with Kudo acting as the alternate when need be?

Much more likely is that Espindola will play on the left, but his versatility does at least make the Whitecaps forward roster look a good deal deeper than it did when Kekuta Manneh limped off against Colorado last week.

All this probably means that Pedro Morales will drop deeper again although he may well be “rested” for at least one or two of the tough upcoming road games with Jacobson slotting alongside Laba in what has been an intermittently effective midfield partnership.

Actually “intermittently effective” might well be the call sign for the whole season so far and nowhere is that more pertinent than along the back line.

It seems reasonable to assume that the new plan is to insert David Edgar alongside Kendall Waston at the back and move Tim Parker to the (what I think we can safely label) “infamous” right back slot.

Fraser Aird progressed in that role before temporarily disappearing from the scene and while there’s something mildly heroic about Jordan Smith even taking to the field given how much he has struggled he’s become not so much an Achilles heel for the team as an Achilles lower limb.

So move Parker there and everything will be fine?

In most ways it probably will be. His relative lack of attacking threat doesn’t matter so much with Kudo and Mezquida as the front two, since they prefer the ball on the floor than having to fight for headers against MLS central defenders.

And Parker at right back releases most of the pressure on Bolaños to track back and also keeps an almost constant threat at set pieces on the field.

It may well be that the only real downside to having Parker at right back is for the player himself.

Removing a promising young defender from his best position (a position he is still learning and would no doubt learn even more about alongside Edgar) isn’t the ideal scenario.

And this probably wouldn’t be a brief hiatus because, assuming the Whitecaps aren’t contemplating moving either Waston or Edgar in the off season, then Parker faces an extended stay at right back.

It’s been noted elsewhere that young players have struggled to develop once they reach the MLS level in Vancouver and it would be a shame if Parker were to join their ranks in this way.

To be fair if I were Carl Robinson I would be making exactly the same move, the lineup has to be about the good of the team rather than the advancement of an individual, and a back four of Parker, Edgar, Waston and Harvey looks about as solid as any can be in MLS but it may come to pass that by season end a young player who could have been a stalwart in Vancouver for years to come is suddenly itching for a move.

Those dots just keep on moving!

 

 

Whitecaps underwhelm again

The good news is that the Vancouver Whitecaps ended their three game home stand unbeaten after drawing 2-2 with Orlando City on Saturday evening.

The bad news is that the tally of five points from those three games is less than was needed before the team embark on a tough road schedule.

The good news is that those five points are more than they deserved from three pretty underwhelming performances.

The bad news is that even the good news isn’t all that inspiring.

The Whitecaps were terrible in the first half against Orlando, all lack lustre movement and sideways passing and yet they still managed to go into the half time break with a 2-1 lead thanks to goals from Mezquida and Kudo.

At that stage Carl Robinson should probably have thanked his lucky stars and made changes to a system that was being overrun but instead opted to keep things as they were and within three minutes the visitors were back level.

Orlando should have taken the lead shortly after that when Jordan Smith produced a cameo of defensive ineptitude (caroming a clearance off an opponent before chasing back to bring down Baptista in the area).

Fortunately the ineptitude didn’t end there as Baptista sent the subsequent penalty kick soaring into space.

This actually was the cue for Robinson to make a change and the arrival of Techera for a misfiring Laba finally saw the Whitecaps exert some control over the game and both Mezquida and Kudo came close to notching the much needed winner.

By the end though it was Orlando back in the ascendancy and only the obligatory David Ousted wonder save kept his team in the game.

So what’s going wrong?

There’s the Pedro Morales conundrum for one thing. The Captain has only really performed well this year when playing in a deep lying role and Robinson’s reversion to two more defensively minded central midfielders means that Morales is forced to play wide left.

It’s hard to know whether Morales just can’t play that role effectively or whether he just doesn’t buy into a system that leaves him on the periphery, but his performance on Saturday was far short of what’s needed from both a captain and the highest paid Designated Player.

Two defensive midfielders also poses other problems as neither Laba nor Jacobson get forward with enough frequency (particularly at home) and it’s telling that two goals in the last two games have arrived when one of them actually has made a foray into the opposition penalty area.

But that needs to be happening on a far more regular basis to prevent opposition defenders becoming as comfortable as Orlando were for large portions of the evening.

There are other issues unfortunately but for now we can say that, for Major League Soccer, the Whitecaps have a pretty good starting eleven that is amounting to less than the sum of the individual parts.

Maybe all it needs is a vocal leader on the field in the shape of David Edgar but there have been times during this home stand when the problems have felt far more systemic than something quite that simple.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Ousted-6, Smith-3, Waston-5, Parker-5, Harvey-5, Laba-5, Jacobson-7*, Morales-5, Bolaños-6, Mezquida-7, Kudo-6 (Techera-6, Davies-6)

 

The Art of Being Right

It’s probably for the best that Arthur Schopenhauer didn’t live long enough to witness the modern phenomenon of the “bucket list”.

After all the German philosopher believed that human desires and the act of attaining them merely served to expose the futility of our existence.

Where the modern world sees a visit to the Taj Mahal or sky diving in the Andes as life affirming and liberating Schopenhauer merely saw the ticking off these events as gradually exposing the meaningless of it all (after all if our goals and ambitions give “meaning” to our life then doesn’t achieving them necessarily take that meaning away?).

One more thing done means one less thing to do; the vacuum of eternity gets closer and the futility of our actions becomes even starker.

Of course he also believed that not having desires to attain also exposed the futility of existence so I think there was probably a recurring theme in his world view no matter what the subject.

“Hey Arthur. I’m just off to get some bread”

“Fine. That should teach you about the futility of our lives here on earth”.

“Excuse me Arthur do you mind passing me the salt?”

“And confirm how futile our each and every heartbeat is? I don’t think so!”

For some reason history has failed to record Schopenhauer’s views on the Vancouver Whitecaps signing a new striker so it’s hard to be definitive about his position on this particular topic but we can at least make an educated guess on his thoughts .

His first instinct would probably be to wonder why a team who are the joint top scorers in the Western Conference actually need a DP striker in the first place.

“If the likes of Morales, Bolaños, Perez, Kudo and Techera are scoring and set pieces are being unusually productive then why blow valuable funds on a forward?” he would no doubt ask while staring disconsolately at his shirt sleeve .

“And furthermore” he would continue “it’s not as though anybody the Whitecaps brought in could be guaranteed to score goals and if indeed he doesn’t score goals then the rest of the season is almost certainly a bust”.

“The real issues are clearly in defence and midfield and the recent signings are specifically designed to deal with these problems” he would solemnly intone while gazing deep into the endless void of the universe “so all that’s really needed up top is a little bit more depth, not a complete and costly overhaul”.

“Sure if the club can find the right player then great, but they don’t need a striker they need the striker and if the striker isn’t available then they would be crazy to buy a striker just to be seen to be doing something” he would shout while angrily shaking his fist at a particularly futile rose bush.

“What is even the point of this rose bush?” he would shout while viciously beating it with his ivory tipped walking cane.

And at that point I think we can leave the great man alone with his thoughts and his slightly disturbing anger issues, thank him for his counsel and take comfort from the fact that even the greatest of minds find it difficult to navigate the intricacies of a salary cap league.

“Be careful what you wish for” might be an appalling bastardization of Schopenhauer’s philosophy but it may be quite apt when it comes to the desire for the Whitecaps to make a “big name” signing simply for the sake of making it.

Consolidating what they have is probably a wiser choice than going all in on a roll of the dice.

 

 

Whitecaps bounce back with a win

If ever a team needed a relatively uneventful 2-0 home win then it was this Vancouver Whitecaps side.

And fortunately that’s exactly what they got as they overcame a slumbering start to the game against Real Salt Lake to notch two first half goals and ease some of the anxiety that has been surrounding the team of late.

It helped that both goals were of distinct quality with first Bolaños and Laba linking up to allow the latter to send in the kind of low cross that defenders hate and the defenders certainly hated this one as the ball caromed over a couple of them before hitting Justen Glad and ending up in the back of his own net.

The second goal was a thunderbolt from Cristian Techera from outside the box and perhaps the most important thing about both strikes may prove to be that they dissuade the Whitecaps from trying the kind of hopeful over the top ball which has spelled the death knell of many an attack in recent weeks.

Whether Carl Robinson told his team to kill the game off in the second half is a moot point because that’s exactly what happened with only the occasional brief flurry around the penalty area to really trouble David Ousted in goal and there will no doubt be huge sighs of relief that the seemingly elusive clean sheet was finally attained.

There are interesting questions to be asked about the lineup though.

A forward four of Bolaños, Mezquida, Techera and the returning Kudo had the potential to offer the kind of movement and interplay that has been lacking for much of the season.

That wasn’t always evident on Wednesday evening but there were enough glimpses of it to make it an intriguing possibility in the future.

But where does that leave Pedro Morales who was on the bench for this game? Playing deep alongside Matias Laba probably, but Laba had his best game of the season alongside Andrew Jacobson so no doubt the coach will be reluctant to change that particular pairing.

The relative defensive solidity also poses questions about how new signing David Edgar will fit in. In central defence no doubt but does that mean that Tim Parker moves to the right back slot? He can certainly play there but that’s not a long term solution that suits Parker in any way at all.

That’s all for the future though (or Saturday as we also call it) because for now the Whitecaps can justifiably feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

They weren’t great against Real Salt Lake but they were good enough and that’s about all that many fans have been asking for of late.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Ousted-7, Smith-5, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-7*, Jacobson-6, Bolaños-6, Techera-6, Mezquida-6, Kudo-6 (de Jong-5)

 

Whitecaps searching for direction

There’s an old joke about a hapless tourist driving around the British countryside desperately trying to find his destination.

The poor sap finally spots a local standing by the side of the road, pulls his car to a halt, winds down the window and asks for directions.

The local thinks about this request for several moments “Well” he finally sighs “you definitely don’t want to be starting from here”.

Maybe it was always in Carl Robinson’s mind to add to his Whitecaps squad as soon as the summer transfer window rolled around, but what certainly wasn’t in his mind is that the additions would mostly be because so much had already been subtracted.

It’s not just the absence of Octavio Rivero needing to be filled but also the absence of defensive solidity and maybe even midfield sturdiness.

Hence the arrival of David Edgar and (at the time of writing) the imminent arrival of Marcel De Jong.

It can’t have been often in the history of football that the answer to the problems of any team was to sign more Canadian players but Robinson has to hope that this is indeed one of those rare occasions.

It’s certainly not easy to pinpoint exactly what has made the Whitecaps misfire so often this year but something about the culture within the locker room seems to be as good a guess as any.

And that doesn’t have to mean insurrection or disdain; just a pervading air of dissonance on too many occasions for coincidence to be the cause.

There’s also a pretty good argument to be made that every team needs a core of players who hail from the country that hosts the League and while there’s probably also a pretty good argument to be made against that theory Edgar and De Jong should at least provide a sense of stability that can never be there when so many players are being judged on their potential for a move.

They won’t solve the attacking issues of course and with Manneh injured and Kudo returning from that horrific injury it may well have to be set-pieces and the occasional midfielder who supply the goals.

That’s not a long term recipe for success but anything the Whitecaps do now has to somehow span the divide between being sensible in the long term and effective in the here and now.

That’s a hell of a circle to square and if it can’t be done the club may well be better served in simply shoring up the defence and hoping that is enough to squeeze them into the post-season.

That’s not a great rallying cry for the remainder of the season but neither is signing somebody simply for the sake of being seen to do something.

So I guess my advice to the Whitecaps boils down to “only sign a player if he’s going to be really good”.

You’re welcome!

Vancouver Whitecaps foundations looking shaky

If there was ever a game to highlight the structural issues facing the Vancouver Whitecaps this season then the 2-2 tie with the Colorado rapids at BC Place on Saturday evening was probably the one.

The Whitecaps began the game well, got an early goal through a Kendall Waston header and then proceeded to play good possession football for the next ten minutes or so.

Gradually though the visitors eased their way back into the game and by the half hour mark were peppering David Ousted’s goal with shots and the first worrying aspect of the night was that nobody from the Whitecaps (either on or off the field) seemed capable (or even interested) in changing the flow of the game.

The team were crying out for either a tactical switch or just a leader to get in a few faces and clear a few heads but there was nothing and nobody forthcoming.

Carl Robinson was actually offered the chance to make a tactical change when Kekuta Manneh picked up an injury in the forty-third minute but instead he opted for as “like for like” a substitution as possible by bringing on Erik Hurtado.

Blas Perez had barely connected with Manneh all evening and was destined to have the same misfortune with Hurtado.

The second half began as the first ended with Colorado creating chances and Vancouver hoping that none of those chances actually amounted to anything but, inevitably, one finally did as Kevin Doyle slid home a nice through ball in the fifty-ninth minute.

Robinson opted to bring on Nicolas Mezquida shortly after that setback but it wasn’t until Colorado’s Eric Miller picked up a slightly harsh red card twenty minutes from time that the Whitecaps did finally wake up and take the game to the visitors.

The second most worrying aspect of the night is that it really shouldn’t take an opponent being sent off to jolt a home team into action and even then the Whitecaps needed another marginal refereeing call to give Cristian Techera the chance to slot home his first goal of the season from the penalty spot.

So three minutes of normal time left and the opposition down to ten men. No problem right?

Well the third worrying aspect of the night was that despite suffering that heartbreaking last minute goal against Toronto FC last week the Whitecaps still didn’t have enough wherewithal to see out the game and (somewhat astonishingly) were once again outmanned in their own penalty area in the final minute of stoppage time.

Those who don’t learn the from the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them and teams that keep giving up late goals in that fashion need to get back to the very basics of the game pretty quickly.

It’s hard to know how they turn this season around from here.

Maybe a couple of signings will help the cause, but the overwhelming impression from this game was that either the players don’t really understand the system they are meant to be playing or they do understand the system but just aren’t buying into it.

Either way the mental lethargy from everyone concerned is getting pretty close to derailing the season completely.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-5, Laba-5, Jacobson-5, Morales-4, Bolaños-7*, Manneh-5, Perez-5 (Hurtado-5, Mezquida-6, Techera-6) 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Think of a word

What a strange old season it has been for the Vancouver Whitecaps so far.

A heady mix of goal fests, injuries, suspensions and trades with the promise of even more to come, but if we were to stop for a moment and reflect on all that has happened thus far how would we define it?

Or, more specifically and purely to get out of this section of the piece, consider this question.

“If you had to use one word to sum up the season so far what would that word be?”

There’s lots of contenders I guess, “Chaotic”, “Exciting”, “Disappointing”, “Confusing” and there are certainly no right answers (although saying something like “Elephant” would definitely count as a wrong answer).

Anyway the word I have chosen is “Focus”.

“Focus” because for the first third of the year it felt as though the Whitecaps were under the specific scrutiny of the MLS Disciplinary Committee as cards and retro suspensions were handed out with abandoned glee (or gleeful abandon).

“Focus” because you really do have to mentally squint to try and see just what this team actually is as all that aforementioned disruption has meant almost no consistency in team selection or tactics.

Are the Whitecaps an attacking team or just a team that is not very good at defending? Are they tactically flexible or just tactically undisciplined?

But mostly “Focus” because that’s the attribute which has been notably absent this season.

That’s evident on an individual level as a series of “unforced errors” from a number of players has cost the team vital points and it’s been evident on a team level given how they seem to drift in and out of games with a capriciousness as unpredictable mayfly on methamphetamine.

That lack of focus was never more evident than in the final seconds of the Voyageurs Cup when at least half the team appeared to mentally switch off before the final whistle had been blown, but that’s the canary in the coal mine rather than the gas leak itself as we frequently see intensity levels fluctuate throughout the ninety minutes.

So what’s the cause and what’s the cure?

There has to be some responsibility placed with the players on the field. There’s enough experience to not allow peaks and troughs of performance to become the norm but (perhaps David Ousted aside) they seem to lack an organizing presence; a player who can keep everybody on point no matter what the circumstance.

Yet on field showings are often the result of off the field culture and while none of us on the outside can ever truly know what the locker room vibe is really like there are times when it feels as though Carl Robinson is still a little too close to his playing days.

Like a policeman turned judge he’s so used to leaning toward one side of an argument that the other side tends to fade into the shadows.

Keeping players happy is an honourable goal (which clearly has specific benefits) but keeping players happy shouldn’t be attained at the expense of team results.

A player has had a dreadful first half? Take him off and don’t give him another fifteen minutes to redeem himself.

Striker not scoring? Give somebody else a chance in the role.

Star defender making mistakes? Bench him the same way you would bench a second string player.

And yet maybe there are emerging signs that the tide of Robinson’s brain waves is turning? The “message” sent to Kekuta Manneh by leaving him out of the eighteen for the game in LA felt a very un-Robinson like public dressing down for a player and the mooted moves of experienced Canadian internationals into the team may well indicate a desire to tackle that on field inconsistency with the presence of somebody who has “been there and done that”.

Maybe as Robinson drifts further from his playing days he will start to think more and more with his coach’s head than with his player’s heart and the good news is that mental lapses are probably easier and quicker to remedy in a player than physical limitations will ever be.

So the message for the second half of the season?

Focus!