Vancouver Whitecaps: Every day in every way…

Now that Whitecaps fans are living in that bitter spot of time between the end of the MLS playoffs and the confirmation of any actual moves in and out of the club this is a good opportunity to step away from the usual ruthlessly analytical examination of tactics and team selection and take a more panoramic view of how the club could make small (but significant) changes for the better in 2017.

So we’ll run these three ideas up the proverbial flag pole and see who metaphorically salutes.

Always play in white for home games- They are called the Whitecaps, the play “White is the Colour” before every game and yet frequently turn up varying shades of blue.

Now I get it’s about marketing alternate jerseys and I’m definitely not in the “Against Modern Football” camp (Football is a simple game that is exceptionally good at imbuing itself with whatever the quirks and ills of society currently are. So I guess I’m “Against Modern Football” but throughout all periods of time because there have always been things about football to be “against” no matter what the era).

Anyway, now that we’ve muddied that puddle of water back to the “always play in white at home” issue.

Aside from the ridiculous spectacle of the Seattle Sounders playing in white at BC Place a few weeks ago (there must have been a few newbies who thought that Seattle were the home team on that day) it seems odd to not want to establish a consistent identity at home.

You could even call it “strengthening the brand” for those more interested in the marketing aspect of the whole thing but try to imagine Real Madrid allowing an opponent to turn out in a white kit at the Bernabeu?

Or Manchester United permitting an opponent to play in red?

The Whitecaps are nowhere near that level but team colours are an integral part of how people relate to a club and the Whitecaps currently play far too fast and loose with that emotion.

WhitecapsFC TV- Sure the Whitecaps aren’t going to get a subscription channel in the way that Barcelona and Chelsea do but there must be a sweet spot somewhere between what we got through regular TV and what we get on the Whitecaps own site.

Unfortunately MLS is particularly poorly served when it comes to game analysis. The TV time slots allow for almost none and the official MLS home page revels in three minute videos that are more enamoured with camera angles and slow motion than they are with details.

So how great would it be to have a weekly show of about an hour where a coach broke down a play or a player talked through his movement leading up to a goal?

It would be very great that’s the answer!

It happens in every other North American sport yet for some reason soccer seems to feels it’s audience is comprised solely of people for whom the average cat GIF is a little too much to ask in terms of attention span.

And if nobody else within the media is willing to offer MLS fans a level of respect when it comes to covering the game then the Whitecaps could and should go there.

Let’s play two- Arguably the most successful aspect of 2016 was Whitecaps FC 2, but being stuck out at UBC means they tend to exist more in theory than in practice to most people.

The Whitecaps did well in spreading that location this year but playing a couple of games a year at BC Place before a first team game would not only be a great experience for the second string it would also instil their existence in the minds of the few thousand who would arrive early to see them play.

Any salutes from any of those flagpoles?

No? Well what about each team having the opportunity to throw a dog on to the field once in each half?

Too gimmicky?

Whitecaps extend Carl Robinson’s tenure

The news that Carl Robinson has signed a new contract with the Whitecaps through 2020 is both a huge vote of confidence in him from the Front Office and an attempt to imbue some stability at the club.

But stability isn’t the be all and end all of what a team should be; there has to be progress too and that was the missing element this year for the Whitecaps.

So if Carl Robinson were to give me a call and say “Russell, I need five bullet points on how to to improve in 2017. Can you help me?” I would say “Hey Carl! No I most definitely can’t because I’m an idiot but that’s a great idea for a really simple blog piece. Thanks!”.

And so we leave the coach staring disconsolately at his phone while we list five hastily thought through areas of possible development for the man in charge.

  • Better targeted signings– In other words bringing in players who fit a specific system rather than bringing in players just because they are “good”. File Kudo in that category and maybe even Perez too. Robinson probably got lucky with his early moves and unlucky with his later ones but finding pieces for the gaps rather than pieces that need a gap creating for them has to be the priority now.
  • Better in game management- Did I say “better”? Maybe I meant “braver”? Because there’s definitely a cautious side to Robinson that while having some advantages frequently limits his ability to change a game. Make an early substitution every now and then if only to keep the Whitecaps players on their toes. Change things around at half time if they aren’t going well. More active touchline coaching wouldn’t go amiss either but that’s probably my personal preference over anything of any actual value.
  • Don’t always be defence counsel for the players- It’s fine to speak up for the team but not to the extent that stretches the bounds of credibility. Don’t say they played well when we all know they didn’t, don’t praise their character immediately after they’ve thrown away another three points. That’s also a good way to let the fans know that you are aware of the issues and are addressing them.
  • Select the right captain– We can argue all day whether who the captain is really matters on the field but it does matter off it. Pedro Morales was never willing or able to give any kind of lengthy post game analysis and so it was left to others (I’m looking at you David Ousted) to step up to the plate. Could it also be that Pedro’s unwillingness to fulfill all the aspects of the role led to dissatisfaction among other players (I’m looking at you David Ousted)? Hard to say. But I’m betting it didn’t help.
  • Embrace the hate- Or at least don’t be afraid to piss a few players off no matter what their salary or standing. This is related to point three I suppose but that toning down of public support when necessary needs to be aligned with ruthlessness in private. This season essentially proved that Robinson can’t trust all his players to either manage their own fitness or their own internal esprit de corps. Time to eschew the velvet glove for the iron fist.

Contract extension or no contract extension it’s hard to see Robinson surviving another season as bad as 2016 (in terms of performances if not results) so how he implements the lessons he says he has learned will essentially define how he is perceived as a coach.

Beyond the good news of the new contract that’s an awfully daunting situation to be in.

Vancouver Whitecaps end the season on a high

The Vancouver Whitecaps game against the Portland Timbers on Sunday afternoon at BC Place felt a bit like the last day of a particularly disappointing vacation.

That day trip to the historic village? Tourist trap full of tourist tat. That fish restaurant everybody recommended? Food poisoning. That cruise around the charming harbour? Thirty minutes on a barely renovated car ferry.

Yet on the last day of the whole vacation you not only stumble across the best beach party ever but you also finally get some “quality time” with that guy/gal you’ve been helplessly staring at for the last seven days.

Okay, the Whitecaps 4-1 win over the Portland Timbers wasn’t quite that good but it did at least ease away a little bit of the pain of all that had gone before.

And that easing of pain was helped even more thanks to four of the best goals of the season; a left foot rocket and a right foot pass into the net from Giles Barnes, a howitzer from Pedro Morales and a twisting run from Nicolas Mezquida.

A churl would say that the Timbers (who haven’t won on the road all year) just weren’t very good, but Vancouver have managed to lose to not very good teams all season.

That same churl would also say that being able to produce your best performance when there was nothing of any significance on the line was actually a sign of weakness rather than strength.

But the Cascadia Cup and a little bit of pride were on the line and the trick for Carl Robinson and his coaching staff is to learn the right lessons from the game and not the wrong ones (and if there were an end of season award for stating the obvious then that sentence would easily sweep all before it).

The wrong lesson to be learned is that there are no fundamental issues with this team that can’t be fixed with a small attitude adjustment and a little bit of luck.

The issues run far deeper than that.

The right lesson to be learned is that playing a lone striker can work if the lone striker works as hard as Erik Hurtado (but with a better end product) and if each one of the three behind him is constantly willing to offer support when the ball goes forward.

It also doesn’t hurt to actively try to add to a lead rather than to hope one goal will always be enough.

But there’ll be time enough in the coming weeks and months to delve into what needs to change (a lot) and who needs to leave (a few) because today we can all sit back and relax as our metaphorical plane takes off from our metaphorical runway and our metaphorical whimper of  a vacation comes to an end with an unexpected metaphorical bang.

But seriously let’s never go back to that place again.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings

Ousted-6, Aird-7, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Morales-7, Bolaños 7, Mezquida-7, Hurtado-6, Barnes-7*

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: Part Three

Here’s a tip for you.

If you’re ever unlucky enough to face the death penalty but lucky enough to choose your own mode of execution then make sure you opt for death by a firing squad comprised solely of Vancouver Whitecaps strikers.

You’ll probably live for another fifty years.

I’m joking of course (you’d last five years maximum) but I’m using humour to slam home the point that the Whitecaps weren’t very good going forward this season.

But that’s not necessarily the fault of the men playing nearest to the opposition goal (though it is partially their fault) because the system that Vancouver play does about as good a job as it can do of setting them up to fail.

The season began with Octavio Rivero back in his world of perfect isolation and when he threw down his tools and headed to the land of Colo Colo it was pretty much a case of “striker by committee” from that point on.

Erik Hurtado got the nod for most of the games and he did what he always does; hustled well, got into good posiitons and then mostly made no use whatsoever of said position.

It’s clear that Carl Robinson admires Hurtado’s workrate but no team is going to achieve consistent success with Hurtado as the lone striker.

Ah the “lone striker”; that most beloved of all Carl Robinson’s tactical ploys.

The problem with that being the team just don’t have anybody who can play that role with any degree of substance.

Blas Perez maybe could have done a couple of years ago but now he needs somebody near him and anyway he’s mostly been consigned to the Rober Earnshaw school of “signing  an experienced and proven goalscorer and then mostly leaving him on the bench”.

Nicolas Mezquida certainly can’t play that role, although the few times he started as a number ten he at least provided some kind of support when the Whitecaps were going forward.

And as for Masato Kudo?

If any signing summed up the issues with the current team then it’s the unfortunate Japanese striker.

Even leaving aside his horrific injury it soon became clear that if he was going to make it in MLS (and that’s a fairly big “if”) he’d need somebody to play alongside him.

But his chances of playing the solitary front man role were zero.

Either the Whitecaps signed Kudo  without giving any consideration to how he would fit into the team or they signed him with the intention of adapting their style of play and then swiftly abandoned any such plan.

If there has to be one guiding principle for the team to follow in the coming months then it surely has to be attempting to bring in players who genuinely fit whatever system Carl Robinson favours in 2017.

Don’t pick the players they want, pick the players they need.

Giles Barnes arrived as a kind of second prize in the mid-season lottery and proceeded to play like the fifth prize in the mid-season lottery and so now the decision to be made is to judge whether his inability to shine was down to him or the broken nature of the team.

But signing him for another year would be a huge, season defining, gamble.

The only person who came out of all this with any positives is Kekuta Manneh (mostly because  he stopped playing due to injury).

Bizarrely Manneh never quite looked right from the very start of the season but even more bizarrely he was still greatly missed once he was no longer available.

Having Manneh back next year will be a bonus but the problem is that he tends to cover up deficincies within the rest of the team (both technical and tactical) because having a player who can run very quickly with the ball is still a pretty effective weapon to hold in MLS.

So figuring out how to get a good finisher and then how to get that good finisher into postions where he can actually finish has to be priority number one for the Whitecaps right now.

The problem though is that isn’t an easy task and it’s exacerbated by the knowledge that the track record in that department is borderline abysmal.

But the law of averages has to kick in at some time I guess?

 

Vancouver Whitecaps play a game of soccer in San Jose

There are two ways of looking at the Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon.

It was either a meaningless end of season game which meant nothing to either team and so drifted predictably into nothingness or, alternatively, it was a fascinating insight into the mind of Carl Robinson has he prepares for 2017.

If you think the former then stop reading now (and that is the course of action I strongly recommend) but if you think the latter then please follow me deep into the the rabbit hole of speculation and supposition.

What was with that starting eleven for example?

No place for any of the late season “playoff push” signings of Edgar, de Jong and Barnes was surely an indication that that particular experiment had failed.

And the decision to play Nicolas Mezquida in the wide left role was one that we can clearly class as “brave” given that Mezquida almost certainly can’t play that position and that he definitely certainly didn’t want to play that position on the day given how often he drifted infield.

And are we back to 4-4-2 as an option again or was that just a way of ensuring that Erik Hurtado can’t be removed from the eleven no matter what the circumstance?

It was nice to see Paolo Tornaghi get a start (and a clean sheet) but how nice was that for David Ousted? This may have been a meaningless game but it was still a competitive game and the Dane is nothing if not a competitor.

And why, all of a sudden, is Fraser Aird back at right back ahead of Jordan Smith? There have been multiple occasions when this change would have made more sense than right now.

And Marco Bustos coming on as a substitute after playing for WFC2 the day before?

Yet none of this does signify anything of course because the Whitecaps season is beyond significance and maybe Robinson was taking this opportunity to throw out a few favours to a few players knowing that such an approach wouldn’t be tolerated in the final game against Portland.

That makes some sense I guess.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-6, Waston-6, Parker-6*, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-6, Techera-6, Mezquida-5, Kudo-5, Hurtado-5

Whitecaps Season Review: Part Two

If there is one thing the Vancouver Whitecaps will have learned from the 2016 season (though hopefully they will have learned more than just one) it’s that the margin for error in Major League Soccer is no longer as wide at it once was.

Even the generous playoff format wasn’t enough for the Whitecaps this year and much of that failure stemmed from the poor performance of the midfield (and the defence and the attack).

The middle of the park is supposed to be the engine room for any team but this season it felt less like an engine room and more like a vaguely useful cupboard that is sometimnes used for storage when unexpected visitors stay the night.

In other words the midfield didn’t propel Vancouver forward it merely offered a little bit of space for Uncle Billy to store his suitcase and those golf clubs that we’re all pretty sure he never actually uses.

But even though that generalisation sums up the year with devestating accuracy let’s delve a little bit deeper into the individual performances.

Sometimes it feels as though Carl Robinson’s ideal formation would consist of all ten outfield players playing as deep lying midfielders but even he wasn’t inclined to go that far.

In the end it was only  Laba, Morales, Teibert and Jacobson who spent significant time in the role (with a brief early season cameo from Kianz Froese).

And it was that early season cameo which offered the hope that the Whitecaps were moving away from a duo of defensively positioned central players and incorporating the oft dreamed off “bos to box” midfielder.

The experiment was short lived however as a mixture of suspension, concussion and coaching reluctance effectively removed Froese from the scene.

That left Laba and Morales as the default setting and unfortunately Laba had easily his worst year as a Whitecap.

For much of the first part of the year he was less a terrier chasing after the ball than he was a terrier chasing after where the ball used to be. Maybe he was unnerved by the inconsistent officiating but it took him until the final couple of months of the season to begin to look like his old self again.

Morales started the season with a flurry of penalty goals but that only served to cover up his deficincies and it felt as though Carl Robinson spent the rest of the season frantically trying to find the best formation to cover up those deficincies.

He never found it though and the red card for an unnecessary elbow agasint the Sounders felt like the symbolic last act of his time in Vancouver even if it wasn’t his literal last act.

Andrew Jacobson could make a convincing case that he was the signing of the off season given how competent he was whenever he took the field but it’s exactly that same level of competence that condemns Russell Teibert.

It’s still hard to know what to make of Teibert but he tends to play as though he’s doing the things that he thinks a player in that postion should do.

Drop back to pick up the ball from the central defender, play a safe ball to another central defender and then dart into space to pick up the ball once more before returning it to the first central defender and then rinse and repeat.

Possession hasn’t been lost but neither has anything positive been gained.

It really does feel as though a new start in a new team might make Teibert a more effective and well rounded player.

Christian Bolaños arrived with genuine pedigree; European Champi0ns League and World Cup experience offering the hope he could pair up with Morales to create a genuinely inventive attacking midfield.

That never quite happened (partly down to Morales’ poor form, partly down to the way the team was playing and partly down to Bolaños himself).

The Costa Rican is a technically gifted player who likes to slow the game down playing in a team that (by season end) wasn’t technically gifted and was reliant on getting fast passes to a fast man up front.

In the last game against Seattle Bolaños played in the number ten role and there were signs that he could fit that position effectively. indeed, a platoon of Bolaños and Mezquida playing in that most crucial of MLS positions might well allow the Whitecaps to spend money on other areas of the team.

That would be somewhat of a risk to be sure but if Bolaños is to stay then he needs to be in a team that makes the most of his talents rather than stifling them.

Perhaps the most disappointing of all the regular midfielders though was Cristian Techera as the Uruguayan followed last year’s terrific effort with an insipid and inneffective year.

Except in the Champions League of course where he scored goals on a regular basis.

That at least leaves some doubt about whether he’s worth another year as well as leaving even more doubt about why the team didn’t get the best out of him in MLS (or why seemingly every good CONCACAF perfromance he put in was followed up with two or three games back on the bench).

And so we end with Alphonso Davies.

I’m nowhere near the hype train bandwagon (“Hype Train Bandwagon” would be a great name for a band by the way) that many are on, mostly becasue Davies tends to get graded on the curve of his age.

Fire a good chance skywards and he hears ” Oh well. He’s only fifteen you know?”, produce a lovely bit of skill and he hears “And he’s only fifteen!”.

He clearly has immense talent but I’m not sure that playing as an intermittent starter and substitute is the best way to develop that talent over the long term.

I am sure however that it would be madness for the Whitecaps to base next season’s planning on the assumption that Davies will continue to grow (as a player) and so assume that no further upgrade or backup is required in the wide role.

Davies was certainly one of the few “feel good” stories for the club in 2016 but let’s hope that isn’t the driving force with regard to how his career develops.

So let’s leave the midfield there; hastily scambling to intercept a fairly average through ball while simultaneously standing statuesque still while the ball is in the opposition penaly area.

Next time out it’s the forwards!