Whitecaps just killing time in the blazing sun

One of the more annoying aspects of Sir Alex Ferguson’s lengthy tenure at Manchester United was that his initial struggles in the role propagated a  particularly tiresome theory.

Whenever another manager faced similar struggles somebody would come along with the familiar refrain “Yes, but Fergie also needed time before he became successful” as though the initial failure was a prerequisite to subsequent success.

It wasn’t and it isn’t.

One of the many annoying aspects of Portland Timbers winning the MLS Cup last season was that they achieved their success after struggling for most of the year.

Only the late surge of winning the last three games got them into the playoffs and propelled them to glory.

So now we find that whenever an MLS team is flirting with missing out on the post season we get to hear the refrain “Yes, but the Timbers were poor for most of last season before finally coming good at the right time” as though their initial struggles were a prerequisite for their subsequent success.

They weren’t and they aren’t.

It’s a comforting thought for fans of the Vancouver Whitecaps however because the 2-0 loss to Dallas on Sunday afternoon means the Whitecaps are looking less and less likely to finish in the top four and more and more likely to be scrapping for fifth or sixth.

There are provisos to be noted for this latest loss of course; searing heat, facing a very good team, facing a very good team who are even better when playing at home.

But there was a disturbing air of familiarity about they way the Vancouver succumbed.

They played a decent first half where they managed the game well (although maybe they were a little too careless in possession) and that gave way to a second half where they were never really in  the game.

Maybe it’s just confirmation bias (or maybe it’s just confirmation) but the Whitecaps frequently seem to start the second period in a kind of mental and physical torpor and they paid for that again when Acosta and Urruti struck just before the hour mark.

The first goal was initially down to giving the ball away cheaply and finally down to David Ousted being beaten too easily on his left hand side (not the first time that has happened this season).

The second was down to Kendall Waston being beaten far too easily for pace following a fairly routine ball over the top.

After that it was about damage control as much as anything else and the game (somewhat understandably) drifted towards a languid conclusion.

In the final analysis a defeat in Dallas isn’t going to be the result that destroys a season, but it is another link in the chain that seems to be tightening around this team and we have to hope that the arrival of David Edgar and Giles Barnes can provide the elsuive spark that has been missing for so much of the campaign.

After all “Doing a Portland Timbers” isn’t a plan, it’s just a prayer aimed at the disinterested (and non-existent) footballing Gods.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5, Seiler-5, Parker-6, Waston-5, de Jong-6, Laba-6*, Jacobson-5, Morales- 5, Bolaños-6, Pérez-5, Kudo-5 

 

Throwing Pedro at the wall to see what sticks

Not literally of course because that would be insane given his somewhat sketchy injury record but in a league in which tactical nuances are often boiled down to “faster, higher, stronger” it’s kind of fascinating to think about how to get the best out of Pedro Morales

Carl Robinson for instance tends to be pretty keen on emphasizing that he cares less about formations than he does about getting his best players on the field.

That assertion would carry slightly more weight if he wasn’t quite so wedded to the 4-2-3-1 formation but the conundrum of formation over talent is a circle that just about every international coach has to square at some stage or another.

And for every “Ronaldo playing as a striker” there is a “Rooney playing as a central midfielder” which means that the formation over talent question doesn’t actually have a one size fits all solution; it’s more of a template that can be bent to fit the specific circumstance.

Robinson’s current solution is to bend the template so that his best player is playing wide left.

It’s a moot point to wonder what he would do if Kekuta Manneh hadn’t picked up an injury, but it’s not a moot point to wonder if Cristian Techera’s recent return to goal scoring form might be a better option in that role or to wonder if Morales himself isn’t wasted so far away from the heart of the action.

There were at least signs against Houston that he was more than willing to drift centrally to collect the ball and indeed it was Morales who played the pass that set up Erik Hurtado for his disallowed goal.

So maybe Robinson has actually found his long term solution?

Not so fast with all that optimism! Because as a more solid right back seems to be emerging (be it in the guise of Parker, Seiler, Edgar or a returning Aird) that means opponents will probably look for new avenues of attack other than wherever Jordan Smith happens to be on the field

And what better area to exploit than a side of the pitch where the nominal wide midfielder has wandered away from his home in order to find the ball?

It’s not hard to imagine Jordan Harvey suddenly finding himself more and more isolated and more and more under attack and it’s not hard to imagine that the innately cautious Robinson will soon want to take steps to remedy the weak link once again (All football tactics are essentially a slightly more sophisticated version of “whack-a-mole”. Discuss).

Which could once again leave Pedro searching for a home.

But it could be that home turns out to be where the heart of the midfield is after all because if (and it’s a fairly big if I grant you) the defensive woes are remedied then the presence of both Jacobson and Laba may no longer be needed as a central shield and if (and this isn’t quite so big an if) Kudo and Mezquida continue to form a bond as the front two then the Whitecaps may suddenly find themselves playing a style of football that actually suits their captain.

Take a look at this tweet

In other words Morales has been more likely to take a shot having done the work in setting it up himself than he is to have taken a shot after being set up by a team mate.

Now I like stats as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy is a guy who doesn’t really like stats) but this seems to be a bit of a Rorschach Test about what you think of Morales more than saying anything definitive about his game.

Does it mean he’s selfish? Does it mean he’s getting no support? Does it mean he’s just not gelling with the rest of the team?

My own reading is that it’s probably a little bit of all three  with the extra emphasis on the lack of support or, perhaps to be more accurate, the lack of options.

Whatever you think of Morales he’s just too smart of a player to pass up the chance of a killer pass in favour of a low percentage shot on quite so many occasions.

The isolationism of the lone forward almost actively encouraged by Rivero’s style of play is somewhat mirrored in both Perez and Hurtado in that both work hard and are physical enough to invite a the long pass even when it isn’t actually the best option.

But Kudo and Mezquida are horses of a different colour.

They both work hard for sure but neither offers a midfielder the “easy” option of the long ball. Mezquida and Kudo both want the ball to feet and they mostly want the ball in front of them (Kudo in particular) so suddenly Morales may find that a) shorter passes are often the better choice and b) when he is in those aforementioned “shoot or pass” positions he really does have a better option than simply letting fly at the net.

There’s a theory (just from me but it is still a theory) that the Whitecaps could be much improved simply by making more of their final key passes twenty yards closer to the opposition goal and one way of achieving that is by taking away the option of the obvious target man.

By accident or design that may have been achieved and a centrally situated Morales could find that he has to move forward if he wants to make those key passes (and I’m certain he does) as the gravitational pull of the assist drags him toward two quick  footed forwards who are constantly on the move.

Maybe the real solution to the Morales problem is determining which way he chooses to drift?

Play wide left and he drifts inside leaving the defensive flank unguarded, play centrally and he drifts forward creating more attacking options (All football tactics are essentially a slightly less sophisticated version of the “The Theory of Tides”. Discuss).

 

 

Houston we have a match review

Come season end it’s doubtful that many people will remember the Whitecaps 0-0 tie with the Houston Dynamo as a particular highlight.

And many people probably didn’t remember much about the game even five minutes after the final whistle had been blown but for Vancouver themselves it was a surprisingly pleasing run out.

The defence was solid with Cole Seiler playing the role of right back as a defender rather than as a piece of surreal performance art and Laba and Jacobson kept the midfield under tight control while Pedro Morales used his ostensible starting position on  the left to drift inside at will and so spend more constructive time on the ball than of late

The standout player though was Christian Bolaños who always looked the most likely to break down the Dynamo defence with his change of pace on the ball and both Mezquida and Kudo were lively up front without ever really looking like scoring.

Even the substitutes showed well with Pérez linking up play efficiently and Hurtado somewhat unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for handball (and really unfortunate to pick up a yellow card for said handball).

All in all the whole game felt much more like the Whitecaps of last season on the road; keep things tight and accept that one moment here or there could win the game for either team.

It would be somewhat ironic if the Whitecaps did find defensive solidity just as David Edgar is getting ready to be introduced to the lineup, but defensive solidity is never a bad thing and while there will be far tougher tests than Houston to come (and the ability to take the initiative at home is still very open to question) Saturday at least felt like a team that had found both some form and form.

Baby steps to be sure but baby steps in the right direction.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-7, Seiler-6, Wasron-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-6, Bolaños -7*, Morales-6, Mezquida-5-Kudo-5 (Pérez – 6, Hurtado-6)

 

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)