Whitecaps are not through the Looking Glass

What a refreshing cool drink of water the CONCACAF Champions League tournament has been for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.

And that water was no less clear and fresh for the 4-1 victory over Central FC at BC Place on Wednesday evening.

But what if the reflection of the team we could see wasn’t from that sparkling liquid? What if  that reflection was actually from a deep dark mirror offering a gateway into another Space-Time continuum?

A parallel universe where the Whitecaps played every game as though they both wanted to win and were enjoying the experience of playing football? Where fear of conceding goals was outweighed by the rush of adrenaline of getting players forward into the box at every opportunity? Where the burden of expectation didn’t seem to weigh on every shoulder and where eleven men played as a team rather than a collection of individuals?

Sadly this isn’t the place to explain the entire cosmological thinking behind such a theory but safe to say that isn’t what has been happening to the Whitecaps this year.

But if Carl Robinson can figure out why virtually every performance in the Champions League has been more enjoyable to watch than virtually any performance in MLS then he’ll have gone a long way to solving the problems of the season.

A cynic might say that it’s simply down to facing inferior teams but that’s probably a little too generous to MLS while ignoring the fact that Vancouver themselves have never put out their (so called) first eleven in the competition.

It may simply be the case that they haven’t taken the tournament too seriously and that lightness of spirit has transferred into a brightness of play.

Where MLS games have been burdened by fear of conceding the first goal every CONCACAF game has been buoyed by the hope of scoring the first goal and perhaps the overarching lesson to be learned is that to get the best out of this group of players liberation is better than the leash.

As for the game itself nobody played badly for Vancouver but Blas Perez looked like  a man with something to prove and Brett Levis once again out in a composed and confident performance.

Levis is twenty-three so it seems odd to speak of him as a newcomer but even so he looks far more “MLS ready” than any other WFC2 alumni have done thus far (and yes that even includes Alphonso Davies).

It’s just his misfortune to be playing in the one of the few areas of the field where the Whitecaps have genuinely impressive depth.

Next stop for the Whitecaps is at home to Seattle in a game as much about pride (and the Cascadia Cup) as it is about  clinging to faded playoff hopes but (once again) the Champions League performance has pointed the way to go.

Maybe this time the rest of the team will follow that direction?

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-6, Waston-6, Parker-6, Levis-7*, Jacobson-7, de Jong-7, Techera-7, Mezquida-7, Perez-7, Kudo-6 (Bustos-6, Greig-6) 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Player of the Year nominees

It says a lot about how this season has gone for the Vancouver Whitecaps that of the four players nominated for their Player of the Year two aren’t considered as regular starters, one is almost the definition of an MLS journeyman and the other is an international midfielder who has probably under performed relative to his ability.

It says even more about the season that there isn’t one other player in the squad who could seriously be considered for the shortlist. Kekuta Manneh if he had stayed fit perhaps?  But every other possible contender has thrown a howler into the mix for every seeming act of redemption.

But that’s where we are and that’s where we will stay. So let’s break down the four lucky finalists.

Christian Bolaños- Bolaños may not be everybody’s cup of tea (his languid style can often be mistaken for lack of effort) be he leads the team in assists and is joint top scorer of goals from open play (alongside Kekuta Manneh which also says a lot about the season).

More importantly perhaps Bolaños is one of the few players on the team who always wants the ball and is always comfortable with said ball when he receives it.

His acquisition was designed to add the element of guile missing from last season but  we’ve only really seen that guile in glimpses this year.

It’s hard to predict what the Whitecaps will look like next season (although recent signings seem to indicate a move toward pragmatism over playmakers) but if Carl Robinson can find a way to get the best out of Bolaños on a consistent basis he could be a genuine difference maker rather than the fitfully enjoyable player to watch he has been in 2016.

Jordan Harvey– Harvey hasn’t had a perfect season (he was beaten on a couple of crucial back post headers that cost points for example) but compared to the rest of the backline he’s been a model of consistency and calm.

When all around him were losing their heads Harvey carried on carrying on as one of the more reliable left backs in the League.

He’s also matched every Whitecaps central striker for goals scored (two) and is always willing to get forward when given the chance.

More than all that though Harvey always plays as though the game is important to him (which hasn’t necessarily been true of every player this year) and he always plays as though he’s enjoying the fact that he is paid money to do something he loves (which hasn’t necessarily been true of every player this year).

In that way he’s as much a pleasure to watch as many more technically gifted players.

Andrew Jacobson- It’s possible to make the argument that Jacobson has been the Whitecaps best central defender, best defensive midfielder and best box to box midfielder this season.

He may have been acquired for his versatility but the failings of others has meant that versatility has been tested to the nth degree and far more often than Carl Robinson planned for.

In central defence he’s a calming presence, as a defensive midfielder he’s happy to sit and just do the job assigned to him and as the partner to a defensive midfielder he’s willing to get forward far more than any other player (like Harvey he has two goals.

Jacobson can probably feel a little unfortunate not to have received more starts given the solidity of his performances and the fragility of others, but at the very least he’s proven just how valuable he will be to the team in the coming years.

Nicolas Mezquida– It seems as though there’s always a player like Mezquida at every club. A player that the fans think should be starting almost every week but, for whatever reason, the coach just doesn’t quite share the same enthusiasm.

Mezquida may not be a great “number ten” but he’s the best the Whitecaps have by some distance, if only because of his willingness to constantly pressure opposition defenders and his willingness to play in the space that a “number ten” is supposed to play in.

It’s only when Mezquida is on the pitch that it feels as though there is a genuine link between the midfield and the forwards and although he’s not a prolific goal scorer (three this season) and his assist play leaves something to be desired he does at least always make a positive difference when he’s on the field.

Another player who can consider himself unfortunate not to have had more starts.

So who should win?- There really is no right or wrong answer for this one. None of these players have been lights out stellar but each one of them deserves to be on the shortlist.

If I were forced to choose I would just favour Mezquida over Harvey but if you asked me the same question tomorrow I would probably just favour Bolaños over Jacobson and so on and so on.

So just vote for whoever you think should win (probably should have just put that at the start really).

The Vancouver Whitecaps accept chaos

There are some games of football that can be broken down into tactical match ups or can easily be seen to have turned on a specific incident or two.

Then there are those that seem only to exist to confirm the fact that we live in a meaningless universe devoid of meaning and/or coherence.

The Vancouver Whitecaps 3-3 tie with the Colorado Rapids at BC Place on Saturday slotted firmly into the latter category.

In (yet another) must win game the Whitecaps were (yet again) listless and unimaginative in the first half and (yet again) conceded a goal in which at least three players probably had some kind of culpability and (yet again) Carl Robinson decided to give all eleven of those listless and unimaginative players another fifteen or twenty minutes to put things right.

This time around though that philosophy actually worked as Kendall Waston headed home a Bolaños corner in the fifty-first minute and suddenly it was game on again.

Except it wasn’t because less than five minutes later a simple ball over the top of the Whitecaps defence induced Waston into bringing down Badji and Gashi slotted home the resulting penalty kick.

Then just when it felt as though the whole stadium was drifting into a pleasant autumnal slumber Pedro Morales cropped up in the opposition penalty area and scored a goal from open play and suddenly it was game on again.

Except it wasn’t because less than five minutes later Gashi slammed home a great free-kick for the Rapids and that was that.

Except it wasn’t because with the last meaningful touch of the game Erik Hurtado headed home a Jordan Harvey cross and we were level once again.

Never was a last minute equalizer greeted with such a mixture of consternation, celebration and confusion. Mainly because it was all too little too late to save the season.

If this game does anything then hopefully it will finally put to rest any lingering ideas that this Whitecaps squad has any kind of genuine fight or character in them.

It’s remarkably easy to show fight and character when you are down to ten men with your backs against the wall.

There’s noting to lose and nobody will blame you if you fail.

Teams with actual fight and teams with actual character display those virtues from the first whistle and take games like this one by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them to the ground until they are begging for mercy.

The current Whitecaps squad wouldn’t know the scruff of the neck of a game if it came up to them in the street and slapped them in the face with a wet fish (although to be fair such an occurrence would be both terrifying and symptomatic of some kind of psychotic and hallucinatory episode so we should probably give them a pass on that particular scenario).

Should we mention the substitutions?

Parker for Smith and Jacobson for Bolaños felt odd in a game that the team simply had to win but then again they worked in that the Whitecaps did get back into the game.

Leaving Mezquida on the bench until the eighty-fourth minute felt equally odd when he provides energy, work rate and the possibility of creating a goal scoring threat but, as we posited at the start, this wasn’t a game that made much sense at all anyway.

All the Whitecaps have to play for now in MLS is the Cascadia Cup and three games against teams who are battling for playoff spots which at least gives the opportunity to enjoy an element of schadenfreude (insert joke about Schadenfreude being a decent box to box midfielder here).

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5, Smith-5, Edgar-5, Waston-4, Harvey-5, Morales-6, Laba-6, Bolaños-6, Davies-6, Barnes-6*, Hurtado-5

The Vancouver Whitecaps are trying to break your heart

As Jeff Tweedy sings on the new Wilco album Happiness depends on who you blame” so there should be no shortage of opportunities for happiness for the Whitecaps and their fans as this car crash of a season (Champions League success not withstanding) draws to a conclusion.

Actually scrap the “car crash” analogy and replace it with a runaway truck scenario because that’s mostly what it has felt like since the opening game.

Individual errors were compounded by red cards and retrospective red cards and injuries and more individual errors until at times Carl Robinson seemed more like a man desperately trying to right a ship that had already sailed way passed the dock.

So we should probably discard the “runaway truck” analogy and replace it with one of those metaphorical oil tankers that take so long to turn that they still keep going forward for miles and any actual movement is barely noticeable.

Except in this case the movement has certainly been noticeable as the Whitecaps have struggled to find any kind of identity throughout the season, an issue that was compounded by mid-season signings that seemed as much a case of wanting to be seen to be doing something as actually addressing genuine deficiencies and resulted in a seemingly endless series of changes which always ended up back in the same place.

So let’s dispose of the “oil tanker” analogy and go with the painting the Forth Bridge scenario where no sooner does one piece of the structure seem to be fixed than it’s back to square one again.

Actually the “Painting the Forth Bridge” analogy doesn’t quite work either because Carl Robinson has mostly felt like a man desperately trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the finished picture in front of him and with the disturbing knowledge that at least one of the pieces is definitely lost behind the couch.

Yeah, let’s stick with the jigsaw puzzle analogy.

Because if you were to ask one hundred Whitecaps fans to name their favoured starting eleven and formation it’s a reasonable wager that you would get 20 or 30 different combinations (maybe more?).

And that’s the real indictment of how the team has progressed with only four games of the season remaining.

Where do they go from here?

Try to win the remaining games of course (especially the home CCL game against Central FC which would guarantee Vancouver to be a top four seed in the quarter-final stage) but the off season feels more like it needs to be a purge rather than a rebuilding and maybe as much of a mental purge as  anything else.

The idea for 2016 was to create a team that wasn’t just reliant on the counter attack and could break down the stacked defences that proved to be their undoing last year and the signings of Bolaños and Kudo were the main planks of this plan.

It hasn’t worked out for a number of reasons (one of which was Kudo’s horrific head injury) but too often Bolaños has felt like a luxury player in a team designed for prosaicness, a player who slows the game down in a team where the quick break is everything (and often the only thing).

The ideal world would have seen Bolaños linking up with the likes of Morales, Techera, Rivero and Kudo to create something akin to the kind of one touch football that relies as much on speed of thought as it does on speed of foot but alas and alack that ideal world failed to materialise and with every passing failure (and every failure of a pass) the Whitecaps have reverted more and more to their default setting of being a reactive team.

The problem though is that they just aren’t built that way anymore and the absence of Kekuta Manneh for the second half of the season effectively killed off their chances of any kind of success.

So the plan for the off season has to be for Carl Robinson and the club in general to figure out just what they want that completed puzzle picture to look like in 2017.

If the coach is only comfortable playing counter attacking football then so be it (some of the most successful teams have done exactly that) but any new acquisitions have to be brought in with that knowledge in mind; at least one more very quick wide player and a central midfielder who can get forward for example.

But if the plan is to grow into something more expansive then the possible acquisitions are a little trickier; a genuinely creative number ten, a central midfielder who is comfortable both with and without the ball maybe.

Yet if we also give those late season signings a little more credit than we did earlier (Barnes, de Jong, Edgar) then it seems as though the plan may be to become a more “MLS” team founded on the twin pillars of experience and physicality.

Ultimately  the real issue is that this team and this squad could morph into any one of the three options above (and maybe more) and although a few pieces are in place for each iteration there’s nowhere near enough of those pieces to “complete the set” for each tactical option.

So decide on a style of play and buy and sell accordingly should be the astonishingly mundane conclusion to be drawn from all of this (Waste of time reading it really wasn’t it?).

This should cheer you up though.

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps as good as done

Carl Robinson has clearly decided that the fate of the 2016 season will hinge on the form of Pedro Morales.

The captain has done nothing in recent weeks (or months) to justify a starting position but a starting position was once again handed to him for the crucial Cascadia derby against the Seattle Sounders.

Did the Whitecaps lose 1-0 specifically because Morales was in the starting eleven? No. But his presence lessened the possibility of such a win.

For whatever reason Morales has become incapable of providing any kind of attacking threat or even creativity and so he (once again) became an attacking and defensive void during the game at Century Link Field.

Andrew Jacobson isn’t the greatest player in the world but he does at least provide a little bit of everything when he’s on the field and, given that the Whitecaps looked most threatening on the counter attack, an additional player who could break up Seattle’s forward moves could have been invaluable.

Yet for all that Vancouver did create chances and, on anther day, may have come away with at least a point but a forward line led by Erik Hurtado is probably always going to need more than one or two gilt edged opportunities to seal the deal.

And the crux of the problem is right there.

A journeyman midfielder feels like a better option than the highest paid DP and a journeyman forward is keeping far higher paid attackers on the bench (Kudo and Barnes in particular).

The Whitecaps just aren’t getting value for their money in a league where every dollar spent needs to be spent wisely.

Whether that’s down to the individual players, coaching decisions or just poor recruitment is a debate for another day.

Yet it’s not inconceivable that the Whitecaps could win their four remaining games (they may even play better once the pressure is perceived to be off) but realistically those games are about reclaiming the Cascadia Cup and restoring a little bit of pride in the overall standings.

Some players are probably playing for their place at the club next season too but if they only decide to start playing for that place at the dog end of a season gone by then they won’t be worth keeping anyway.

So don’t put a fork in this team or this season just yet but you can definitely open the cutlery drawer and start selecting your implement of choice.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Osuted-6, Smith-5, Waston-6*, Edgar-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Morales-4, Techera-5, Bolaños-5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-6 (Barnes-6) 

 

 

Whitecaps weather another storm

For a while it seemed as though the most interesting thing about the Whitecaps CCL game in Kansas was going to be how people on social media dealt with the two hour rain delay that occurred in the thirty fifth minute of the first half.

Some went for a run, others walked the dog or went grocery shopping while others opted for a bike ride.

Which begs the question of whether people make better use of unexpected free time than they do of expected free time?

Hard to say from such a small sample size but definitely something to think about.

Such quandaries were pushed to one side however once the game resumed as Alphonso “he’s only fifteen you know” Davies had what can only be described as his official introduction to the big time.

Up to this point my take on Davies was that he was full of potential but not ready for the MLS level; his touch was always a tad too unsure and his final ball almost always lacking.

That take changed with this game however as he created the first Whitecaps goal by going on a jinking run down the left before exchanging a perfect one-two with Nicolas Mezquida and finally setting up Erik Hurtado for a simple tap in .

And even when Kansas drew level in the second half it was Davies who looked the most likely route to the lead for Vancouver and though he missed one golden opportunity he still  had the confidence to hit a shot from outside the area in the final minute of stoppage time.

True he was somewhat fortunate that the ball was deflected away from the keeper but he bought the raffle ticket and was therefore entitled to the prize.

The biggest problem for Carl Robinson now will be to continue to keep the lid on the simmering pot of excitement that has been bubbling brightly since the youngster first burst upon the scene.

In the wider scheme of things this win guarantees the Whitecaps a CCL quarter-final spot in 2017 and what a boon this competition has been in such a difficult season.

Three wins out of three and the team have played with far less caution and far more joie de vivre than they have in almost any MLS game.

Next MLS stop is Seattle in yet another huge contest but for now the players and coaches can take heart from the distant (but not imperceptible) sense that the season may finally have turned a corner.

Too little too late almost certainly, but that “almost” suddenly looms  a little larger than it did just four short days ago.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Richey-6, Seiler-6, De jong-6, Parker-6, Waston-6, Jacobson-6, Morales-5, Aird-5, Davies-7*, Hurtado-6, Mezquida-6

Whitecaps hit a home run!

In the interests of clarity I should point out that I didn’t see the second half of the Whitecaps game against the Columbus Crew as it happened due to the unforeseen circumstance of going to watch the San Diego Padres play at Petco Park (a stadium by the way with surprisingly poor and sparse concession stands in the upper tiers).

Anyway the first half of the Whitecaps game was the usual road story; bad defending on a set piece, too many giveaways in midfield and the kind of bunker mentality that is more bunker than it is mentality.

Even a the ludicrous own goal that drew Vancouver level offered little hope of anything other than a temporary reprieve.

Safe to say I strolled to the ball game expecting the second half to feature the traditional lacklustre showing from the Whitecaps.

But lo and behold that isn’t what we got.

It turns out that the Whitecaps do know how to press in the opposition half and the introduction of Andrew Jacobson for the injured Russell Teibert meant that they also had a central midfielder who is at least willing to make forward runs and that willingness paid off in the seventy-fifth minute as he beat a man and fired home from the edge of the area.

When Erik Hurtado scored the third to seal the game we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore (that’s Tuesday) and suddenly this game offered up all kinds of implications.

The implication for the season- the Whitecaps have put themselves in a situation where almost any defeat could end their playoff hopes but at least the season stays alive a little longer and makes next weekends trip to Seattle even more of a “six pointer”.

Whichever team loses that one is probably done.

The implications for the formation- it may turn out that Carl Robinson’s somewhat inexplicable decision to move away from 4-4-2 for last week’s game against the Red Bulls put his team too far behind the eight ball.

But it seems inconceivable that he now won’t run with that way of playing for the rest of the season.

The implications for Pedro Morales- the Captain didn’t feature at all in Columbus and the harsh truth is that not only was his presence not missed but it probably enhanced the team.

It’s hard to see how he gets back in the starting eleven without injury or suspension opening the way.

The implication for Erik Hurtado- I can’t think of any player who needed a goal more than Hurtado did after his showing against New York (apart from Octavio Rivero for almost every game this season).

That goal doesn’t mean that Hurtado is suddenly a starter but it does mean that at least he cemented his place as a useful member of the squad rather than as a lightning rod for criticism.

So can the Whitecaps go on the kind of run that will push them miraculously into the post-season?

Probably not, but at least it feels as though the players think they might be able to do it, and that’s an improvement of sorts.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings-

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Waston-6, Edgar-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Teibert-6, Bolanos-6, Techera-6, Barnes-5, Kudo-5 (Jacobson-7*,)