Vancouver Whitecaps: A winner don’t quit on themselves

When life gives you lemons you have two choices on what to do about it.

You can either make lemonade or you can try and find out just where all those lemons are coming from. I mean it obviously isn’t “life” right? That makes no sense.

Maybe it’s one of the neighbours? What about Mrs. Jefferson down the street? The one with the lemon tree in the garden? She seems to be the most likely culprit.

So while we notify the authorities about Mrs. Jefferson’s increasingly erratic behaviour let’s also take a look at what positives we can glean from this Vancouver Whitecaps season so far.

You have to go through the bad to really appreciate the good- This may be trite nonsense when applied to real life (“Yes I’m really happy my whole world is crashing down around me because at least I’ll really enjoy sunsets when this misery is over”) in the sporting sense it does actually work.

Seeing your team constantly mess things up may not be great at the time (although it can actually be quite funny in a macabre kind of way) but when/if a genuine goal scorer/defender/creative midfielder does arrive their value is so much more obvious.

What the Whitecaps are doing this year is re-laying the benchmark for seasons to come; it’s unpleasant but necessary work.

It’s tactically interesting- How much more fun is it to pick apart a team that is playing badly than one that is doing well?

There would be no debate about where Pedro Morales should be playing (or even if he should be playing) if Vancouver were racking up the wins. Nor would the numbers 4-2-3-1 induce a kind of hypnotically imposed sense of dread into so many people.

All good teams are alike but all bad teams are bad in their own way. So think of this as a “teachable moment” for all concerned when it comes to lineups, formations and team selection.

It’s psychologically interesting- It’s kind of fascinating to listen to post-game interviews where players and coaches remark that the latest defeat is somehow a test of character and will thus spur them on to dig deeper into their layers of resilience and team spirit.

They seem to have conveniently forgotten that the previous defeat did no such thing while ignoring the reality that the most recent loss was a consequence of how they are playing rather than an aberration.

“You can’t deal with a problem until you actually admit you have one” may be a fine example of cod-psychology but even a fish can be right some of the time.

The season isn’t actually dead- If the Whitecaps can somehow sneak a win in Columbus and then raise their game down in Seattle they would suddenly be back in the playoff picture again.

That obviously isn’t going to happen but it definitely hasn’t not happened yet so there is still hope.

Achievements can still be achieved- Win the final game of the season in Portland and avoid defeat in one of the two games against Seattle and the Cascadia Cup will be on it’s way back to the True North.

That may have been the lowest of the priorities for the team at the start of the year but silverware is silverware.

Or maybe it wasn’t the lowest of the priorities? Maybe that was actually the Champion’s League given how the starting eleven for that competition has been constituted?

But against all the odds the Whitecaps only need one more win (or maybe even just a tie) to qualify for the quarter-finals next season which would be a great way to start the 2017 campaign and would even offer the solace of a genuine achievement for Carl Robinson and his men.

So, you see, all is definitely not lost just yet.

And as we watch Mrs. Jefferson flee in bewilderment from the SWAT team that so swiftly descended into her garden (ironically crushing the very lemon tree with which she perpetuated her reign of terror) we can only hope that valuable lessons have been learned on all sides.

 

Whitecaps still searching for the formula

Okay here we go.

The Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday afternoon was the latest installment in Carl Robinson’s “How can I mess around with the lineup and formation in order to play an out of form and out of sorts Pedro  Morales?”.

In this episode Morales was back to the number ten role he has struggled with whenever he has played there and this also meant a move away from the two up front system which has actually been somewhat successful in the last two games and a return to the dreaded 4-2-3-1 which has been somewhat less than successful for the whole of the season.

So in a game the Whitecaps had to win they began with two defensive midfielders, a number ten who isn’t very good in the number ten role and a lone striker (Erik Hurtado) who isn’t very good at finishing.

Can you guess how it went?

Well it turned out that all those other times when Pedro Morales had been ineffective as the forward most play maker weren’t aberrations at all and he was once again ineffective and was substituted with thirty minutes still remaining.

And it also turned out that all those other times when Erik Hurtado hadn’t been very good at finishing weren’t aberrations either as he put in one of the most astonishing forward displays you will ever see.

Hurtado missed glorious chance after glorious chance (and “glorious” really isn’t hyperbole in this instance) and what made those misses even more amazing is that not once did he force the goalkeeper to make a save.

By the time he missed his final opportunity in the dying seconds he had taken us through a range of emotions including, anger, hilarity, despair and empathy. In a strange way it was almost great art.

But we all know what Erik Hurtado is. He’s a limited striker who never stops running and never stops working who has proven himself useful as one of a pair up front, especially in recent weeks.

So playing him as the sole focal point of the attack is akin to setting him up to fail and after sixty minutes (probably earlier) it was clear that Saturday wasn’t going to be his day and while leaving him on the field probably felt supportive it was actually the worst decision that could have been made for the player and his confidence.

Speaking of bad decisions referee Sorin Stoica put in one of the worst officiating performances you will ever see as his whistle constantly cut through the air like a whistle cutting through air.

If no blow of the accursed instrument was needed he opted for one, if just one was required then Stoica went for two or three.

There was also his bizarre decision to have a lengthy chat with at least one player before every set piece which certainly didn’t help the flow of the game and exacerbated one of the worst examples of in game management you will ever see.

The highlight of his night though was presumably sending Carl Robinson to the stands for disputing a throw in call just before the interval.

As it turned out Robinson should probably send him a note of thanks as at least it offered the coach something else to talk about other than his team’s appalling form and if the incident persuades both him and the rest of the bench to spend as much time telling their own players what they are doing wrong as they do the game officials then maybe some good will come of it.

Needless top say the Red Bulls scored with their only real chance of the game and with ten minutes remaining the Whitecaps pulled out all the stops by putting on two attacking players (effectively for two other attacking players while still maintaining those two vitally important defensive midfielders but still).

Whenever the word “mathematically” is used in a sentence about a team’s season then that season is pretty much over and that’s where we are now with the Whitecaps.

And all before Labour Day too. Who would have thought?

 

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-5, Teibert-5, Laba-6, Morales-4, Techera-5-Aird-6*- Hurtado-\infty .

 

Pedro Morales: There he goes…

We can probably all agree that the Nick Cave song “There She Goes My Beautiful World” is a song about song writing.

Or, at the very least, we can agree that it’s a song about searching for the inspiration to write a song even though we may disagree about who or what the object of the song actually is.

There are those who would argue that it’s a straight forward love song with the minor twist that his love is founded on the fact the woman is the inspiration for his writing.

Then there are those who would say that the “she” in the song is actually the song itself and that what Cave is really in love with is the act of creativity (much of the lyrics are taken up with describing the circumstance in which other writers created their craft).

There’s no right answer of course although the latter interpretation is more satisfyingly pretentious (which kind of suits Cave’s music in a way).

But how on earth does this relate to Pedro Morales?

Well there are certainly times when he feels like the only “interesting” Whitecap to write about from a tactical point of view if only because what you see isn’t always what you get and what you get isn’t always what you see.

Take the recent road game in LA for example.

If asked after their game how involved Morales was then I would almost certainly have gone with “barely”, “marginally” or “sporadically” depending on my linguistic mood at the time.

Yet when I look at the actual stats it turns out that no Whitecaps player played more passes than Morales throughout the game (and it`s not even particularly  close as to who comes second).

Now I could certainly argue that many of those passes were ineffectual and lacking incisiveness in the final third, but the superficial notion that Morales was barely, marginally or sporadically involved was clearly wrong.

But that does make me hark back to something Jason de Vos (former TSN analyst and now Director of Development of Canada Soccer) said last season.

Namely that the Whitecaps were too reliant on their Captain to the extent that almost everything went through him and that made them both easier to defend against (because they were too predictable) and effectively nullified Morales’ greatest strength which is his ability to hit the first time unexpected pass.

After watching him for almost three seasons it’s fair to say that Morales is one of those players who looks better the better the players around him are (he only really “clicked” with Kenny Miller among all the forwards he’s played with in Vancouver) and while few would describe the Scot as “world class” he did at least make the kind of runs Morales could predict and pick out.

Who is to blame for his failure with the other forwards is a moot point because in MLS the Designated Player has to be able to make an average team good rather than a good team better and Morales just hasn’t done that in the last two seasons.

Yet even though the indications are that Morales will be leaving at the end of this year I doubt that Carl Robinson will be leaving him out of the starting eleven for the remainder of the campaign.

Instead the coach will be hoping that Morales (like Nick Cave) finds that spark of creativity almost from out of the ether but it’s worth bearing in mind that, in the middle of all his pleas to the spirits of writer’s past and muses present, Cave throws in the lines

“If you’ve got a field, that don’t yield, well get up and hoe it
I look at you and you look at me and deep in our hearts know it
That you weren’t much of a muse, but then I weren’t much of a poet”

Finding that indefinable spark isn’t just about waiting for the magic to happen; it’s also about the perspiration over the inspiration and while I think Morales gets a rough ride for the amount of work he puts in (it may not always be effective from a defensive point of view but it is always there) it may be that Robinson just can’t get the best out of him while operating within the limits of the league.

Maybe no coach in MLS could?

 

 

 

Tiny steps for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Only time will tell if the Whitecaps 0-0 tie with the LA Galaxy was a good road point gained or two valuable playoff points dropped but, for the first time in a long time, at least Vancouver looed like a coherent football team during an away fixture.

Carl Robinson stuck with the 4-4-2 that was so successful against Kansas in the week and the forward duo of Giles Barnes and Erik Hurtado provided a mixture of pace and strength to constantly keep the Galaxy backline on alert.

It’s tempting to wonder how much better  the season wold have been if Robinson had switched to the setup earlier in the year but we are where we are and where we are is a team that still has an outside chance of making the playoffs.

Laba and Teibert mostly shut down LA in the centre of the field and Fraser Aird offered pace on the break in the absence of the suspended Christian Bolaños.

We still have to come back to the presence of Pedro Morales however.

The captain was once again asked to play in the wide left role and, once again, offered little of value in terms of attacking threat and the “suddenly back in goal scoring form” Cristian Techera would almost certainly have been a better option from the start.

At least the Whitecaps looked defensively sound again though (two clean sheets in a row!) with Kendall Waston looking much more like his own self from last season.

Before we get carried away it’s worth remembering that this is an LA team on a poor run of form and missing Robbie Keane up front and who also lost Steven Gerrard  early in the first half.

But the Whitecaps have managed to lose to worse teams than that already this year so any sign of progress is welcome.

Next time out Vancouver face the New York Red Bulls at BC Place and will be without key players thanks to international call ups (Yes it makes no sense that they are playing that game during an international break but we are where we are and where we are is MLS).

That game against the Red Bulls is another one of those “must wins” that the Whitecaps have faced more with hope than expectation of late but at least the foundation of how the team should line up finally seems to be in place.

Maybe that’s a case of too little too late or maybe it’s simply a case of peaking at the perfect moment? (Spoiler alert! It’s the former, but at least we can still dream).

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Edgar-6, waston-7*, de Jong-6, Laba-6, Teibert-6, Morales-5, Aird-5-Hurtado-6, Barnes-6 

 

 

The sun not yet down on the Vancouver Whitecaps

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The year 2016 certainly feels as though it’s one where decades are happening in almost every week; but what would Lenin have said about the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 win over Sporting Kansas City in the CCL on Wednesday evening?

“There are whole seasons where nothing happens: and there are games where whole seasons happen” perhaps?

We will probably never know what he really would have thought but safe to say  he would have left BC Place that night with the palpable taste of revolution on his tongue.

Now before we go any further let’s first acknowledge that people living in the very heart of historical moments are almost universally incapable of perceiving their import and that sometimes it can be the seemingly insignificant moments that actually dictate the path of history’s narrative (“Turn a different corner and we never would have met” as George Michael once sang (possibly in reference to the fateful meeting between Lenin and Trotsky in London in 1902?).

But with such caveats acknowledged it’s hard not to escape the sense that the aftershocks of this game could rumble on for weeks and maybe even seasons.

So what will have changed?

Two up front- Carl Robinson has been more attached to the lone striker than a barnacle to the bottom of  a banana boat but the win against Kansas offered definitive proof that his team could prosper with a forward duo (as they also did in both Toronto and Philadelphia by the way) as the running of both Hurtado and Kudo kept Kansas constantly confounded.

It may be too much to hope that he sends out a similar system in LA on Saturday but the following home game against the Red Bulls has to be pencilled in for a repeat showing given just how poor the team have been at BC Place this year.

Robinson got a “performance” by using the stick and not the carrot- It’s pretty clear that Robinson is an “arm around the shoulder” kind of coach by instinct, but something finally broke last week and he made Matias Laba pay that breakage by leaving him out of the roster for the MLS trip to Kansas.

Laba was back in the eleven on Wednesday and also back to his best as he set out with something to prove from the very first whistle.

If Robinson learns the lesson that different players need to be motivated in different ways then it bodes well for the rest of his time here and bodes ill for any players who have been coasting by on reputation alone.

The new Manneh?- It’s been somewhat shocking to find out just how much the Whitecaps miss the presence of Kekuta Manneh. Sure we all knew he offered something different to anybody else in the team but the plodding nature of the attack without him is remarkable.

The smart money was probably on Alphonso (“he’s fifteen you know”) Davies stepping into Manneh’s shoes but against SKC Fraser Aird looked much more like the heir apparent.

Like Manneh he has blistering pace and, like Manneh, he doesn’t lose much of that pace when he actually has the ball at his feet.

He doesn’t always make the right choice with his final pass (like Manneh) but whether as a starter or a late substitution Aird does at least offer a rough approximation of the speed from deep that the team has been profoundly lacking.

A change of mood?- Up until Wednesday the whole season seemed to have drifted into a kind of all encompassing mixture of lethargy and angst with most of the discussions surrounding off the pitch issues and potential hirings and firings.

Suddenly though Vancouver are clear favourites to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League and (somewhat unbelievably) are still only two points away from a playoff spot.

Admittedly of the four teams chasing that single position they are the least well placed but sometimes the best that you can hope for is just to keep the season alive for as long as possible and the season suddenly seems to have a few more weeks than recently seemed possible.

Their next game isn’t even a “must win” (although the one after that certainly is) but if they do somehow manage to find a way to be a “coupon buster” in LA as Carl Robinson put it (no doubt confounding many people unfamiliar with British gambling vernacular) then who knows what could happen.

You gotta have faith! (Which was the original title of Lenin’s “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” I believe).

Whitecaps find a ray of hope!

Well we all needed that!

The long dark midnight of the soul that has haunted the Whitecaps in recent weeks was split asunder by three blinding shafts of light in the form of two goals from Christian Techera and one from Erik Hurtado as Vancouver took full control of their CCL group by beating Sporting Kansas City 3-0 at BC Place.

Maybe that’s a smidgeon of dramatic overkill but it’s been weeks (months?) since the Whitecaps played with this much verve and purpose in any competition.

Carl Robinson rang the changes, most notably by switching to a 4-4-2 with Kudo and Hurtado up front and while the Japanese striker was lively it was Hurtado who stole the show with his breakaway goal and a scintillating display of the full range of his tricks and flicks throughout the game (Wait? What did I just write?).

It’s genuinely hard to find anybody who played badly but special mentions go to Techera who looked more like his lively goal scoring self again, Brett Levis who displayed a remarkable degree of comfort on the ball in his first game since signing an MLS contract and Jordan Smith who spent half the evening breaking up attacks with his sliding challenges and the other half causing havoc with his rampaging runs down the wing (Wait? What did I just write?).

Shout out too to Matias Laba who responded to being left out of the MLS squad with arguably his best performance of the season.

From the first minute it was clear that Laba was up for this game and this was a timely reminder of not just how useful his defensive qualities are but also how valuable his interceptions can be in launching the Whitecaps on the counterattack.

And let’s not forget Carl Robinson who has certainly been under scrutiny of late but responded by getting the best out of the eleven players he fielded and his biggest headache now is just who he selects for the upcoming game in LA.

He’s certainly indicated that if players put in a performance then he will reward them and on this showing the whole back four, Laba, Techera and Hurtado (at the very least) deserve to start.

That probably won’t happen but at least this game should be a reminder to a few senior players that taking a game by the scruff of the neck and all working together is a better recipe for success than whatever it is they have been trying of late.

Those speculations are for another day though because, for now, let’s just enjoy a Whitecaps performance that was not only fun to watch but also looked like fun to play in.

It’s something to build on at least.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Tornaghi-7, Smith-8, Levis-8, Parker-7, Waston-7, Laba-8*, Teibert-7, Techera-8, Aird-7, Kudo-7, Hurtado-8

 

 

Whitecaps fail when the chips are down

Perhaps the worst thing to happen to Carl Robinson at the start of his career as head coach was that so many of his early signings produced positive results on the field.

Morales, Beitashour, Laba, Mezquida, Waston and even Sebastián Fernández provided valuable contributions to Robinson’s first season in charge and created the sense that the Whitecaps had a coach who could pick up quality Designated Players from the lower end of the salary cap spectrum along with bargain buys from Central and South America.

But as the seasons have progressed that has proved to be less and less the case as the likes Rivero, Rodriguez, Smith and Flores have all turned out to be busted flushes when it comes to MLS play.

And the decisions to sign Smith and Flores after both of them struggled for the previous season felt a little like watching a Blackjack player who once got lucky by hitting a two when he already had nineteen in his hand try to recreate that moment with more and more desperation.

Recent signings have indicated a move away from the philosophy that all problems can be solved by a Uruguayan but they are too little too late for this season (and may well be too little for next as well) and when every new player is designed to fix a problem rather than improve the team then glory is most certainly not on the horizon.

Perhaps the best thing to happen to Carl Robinson at this stage of his career as a head coach (and I’m talking long term here) is how much of a disaster this season has been.

If we had to define his core philosophy it would probably be that a happy team is a good team; if a coach stands up for the players then the players will stand up for the coach.

Well that isn’t happening this season as time after time the Whitecaps fade out of games once they fall behind or fail to kill off a team once they get the lead (it is possible for the Whitecaps to take the lead, I’ve checked the record books).

Now there are those who will say, who do say, that these failings are caused because the players don’t care enough about the team or the shirt or the crest, but it seems to be less about caring and more about the lack of concern any of them really have with regard to their position at the club or in the team.

Even the decision to drop Matias Laba for the game in Kansas was signaled so far ahead of time that it can’t really have shaken the player up all that much.

But sooner or later Robinson is surely going to realise (going to have to realise) that some players play well when they are happy and some players play well when they are scared and there just isn’t a one size fits all to getting the best out of a team.

If that message sinks home then the off season should at least be interesting as both he and the Front Office need to come up with a new vision as to what this team actually wants to be.

Anyway all this rambling is to avoid mentioning the 2-0 defeat in Kansas on Saturday evening where the Whitecaps didn’t play that badly but never really looked like scoring and always looked capable of conceding.

That’s how far the bar has fallen this season. A performance like that counts as “not bad”.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6*, Aird-5, Waston, 5, Edgar-5, de Jong-5, Jacobson-5, Morales-4, Mezquida-4, Bolaños-5, Barnes-6, Perez-4