Whitecaps find a fair wind in Columbus

Can the Whitecaps just play every game away from BC Place?

The 2-1 win against the Columbus Crew looked like being a case of the all too familiar “Meh” in the first half as Vancouver were easily outplayed by the home team and trailed 1-0 thanks to a Stefan Marinovic error.

But in the second half it all changed.

Jordon Mutch began to play as a kind of hybrid defensive/offensive number ten and suddenly it was the Crew who looked the team bereft of ideas.

Brek Shea scored his customary goal on the road and Kei Kamara got the obligatory “player facing his old club” goal to win the game.

The Whitecaps even brushed aside a glorious Alphonso Davies strike that was (correctly) disallowed following a video review.

For most of the game Felipe continued his penchant for playing deep and offering little of creative value other than from set-pieces but when he moved forward to take up the Mutch role once the Englishman had been taken off it was he who delivered the cross for Kamara to head home.

We’re still in the baby steps period of the season right now but if Mutch and Felipe were both played in more advanced positions,with Ghazal sitting deep, then Vancouver may be able to find a way to consistently threaten opponents beyond the tried and trusted counter-attack or set-piece options.

On an individual basis Shea once again showed that he is a useful player when he has space to run into and Bernie Ibini showed why he will only really be a starter in games played on the East Coast.

But Jose Aja had another good game at the back and is easily the Whitecaps most accomplished defender when in possession, capable as he is of bringing the ball forward as well as being genuinely two footed.

But while Jake Nerwinski did nothing spectacularly wrong from a defensive point of view he remains far too anxious with the ball at his feet and really needs to gain some composure in possession if his game is going to reach another level.

And even with Columbus struggling to find any kind of form in the second forty-five there was still a huge imbalance in the way each team passed the ball but if (and this is a really big “if”) the midfield can find some kind of consistency of personnel and if Carl Robinson allows the likes of Mutch and Felipe a little bit more free rein in home games there is definitely the foundations of the making of a decent team hidden away in there somewhere.

It’s all too often one step forward and one step back with the Whitecaps however and next week’s game against Real Salt Lake probably won’t tell us much more than anything we know already.

But the return to BC Place feels like it will help define the season in some ways.

Can the Whitecaps somehow find a way to be creative and proactive at home?

That doesn’t feel like it’s too big of an ask given the players at Robinson’s disposal but it’s been the one question to have hindered this team for longer than has really been necessary.

For now though Robinson can tuck a well-earned three points underneath his scarf satisfied that his team produced what was easily the best forty-five minutes of their season so far.

We now interrupt this blog for some thoughts from the following day.

That Davies goal may have been disallowed but it demonstrated just how much he has developed as a player this season.

There’s no way he shows that level of composure last year and he’s now gone from a promising prospect who hoped things would happen when the ball was at his feet to a player who knows he can make those things happen.

He is, as they say, “like a new signing”.

Over the years Carl Robinson has been somewhat fascinated by the idea of how much difference any new signing could make to the locker room.

But this season more than one of those signings seem capable of making a difference on the field.

Kamara, Juarez and Felipe all bring a level of, let’s be kind and call it “experience”, that will make the Whitecaps a nightmare to both play against and to referee.

There’s still the potential for so many “Type A” personalities to spontaneously combust given the wrong conditions but for now it’s a heady mix of arrogance and know how.

It always looked as though the opening half-dozen games could be the toughest spell of the whole season for Vancouver given the travel and the opposition so to have picked up ten points with one of those games still to play is a significant achievement.

Let`s hope that achievement can be built on rather than used as a cushion for a poor run of form at the business end of the campaign.

We now return you to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-4.5, Nerwinski-5, Waston-6, Aja-6, de Jong5.5, Felipe-5.5, Teibert-5, Mutch-6*, Ibini-5, Shea-5.5, Kamara-5.5 (Davies-6)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Before this river becomes an ocean

The best thing about the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 road win against the Houston Dynamo was that it garnered our heroes a valuable three points from one of the toughest trips in Major League Soccer.

The second best thing is that it helped allay any of those “the Whitecaps will be a more possession based team this season” theories that sprung up after last week’s game against Montreal.

Nope.

Vancouver were back in their familiar territory of conceding chance after chance while somehow managing to win the game thanks to a penalty kick and a breakaway goal.

At this point I’m not sure who the universe is really playing the long con on; the Whitecaps fans who think that this time around Carl Robinson has figured it all out and it will be different in the playoffs this year or Robinson himself who must surely feel that he’s cracked the secret of road success in MLS.

The results may make a convincing argument that he’s done just that but, like a faith healer who strikes lucky with a cancer remission or two, causation and correlation can make convincing bedfellows even when they live in separate cities.

There were times in Houston when the Whitecaps could barely string two passes together. There were even times when they weren’t even interested in stringing two passes together but somehow every Houston foray except one either found a Whitecaps boot or head, a Marinovic glove or the wrong side of the goalpost.

Good defending to be sure but good last-ditch defending and certainly not, in any way shape or form, a composed away performance.

But for all this complaining there were some standout showings.

Alphonso Davies was forced to drop back to cover the left back position when Marcel de Jong was forced to leave the field in the first half and when the youngster did get caught out of position his pace allowed him the opportunity to recover.

Stefan Marinovic produced at least two saves he only had half a right to make and Brek Shea once again proved that when he’s given the chance to break beyond the opposition defence he’s as cool a finisher as the club has.

Less impressive was another display of listless anonymity from Yordy Reyna which must have left Cristian Techera watching from the bench and wondering why the Peruvian got the nod over him.

Aaron Maund still looks capable of getting caught hopelessly out of position and Felipe was the victim of tactics that are in no way designed to get the best out of his particular style of play.

No matter.

Six points from the first two games gives the team a decent cushion for what is actually a pretty tough opening schedule and there’s always the chance that Robinson will integrate the newcomers to the squad in a manner that improves the overall quality of play.

He probably won’t do that of course and come season end we’ll all once again be wondering why the Whitecaps couldn’t break down a stubborn opponent at BC Place.

For now though let’s just enjoy the sense that the plan is working.

We interrupt this blog for five bonus thoughts from the day after

Felipe was advertised as a box to box midfielder (and is) but didn’t get anywhere near the Houston penalty area unless it was to trot over to take a corner kick.

The Whitecaps didn’t complete a single pass inside the Houston penalty area

Robinson got his substitutes spot on. Moving Davies to left back, introducing Blondell for Kamara when the latter looked in danger of picking up a second yellow and giving Mutch the opportunity to wrest a semblance of control back to the game all worked perfectly.

It’s to Kamara’s huge credit that he somehow got a goal and an assist from that game but even a natural number nine can only do so much in isolation.

The rest of MLS is already producing results that are so batshit crazy it kind of makes any attempt at rationalization superfluous.

And now back to your regular blog.

Time for you Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Marinovic-6.5*, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-5, Waston-6, Maund-5, Teibert 5.5, Juarez-5.5, Davies-6.5, Reyna-4, Felipe-5, Kamara-5.5 (Shea-6)

 

 

 

Carl Robinson will choo choo choose who?

Back at the turn of the century a Business Professor and a Psychology Professor conducted an experiment in a California supermarket.

On one day they set up a stand with twenty-four gourmet jams on display and on another day they set up the stand with just six.

What they discovered was that while more people stopped to peruse the larger selection only 3% of those who did so actually purchased any jam.

Of the fewer who stopped at the smaller selection the number who shelled out some cash was 30%.

Too much choice, it seems, can be a disincentive when it comes to making a decision.

And too much choice is one of the defining factors of the world most of us now inhabit, be it household goods, insurance options, streaming services or restaurant menus that traverse the globe and back again in just the appetizer section.

No matter what we ultimately attain we can’t help but feel the pull of what was left behind.

Somewhat ironically, studies on the psychology of choice are now so prevalent that selecting just one to use as an illustration at the start of this piece simply left me thinking things like “I should have used the one that examined the difference between hedonic and utilitarian goods!”

You can see where I’m going with this right?

Seriously, can somebody tell me where I’m going with this please?

Oh yeah. The Vancouver Whitecaps.

Before we get to the choices facing Carl Robinson in the coming weeks let’s first think about whether the 4-2-3-1 system he employed in the 2-1 win against Montreal worked.

“Yes and no” is the right answer to that I think.

In the first half the visitors bunkered down and the only chances the Whitecaps created came from unforced Impact errors. We’ve seen that movie before of course, where Vancouver’s best option is to hope that the ball over the top hits the one in fifty chance of landing in the right stop.

To be fair it did at least feel as though they were passing  those long balls rather than simply hitting them, but even so it’s a low percentage strategy for a team playing at home.

In the second half Montreal were far more confident and thus far more open and Alphonso Davies and Cristian Techera both found the kinds of space they never got close to in the first forty-five minutes and two goals ensued.

So perhaps it’s fair to say that the 4-2-3-1 remains an option for road games and games where we know the opposition are willing to play more open football and that, given the arrival of Kei Kamara and the initial promise of Davies, it will at least be a better option than it was last season.

But sooner or later Carl Robinson is going to have to switch things up if he wants to find a starting spot for newcomers Jordon Mutch and Felipe Martins.

On Sunday he switched Felipe with Reyna but let’s hope we don’t get into the situation where a box to box midfielder is being shoehorned into the number ten role simply for the sake of formational orthodoxy.

And that would mean the coach being faced with what could well prove to be a paralyzing plethora of choices.

Sacrifice one of his wide players to accommodate one more central midfielder while simultaneously reducing the number of crosses delivered to the head of Kamara?

Experiment with three at the back and nullify some of Davies’ attacking threat by using him as a wing back?

Go to a traditional 4-4-2 which would mean two of Juarez, Ghazal, Felipe and Mutch not making the starting eleven?

Employ a 4-3-3 that keeps the wide players in the side and allows a true holding midfielder to play with either Felipe or Mutch as the more attacking option and Juarez as the conduit between the two but only allows a place for Reyna in the more disciplined wide role?

Right now it’s the latter option that probably makes the most sense but Robinson will indeed be faced with the thoroughly modern dilemma of an abundance of choice as well as something akin to that aformentioned decision between the hedonic and the utilitarian when to comes to the type of teams he selects.

And of course there are far too many studies in that particular area to enable us to make any kind of prediction as to which one he will ultimately opt for although, if I were going to switch disciplines for a moment and be the other person in his hell, I’d say he’ll go for the utilitarian option.

Vancouver Whitecaps: One down, thirty three (plus playoff games, MLS Cup Final and victory parade) to go

There was a fifteen minute period at the start of the second half when the Vancouver Whitecaps game against the Montreal Impact felt disturbingly familiar.

Vancouver had dominated the first half without ever really creating a clear cut chance and the second half began with the Impact on the front foot while the home team played with a kind of listless torpor.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Alphonso Davies whipped in a cross from the left and Kei Kamara produced a bullet of a header to change the tone completely.

Seven minutes later Davies slotted home his first ever MLS goal and only the sense that the whole team seemed to feel the job was done allowed Montreal to get a goal back and give fans of the Whitecaps a far more nervous than necessary final ten minutes.

They hung on to that lead however and concluded a mostly satisfactory day at the office.

So what were the main lessons learned?

Well, Kamara certainly doesn’t have the technical skill of Fredy Montero (there were times when his efforts resembled a unicorn trying to control a particularly feisty hedgehog) but that probably won’t matter if he can get on the end of crosses the way he did for the first goal.

Alphonso Davies had by far his best game as a Whitecap as he finally transformed “potential” into real world achievements.

He still takes the wrong option every now and then but he seemed far more interested in hurting the opposition than he has in the past. Let’s hope that level of ruthlessness is  a feature of his season.

Efrain Juarez was fairly anonymous in the first half but about twenty minutes into the second he appeared to suddenly come to his senses and began to get involved in the game both with the ball and as an organiser/coach whenever he could.

I’m not sure the MLS era Whitecaps have ever had a player who fills that kind of pseudo “Captain” role in the centre of the field and it will be an interesting dynamic to watch as the season progresses.

The biggest area of concern has to be the form of Yordy Reyna.

Yes it’s only the first game of the season, but he ended the last with exactly the same kind of lethargic display.

At his best Reyna thrives on devilment and speed of thought and foot and all three were missing on Sunday afternoon.

He probably just needs time to get his form up and running but there are new players waiting in the wings who could well push the Peruvian out of the picture if his overall play doesn’t improve.

Elsewhere Aaron Maund used the ball well from the back but was caught out of position on the Montreal goal and Russell Teibert had one of his better games as he even used the option of the forward ball from time to time.

It’s worth bearing in mind that a 2-1 win against a very poor Impact team is hardly the stuff of  legends in the making but the Whitecaps have failed this kind of test more than once in recent years so it would be churlish to be hyper-critical of the three points no matter how it is was earned.

Two tough road games to come that will no doubt give us a better idea of how Carl Robinson intends to slot his new signings into the team but, for now, all is good in the world of the Whitecaps.

Time for your Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-6, Waston-6, Maund-5, Teibert-6, Juarez-6, Davies-6.5*, Techera-6, Reyna-4.5, Kamara-6

Vancouver Whitecaps: A feeling in their knees?

Is Debbie Harry a great singer?

Well, it depends how you define the terms. In live performances she often struggles to find the right note or phrasing but in the studio she is close to perfect.

And not perfect in the “I’m going to sing this ballad over a twenty-five minute period hitting every note imaginable while simultaneously destroying any meaning the song may ever have had” kind of way, but perfect in that her voice moves through the music like a sugar cube melting into a hot morning coffee.

Much of this was also down to producer Mike Chapman (one half of the vastly underrated Chinn/Chapman duo who created so many Glam Rock hits in the early seventies) but it needed Debbie herself to appreciate that her vocal limitations could also be her strength when harnessed in the right way.

And that theme of learning how to accept limitations and use them effectively looks like it could be a recurring theme for the Vancouver Whitecaps this season.

On Saturday evening they beat the Las Vegas Lights (a new USL team) 3-2 in what felt like the first “proper” game of the preseason and although Carl Robinson didn’t field a full strength team it was close enough for us to at least make a few informed decisions.

The limitations are still fairly obvious.

After one brief foray forward Ephraim Juarez reverted to the traditional Whitecap role of sitting alongside his partner in defensive sterility (Russell Teibert filling the role on this occasion) and after cruising to a two goal lead in the first half Vancouver allowed an elbow to Alphonso Davies to completely throw them off track for a five-minute period which saw Las Vegas level the score thanks to a free kick and a penalty.

It’s been a theme of this side that they react to injustice by losing their collective heads and, once again, the bench were at least as guilty as the players with assistant coach Martyn Pert being sent to the stands.

It’s completely understandable that a coaching staff gets angry at a very bad challenge on their young star (especially in a preseason game) but their role isn’t to be the Id of the team, it’s to be the rationale side of the equation that can maintain a clear mind amid the madness.

Thankfully there were strengths on show too.

The Whitecaps were always a danger from set-pieces (no surprise there) and Davies showed that he may well have progressed from a promising kid who could never quite find the right final decision to a player who will be a threat both on the counter and when attempting to break down a packed defence at BC Place.

Chances are he will start the season and if he hits the ground running  he could well be the living embodiment of the “like a new signing” cliché.

Throw an in form Yordy Reyna and Ali Ghazal into that starting eleven on Saturday and the Whitecaps don’t look to be in too bad a position.

They aren’t going to glide through 2018 with the ease and assurance of a peak era Blondie forty-five but the trick will be making sure they make the most of their strengths and don’t play to their limitations (which became the depressing trend come the end of the 2017 season).

 

We need to talk about Alphonso

But which Alphonso Davies do we need to talk about?

Because right now there are two; the sixteen year old phenom who is massively overachieving by being anywhere near an MLS squad and the MLS player whose form has dipped dramatically since a successful Gold Cup tournament

For those of us watching from the outside it’s fairly easy to blur the lines between the two. We know when Davies makes an appearance that he isn’t the finished article, but we also know that every time he steps on to the field he’s getting closer to that goal.

And, added to that, there’s the thrill of simply being there at the start of what will hopefully become a stellar career because, for all the hype around big name signings, there’s nothing quite like watching a player develop right from the get go.

But for Carl Robinson those two separate iterations of the same player present his biggest coaching dilemma right now.

It’s clear that Robinson is trying to develop Davies as a player by giving him minutes when he’s ready for them and resting him when he needs rest.

And it’s fair to say that at times those decisions have been made at the expense of the immediate needs of the team.

Giving Davies time on the field may not always have been the best tactical option but the coach has been savvy enough to know that immediate needs should sometimes be sacrificed for the longer term good.

After all, if on the field experience means an improved Alphonso Davies in 2018 then that’s worth far more than closing down the centre of the field by introducing a Jacobson or a Teibert.

But parameters change.

And the Whitecaps are now atop the Western Conference with an immediate home game with which to solidify their position before a tough run of four road games from five to end the season.

Suddenly the ratio of what’s gained and what’s lost by using Davies becomes a different equation and, while every game is of equal importance from an objective point of view, the finishing line concentrates all minds alike and suddenly that objective point of view begins to see points from a far more subjective angle.

None of this would matter if Davies was in good form of course but, unfortunately, he isn’t.

He was partly at fault for the second Real Salt Lake goal in the 3-2 win, anonymous in a starting role against Minnesota on Wednesday and ineffective as a substitute in the tie with Columbus.

The Whitecaps took seven points from those games but Robinson can’t have failed to notice how out of sorts the youngster was and while Davies will always put in a shift from a defensive point of view and will always have a burst of speed to unnerve a defender, it’s his inability to successfully link up with teammates that is the most pressing concern right now.

It’s hard to say why that is.

Maybe growing up so far ahead of your age cohort means a few too many mistakes can be glossed over by pure ability?

Maybe he isn’t getting enough minutes playing with the regular first teamers?

But what it really looks like is that Davies is trying too hard and thinking too much.

And that tends to manifest itself in what we’ve seen from him of late.

Attempting to beat that one extra opponent when a simple pass is the better option, wanting an extra touch in front of goal when a first time shot is the obvious call.

And, yes, all players go through such moments in their careers and the good ones all come through them.

Thankfully Davies is one of the good ones and will power through this rough patch but the question for Robinson is how much of chance he grants the youngster in the coming weeks.

The coach’s instinct is clearly to let the player play his way out of bad form (Davies’ recent appearances may even have been Robinson’s way of doing just that) but if his form doesn’t turn around in the next couple of games does the coach continue with that philosophy if it means points being dropped?

It’s a tough call.

But while every fibre of Robinson’s being may be screaming that he simply “let the kid play”, the wiser counsels of his nature may be softly whispering that he may never be this close to catching the lightning in a bottle of a good run to the post season ever again.

Only time will tell which internal advice he considers the most sage.

But, one way or another, the coach and the kid will learn a lot about each other in the next few weeks.

 

Can the bad boy of Canadian soccer be tamed?

It’s Labour Day Weekend and those of us not distracted by having to play international soccer are no doubt using the time to pretend that summer isn’t really nearly over and that the days aren’t really getting shorter.

And it was probably such concerns that led to Alphonso Davies collecting his first red card as a professional when he was dismissed for an errant boot after just six minutes of his cameo appearance for Canada against Jamaica in Toronto.

But what sixteen year old isn’t distracted by the imminent onset of Autumnal hues?

Was the red mist Davies glimpsed nought but the mists of Fall?

When he covered his face as he walked to the touch-line was he contemplating the barred clouds blooming on a soft-dying day as they touched the stubble-plains with a rosy hue?

No he wasn’t.

He was thinking that he definitely shouldn’t have lashed out with his cleats in such a petulant manner.

But timing is everything in sport and if Davies had to pick up his first red card then an international friendly in which Canada are leading 2-0 is about the best time possible.

No doubt Carl Robinson was watching the action with mixed feelings.

A feeling of concern that his young star displayed a hitherto unseen lack of temperament, but also a feeling of arriving at a “teachable moment” where the youngster can learn one more lesson on his path to maturity.

Mostly though Robinson’s heart will have sunk with the realisation that the Davies red card is literally the only thing he will be asked about by the media for the next seven days.

Safe to say that future MLS opponents will have been watching and taking note and will be trying to wind Davies up for the remainder of this season at least.

One player who doesn’t really need to get wound up is Kendall Waston and he nearly did just that in Costa Rica’s 2-0 win over the USA on Friday evening when he clashed with the always loveable Clint Dempsey.

But much like the rest of this season Waston dialled it back enough to stay on the field and stay on just the right side of the referee.

Much of Waston’s improved disciplinary record has been put down to Robinson’s decision to name him captain for the season.

But I wonder if it isn’t just something more fundamental?

As we saw in the win in Orlando the Whitecaps are once again very proficient at blocking teams from attacking through the centre of the field, thus forcing them out wide, thus forcing them to cross the ball.

That’s meat and drink to Waston and it must be so much easier to keep his head when using his head than it was last year when a seemingly endless supply of pacey players were running toward him with the ball at their feet.

Somewhat bizarrely there were some MLS games played on this international weekend and the FC Dallas home tie with the Red Bulls leaves the Whitecaps still in fourth and a point ahead of Dallas with a game in hand (and who would have predicted that a few short weeks ago?).

And if Vancouver can beat Real Salt Lake in the upcoming game at BC Place that should effectively kill off the visitors chance of catching the Whitecaps given that they have played three games more.

Such a win would also push Vancouver somehwere near the top of the standings given the nature of the other match ups.

So much to play for, so much to lose!