Glass half full for the Whitecaps?

The 1-0 victory for Toronto FC over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of The Voyageurs Cup is a result that probably leaves both sides in a state of emotional flux.

The home side probably feel they could have got a second but will be equally relieved they didn’t concede an important away goal whereas Vancouver will be pleased to have survived an early second half onslaught from TFC but must be ruing their inability to find the net.

All to play for at BC Place next week then.

It was no surprise to see Carl Robinson ring the lineup changes but perhaps it was a surprise to see Kah and Waston both starting in central defence and Teibert and McKendry both getting the nod in midfield, but the Whitecaps were the better team in the first half and were unlucky to fall behind to a deflected Giovinco shot.

The second half was a different story however as TFC gradually turned the screw and we were once again faced with the sight of Octavio Rivero becoming more and more isolated as the rest of the team began to sit deeper and deeper inviting pressure on to them.

Robinson doesn’t always get his substitutes right but this time he did as the introduction of Pérez for an ineffective Morales and Manneh for Davies almost immediately wrestled the momentum away from the home team.

The Whitecaps never really looked like fashioning a clear opening from that point on but neither did Toronto and the game ended with both sides torn between the Scylla of pushing men forward and the Charybdis of leaving men back.

No wonder there was no further breakthrough.

For the Whitecaps there was a decent outing from Ben McKendry, a much needed one for Sam Adekugbe and fifteen year old Alphonso Davies once again didn’t seem completely out of place among a field of professionals.

It was also good (and a relief) to see both Waston and Kah have solid and uneventful games at the back and any team that nullifies Giovinco to one lucky strike over ninety minutes is doing something right.

Carl Robinson can take a fair degree of satisfaction from the evening; he rested important players, gave returning players valuable minutes and his team are still in a good position to retain the Cup.

But that lack of away goal may be the one thing to really play on his mind when he looks back at this game.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-5, Adekugbe-6*, Waston-6, Kah-6, Teibert-5, McKendry-6, Bolaños-6, Morales-5, Davies-5, Rivero-5

Whitecaps play a game about nothing

There’s a sense in which there is no point in analysing the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

After all the Whitecaps were without three starters due to suspension, had players returning from the COPA America and this was also the first game back from an extended break.

But maybe there is no sense in analysing any game of soccer?

Fabricating a narrative from a series of random occurrences may have helped humanity create cohesive and coherent societies but when applied to people kicking a ball around it seems futile at best.

So let’s go with a Festivus style “Airing of Grievances” instead and pick out individuals to complain about; that seems much more in tune with the current zeitgeist.

Ismail Elfath- Yes it’s tedious to keep going on about MLS refereeing but the current EURO 2016 tournament has been a timely reminder of what good officiating looks like.

Elfath isn’t one of the worst referees in the League but on Saturday he turned a fairly benign affair into a fractious occasion simply because he seemed to be operating an “if in doubt blow the whistle” policy until the shrill sound of his small ball oscillating in air simply became the signal for exasperation and confusion.

Let the players play.

Erik Hurtado- Hurtado has been a pleasant surprise this season proving himself to be a useful member of an MLS squad.

But he just can’t play the lone striker role effectively. His hold up play may have improved but his link up play is still lacking and he should really only be used as either a late substitute or as one of a pair of forwards (as he was with Manneh in Toronto where his own nuisance value created space for his partner).

Actually none of this is his fault and the blame should go to Carl Robinson for the tactical lineup against New England but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Russell Teibert- It’s hard to know where Teibert goes from here on in. Like Hurtado he’s a useful member on an MLS squad (which is fine for the Whitecaps) but he’s not progressing as a player.

He may in fact be regressing because his play has become as predictable as his media interviews.

And if we were forced to choose one word to describe Teibert it would have to be “safe” because he almost always opts for the safest pass possible and even his crosses are designed to be lofted into the right area rather than pose any actual danger.

There was a time when Teibert could whip in a genuinely threatening ball, and obviously he still has that ability, but somewhere along the line he appears to have lost the confidence to try it anymore.

There was also a period late in the second half when New England were sitting deep yet both he and Matias Laba were still occupying space closer to the centre circle than the opposition penalty area. The Whitecaps were crying out for an extra body further forward but to no avail.

The blame for that is certainly as much on Laba and Robinson as it is on Teibert but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Cristian Techera- Techera may well be taking the prize for “least return for salary spent” in the Whitecaps squad at the moment as he has transformed from a player who last season was a constant goal threat and all around nuisance (in a good way) to a player for whom the most positive thing we can say is that “his set piece delivery isn’t bad”.

In a game where the Whitecaps spent a deal of the second period peppering the opposition penalty area Techera never once came within a sniff of a chance.

That would have been unimaginable last season and he’s surely lost the right to a place in the starting eleven.

Hopefully we all feel better for venting and before we move on to the “Feats of Strength” here are the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6*, Laba-5, Teibert-5, Techera-4, Mezquida-6, Manneh-5, Hurtado-5 (Pérez -5, Bolaños -5)

 

 

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the attack)

I’m willing to wager that if any of us were asked to conjure up a single image to define the Whitecaps forward line in 2015 it would be that of Octavio Rivero surrounded by opposition defenders as he plaintively stared in the direction of either an unimpressed referee or an uncooperative ball which had just bounced haplessly off his shin.

Clearly this wasn’t a recipe for long term success and so Carl Robinson used the off season to bring in both Masato Kudo and Blas Pérez; two players specifically designed to offer either support or alternatives to the Rivero isolationism.

The coach was never going to make instant changes to how he set his team up but defeats in the first two games of the season maybe pushed him to be a little more adventurous a little earlier than planned and a road trip to Seattle saw Pérez start alongside Rivero in a 4-4-2 formation.

And the 2-1 victory which followed probably did as much to convince Robinson of the virtues of tactical flexibility as all the articles podcasts and blog posts combined (although it’s not that hard to achieve better than 0% influence to be fair).

After that day we saw Kudo play alone upfront, Manneh and Hurtado as an attacking pair, Hurtado on his own, Rivero with Mezquida just behind him and Pérez and Kudo as a forward duo.

Not all of them worked, but enough of them did to offer the Whitecaps greater tactical options while simultaneously keeping opposing coaches on their toes far more than they were last season.

So, after all the to-ings and the fro-ings where do we stand on the best attacking lineup for Vancouver?

Still in a frustrating state of flux I’m afriad because the best individual pieces don’t necessarily fit in with the puzzle overall.

Pérez has been the best striker in terms of consistent quality but he doesn’t combine as well with Mezquida as Rivero does, Manneh showed in Toronto that his pace and his better decision making when playing centrally rather than out wide helps his game (or maybe it’s just that there are less decisions to be made when playing as the forward most striker?) and before his horrendous injury Kudo displayed the kind of quick and clever movement the other strikers are lacking.

So here are the (less than definitive) conclusions about all concerned.

The team always seem to be better when Nicolas Mezquida is on the pitch or, at least, the other forwards always seem to be better when he is on the pitch largely because his constant energy makes the life of a defender so much harder.

His goal against Ottawa doesn’t completely allay any qualms about his goal scoring record in general but it does at least dampen them.

Octavio Rivero has scored in three of his last four starts meaning that he probably gets the nod when he is either fully fit or not suspended but he seems to need Mezquida in the team more than any of the other forwards.

I’m not saying “don’t play Rivero if Mezquida isn’t available” but I’m definitely thinking it.

If Pérez could guarantee he could play a full ninety minutes every week he would be the default setting for this team (and there may be the worry that Robinson “does an Earnshaw” and underutilizes a quality striker based solely on his age).

Manneh must be a frustrating player to both coach and select; capable of winning games on his own in one performance while grinding the gears of any attack to a standstill in the next.

His sheer pace on the ball alone makes him an outlier but the biggest problem he now poses is that his best position is central striker alongside a more robust partner and that means playing a 4-4-2 system that is a nice option but not the best use of the rest of the attacking or creative talent.

Erik Hurtado was a forgotten man last season and his not particularly impressive loan spell in Norway hardly inspired thoughts of a triumphant return to MLS, but he has at least shown his worth this year.

As an attacking substitute he’s been useful and he worked well with Manneh in Toronto but….he was poor as the lone striker in Portland and his brief appearance as a more defensively minded wide player against Ottawa was a timely reminder of how limited a player he actually is (knocking an over hit and needless pass for an exhausted Pedro Morales to chase after being a particular highlight).

And we have to hold back on any decision on Kudo until we see just how he returns from his lengthy layoff.

So Rivero works best with Mezquida, Pérez works best with Bolaños and Manneh has had his best game alongside Hurtado and somehow Carl Robinson has to make one or all of these disparate pairings click with the rest of the team.

Do UEFA do a badge in relationship counselling?

 

Whitecaps blast passed the Fury

Maybe Carl Robinson should tell his team they are 2-0 down before every game?

That knowledge certainly helped to get the Vancouver Whitecaps out of the blocks quickly in the return leg of the Voyageurs Cup as they overturned a two goal deficit to win 3-0 on the night and beat the Ottawa Fury 3-2 overall.

Every Canadian Whitecap who started in Ottawa was dropped for this game, but fifteen year old Alphonso Davies did get the nod and after a shaky opening half hour he finally produced a little bit of magic before caroming the ball off the far post and coming within inches of giving the BC Place crowd a fairy tale story.

The real narrative of the evening though was how well Vancouver played in the opening twenty minutes as they produced the kind of fast paced, one touch football that left the visitors reeling and a penalty kick from Pedro Morales and a first goal of the season for Nicolas Mezquida sent them in at the break all square on aggregate.

Octavio Rivero added another with a fine strike after a little piece of Morales trickery and, despite a few minutes of anxiety at the end, the Whitecaps held on to face Toronto FC in the final in late June.

This result doesn’t bode well for the players left out of the starting eleven however as the more experienced squad members gave them a lesson in both ability and desire and it must surely be getting harder and harder for Robinson to leave Mezquida out of the team.

Perhaps the one knock against the Uruguayan is that he doesn’t score enough goals but he remedied that in this game and once again brought a level of energy to the forward line that is conspicuously absent when he’s not around.

In fact replace Davies with Christian Bolaños (and maybe Smith with Aird) and what we saw on Wednesday may well be the Whitecaps best outfield lineup with Jacobson proving to be an experienced and calming influence alongside Parker in the centre of defence and Rivero mercifully finding himself with company when he was near to goal (the second goal came about simply because Vancouver were willing to get men forward to pick up the second, third and even fourth phase of play; an almost unheard of trait up until now).

In the end this game was about digging themselves out of the hole they created last week and they did just that with some style and some aplomb.

The criticism that Robinson rightly faced last week is replaced with the plaudits he is equally deserving of this week and the ten day break before the next game is suddenly a whole lot easier for all concerned.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Smith-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Morales-7, Laba-6, Techera-6, Davies- 6, Mezquida-7*, Rivero-7

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the midfield)

At the beginning of the season the quintessential (maybe even existential) question surrounding the Whitecaps midfield was “How would Gershon Koffie be replaced?”.

Koffie’s leaving may have been at Carl Robinson’s behest but the Ghanaian had been an essential bulwark in helping to create the best defensive record in the league in 2015.

Robinson’s answer has been to (mostly) play Pedro Morales in the deep lying role alongside Matias Laba and that approach has (mostly) worked.

Morales isn’t the defensive liability he might have been and playing deeper has granted him the freedom to influence games far more than he does when playing just behind the forward line.

It could just be that a fit Pedro Morales will be effective wherever he plays (as he was on the left against Toronto) but it seems that deep lying position not only suits his own game but offers the rest of the team more flexibility in how they lineup for any particular game.

Nobody could claim that the loss of a purely defensive minded midfielder hasn’t impacted the team in terms of goals conceded however and so perhaps there needs to be an examination of just how Laba is playing in the new set up.

Last year Laba’s attacking influence was somewhat underrated if only because he wasn’t so much involved in forward thrusts as initiating them; not through a clever pass or a well-timed run but simply because he frequently broke up opposition passing moves and so created the perfect opportunity for the counterattack.

His hustle and bustle style of play was ideally suited to a side happy to concede possession, especially with the comfort zone of Koffie alongside him.

This year there may have been an expectation that Laba would be a more static presence in front of the back four; more of a watchdog than a hunter.

But that hasn’t been the case and even though (after a rocky start) he has settled down to being just as good as last season at breaking up plays that may not be quite what Vancouver need from their only defensive midfielder.

Maybe Laba can’t play any other way? Maybe Robinson doesn’t want him to play any other way? But a defence that has been so vulnerable could well benefit from the constant presence of a more reactive Laba than the occasional presence of his proactive alter ego.

Elsewhere Russell Teibert has been Russell Teibert; reliable enough without ever looking capable of being the difference maker he needs to be to become a regular first team player and Kianz Froese’s season was thrown off the rails by a suspension and a concussion and he now seems to be well down the pecking order when it comes to first team minutes in MLS.

New signing Andrew Jacobson has been “as advertised” but may well find that his minutes in midfield are surpassed by his time spent in central defence given the plethora of suspensions, injuries and mishaps that have become the calling card of that particular section of the team.

And perhaps the biggest disappointment in the middle of the park has been Cristian Techera.

Last season Techera was a mid-season breath of fresh air as he proved to be just about the only Whitecaps with a genuine eye for the half chance; where others were back on their heels Techera was on the front foot always ready to pounce on an opposition mistake.

This season though he has reacted to every chance with diffidence and deliberation; always taking one or two touches too many and though that’s probably a confidence thing for “The Bug” rather than a feature a goal needs to come soon before that confidence drains away entirely.

And while none of the Whitecaps wide players are spectacularly good at helping out in defence Techera has been noticeably poor in that area too and he now has the second-half of the season to prove that Robinson’s faith in him wasn’t misjudged.

The good news though is that the arrival of Christian Bolaños has been a huge upgrade for the team and although the Costa Rican may never win any “Look at me I’m trying really hard” awards he has settled down to be exactly the kind of player the newly redesigned Whitecaps needed; capable of creating and scoring goals while also being able to slow the game down to his own pace when required.

There have been tantalising glimpses that he could form a formidable partnership with Blas Pérez if given the chance but, for now, when Bolaños and Morales are on the pitch together the Whitecaps have a genuinely enjoyable and watchable midfield.

Who would have thought it?

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the defence)

You could probably make an argument that David Ousted was personally culpable for at least three or four of the goals he’s conceded this season and that those mistakes have cost the Whitecaps valuable points (the games against NYCFC and Montreal in particular).

But the other side of the ledger is so stacked in favour of the Great Dane (Note to self: brilliantly funny nickname. Well done! Maybe try to get in something about bacon too, “saving their bacon” that sort of thing) that those mistakes quickly fade into insignificance.

Not only has he produced a string of magnificent saves which have been the highlight of many games, but he’s also had to play behind a defence desperately struggling to find any semblance of the solidity of last season.

A committed contrarian may claim that one of Ousted’s main roles is to marshal and organize said defence and as such he has failed, but such a task has been akin to herding a clowder of cats for much of the year as those defenders seem more intent on recreating the making of “Apocalypse Now” rather than simply kicking the ball away from their own goal.

But Ousted’s value to the team goes beyond his performances on the field because he’s also the only player (and probably the only person in the whole organization) willing to go on the record to say that the Whitecaps played really badly in any given game.

It’s sometimes easy to underestimate how important it is to most fans that some acknowledgment of a poor performance is made and Ousted readily provides that conduit.

It was almost certainly Carl Robinson’s plan to start the 2016 season with Jordan Smith as the regular right back with Fraser Aird filling in occasionally as he transitioned from winger to defender but Smith’s pre-season performances were so off kilter that the Flying Scot (Note to self: you’ve only gone and done it again with the nickname thing! Maybe throw in something about kilt and kilter to really finish it off?) was given the nod on opening day.

Aird had a nightmare opening forty five minutes but from that moment on his progress was both perceptible and impressive; still not immune to occasionally being caught out of position but not a constant liability and also more than capable of providing attacking thrust it was only a red card and an injury that allowed the door to open up again for Smith.

And, to be fair to the Costa Rican, he grabbed that opportunity with at least one hand.

After not even being selected for the game in Portland he was in the starting eleven at home to Houston and did enough to suggest that Aird will face a little more competition for the right back slot than he has so far.

Let’s not get carried away though because Smith wasn’t great (the Dynamo goal came from his side of the field) but he did get forward with purpose and he did at least look as though he had been on a football field before.

The most worrying aspect of the campaign is surely that it’s shaping up to be “The Year of Disappointment” when it comes to the Whitecaps younger players with the horrendous performance in Ottawa being the signature example.

And perhaps nobody has personified that disappointment quite as much as Sam Adekugbe.

At the beginning of 2015 it seemed to be a coin toss between Adekugbe and Jordan Harvey as to who would be the regular starting left back, but by season’s end Harvey had decisively won that battle and hasn’t looked like backing down this year either.

If anything Harvey has improved and has easily been the best defender on the team while Adekugbe’s occasional appearances have been marked by indecision and an overall lack of focus that belie just how important this season is to the youngster (who isn’t actually that young in footballing terms).

And so to the “central defence” which has at least fulfilled the first part of that description without really making many inroads into the second.

Let’s play a word association game with the personnel involved.

Waston- “Frustrated”

Parker- “Erratic”

Kah- “Yikes”

Jacobson- “Hmm?”

Delving deeper into those responses we see that Waston is frustrated because he hasn’t adapted to either the more open style of play employed by Robinson or the MLS clampdown on tackling and that frustration has resulted in a a tiresome and eternal circle of yellow cards and suspensions.

Parker has been okay but there’s an element of sophomore slump about his season; particularly a propensity to hit a careless pass or two and a lack of composure from time to time.

Kah has surely reached the stage where he is only employed as an absolute last resort rather than the fairly reliable go to guy he was last season.

And Jacobson has been the most solid central defender which is somewhat ironic given that he doesn’t really want to play in that position anyway.

As things stand the best central defensive partnership looks to be Parker and Jacobson and there’s just the chance that circumstance and the stars have aligned to give that pair a solid run of games together over the next few weeks and they could coalesce into a very effective unit.

And so we bid farewell to the Whitecaps defence and watch in amusement as they wander haplessly into the door frame before slipping on a carelessly discarded banana skin and falling head first into that unfortunately positioned bucket of iced water.

Next time out it’s the midfield; a (mostly) happier tale entirely.

 

 

Whitecaps all sound and no fury in Ottawa

Playing a cup game against a team you are “expected” to beat is a thankless task. Win the game and everybody shrugs in disinterest, lose it and the knives are immediately out for both the players and the coach.

There is losing a game however and there is “losing” a game and the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 defeat to the Ottawa Fury in the first leg of their Canadian Championship clash can be placed firmly into the latter category as the supposedly better MLS team were toothless against their NASL hosts.

No doubt that was partly due to the number of changes Carl Robinson made to his starting lineup, but it’s become something of a trend for the coach to throw in young players in batches rather than allow them the opportunity to slot into a team that is already functioning and the upshot of this policy is those youngsters tend to perform poorly and so drop out of contention for more starts.

That was particularly true for Kianz Froese and Marco Bustos who both began in wide positions when each is better suited to a more central role and, inevitably, they failed to impress in Ottawa and so must feel their progress has taken one step further back.

Maybe they would have been better had the Whitecaps gone into the game with a more positive approach but a 4-3-2-1 formation invited the Fury on to them without ever looking incisive going forward and it was no surprise to see the home team lead by two goals at the interval with strikes from former Whitecaps Johnny Steele and Paulo Junior.

It was even less of a surprise to discover that Carl Robinson had chosen not to make a change at half time as he opted to once again follow his “if it’s not working don’t fix it policy” and a further ten minutes of ineptitude passed before Rivero and Manneh were introduced.

Even that did little to change the mindset of the team and the introduction of fifteen year old Alphonso Davies in the final fifteen minutes was surely a great moment for the kid but not the move of a coach who was desperate to change the momentum on the pitch.

How Robinson approaches the return leg at BC Place will be interesting to say the least because although winning this trophy for the first time last season was clearly important his approach to the subsequent Champions League games was less than enthusiastic.

So does he throw in the likes of Morales, Laba, Harvey, Manneh and Rivero from the start?

The best guess is that maybe one or two from that list make the first eleven with the hope that the bare minimum is required to overturn the two goal deficit but, whatever happens next week, this week was a woeful performance and the third game in succession where Vancouver have played the first half in a tepid and unenthusiastic manner.

That’s probably coincidence rather than an emerging culture but it’s a fairly awful habit for any team to be getting into.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player rating (Yikes!).

Tornaghi-6, Aird-5, Adekugbe-5, Parker-5, Seiler-5, Teibert-4, McKendry-4, Froese-4, Bustos-4, Mezquida-6*, Hurtado-4 (Manneh-5, Rivero-5)