Vancouver Whitecaps waiting for the end of the world

Well, maybe not the end of the world but definitely the end of the regular season because right now Carl Robinson and his players are caught in the limbo of knowing that they’ve already done enough to make the playoffs but still have three games to get through before all the post season hoopla begins in earnest.

It might even be to the coach’s advantage that he has a few players missing due to international duty for Saturday’s visit to the New York Red Bulls because he can at least keep things fresh by throwing in a few who are on the fringes of the first eleven before hopefully using the San Jose and Portland games to really hone his thoughts on who he starts from that point on.

And that’s important because although these playoffs may not be career defining for Robinson they could well define how he is ultimately regarded by Whitecaps fans once he leaves the organisation.

That’s because in his previous post season test he messed up royally.

He opted to go ultra defensive in the first leg when facing a Timbers team on minimal rest (Gershon Koffie at number ten!) and the resultant 0-0 in Portland was promptly undone as soon as the Timbers got a tie killing away goal in the return leg at BC Place.

And while it’s a truth universally acknowledged that nobody will relish facing Vancouver over two legs this time around they do still feel like a team who are more likely to lose a game by three or four goals than they are to win by that kind of margin.

So it will be interesting to see just how Robinson’s innate caution manifests itself.

He must know that an away goal in the first leg (this is assuming they do indeed get one of the top two spots in the West) would be huge for a team that is never happier than when waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.

But perhaps the biggest advantage he has over his options in 2015 is that this time around he’s in charge of a much deeper squad and while they may still be prey to the whims of form and injury the vast majority of those ready to go will have had the benefit of at least some rest during the slog of the regular season.

And speaking of analyzing the playing style of a particular coach (which we really weren’t but I’m too lazy to think of a cleverer segue) there seems to be another universally acknowledged truth that the coach only opts for the tactics he does because of the players he has.

That given his limited options he has no choice but to play low possession counterattacking football.

That argument is spurious of course because nobody really thinks that every coach in the world  would set up this group of players with two defensive midfielders and a lone striker.

The Whitecaps play the way they do because that’s how Carl Robinson wants them to play and that’s fine as long as the results keep coming, but let’s not pretend that the current squad is simply incapable of playing 4-3-3 or 4-1-3-2 for example.

A slightly more nuanced take on that argument is that the current system may not be the only way this team can play but it is certainly the best way for them to play and at least that argument has some merit given the current position in the standings.

But an advocate of the devil might say that the coach’s philosophy isn’t limited by the players he has but rather that a few of the players are limited by the coach they have.

The whole thing still doesn’t feel sustainable over a long period if we’re speaking in terms of seasons, but it definitely feels sustainable for the rest of this campaign and, right now, that’s all that really matters.

We can enjoy today for what it is and we don’t need to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow (or even the day after that).

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!

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Hot takes! Get your hot takes here!

Grab them quick because they are selling like hot takes!

Why football is so great- For the first sixty minutes the game on Wednesday was just terrible if you were a fan of the Whitecaps.

The team were lacklustre, the tactics were wrong and Seattle were passing the ball around like they actually practiced that kind of thing.

Then a red card, a goal created out of almost nothing and suddenly the final thirty minutes were a heart pounding mix of agony, hope and hastily thought through bargains with the gods of the sport.

Spinning dramatic silk from a sow’s ear of a game is what football does best.

Mystery solved- We don’t want to delve too much more on Carl Robinson’s decision making (we do really) but there’s always been some debate about whether his reluctance to make early changes is down to an inability to see what is wrong with the team or simply his footballing philosophy.

Well, after the Seattle game he said “I knew straight away after about ten minutes, I probably would have made two subs after about ten minutes” when speaking about how poor his team were.

Why he then waited another forty minutes to make any change at all speaks volumes about his willingness to sacrifice the present performance over the possibility of future player unrest.

The remainder of the season will determine if that is the right strategy.

BC Place is not Shea stadium The Brek Shea for Giles Barnes deal is beginning to look more and more like a like for like swap (that’s more likes than this blog has ever had!).

Because, like Barnes, Shea seems to be a player who doesn’t quite fit into the way the team want to play.

He will almost certainly start in Orlando so maybe that will be the breakthrough performance that kickstarts his career in Vancouver, but when your benched DP (no matter how tenuous that designation is) isn’t one of the three changes you make in a big game at home you’ve got a square peg/round hole scenario for sure.

So what now? Predicting MLS in general is folly and predicting this Whitecaps team is folly cubed.

We will get what we will get.

One thing for sure though is that if their “character” only stretches to playing well at home when there backs are against the wall it’s going to be tough haul for the rest of the year.

Sooner or later that “character” will have to demonstrate that it can take control of a game before it gets away from them if they are to genuinely prosper

 

At least it’s a point for the Vancouver Whitecaps!

Carl Robinson’s innate conservatism won’t destroy the Whitecaps season (they’re still likely to make the playoffs somewhere between fourth and sixth in the standings).

But it will always prevent this current group of players from flying anywhere higher than the ceiling of their collective abilities and it will always cause them to falter in the kind of game where something meaningful is on the line.

Case in point.

For the second consecutive Cascadia derby home game Robinson sent out his team to play in a manner that effectively killed the home team advantage by allowing the opposition to stroke the ball around for the first ten minutes just to make sure that they didn’t feel too uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s unfair?

Maybe he didn’t deliberately send his team out to play in such a supine manner? Maybe that’s just how they play once they listen to his instructions?

Either way it was border line embarrassing for Vancouver to be playing so fearfully in a contest where the home crowd is so desperate for the blood and thunder of a local derby.

What to say about the actual game?

The Whitecaps were horrendously bad in the first half and were lucky to go into the break only one goal down and then they were horrendously bad in the second half as well before referee Ricardo Salazar finally found a way to fire up the home team by sending off Tony Tchani for a second yellow card.

Then Alphonso Davies did well to set up Fredy Montero for his obligatory goal against the Sounders and from there on in it was the kind of backs to the wall defending that exists well within the comfort zone of both the players and the coaches.

Almost predictably they hung on for a point and Robinson will get to answer questions about the red card and the penalty and the referee and the fourth official.

And the fact that his team played without any kind of intensity or courage for the first sixty minutes of a Cascadia derby game will be conveniently forgotten.

The Whitecaps will now probably fly to Orlando and get a decent result and the march to the postseason will continue until they’re finally forced to play that one playoff game with everything resting on it and then the inevitable will happen.

Robinson will coach afraid, his team will play afraid and the season will be over.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-7*, Williams-4.5, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Tchani-5, Jacobson-5, Techera-5, Bolaños-5, Reyna-5.5, Montero-6.5 (Davies-6.5, Ibini-6, Teibert-6)

 

The Nerwinski Reconciliation Papers

Following the recent 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo the Vancouver Whitecaps full-back Jake Nerwinski was awarded a team low 5.5 in the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings (SSPR).

But could this number be wrong?

No it can’t be wrong because the SSPR are regarded as the gold standard of objective and analytically precise data analysis.

But what if that 5.5 was a price worth paying for the good of the team?

Let me explain.

Since that game the image at the head of this piece has been doing the social media rounds clearly showing that (Montero aside) Nerwinski was the Whitecaps player who was highest up the field when in possession.

And while we need to be careful about making sweeping assumptions from one game (no we don’t! late’s make them!) this was probably the first time Carl Robinson has allowed a full-back to play the position in the truly “modern” sense of the term.

That is, offering at least as much going forward as they do in defence.

This change was made possible because both Christian Bolaños and Cristian Techera played far narrower than usual thus creating space for Nerwinski out wide.

And that narrowness had other benefits too.

It allowed Jordy Reyna to roam wherever he pleased (often taking up position on the wide left where Jordan Harvey was  playing far more cautiously than Nerwinski) and it also meant that Bolaños was able to drop deep and be the distributor from the back instead of the more “agricultural” Waston or Parker.

It also enabled the Whitecaps to get extra bodies in the box when going forward, even if that did seem to lead to Techera constantly fighting futile aerial battles with central defenders.

But to really work the system needs a full-back on each side with the ability and willingness to get both forward and back on an almost constant conveyor belt and the current left-sided options just aren’t able to do that.

Neither Jordan Harvey nor Marcel de Jong possess the “legs”, “engine” or whatever other euphemism you wish to insert for the word “youth”.

So if Carl Robinson truly wants to switch to a system that employs the full-backs as almost the main attacking thrust (and MLS Cups have been won by just this kind of late season tactical change) he seemingly has two options.

The natural fit for the role is Brett Levis, who so impressed last season, but is only just getting back into match action with WFC2.

Levis on the left would be a kind of mirror image of Nerwisnki on the right (with perhaps a little more quality thrown into the mix).

The other option is Brek Shea.

Shea has played in pretty much every part of the left side of the field and so has experience of both sides of the defending and attacking coin.

He also adds height at set-pieces which Robinson might find an alluring prospect.

Chances are that none of this is going to happen and that the coach will revert to the experience of Harvey and maybe even Sheannon Williams when the crunch time of the season arrives.

But it’s good to dream every once in a while.

And even if it doesn’t happen let’s at least give credit to Robinson for once again dipping his toe into the murky waters of tactical innovation.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps get a Rocky Mountain High/Low

The thing about going to see a tribute act is that the experience can go one of two ways.

Either you end up standing on a beer stained vinyl floor watching five aging and hairy men desperately trying to recreate the magic of Rollermania while thinking to yourself things like “Where did my life take such a wrong turning?”, “I really hope these stains on the floor are just beer” and “Isn’t this actually the original Bay City Rollers?”

Or the experience can offer at least a glimpse of transcendence.

One more chance to recreate the thrill of a youth long gone with a Proustian rush of bass guitar and drum, or the opportunity to be a time travel tourist and live briefly in a world of vinyl and videotape.

For the Vancouver Whitecaps Saturday evening’s 2-2 tie with the Colorado Rapids fell somewhere on the outside of even those two experiences and they must now know how Brian Eno would feel were he to walk into a bar and discover that the headline act of the night was Proxy Music.

Because the Colorado Rapids were nothing if not a tribute act to the 2016 Whitecaps (The “Vancouver Might Caps” maybe? I don’t know I’m still work shopping names).

Anyway, the Rapids were overly cautious in a home game they needed to win, scored from a set piece and a counter attack and, having taken the lead, decided to sit back and allow the opposition back into the game before hanging on for a point that no doubt their coach would describe as “Well deserved against a good team”.

It was probably too much to hope that Vancouver would recreate the magic of that 4-0 win in Dallas but it felt as though they might when Tony Tchani gave them the lead after just five minutes.

This time around though the wide men didn’t support Fredy Montero enough going forward and it was only when they were 2-1 down that the introduction of Shea and Techera really changed the focus of the game.

Shea was once again a threat down the left flank and Techera’s trademark left footed delivery from the right finally gave Montero a few scraps to feed upon and he eventually connected with one of them to level the score.

After that it all got even scrappier than it was before with both teams looking capable of scoring more through luck than judgement although by the final whistle it was the Whitecaps who looked like being the luckier of the two.

A point on the road in MLS is never a bad thing but the “what ifs” of a Kendall Waston start and better performances from Ibini and Bolaños may just keep Carl Robinson awake a little longer than usual in the coming days.

Elsewhere Sheanon Williams looked rustier than he did in Dallas and Tchani’s goal was a delightful side footed finish from outside the penalty area but the game still leaves the coach trapped in the hinterland of being content with the knowledge he has game changers on the bench and frustrated that selecting which of those game changers to start seems to be something of a lottery.

But four points from the first two road games of a three game stretch already puts the team at par and whatever happens in New England next week is now less important than how the Whitecaps deal with being back at BC Place.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams-5.5, Parker-6, Jacobsoon-5.5, Harvey-6.5, Tchani-6, Laba-6, Bolaños-5.5, Ibini-5.5, Reyna-6, Montero-6, (Techera-6.5*, Shea-6.5)

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: What is the best eleven?

As we approach the business end of the Major League Soccer season now is the time for coaches to look back on the first half of the season and try to glean a modicum of order from the inevitable chaos that has gone before.

New signings will have either been bedded in or weeded out of contention, tactical experiments will have burned brightly and sparkled, burned brightly and crashed or arrived pale and still born with their passing neither mourned nor mentioned.

But now the decision making becomes less about aspirations and wishes and more about the nuts and bolts of what actually works.

So has Carl Robinson seen enough to formulate a “best” starting eleven for his Vancouver Whitecaps team?

Let’s see.

We’ll start with the players who are definitely among the select group that will always be on the team sheet if fit.

David Ousted, Tim Parker , Kendall Waston, Christian Bolaños, Jordy Reyna and Fredy Montero.

Nobody can dispute that Ousted, Parker and Waston are the key defensive players for the team; lose any one of these three to injury and the side is weakened.

And while Bolaños can be a mercurial presence he is clearly the best technical player the team has and in a side that has relied so heavily on set-pieces for their goals his delivery from those alone justifies his presence.

Reyna may only have provided a brief body of work on which to judge but there’s enough substance there to conclude that he offers a much needed fresh approach to attacking. He can run with the ball, turn up on any part of the pitch and gives Montero the support he has been sorely lacking.

Montero then must be relishing the possibility of spending the run in to the playoffs being less of an attacking island dweller then he has been thus far.

But now to the trickier decisions that Robinson will have to make.

At left full back Jordan Harvey is as close to being a definite starter as makes no real difference. Marcel de Jong has mostly filled in well when asked, but a decent Gold Cup performance won’t be enough to convince the coach that he should eschew Harvey’s MLS experience just yet.

At right back though the decision gets more complicated for a whole host of reasons.

Sheanon Williams was playing as a potential All Star before an off the field incident meant he was unavailable for a number of weeks and that allowed Jake Nerwinski to grasp the chance at first team action with both hands.

Williams was back in the lineup for the 4-0 victory in Dallas and although the coach may decide to alternate the starting spot for a few more games yet it’s hard to believe that, when push comes to shove, he won’t opt for experience over promise and make Williams the first choice for the run in.

Do we call them defensive midfielders or central midfielders?

That’s a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the Whitecaps but, right now, there are three decent options available to fit into two available spaces and they each offer something slightly different.

Matias Laba is a terrier who can break up opposition attacks with his chasing and when he’s good he’s very good and although he may not offer anything obvious from an attacking perspective his ability to break up play and set up a counter attack is often one of the Whitecaps most effective weapons in creating chances.

But when Laba is off his game his mistimed interventions can leave him way out of position and the back four perilously open to runners (their nightmare scenario).

If Laba could achieve consistency he’d be one of the best defensive midfielders in the league but, as it stands, he’s a decent option whose inclusion always contains an element of risk.

Carl Robinson has shown more patience with Tony Tchani than maybe any other player, which means he must see something there that will be of value over the long term.

And in the last few games maybe that “something” has begun to emerge as Tchani has developed into a neat midfielder who can keep possession and act as the conduit between the more creative players.

He’s still to offer any meaningful attacking presence during open play but he is always a danger from set-pieces.

Andrew Jacobson is something of an amalgam of Laba and Tchani. He can play the purely defensive role (albeit with less vigour than Laba) and he can play the conduit role (albeit with less involvement than Tchani).

He is though the only one of the three who seems to possess a genuine attacking instinct when the Whitecaps have the ball and he too is a set-piece threat.

In an ideal world Carl Robinson would be selecting which two of the three he selects based on the needs of an individual game but in reality Laba will be a certain starter with Tchani  likely to be ahead of Jacobson based on Robinson’s faith in the ex Columbus Crew man.

So if we accept that Bolaños will start as one of the wide players, who will fill the other wide role?

Cristian Techera has first dibs there right now given his effective start to the season but Carl Robinson can’t have failed to notice how much more effective his team were when Montero had the support of Brek Shea and Berni Ibini on the wings.

Ibini was probably brought in to be one of those players that all coaches love; can be slotted in anywhere along the front line.

And his role for the rest of the season is likely to be as either an impact substitute or the occasional starter when one of the regulars need a rest.

For a Designated Player Shea has been severely underused thus far but the game in Dallas felt like a calling card for the rest of the year.

Shea wasn’t spectacular in that game by any means but his play supported Montero and his willingness to stick to the touch-line meant that Dallas were stretched in ways that few other opponents of the Whitecaps have been this season.

Carl Robinson loves his inverted wingers but Shea on the left and Bolaños on the right may prove to be the most effective way of getting the best out of Reyna and Montero.

Shout out too to Alphonso Davies whose recent injury either means that physically he will struggle to be a regular feature or the club will decide it’s not worth the risk of pushing so valuable an asset too hard with so many other options available.

Either way Davies as a late substitute still has the potential to turn a game or two around.

Those not mentioned in dispatches thus far can consider themselves as useful (to varying degrees) bench players.

Mezquida, Teibert, Hurtado et al will no doubt feature to some degree down the stretch but the core eleven will surely be made up of the sixteen named above.

Ultimately there isn’t a right answer to the best eleven because circumstances change from game to game so I guess I’ve asked a question I couldn’t answer (as Morrissey probably wrote at some time) but no definitive right answer doesn’t mean that there isn’t a definitive wrong one.

And that’s the answer Carl Robinson desperately needs to avoid coming up with.