We’d like to help you learn to help yourself

Only the most optimistic of Whitecaps fans will have come away from the 2-1 defeat to the San Jose Earthquakes on Friday evening thinking that Vancouver’s playoff hopes were still alive.

Sure they could get a win in either Kansas or LA and maybe be back in the hunt but realistically this looks like a team that is as good as done when it comes to the MLS season.

But instead of plodding over the same old ground about what went wrong on the night (the shambolic defending, the inability to finish, the lack of any cohesion) let’s maybe take a step back and take a look at some of things that have gone awry with Carl Robinson this season.

What are the issues that the coach needs to address in his own performance?

Locker room culture- Robinson loves to sign a player who is “good in the locker room” but ultimately that culture has to be set by the coach and his staff and not by surrogates.

I doubt that anybody has watched the Whitecaps this year and seen a group of players who are all on the same page.

That doesn’t mean there’s internal strife and it doesn’t mean they are unhappy (they may even be too happy) but it does mean that something isn’t working.

The breaks haven’t always fallen for Vancouver this year but there are two ways of dealing with adversity in all sport; you either use it to make yourself better and stronger or you use it as an excuse for defeat.

The Whitecaps have leaned on the latter far too often in 2016 and that’s a culture that needs to be changed from the top.

The inability to change a game- If there is one thing that separates the great coaches from the good coaches and the good coaches from the average then it’s probably the capacity to take a step back from the emotion of a game and view it as an objective observer.

That’s how the really top coaches earn their salaries; with small tactical switches and substitutions at the right time.

Robinson is still learning the role but it can be so frustrating to watch the Whitecaps clearly making no inroads in a game and yet there is still a reluctance to make a change.

By the sixtieth minute against San Jose (for just one example) it was clear that the Whitecaps had run out of attacking ideas but it took another Earthquakes goal before a substitution was made and that was too little too late.

If Robinson can’t see that the changes need to be made then he needs to seek the advice of someone who can and if he can see that the changes need to be made but is reluctant to make them for fear of damaging a player’s confidence or upsetting team chemistry then he needs to be braver in making the switch.

Which leads to.

Picking names over form- Every manager will deny that they do this but every manager probably does; they all have their “favourites” and that’s fine to a degree.

The problem for Robinson is that his seeming “favourites” are really not playing well at all and so we are faced with the situation where the likes of Waston and Laba keep getting the start whereas the likes of Mezquida and Parker are either shunted into unfamiliar positions or out of the team altogether.

The coach hinted earlier in the week that he would drop one of these regular starters but that didn’t happen on Friday.

He hinted the same thing immediately following that defeat so let’s see what happens, because this policy has haunted him and hurt the team in the last few weeks.

Attitude on the road- If MLS is anything then it’s a League where any team can beat any other team on any given day yet too often this year Vancouver have gone into road trips with, if not a defeatist attitude, than at least an attitude that exudes “settling for a draw at best”.

I get that the travel is tough but enough teams have come to BC Place and outplayed the Whitecaps to make a person believe it isn’t quite that tough.

Keep talking about how hard a game or a trip will be and you give players an excuse for not performing and a lot of players will be all too happy to fall back on that excuse.

Which leads to.

Abdication of responsibility- Not in the sense of taking the blame for poor results (he definitely does that) but in the insistence that “fine lines” etc are what decide football games.

They often are but there’s a kind of “it’s out of our hands whether we win or lose” disposition that, once again, must seep through to the players and give them an easy out if things do go badly.

Players shouldn’t look for these get out clauses but they always do and they always will and it’s up to the coach to deny them the chance.

There are probably other things I could mention; the lack of any effective touchline presence and the failure to recognize that the modern coach needs to be a tribune for the fans frustrations as much as a defence counsel for the players.

But the counterbalance is that he has also had dreadful luck with injuries, suspensions and all around MLS weirdness that offers up some kind of mitigating factors, but the room for error is getting less and less roomier with every passing defeat.

It may already be too late to turn the League season around but there is still the Champion’s League to try and progress in and a core of players who can still achieve something (there was no lack of effort against San Jose, just a lack of organization) so now is the time for Robinson to make brave choices both before and during the remaining games.

If not now when? If not him who?

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-4, Parker-4, Waston-5, Edgar-4, De Jong-5, Morales-6, Laba-4, Bolaños -6*, Mezquida-6, Barnes-5, Kudo-4 (Davies-5, Perez-5)

D-Day for Robinson and the Whitecaps

“Must win game” is one of those eternal footballing cliches that is almost never literally true but does occasionally speak to the heart of the matter.

And Friday evening’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes very much fits into the “not literally true but it sure enough feels like it” category for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Whitecaps really aren’t in a good place right now (apart from Vancouver which is great right!?) with new signings having little time to settle in and a coach who seems to be struggling to settle on both a first eleven and a preferred way of playing.

So if Vancouver do fail to beat the Earthquakes then the two subsequent MLS road games (Kansas and LA) could see them drifting away from the red line of competence that constitutes the playoff marker and down into the murky depths of “there’s always next year” land.

How we’ve got to this situation is up for debate; players either not getting or not buying into how the Robinson wants them to play, a fundamentally conservative coach who is trying to get his team to play more expansive football but just can’t figure it out, key players failing to perform all over the field, a series of unfortunate incidents beyond the control of anybody.

There is probably something to be said for all of those scenarios (and many more) but while we can all have fun theorizing and hypothesizing Carl Robinson just doesn’t have that luxury.

He needs to get it right on Friday (and beyond).

And that probably means a return to the comfort zone for both the coach and the players and that means 4-2-3-1 (obviously) but with Giles Barnes in the “Manneh” role on the left.

Barnes doesn’t have the pure pace of Manneh but he can at least run with the ball and he can at least make other teams worry about his presence and force them to be a little more cautious when pushing forward. Couple that with a return to Mezquida and Kudo as the front two (who actually do provide the kind of “defence from the front” that one would assume Robinson would like) and if Morales has to play then play him deep alongside Laba or Jacobson.

There’s a decent argument to be made that what the Whitecaps defence need more than anything right now is just for somebody to sit in front of them and thus guarantee some kind of shield and Jacobson could probably do that job better than the more proactive Laba.

None of this solves all the problems of course. The right back roulette and the lack of cohesion just about everywhere on the field, but at least getting back to the basics of what the coach feels comfortable with may at least imbue some of that comfort into the team.

There’s still time for the Whitecaps to turn this thing around (and the pieces are definitely there to coalesce into a genuinely threatening MLS team) but the time for trying things (and players) out is well and truly over.

The only way the Whitecaps are going to get into the post season is by returning to what they once were.

Forward to the Past!

Whitecaps fall down the rabbit hole

“The time has come, the Walrus said,

      To talk of many things:

Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —

      Of cabbages — and kings —

And why the sea is boiling hot —

      And whether pigs have wings.”

There have been times this season when it really has felt as though we were through the looking glass when it came to Carl Robinson’s team selections but Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to the Colorado Rapids was probably the peak of Mad Hatterism.

Yes, yes I get that the heat and the travel and the altitude play havoc with the players but we watch football games not weather reports, arrival boards and barometers and anyway there’s a world of difference between losing games and losing them the way the Whitecaps have lost in both Dallas and Colorado.

Barely a shot in anger in either game (or the previous one in Houston to be fair) is hardly the stuff to inspire much hope in fans but, instead of pouring over the minutiae of a dreadful night in Denver, let’s just sit down and think of a number of impossible things that should never ever be tried again.

Pedro Morales as a number ten- By the twentieth minute Morales was already dropping deep to get the ball and so leaving Giles Barnes isolated up front. Maybe this was a poignant tribute to the Rivero era but it’s unclear what Robinson has disliked about the pairing of Kudo and Mezquida in attack.

Even without those two it must surely have been obvious that having a number ten who closed down the opposition defence and stayed in touch with the centre forward was preferable to one who does neither of those things.

In a recent interview the coach said that there were “no stars in his team” but it sure feels as though Morales is being accommodated no matter how he performs whereas others are shunted in and out of the team no matter how well they do

New players should fit into the team not the other way around-  I doubt anybody thinks that the signings of Edgar and Barnes are anything but good things, but the decision to throw them both into the deep end against one of the toughest teams to play on the road seemed overly optimistic of their attributes.

Even stranger given that playing Barnes meant that the whole forward line was revamped and even more strange given that playing Edgar completely rearranged an already uncertain backline.

And I refer you to the “no stars in the team” remark to try to explain why Kendall Waston stayed in his regular position whereas Tim Parker (who has been the better central defender this season) got shunted to the right back role where he struggled all evening.

Was it really an surprise to see that back four constantly confused about who should be where and when and why? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way).

If it’s not working make a change- Seriously.

The Whitecaps never once looked like scoring throughout the whole of the first half so why give the same lineup and the same tactics fifteen minutes to make thing better in the second? (Another  rhetorical question).

It was somewhat ironic to see the Rapids score within seconds of the obligatory sixtieth minute substitution but, once again, fifteen minutes had been wasted hoping that the thing that didn’t work for forty five minutes suddenly would.

Two defensive midfielders- Just move on from it. It’s clearly not helping the defence and the inclusion of both Laba and Jacobson means that at least three or four other players have to be shifted to their les optimal positions.

Other than that things went quite well and I’m sure the Whitecaps can put themselves back together (Humpty Dumpty style) in time for the tough looking run in to the end of the season.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings (sigh).

Ousted-5, Parker-4, Edgar-4, Waston-4, De Jong-4, Laba-5 Jacobson-5*, Bolaños-4, Morales-4, Techera-4, Barnes-4  (Mezquida-5, Davies-5)

Vancouver leave Couva with a win

I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Trinidad and Tobago’s Central FC (even though I very definitely could do that if I needed to).

The important thing to remember is that there are no easy road games in the CONCACAF Champion’s League which very much fits into the “it’s a cliché because it’s true” category (actually is “it’s a cliché because it’s true” now a cliché itself? I think it might be).

Anyway Vancouver went to Couva and came away with a very impressive 1-0 victory thanks to a Cristian Techera goal in the thirty-fourth minute and have now given themselves a decent chance of getting through the group stages of this competition.

Last season Carl Robinson rang the changes for these games and paid the price in terms of quality of play, but this time around he kept a core of experienced players in the starting eleven and was rewarded with a very good team performance.

He’ll certainly have been impressed with Brett Levis who looked composed on the ball at left back and with Spencer Richey who looked solid in goal.

A shout out too to David Edgar who did well in his first competitive start for the Whitecaps and to Alphonso “he’s only fifteen you know” Davies who came on as a second half substitute and made an immediate impact on the game and so very nearly got his first goal for the club.

I’m in the seemingly group of people who think Davies is too young to be playing at this level and until this game I’ve felt reasonably vindicated in my view because for every exciting run there’s been a corresponding piece of rawness.

But against Central he looked to be the real deal.

The question now is whether his overall game would benefit from fifteen minute cameo appearances with the first team or the full ninety minutes with WFC2. One thing is for certain though; this kind of experience is beyond value to a young player.

So maybe the real difference between this year and last year in the CCL is that the players who were given their first chance to impress at this level actually grabbed that chance with both hands? It’s hard to be definitive about that but the end result was that this was the best overall “team” display from Vancouver for some weeks.

The defence connected with the midfield and the midfield connected with the forwards and the Whitecaps were frequently first to the loose ball which meant the home team were never allowed to settle into any kind of rhythm.

For now we should just enjoy the warm glow of quiet satisfaction at seeing the Whitecaps produce an organized and thoroughly professional performance and hope that this “second string” eleven has laid some kind of foundation for those who didn’t play today to build on.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Richey-6, Smith-6, Edgar-6, Kah-6, Levis-6, Teibert-6, McKendry-6, Mezquida-6, Techera-6, Aird-5, Hurtado-6* (Davies-6





Whitecaps just killing time in the blazing sun

One of the more annoying aspects of Sir Alex Ferguson’s lengthy tenure at Manchester United was that his initial struggles in the role propagated a  particularly tiresome theory.

Whenever another manager faced similar struggles somebody would come along with the familiar refrain “Yes, but Fergie also needed time before he became successful” as though the initial failure was a prerequisite to subsequent success.

It wasn’t and it isn’t.

One of the many annoying aspects of Portland Timbers winning the MLS Cup last season was that they achieved their success after struggling for most of the year.

Only the late surge of winning the last three games got them into the playoffs and propelled them to glory.

So now we find that whenever an MLS team is flirting with missing out on the post season we get to hear the refrain “Yes, but the Timbers were poor for most of last season before finally coming good at the right time” as though their initial struggles were a prerequisite for their subsequent success.

They weren’t and they aren’t.

It’s a comforting thought for fans of the Vancouver Whitecaps however because the 2-0 loss to Dallas on Sunday afternoon means the Whitecaps are looking less and less likely to finish in the top four and more and more likely to be scrapping for fifth or sixth.

There are provisos to be noted for this latest loss of course; searing heat, facing a very good team, facing a very good team who are even better when playing at home.

But there was a disturbing air of familiarity about they way the Vancouver succumbed.

They played a decent first half where they managed the game well (although maybe they were a little too careless in possession) and that gave way to a second half where they were never really in  the game.

Maybe it’s just confirmation bias (or maybe it’s just confirmation) but the Whitecaps frequently seem to start the second period in a kind of mental and physical torpor and they paid for that again when Acosta and Urruti struck just before the hour mark.

The first goal was initially down to giving the ball away cheaply and finally down to David Ousted being beaten too easily on his left hand side (not the first time that has happened this season).

The second was down to Kendall Waston being beaten far too easily for pace following a fairly routine ball over the top.

After that it was about damage control as much as anything else and the game (somewhat understandably) drifted towards a languid conclusion.

In the final analysis a defeat in Dallas isn’t going to be the result that destroys a season, but it is another link in the chain that seems to be tightening around this team and we have to hope that the arrival of David Edgar and Giles Barnes can provide the elsuive spark that has been missing for so much of the campaign.

After all “Doing a Portland Timbers” isn’t a plan, it’s just a prayer aimed at the disinterested (and non-existent) footballing Gods.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5, Seiler-5, Parker-6, Waston-5, de Jong-6, Laba-6*, Jacobson-5, Morales- 5, Bolaños-6, Pérez-5, Kudo-5 


Throwing Pedro at the wall to see what sticks

Not literally of course because that would be insane given his somewhat sketchy injury record but in a league in which tactical nuances are often boiled down to “faster, higher, stronger” it’s kind of fascinating to think about how to get the best out of Pedro Morales

Carl Robinson for instance tends to be pretty keen on emphasizing that he cares less about formations than he does about getting his best players on the field.

That assertion would carry slightly more weight if he wasn’t quite so wedded to the 4-2-3-1 formation but the conundrum of formation over talent is a circle that just about every international coach has to square at some stage or another.

And for every “Ronaldo playing as a striker” there is a “Rooney playing as a central midfielder” which means that the formation over talent question doesn’t actually have a one size fits all solution; it’s more of a template that can be bent to fit the specific circumstance.

Robinson’s current solution is to bend the template so that his best player is playing wide left.

It’s a moot point to wonder what he would do if Kekuta Manneh hadn’t picked up an injury, but it’s not a moot point to wonder if Cristian Techera’s recent return to goal scoring form might be a better option in that role or to wonder if Morales himself isn’t wasted so far away from the heart of the action.

There were at least signs against Houston that he was more than willing to drift centrally to collect the ball and indeed it was Morales who played the pass that set up Erik Hurtado for his disallowed goal.

So maybe Robinson has actually found his long term solution?

Not so fast with all that optimism! Because as a more solid right back seems to be emerging (be it in the guise of Parker, Seiler, Edgar or a returning Aird) that means opponents will probably look for new avenues of attack other than wherever Jordan Smith happens to be on the field

And what better area to exploit than a side of the pitch where the nominal wide midfielder has wandered away from his home in order to find the ball?

It’s not hard to imagine Jordan Harvey suddenly finding himself more and more isolated and more and more under attack and it’s not hard to imagine that the innately cautious Robinson will soon want to take steps to remedy the weak link once again (All football tactics are essentially a slightly more sophisticated version of “whack-a-mole”. Discuss).

Which could once again leave Pedro searching for a home.

But it could be that home turns out to be where the heart of the midfield is after all because if (and it’s a fairly big if I grant you) the defensive woes are remedied then the presence of both Jacobson and Laba may no longer be needed as a central shield and if (and this isn’t quite so big an if) Kudo and Mezquida continue to form a bond as the front two then the Whitecaps may suddenly find themselves playing a style of football that actually suits their captain.

Take a look at this tweet

In other words Morales has been more likely to take a shot having done the work in setting it up himself than he is to have taken a shot after being set up by a team mate.

Now I like stats as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy is a guy who doesn’t really like stats) but this seems to be a bit of a Rorschach Test about what you think of Morales more than saying anything definitive about his game.

Does it mean he’s selfish? Does it mean he’s getting no support? Does it mean he’s just not gelling with the rest of the team?

My own reading is that it’s probably a little bit of all three  with the extra emphasis on the lack of support or, perhaps to be more accurate, the lack of options.

Whatever you think of Morales he’s just too smart of a player to pass up the chance of a killer pass in favour of a low percentage shot on quite so many occasions.

The isolationism of the lone forward almost actively encouraged by Rivero’s style of play is somewhat mirrored in both Perez and Hurtado in that both work hard and are physical enough to invite a the long pass even when it isn’t actually the best option.

But Kudo and Mezquida are horses of a different colour.

They both work hard for sure but neither offers a midfielder the “easy” option of the long ball. Mezquida and Kudo both want the ball to feet and they mostly want the ball in front of them (Kudo in particular) so suddenly Morales may find that a) shorter passes are often the better choice and b) when he is in those aforementioned “shoot or pass” positions he really does have a better option than simply letting fly at the net.

There’s a theory (just from me but it is still a theory) that the Whitecaps could be much improved simply by making more of their final key passes twenty yards closer to the opposition goal and one way of achieving that is by taking away the option of the obvious target man.

By accident or design that may have been achieved and a centrally situated Morales could find that he has to move forward if he wants to make those key passes (and I’m certain he does) as the gravitational pull of the assist drags him toward two quick  footed forwards who are constantly on the move.

Maybe the real solution to the Morales problem is determining which way he chooses to drift?

Play wide left and he drifts inside leaving the defensive flank unguarded, play centrally and he drifts forward creating more attacking options (All football tactics are essentially a slightly less sophisticated version of the “The Theory of Tides”. Discuss).



Houston we have a match review

Come season end it’s doubtful that many people will remember the Whitecaps 0-0 tie with the Houston Dynamo as a particular highlight.

And many people probably didn’t remember much about the game even five minutes after the final whistle had been blown but for Vancouver themselves it was a surprisingly pleasing run out.

The defence was solid with Cole Seiler playing the role of right back as a defender rather than as a piece of surreal performance art and Laba and Jacobson kept the midfield under tight control while Pedro Morales used his ostensible starting position on  the left to drift inside at will and so spend more constructive time on the ball than of late

The standout player though was Christian Bolaños who always looked the most likely to break down the Dynamo defence with his change of pace on the ball and both Mezquida and Kudo were lively up front without ever really looking like scoring.

Even the substitutes showed well with Pérez linking up play efficiently and Hurtado somewhat unfortunate to have a goal ruled out for handball (and really unfortunate to pick up a yellow card for said handball).

All in all the whole game felt much more like the Whitecaps of last season on the road; keep things tight and accept that one moment here or there could win the game for either team.

It would be somewhat ironic if the Whitecaps did find defensive solidity just as David Edgar is getting ready to be introduced to the lineup, but defensive solidity is never a bad thing and while there will be far tougher tests than Houston to come (and the ability to take the initiative at home is still very open to question) Saturday at least felt like a team that had found both some form and form.

Baby steps to be sure but baby steps in the right direction.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-7, Seiler-6, Wasron-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-6, Bolaños -7*, Morales-6, Mezquida-5-Kudo-5 (Pérez – 6, Hurtado-6)