Vancouver Whitecaps reign over Red Bulls

It wasn’t overly pretty and there were times when the Whitecaps were bunkered in their own penalty area for minutes at a time but in the end goals from Alphonso Davies and Fredy Montero were enough to see Vancouver through  to the semi-final of the CONCACAF Champions League.

In an ideal world they would have built on the early goal from Davies but instead the Whitecaps reverted to type and allowed the Red Bulls to find a foothold in the game without really putting together a decent spell of football.

For Vancouver the forwards were a little less mobile than they were in the previous game with Brek Shea mostly taking a central role that he failed to excel in.

Kekuta Manneh filled in there too and he and Davies gradually became the home team’s best hope of adding a second through their pace on the break.

That second goal didn’t transpire until the introduction of Montero who (after spending fruitless minutes scampering after the ball or watching it be hit high and wide away from him) decided to introduce himself to the home fans by hammering a crisply hit shot into the back of the net.

There was a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in seeing a Whitecaps forward strike the ball so cleanly and so accurately but hopefully there’s more of that to come from the new addition to the squad.

The team is still developing though with Shea understandably struggling to find a rhythm and Montero will need to be serviced with more than chances from scrappy set-pieces if he’s to really make his mark but a win is a win is a win and to achieve it with goals from the both the new star striker and the young prodigy is about as good as it could get for the club.

Next stop is at home to Philadelphia on Sunday in the MLS opener and a win there would make the start to the season pleasingly reassuring but, for now, the Whitecaps are just two games away from the Champions League Final.

Last year suddenly feels a lot more distant.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Ousted-6.5, Nerwisnki-6, Waston-6.5, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6.5, Tiebert-6, de Jong-6, Davies-7*, Manneh-6, Shea-5.5

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Life with the lions

It’s debatable just how widespread kleptoparasitism actually is among humans, but there is certainly some video and anecdotal evidence that in parts of Africa humans will steal meat from a pride of lions who have just downed their prey.

And this isn’t a group of guys in a Jeep firing guns and whooping and hollering; this is just two or three people who simply use “attitude” to move the big cats away from the big kill.

Now we can argue all day about how much things like “attitude” and the like really matter in sport, but if there has been a narrative arc for the Whitecaps in their recent signings then it has definitely bent toward “experience”.

Since the wheels fell off in 2016 all the major acquisitions have each possessed at least some degree of knowledge of the game in North America.

Granted there’s an argument to be made that each of these individual additions was merely a random occurrence that we have since conflated into a coherent whole (Edgar and de Jong to reclaim the locker room and the defence, Barnes a desperate throw of the dice to save the season, Montero initiated by Rosales, Shea a means to ship out Barnes and Rosales initiated by Montero) but if we forsake such cynicism then the pattern is clear.

And the recent arrival/re-arrival of Mauro Rosales helps to confirm it.

The Argentinian may be thirty-six, have lost at least two yards of pace and will probably only be good for cameo appearances but he’s almost instantly become the de facto captain of the team (in the locker room if not on the field).

That hints at the issues that may still remain of course but at least the “we are a young team” excuse has been stripped away from the mitigating factors arsenal and, by the end of last season, it certainly felt as though the team needed fewer alibis and more censure for the their mistakes and failings.

And hopefully Rosales is another stepping stone on the path to self-accountability.

Anyway, here’s some humans scaring off some lions; a solid midfield three if ever I saw one.

Warning! There will be blood!

 

 

 

 

Whitecaps trade Barnes for Shea (or Shea for Barnes)

I think we can place this in the “I did not see it coming” file.

The arrival of Brek Shea doesn’t make a ton of sense from a squad construction point of view but it’s been clear for a while that the Whitecaps have been keen to get Giles Barnes (or at least his salary) away from Vancouver and Shea was likely the best, or only, option.

So where will he play for the Whitecaps??

Well, Carl Robinson is quoted as saying that Shea will “bring a different dimension to our attack” which rules out him carrying on in the left back position he played in Orlando and the Whitecaps are just fine for left backs anyway.

So that leaves two possible options.

Either Shea fills the same role that Cristian Techera does within the squad, playing either wide left or wide right depending on who else is in the lineup and Robinson will no doubt like the more defensive aspect that Shea will bring to that role.

The problem with that though is that Techera won’t be a first choice starter once everybody else is fit anyway so he either drops even further down the depth chart or becomes virtually superfluous to requirements.

If the Whitecaps can handle that level of salary warming the bench for most of the year then fine, but it’s not a great idea in a league where every dollar (both real and imagined) counts.

The other possibility is that Robinson envisions converting Shea to a central midfield role so that he can play alongside Matias Laba.

This makes a kind of sense given that he has both defensive experience, the ability to get forward and a track record of being able to change positions at the whim of a coach.

And maybe Shea will indeed turn out to be the box to box midfielder the side so desperately need.

The reality though is that this probably wasn’t a trade made with a specific purpose in mind but one driven by a “needs must” agenda and only now will Robinson begin to think about how best to utilize his new signing.

One more versatile player isn’t necessarily a bad thing but there’s the danger that an awful lot of squareish pegs are going to be forced uncomfortably into roundish holes this season.

And that doesn’t sound pleasant for anybody!

A sit down with “The Red Card Brigade”

With the news that Mark Clattenburg will soon be moving to China and that Howard Webb has been headhunted by MLS to oversee the introduction of video technology it’s clear that referees are the emerging stars of the global game.

Even so I was slightly startled to hear of the formation of an Official Supporters Group dedicated to an individual match official.

The “Red Card Brigade” have announced that they will be following MLS PRO referee Kevin Stott at all of his games this season and a mixture of amusement and inquisitiveness led me to meet the founder of the group, Connor Blanton, at a British themed pub in downtown Los Angeles.

He was easy to spot of course, dressed as he was in his replica yellow MLS officiating jersey and my first question to him was the obvious one.

“Why?”

“Why not?” he laughed taking a sip of Harp lager. “But seriously the game is moving further and further away from the grassroots fans and it just feels as though referees are the last bastion of a culture worth saving”

“They get paid a pittance and get nothing but abuse. They’re the anti-heroes that the game needs”

“But why Stott in particular?”

Blanton shrugged “I saw him officiate a Galaxy game last year and that was it for me. I guess you don’t really choose your favourite referee they choose you”

“So how many are there in this group of supporters?”

“Almost two hundred now. It’s taken off way more than I thought it would. It seems to have really tapped into a need”

“But what will you do at the games?”

“Stand up and sing like any other group of fans. We’ve adapted a good number of traditional football songs to suit our purpose”

“Such as?

“‘Booked in a minute, you’re getting booked in a minute’, ‘All we are saying is send someone off’ and my personal favourite ‘Kevin Stott is magic, he wears a magic hat, he saw some holding in the box and said I’m having that, you may play in yellow or you may play in white, Stotty doesn’t give a shit ‘cos he is always right'”

“Won’t that antagonise the home fans?”

Blanton laughed “I hope so! We’ll be like a constant away presence at every game. It will really add to the atmosphere. And I’m looking forward to Kevin getting a Cascadia derby because then it will be three different supporters groups in the stadium at the same time. We’ve got plans to unveil a TIFO of him sending off a player from both teams. That would be mental!”

“That could lead to trouble though?”

“It’s not that aspect I’m too worried about funnily enough” he said finishing his pint “It’s groups that follow other refs that are the danger. In a preseason friendly we went to watch Portland play Minnesota because Kevin was the fourth official. Problem was that there was a group of ultras there from ‘The Whistle Blowers’ who follow Edvin Jurisevic who was refereeing the game”

“It was all quite friendly banter at first but when Jurisevic missed an obvious penalty call we all starting shouting ‘How clear do you want the foul? How clear do you want the foul?’ and it all kicked off. Honestly, MLS is going to have start thinking about who it pairs up as ref and fourth official or it could get  really serious. No way do we want trouble but we’re not going to let Stotty take shit from some other group”

“So there’s other groups? How many?”

“Quite a few. There’s ‘The Geiger Counters’, that’s self evident who they follow, ‘The Crazy Gang’ who follow Baldomero Toledo, ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ for Alan Kelly and ‘The Moby Dicks’ who support Ismail Elfath. There’s others too but they are the main ones at the moment”

I thanked Connor for his time and bid my farewell to him just as he was pulling a red card out of his pocket and waving it vociferously in the direction of a group of drunken youths at the bar.

And as he was being pummeled mercilessly to the ground I couldn’t help but wonder if he and his group weren’t actually on to something. Maybe following a referee is as close as anyone can really get these days to what first drew so many of us to the game?

The sense of camaraderie, the love of an underdog and a sub culture that’s accessible to only a chosen few.

But whatever any of us think about the subject it will certainly be a development worth following in the coming years.

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.