A Vancouver Whitecaps Wish List

So I was chatting with the Christmas Genie the other morning when he handed me a very official looking document.

“What’s this?” I asked without bothering to read any of it.

“Well you could always read it” he sighed.

“Nah, best if you just tell me really.”

“Well, we within the Genie Guild have amended our traditional ‘Three Wishes and You Are Out’ policy to one that we feel is more in keeping with our stakeholders aspirations.”

“I don’t like the sound of that” I said frowning.

“Well turn that frown upside down because what we now offer is specifically tailored to each individual stakeholder, creating a bespoke wish list based on extensive data analysis and demographic research.”

“So I no longer get three wishes?”

“It’s even better! You now get five!”

“That is better!”

“With the mild caveat that these five wishes are limited to a particular area of interest”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that we’ve found our stakeholders to be strangely unfocused when it comes to making wishes and that creates extensive administration costs for Genie Central. So, by streamlining the process, we are now able to offer two more wishes but within more tightly controlled parameters”.

I looked at him blankly.

“You get five wishes but only within an area designated by our state of the art software.”

“So in what area do I get my wishes?”

“The Vancouver Whitecaps!” he exclaimed with a generous sweep of his arm “Our state of the art software has assigned you five specific areas in which you can make a wish vis-a-vis the Whitecaps”.

“It all sounds a little bit limiting”.

“It is, but in a good way. And the worst case scenario is that you can turn it into a blog post at a time when literally nothing is happening in the world of the Whitecaps”

“Genie! You’re a genius!”

“That’s where the word comes from” he lied.

Here then, for the record, were my five  Vancouver Whitecaps wishes for 2017.

If you could sign any player in the world who would it be?  Forget the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and O’Shea. If I had the pick of anybody I’d bring in Luis Suarez.

Granted his character has been somewhat questionable but boy does he work hard on the field and probably no current player makes those around him better to the extent that Suarez does.

He can also kick the ball into the net which is a skill the Whitecaps have been lacking of late.

If you could have one coach to coach the Whitecaps who would it be?-  It would be hugely entertaining to watch a Klopp or a Conte on the sidelines at BC Place but I worry that they may struggle with the vagaries of the MLS squad structure.

So I pick Carlo Ancelotti. Not only does the avuncular Italian have family ties in Vancouver but he’s a coach who doesn’t impose his own style on a team but rather adapts his style to the players available to him.

Ancelotti would be the ideal MLS coach.

If you could change one thing about BC Place what would it be?- A grass pitch. Not because I hate the turf that much but just to take the mention of turf out of every discussion.

Player A gets injured. Turf!. Player B doesn’t sign. Turf! Player C hits the post. Turf!

The fact that the last two MLS Cup winners also play on turf is irrelevant to this argument; it’s always the turf that is to blame.

If you could change anything about the game day experience what would it be?- Free beer!

But failing that a little less of the in-game promos. I get that the club has to satisfy the sponsors but I don’t want to hear their names blasted through the speaker system and on to the big screen while our right back is struggling with the basic concepts of physics.

If you could change anything about the Whitecaps schedule what would it be?- Well; it would be nice to actually have it at least a month earlier since many fans base their vacations around the team.

But if not that then one which created a rhythm to the season. Less of the home, home, home, road, road, road, road thing and more of the home, road, home, road, home, road thing.

So they were my five wishes as designated by Genie Central.

I wonder which ones will come true in 2017?

Vancouver Whitecaps: Reasons to be Cheerful

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that rational thought and tolerance to others will always win the day.

And so as the world heads into what will clearly be an extended period of unparalleled peace, prosperity and goodwill to all it behoves us to consider the good side of all things.

Last time out we took the darkest timeline look at the current Vancouver Whitecaps situation so, in the spirit of accepting that if you can’t find the flaws in your own argument then good luck finding them in those of others, let’s try to counter the main points of that piece.

Carl Robinson doesn’t appreciate the enormity of his task- Yeah right. The guy who will lose his job if results are poor doesn’t get how important results are. Just because he doesn’t sound phased by the situation doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand it.

Robinson isn’t flying around the world looking for new players because he thinks all is fine and dandy in Whitecaps world. He’s doing it because he knows upgrades are needed in several key areas.

Giving Robinson so much control over new acquisitions will create instability when he leaves- Well we don’t actually know that the coach has that much control but even so it’s hard to imagine him having carte blanche over who he brings in.

Aside from any financial limitations imposed upon him the very nature of the act of signing a new player means that a plethora of people will need to be involved.

So to cast the Whitecaps transfer policy as essentially a one man operation fails to take into account the realities of the modern world of sport.

Youth players aren’t being challenged enough- So the previous argument was based around the idea that the Whitecaps weren’t achieving any kind of stability and this argument is based around the idea that it’s better to sign in somebody from outside the club than to let the young players progress?

Aside from the logical contradiction inherent here anybody who has watched the Whitecaps will know that the young players don’t get an easy ride.

Ask the likes of Adekugbe, Bustos and McKendry if they feel they have had a fair run at establishing themselves in the first eleven.

Juggling results with bringing through players is tough task and the actual evidence is that the Robinson and the Whitecaps tend to favour the latter.

Robinson struggles to connect with the fans on an emotional level- Well cry me a river! Would this even be an argument if the results were going splendidly?

Nobody can watch Robinson on the sideline and imagine that the game means nothing to him so what he does and doesn’t say in post-game interviews is either irrelevant or your own personal Rorschach test defined by preconception and perception.

In the end all any of it comes down to is results on the field. The Whitecaps didn’t get enough of them in the League in 2016 and most of us won’t really settle until we see them getting better in 2017.

But can 2017 be any better than 2016? Hard to imagine such a thing but it might just be possible!

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Airing of Grievances

If the Holiday period is about anything it’s about people arguing over petty differences while terrible atrocities happen in all four corners of the world.

But it’s also about judging other people in a harsh and unforgiving manner and so, with that in mind, this seems a good time to look at a few of the things that are most concerning about the current Vancouver Whitecaps.

A lot of these stem from a recent interview Carl Robinson gave to the AFTN podcast (and you can hear it here).

There were two ways of taking the entirety of what the coach said; you could either choose to see a man who was unphased by the pressures of the role and who had a firm grip on the tiller of the team or you could choose to see a man who failed to recognise the enormity of the task and who also failed to acknowledge just how bad his team were in 2016.

In the spirit of the season let’s adopt the latter approach for now.

Robinson certainly admitted that the season could have been better but he persisted in his view that the Whitecaps just weren’t that far away from being the finished article.

I guess that depends what the definition of the finished article is but Robinson’s contention that his team were maybe just two or three wins (or a couple of silly late goals) away from making the playoffs and therefore having a successful season sounds like three parts revisionism and two parts lack of ambition.

If the definition of success is a one game “play in” game on the road then that seems an awfully low bar to set.

Did the fact that Portland and now Seattle had won the MLS Cup put pressure on him? Seemingly not. Everything was as then as it is now in terms of pressure (he feels very little was the overarching feeling listening to him speak).

Now all of this could just be a coach being wary of what he said to the media but Robinson does seem to struggle in connecting to the fans (or some fans at least) when it comes to putting across just how much the game actually means.

But away from spurious speculation about the coach’s media motivation it was disconcerting to hear him say that any new players signed wouldn’t be there to block the path of the youngsters coming through the system.

Translation: “If we get the chance to sign somebody better than Marco Bustos we won’t do it”.

Now either that just isn’t true (I suspect it isn’t) or it’s a foolhardy way of bringing through young players.

Emerging players need to be challenged as they develop. Not given a free pass to the first team with all obstacles removed on the way.

Again we’re probably in the land of milquetoast media replies than anything else but it didn’t do anythng to quell the notion that the Whitecaps on the whole are happier with the status quo than they really should be.

Finally there’s the whole business of player recruitment.

We obviously don’t know the intricate details of how the club scout and sign players (this is MLS after all and sometimes I’m surprised they even release the results of games without some kind of obscure regulation being involved) but it does appear that Robinson himself is, by some distance, the main protagonist in deciding who to scout and who to sign.

That system works to a degree but it does mean that if he were to leave (for whatever reason) the Whitecaps will have almost zero continuity when it comes to acquisitions going forward.

If everybody in the squad is essentially a Robinson signing that creates an unwelcome dynamic for the next coach to come along.

It seems far better to make the business of bringing in players more centralised within the club than to trust it all to the man who is arguably (by the unwritten rules of soccer) the most ephemeral figure on the staff other than the people who actually get to kick a ball on match day.

Oh well. Hopefully this hasn’t been too downbeat for the festive season but worry not but because next time out we’ll look at the “Reasons to be Cheerful”.

A far merrier subject to be sure.

 

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

Is this a Winter of Discontent for fans of the Whitecaps?

More like a winter holding their heads in their hands and hoping the world would go away I suspect but sooner or later we all have to dive into the freezing cold pool of reality whether we have lanolin covering our bodies or not.

So let’s at least dip our toes into the icy pool of these two subjects.

What does the MLS Cup Final mean?- Well apart from it meaning hell on earth for the Whitecaps that is.

Is two of the higher spending clubs making it to the final indicative of a sea change for MLS as a whole or is it a single event signifying nothing?

Nothing of any import can ever be gleaned from one isolated incident of course but this does at least feel different in a large part because of the influence of two players.

Neither Giovinco nor Lodeiro have the name power to get MLS apostates buying tickets or changing channels but they do have the ability to win games for their respective teams and the initial moves by expansion team Atlanta United indicate that they too are spending money on “difference makers” rather than marquee names.

If Toronto have learned anything from this season (and it’s Toronto so it’s entirely possible that they won’t) it’s that the best way to insert a team into the wider consciousness of the public is to win games on the field.

If enough other teams around the league learn the same lesson then the arms race of spending may switch into something far more ruthless than mere marketing ploys.

And their rivals suddenly start to acquire players with a proven record in proven leagues then hoping to unearth hidden gems from the coal dust of lesser competitions will prove to be more and more risky for the Whitecaps.

Hurtado stays while others leaves- Official farewells have now been given to Morales, Perez, Aird, Smith and Carducci and enough has been said about all of them with perhaps the exception of Marco Carducci.

A talented goalkeeper who never really looked ready for the step up to MLS and one who fell behind in the pecking order to the more accomplished looking Spencer Richey but Carducci could well find a role in the up and coming Canadian Premier League.

The signing of Hurtado won’t get any pulses racing but he is what he is; a useful MLS depth player.

His failings last season were as much about the failings of others as they were his own. Kudo struggled, Perez couldn’t (or wasn’t allowed to) play on a regular basis and Rivero was away before summer ever really set in.

It may be harsh to say that asking Hurtado to lead the line on a regular basis is setting him up to fail but it is certainly asking more of him than he is capable of and there comes a time when a coach’s willingness to believe in a player slips over into bad man management.

I think that’s where we were with Hurtado last season but hopefully 2017 sees him playing the role to which he is best suited; a late impact substitute and a starter in a few of those games against Eastern Conference teams where the main striker(s) need(s) a rest.

For now though let’s forget all that and just try to get through this Final safe in the knowledge that the 2017 schedule, the signings and some actual games of football aren’t all that too far behind.

 

Killing time with speculation

One of the worst things about languishing in the purgatory of endlessly waiting for playoff games the Vancouver Whitecaps aren’t even involved in is the almost complete lack of any concrete news around the club.

And yet even in this barren wasteland of information there have been at least two possible transfer rumours alluding to a player heading to Vancouver (well maybe one and a half, or maybe just one, perhaps half a rumour at best).

Thankfully we are now living in a post-truth world so we can all pretty much speculate to our hearts content.

The most concrete (ish) rumour surrounds Robbie Keane

There are a few good reasons why Keane could come to the Whitecaps.

He and Carl Robinson became firm friends at Wolverhampton Wanderers when a freak training ground accident forced them to undergo a rarely attempted surgical procedure

robbokeane_620

And both players were said to be hugely relieved when the term “ballectomy” was fully explained to them.

Keane is a proven goalscorer in MLS and is the kind of experienced striker that Robinson has favoured in recent seasons.

Yet against all that stands the Irishman’s much professed hatred of turf and the fact that his salary would surely make him a no go if he was going to be used in the same manner as Earnshaw and Perez.

Robinson has a strange compulsion to sign players based on their impact on the locker room as much as the pitch but Keane would surely be a step too far in that direction.

So Keane to the Whitecaps? It’s less than likely.

The other rumour that swirled around social media recently was caused by this tweet

The LA Galaxy’s Emmanuel Boateng fits the Whitecaps model almost as much as Robbie Keane does.

He’s a quick wide player who doesn’t finish quite as well as he should but the Whitecaps have enough of those to be going on with unless there’s a trade involved somewhere.

The tweet was almost certainly a post-Trump joke rather than a declaration of intent but let’s run this idea passed the space-time continuum and see who tries to kill Hitler.

In 2017 Kekuta Manneh should be eligible for the US National Team and let’s assume he gets selected by whoever happens to be in charge at the time and then let’s further assume he has one of those games where he ends a couple of those runs of his with a goal.

Suddenly there’s a new young superstar on the US team and if there’s one thing the MLS media love it’s an exciting young American player and if there’s one thing that marketing departments of teams love it’s a player who gets media coverage.

To cut a long story short there’s a possibility that Manneh could be the Whitecaps hottest property by some distance next season.

Would MLS love to have such a player on an American team? Sure. Would they be prepared to give the Whitecaps something substantial in return? Sure.

Obviously I’m using “substantial” in the MLS sense of “completely imaginary  money” but it’s real if you think it’s real.

So Boateng to the Whitecaps? No, unless somewhere down the line the planets align to make the Galaxy yearn for the marketing muscle of Manneh.

Stranger things are happening every day.

The Laba Conundrum

Time for a tactical thought experiment in the mental laboratory (or should that be the Laba-ratory?).

No don’t stop reading now! It gets better! (Spoiler alert: It really doesn’t).

Matias Laba wasn’t alone in underperforming for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016 but it could be argued that his underperformance hurt the team most of all.

In the previous seasons Laba had been both a shield and midfield destroyer for the team and the absence of those qualities played no small part in the dreadful defensive performance of 2016.

But the kind of player Laba is offers its own problems for Carl Robinson.

Take a look at these two shots of his defensive performance against Seattle and San Jose at the tail end of the season

laba-seattle

laba-san-jose

Laba may be a defensive midfielder but he’s not a holding midfielder. He doesn’t just sit in front of the back four protecting them because his game is about following the ball.

Perhaps the player Laba most resembles (in style if not in quality) is N’Golo Kanté the former Leicester and now Chelsea midfielder.

Like Laba, Kanté is about chasing down the opposition rather than waiting for them to come to him and he was hugely successful playing that style with Leicester and is developing similar success this year with Chelsea.

So what can the Whitecaps learn about the way Kanté has been used to get the best out of Laba? There are probably three main options.

Kanté worked for Leicester because they were primarily a counter attacking team and his ability to break up play was invaluable in such a system. But this was reliant on there always being defensive cover for Kanté no matter where he was on the field (usually Danny Drinkwater).

Of course Laba was equally successful last season in a counter attacking team because he had Gershon Koffie to cover for him.

So one option is for the Whitecaps to revert to what they were good at; put Jacobson, Teibert or McKendry alongside Laba and hope that a new number ten and a new striker are more capable of breaking down packed defences than the team were at the tail end of 2015.

Kanté’s success at Chelsea is partly because he has Matic as defensive cover and partly because Chelsea have now adapted to play three central defenders.

So Kanté can wander wherever he needs to because the middle of the pitch is always covered.

Playing three central defenders would solve one of Carl Robinson’s major selection headaches and allow him to field all three of Waston, Parker and Edgar (and the current backups of Dean and Seiler are more than adequate for MLS).

He also has the players to play as more attacking wing backs in Harvey and Levis on the left and Aird on the right (although an upgrade and cover on the right certainly wouldn’t hurt).

Again this would eliminate the need for a “box to box” midfielder and make the acquisition of a number ten and a striker the sole priorities.

The third option is to not use Laba at all.

Despite a poor season he’s still highly thought of in MLS and there would no shortage of teams willing to trade.

So cashing in on Laba and (hopefully) finding a central midfielder who can chip in with six or more goals a season and add a much needed attacking string to the Whitecaps’ bow isn’t an impossible dream.

The best option of these three?

That entirely depends on how Carl Robinson wants his team to play but the very worst thing he could do is to ignore the type of player Laba actually  is and leave both him and the team caught between the rock of a misused DP and the hard place of carelessly wasted salary spending.

 

Whitecaps Staring into the Infinite

This is a fairly fascinating article examining how the way we view Deep Time has changed over the years which I will now summarise by means of a limerick.

We used to think time was immense

Compared to our own present tense

But now we perceive

That the data we leave

Makes us immortal (in a sense)

In other words the mid-twentieth century perception of humanity occupying an essentially ephemeral period within the “life” of the earth has given way to the acknowledgment that almost everything we do (from fuel usage to the enormous amounts of data we accumulate) will have effects on the world for eons to come no matter whether we as a species are still around or not.

But it certainly doesn’t feel as though we are living in a Deep Time era. Not when every breaking news story swings an election one way or the other and it certainly doesn’t feel that way when it comers to sports either.

Coaches are judged by a measurement of games rather than seasons and games are judged by a measurement of individual results rather than performance or progress.

So with that in mind the first round of the MLS playoffs could not have gone any worse for fans of the Whitecaps and, by extension, the people who hold the purse strings of the club.

The big spending LA Galaxy beat the less big spending Colorado Rapids, the very big spending Toronto FC beat the very big spending NYCFC, the big spending Montreal Impact beat the not big spending New York Red Bulls and the very big spending Seattle Sounders but the not big spending FC Dallas.

There may still be a second game to play in each of these contests but the instant narrative to be gleaned from all this is that spending money equals success in the post-season.

And that goes directly in contradiction to how the Whitecaps Front Office have spun their reaction to the disappointing 2016 season with the Rapids, Dallas and Portland being held up as examples of how to succeed in MLS without breaking the bank.

If things do turn around in the second leg then that line of defence may still hold some water but if Seattle, LA, Montreal and Toronto make it through (Two fellow Canadian teams, a Cascadian rival and the very incarnation of the MLS big name DP strategy) then the off-season will definitely be more uncomfortable in terms of PR initiatives.

None of this means the Front Office are necessarily wrong of course; taking such a small sample size to extrapolate a fully formed theory is foolhardy at best.

But narrative is such a powerful decider in sport that anything which contributes to that narrative is automatically imbued with an authority no matter what the merit.

My own take is that the people who have been less than successful at recruiting mid-range DPs probably shouldn’t be handed the keys to the safe and told to go out there to get whoever they want no matter what the price and that one badly thought through expensive signing could do more damage to the team (in any number of ways) than three badly recruited mid-range signings.

But the trajectory of the post-season is making that big name acquisition look more and more like the wise (and maybe even necessary) business move.

That article I cited ends with the words “we are conjuring ourselves as ghosts that will haunt the very deep future” which I think is meant to be heavy with portent but which I find oddly reassuring for some reason.

Let’s just hope that whoever the Whitecaps do sign in the next few months won’t come back to haunt them for years to come (Memo to self: Well done at finding a link back to the article. Genuinely didn’t think you could do it).