So we can at least agree that soccer makes no sense?
In the first half of the 2-2 tie with Cincinnati the Vancouver Whitecaps were mostly awful as Vanni Sartini deployed a brave line of magical thinking by believing that a midfield two of Teibert and Jungwirth would be adequate cover for the absence of Andreas Cubas.
It was not adequate cover for the absence of Andreas Cubas and Vancouver were lucky to go into the break only one goal behind.
They were also unlucky again with injuries, although one does begin to wonder if so many injuries is related to the way they train and if so many freak accidents is related to a lack of cohesion on the field.
It could all just be the role of the dice (memo to self: leave “role” in there as is, it’s pleasingly pretentious) of course so no definitive answer will be forthcoming.
In the second half the Whitecaps were much better defensively (maybe they had lulled Cincinnati into a false sense of security?) but the game really turned with the arrival of Brian White, who provided some energy up front and particularly Michael Baldisimo, who provided some forward passes to a front line desperate for even the smallest sliver of hope.
By the end of the game it was the Whitecaps who looked the more likely to grab the winner and while a point isn’t a season changing tally it does at least keep them ticking along just when it looked as though the season may fall away from them.
It may still do just that of course but, for now, they are still a viable option to sneak into a playoff spot.
Look, we all know that the Whitecaps could take four points from the next two road games and suddenly be sitting pretty in the Wester Conference standings. That’s just how MLS works.
But the performance against Minnesota outlined that the problems the team faces are still larger than the solutions they have.
Let’s set aside the fact that in the post game interviews everybody involved thought that trading half chances in a home game against a team on the same points is a “good performance” (it’s adequate at best) and focus instead on the more obvious deficiency.
The central midfield.
Because although the arrival of Andres Cubas has helped alleviate the issues faced in that area his absence for the second half on Friday evening exposed the flaws with startling clarity.
It was a throwback to earlier in the season as we were once again treated to the sight of opponents strolling through the centre of the pitch while the Whitecaps midfield looked on with bemused alarm.
But let’s first look at what the options are when Cubas is on the the field?
Russell Teibert- there’s something quite endearing about the way that Teibert has refused to grow as a player in his time as a Whitecap. Admittedly he has added the first time pass into a wide channel to his repertoire of late but that feels more like a new line of code in his programming than any inherent understanding of what is happening on the field.
Mostly he continues to revert to the simplest backwards directed pass available no matter how many colleagues are free ahead of him or how much pressure this pass puts on the poor player receiving the benighted ball.
One assumes that Sartini keeps playing Teibert due to his work rate and earnest demeanour. But it’s tough to watch this kind of play week after week.
Leonard Owusu- Owusu has had games where he seems able to dominate the midfield and be just what the doctor ordered for the Whitecaps. But he has had many more games where he has no real influence at all and far too many games where he has been downright dangerous to the health of the team’s defensive solidity.
A swing and a miss when it comes to the recruitment team here (ditto the above for currently out on loan Janio Bikel).
Ciao Alexandre- there seemed to be an online backslash to Alexandre when he did finally make a couple of brief appearances earlier this season. That’s probably down to his stock rising so highly when he was absent that many had come to see him as the miracle cure to what ails the team.
But while it’s still impossible to make any kind of definitive assessment about how useful Alexandre would be, it is possible to say that he is not the kind of player that Sartini wants to see in his midfield anyway.
Making his availability more of a moot point than it has often seemed to be.
Michael Baldisimo- neither is Baldisimo the kind of player that Sartini wants in his midfield. At least not the Baldisimo that exists in real life. The coach wants Baldisimo to be a deep lying playmaker who can also defend but Baldisimo is not that and the Whitecaps don’t have the luxury of time to turn him into that.
His whole tenure in Vancouver feels like a waste of talent that would be better suited to a club that wants the skill set he has.
Sebastian Berhalter- another player blighted by injury but one that may at least partly fit the profile that both the coach and the supporters want. A defensive midfielder who can at least hit a forward pass, it’s tempting (wildly disillusioned?) to think that Berhalter could develop into a very decent MLS midfielder playing alongside and learning from Cubas.
The options when Cubas isn’t on the field?
Revert to a back four with three in midfield and ask Florian Jungwirth to stand in front of the central defenders and to not, under any circumstances, venture forward. Nobody wants to see the German haplessly chasing an opponent the full length of the field ever again.
It’s true that none of the above is an inspiring set of circumstances.
But a fit Cubas at least renders the situation sustainable until the team can figure out how to find a better partner for him.
An unfit Cubas however is a recipe for a situation that is farcical (but not comical).
After the surprisingly positive performance against LAFC last week I ended my sparkling review of the Whitecaps win with the line “Now they just need to bring the same energy to a Friday night game against Minnesota”.
It’s amazing what truth can be gleaned from a desperate attempt to find a pithy ending to a blog post because reader, they did not bring the same energy.
What they brought instead was the more typical half-hearted attempts to press for a goal and an over reliance on being able to defend competently.
But one moment of quality did produce a goal for Cavallini in the second half and it would have been preferable/nice/wise if Vancouver saw that as an opportunity to build on their advantage and press for that rarest of beasts, a second goal.
They did not do this.
Instead they fell victim to believing their own publicity concerning their defensive prowess and simply allowed the visitors to score three unanswered goals without offering a shot in anger themselves for the rest of the game.
The absence of Cubas for the second half certainly didn’t help but the Whitecaps are built this way.
They are built to eke out wins by the odd goal while relying on fate and an abundance of defensive midfielders to see them through.
That’s why they will never reach the upper section of the Conference table.
Too happy to to settle for adequacy and live in the hope that the breaks go their way, too content to pas the ball in safe areas and not brave enough to try any take any game by the scruff of the neck.
Maybe a giant picture of Max Crepeau should be hung behind each goal to persuade the team that they still have something to prove and that working to win games is preferable to being afraid of losing them?
So much time is spent on this site writing about what went wrong with a Vancouver Whitecaps performance that it feels almost ominous to detail the things that went right.
But the 1-0 win over LAFC is the perfect opportunity for a healthy dose of reluctant optimism.
The first half was “mostly fine”. The Whitecaps kept the visitors at bay without ever looking like scoring themselves, but the second half was a different story as they threw tradition out of the window and pressed to try a win a a game of football.
So what did go right in the second half?
Cavallini off- Credit to Sartini for having the nous to remove the Canadian forward before LAFC and an overly persuadable referee did the job for him. The change allowed White to play as the lone forward and give the attack a structure that was sadly missing in the first half.
White wasn’t great by any means but suddenly Gauld was playing with his teammates rather than alongside them and there just seemed more space for the rest of the team to run in to.
It’s possible that keeping Cavallini on and taking White off would have had the same impact but the White/Cavallini pairing looks to be an experiment that would fail a fairly basic peer review test.
Vite on- The coach has shown a latent distrust of Vite up to now, mostly reluctant to use him even when attacking guile was needed. But his introduction on Saturday added impetus to the Whitecaps already building momentum.
Always looking to play the quick forward pass it was somewhat disconcerting to see Vite and Gauld pinging passes to each other both confident that the other would control the ball and use it equally quickly.
It was a compelling case for the two playing behind a lone striker as the default tactical setup for the rest of the season.
A composed central defence- Given Godoy’s inability to play regular games it’s possible that the back three of Brown, Veselinovic and Blackmon is the best option right now.
Blackmon can be sloppy with his passing but at least is trying to make the right passes. Veselinovic has become a reliable regular and Brown has been a revelation in the centre of defence.
The erstwhile wing back has become a defensive rock and if he and Blackmon can utilize their abilities to get forward more they could add another string the the Whitecap’s attacking bow.
Andre Cubas- All of the above were hugely helped by the play of Cubas who makes it easier for everybody.
Those playing behind him are no longer faced with opposition players running freely at them while the midfield two scurry frantically in chase. Those in front of him are helped by his always opting for the forward pass if it’s on (and having the ability to play said pass).
It was fitting that his goal arrived thanks to him intercepting yet another opposition pass.
All in all it was a hugely positive night.
Now they just need to bring the same energy to a Friday night game against Minnesota.
After the recent 4-0 debacle in Seattle I wrote the following about the Vancouver Whitecaps
“This game should be a reminder that they need to work hard every day at everything for the rest of the season. But recent history suggests they will just work hard for a few games and then revert to type once a good result or two is achieved.”
And so, after two wins, the Whitecaps did indeed revert to type. As it was written then so it came to pass.
Fortunately the New England Revolution aren’t as clinical a team as Seattle, but a 0-0 home tie against a mediocre Eastern Conference team is exactly the kind of result that prevents Vancouver from reaching any height other than “still within a chance of the playoffs”.
To be fair the Whitecaps started brightly and for (let’s say) fifteen and a half minutes that played with a degree of urgency.
They they stopped.
Players receiving the ball with acres of space to run into would pause, take a look around and ultimately decide to play the ball backwards or (if they were feeling adventurous) sideways to a teammate who followed suit.
The late arrival of Brian White gave them some impetus in attack but they still proceeded to make more bad decisions than a Junior Accounts Manager at his first Vegas conference.
Simple passes were overhit, shots were taken when a pass was the better option and crosses were floated into the box in a way that would make the goalkeeping coach of an under twelve’s team bemoan that this was all a bit too easy for his charges.
Next up is LAFC and no doubt the Whitecaps will be energized by the return of Crepeau and the absence of Bale.
But this desultory performance against the Revolution continues to define them more than the inevitable post game talk of being better and working harder.
Vanni Sartini has gone all in on the Canadian Championship this season and he did so again on Wednesday evening against York United, starting all three of his Designated Players.
And it sort of worked.
In the first half the Whitecaps rarely looked troubled defensively, but were diffident going forward allowing the visitors ample time to regroup while Vancouver knocked the ball around with little real urgency.
That changed in the second half and with Raposo and Gauld both making runs in behind the York defence to create two much needed goals for Brian White and the game looked to be a done deal until substitutions were made and, as in the game against Dallas at the weekend the Whitecaps went from being on control to resorting to hacked clearances and hopeful punts forward.
The difference can’t all be down to the withdrawal of Andres Cubas but it feel as though the midfield suddenly went from anticipating where the ball would be to running to where the ball had just been.
Elsewhere Cristian Dajome continues to struggle displaying a bizarre mix of thinking too much and not thinking at all whenever he has the ball, but Ryan Raposo continues to grow in the wide role and is now much more of an attacking threat than he ever was before.
These games are always tough (as the Whitecaps have demonstrated in the past) but a final against Toronto is a fitting reward for Sartini’s willingness to invest so much into a tournament that has been mostly a source of angst for this team.
From yesterday but now with additional meanderings.
There are few things more dispiriting in life than settling down to watch a perfectly competent TV series only to suddenly discover that, horror of horrors, this is the “Dream Sequence” episode!
Any narrative arc and character development will be cast aside as we are forced to watch the main character wander through a door that isn’t really there to discover the rest of the cast (dressed as various summer vegetables) dancing a slow waltz around a swimming pool filled with water the colour of blood. Meanwhile, the main character’s mother scream insults from atop a turquoise coloured elephant while the camera zooms in and out with all the grace of said elephant navigating an Olympic level slalom course.
Whether all these shenanigans are due to the writers believing they have something interesting to say about the subconscious world of the hero or are just a way of padding out the season to the full ten episodes is irrelevant.
For the hapless viewer the whole thing is disorienting and disjointed.
And every Vancouver Whitecaps game is essentially a dream sequence episode writ large.
It may be a case of of confirmation bias but the Whitecaps always seem to be worse immediately after an extended break. Almost as though time spent on the training ground thinking about how they should be playing disrupts their synapses and they need the cold reality of actual games to get themselves back up to speed.
A team that was clueless in one game can be tightly disciplined in the next, players unable to control the ball in one game are killing passes with the outside of their foot in another and a defence that once resembled a secondhand sieve suddenly resembles a sturdy shield.
A big part of that shield were the performances of Godinho and Brown. In recent games the former has looked to be the epitome of an attacking wing-back and the latter the embodiment of a solid right sided central defender. One can only assume that some kind of mind/body transference experiment has taken place between the two of them.
And so it came to pass in the 2-0 victory in Dallas on Saturday evening.
The team that was criminally poor in Seattle became legally good in Frisco as they limited the home side to hopeful crosses and less hopeful shots.
New arrival Andres Cubas certainly helped in shoring up the midfield, but so did Russell Teibert. And a back three of Brown, Veselinovic and Blackmon benefited from the cover provided and kept their shape with aplomb for most of the game.
So who will Sartini ultimately partner Cubas with? A defensive minded Teibert or Berhalter or a more attack minded Alexandre or Vite (or Gauld)? Or does he see Cubas as offering enough going forward to retain the security of the two man midfield cover? Recent history suggests the coach is reluctant to free up his central pairing to do anything more than offer the odd foray going forward.
Up front Cavallini, Dajome and Caicedo worked hard without ever really creating anything from open play after the early goal. But that is of no import.
The road trip was salvaged.
Only a fool would definitively say that this team were now on the up, but they are at least not on the down and the sight of Gauld and White coming off the bench indicated that this is a squad that can probably achieve more in the second half of the season than it has in the first.
Neither Gauld nor White have settled into the season yet, but the thought of both Cubas and Gauld (two players who can genuinely read the game) both playing near the top of their form is not an unpleasant one.
But we would do well to remember that they still remain as unpredictable as a third rate writer’s room and that they will always be just one game away from doing something that makes no sense at all.
While it’s subjectively frustrating to watch the Whitecaps lose to a Cascadian rival, there’s nothing objectively terrible about losing to the Sounders in Seattle.
After all, they are a good team run by a competent organization.
But it is immensely frustrating to see the Whitecaps lose in the manner they did on Tuesday evening.
Mentally switching off within the first few minutes to concede an early penalty, the inability to play even the simplest of passes, allowing acres of space in the midfield, one player pressing while the rest of the team look on with disinterest, the inability of the forward line to keep possession, no creativity or movement, a lack of intensity, no discernible game plan and no real urgency to get forward at any stage.
The list could go on.
It felt like the whole team believed that winning a couple of games thanks to a couple of penalty kicks meant they no longer had anything to prove and that just turning up in Seattle would be enough.
But, in the end, they barely even turned up.
This game should be a reminder that they need to work hard every day at everything for the rest of the season. But recent history suggests they will just work hard for a few games and then revert to type once a good result or two is achieved.
It wasn’t Carl Robinson appreciation night at BC Place on Saturday evening, but it could well have been.
Because the Welsh maestro would surely have appreciated a Whitecaps team that showed little or no creativity, allowed the visiting team to dominate the game and yet still come away with all three points thanks to a long throw routine and a last minute penalty kick.
That’s how you succeed in MLS!
In the end it was the substitutes who stole this game for Vancouver. A little bit of quality from Ryan Gauld and a little bid of savvy from Luis Martins to draw the challenge that won the PK and the game was theirs.
But it was also Cody Cropper making a couple of good saves and projecting the sense that the game isn’t going to run away from him when things go wrong in the way they have tended to do for Thomas Hasal.
And so, poor performance against Salt Lake aside, the Whitecaps enter the international break in a much better position than seemed possible at the start of May. Within touching distance of the playoffs and the possibility of a full strength squad once they resume in a couple of weeks.
That availability of players is one thing that will determine the success or failure for the rest of the season. The other is Sartini himself.
There’s still a sense that the coach has a need to look for problems to solve even when no such problem exists. A tactical tweak here, a positional adjustment there that do as much to unbalance the team as they do to improve it.
The good news is that the last two games have offered a blueprint for stability.
Play a defensive minded midfielder in the front of the defence (not Baldisimo!) and play two central forwards that have a licence to roam.
Andres Cubas will be able to slot in for Jungwirth (who has shown that “running around a lot” isn’t necessarily the hallmark of an effective defensive midfielder) and if White and Cavallini can figure out how to play together consistently then Gauld should have more freedom to play behind them and create space for others.
A back three of Godoy, Veselinovic and Blackmon with plenty of options at wing back and you have the making of a perfectly competent MLS team.
Sartini has done wonders for the overall “vibe” of this team. Has he now got the restraint to allow them to be the thing they are meant to be?
Could it be that Vanni Sartini has found the secret to getting his Whitecaps team to defend competently?
And that secret may be having a defensive midfielder in front of the backline who can read the game well, organize the players around him and use the ball in a way that doesn’t constantly place his teammates in peril.
The assumption has been that the player in question would be new signing Andres Cubas but, since the club continue to employ the law firm of EasyVisaForYou.com the Paraguayan has remained in work permit limbo and it was Florian Jungwirth who stepped into the breach to become the player the team needed.
It’s also possible that that the secret to getting the team to defend competently is to play an opponent who are not very good at attacking.
And watching Sporting KC labour to try and find openings thanks to a lack of movement and limited ball control must have left a strange sense of vicarious unease for many a Vancouver supporter.
But three points is three points and there were more positives from this game than just beating a poor opponent.
Javain Brown is getting back to the player he was last year; a good one on one defender with the potential to provide an attacking threat. Marcus Godhino is growing into a dependable MLS wing back and Lucas Cavallini has gone from unlovable wastrel to loveable rogue.
If and when Sartini gets a full raft of players to choose from then this Vancouver squad has the potential to be a little bit more than decent.
They also have the potential to revert to type and blow the whole thing in some entirely unpredictable manner.