Vancouver Whitecaps: How Soon is Now?

Yay!

The Vancouver Whitecaps players are back at preseason training which means no more Christmas miracles, no more dystopian futures and much more opportunity for me to phone all this in with the kind of “Here are five things…” kind of posts that you, dear reader, will plough through until the end in the vain hope of excavating maybe a nugget of information or insight or just something, anything, to make the whole sorry exercise worth while.

Like I said.

“Yay!”

But worry not because this won’t be one of those “Here are five things…” kind of posts at all. Oh no! This is very different. This is a “Here are five people….” kind of post.

Here are five people who will (or could) most influence the Whitecaps 2018 season.

Yordy Reyna- Last season Reyna arrived from a half season long injury to look like the wild card who could turn the team from “possible” to “probable” in the MLS Cup stakes.

It didn’t quite work out that way in the end and his season (like everybody’s) ended with a whimper.

This season Reyna could prove to be even more of a wild card.

His off-season travails have been well documented and remain unresolved and how he reacts to those is yet to be seen.

But right now Reyna is looking like the only genuine creative spark the Whitecaps have so, from a purely footballing perspective, let’s hope he can find focus on the field and that the prospect of being a member of the Peru team that travels to the World Cup in the summer either concentrates or clears his mind.

Without Reyna’s spark of ingenuity the Whitecaps could be a very laborious team to watch indeed.

Kei Kamara- Carl Robinson has been keen to emphasise that Kamara is the first genuine number nine he has had at his disposal and it’s true the big man should suit the team’s style far better than his predecessors.

The tactical naifs among us will wonder why that system was being played when there wasn’t a player suited to it but ours not to reason why the water has passed under a bridge that has already burned and if Kamara does get the service he needs (and with Anthony Blondell as backup) we may finally see those crosses and long balls from the back pay greater dividend.

Alphonso Davies- Sooner or later Davies is going to have to start earning column inches because of how he plays rather than because of his untapped potential.

And that “sooner” is getting awfully close to “now” if he’s going to fulfill that promise.

We’ve seen the odd flash of guile amid the pace, power and defensive diligence but those flashes need to become a feature of his play or Davies will turn out to be just one more MLS players who can be classed as “useful” rather than a game changer.

If Davies starts the season well then Robinson will surely give him the game time to further hone his craft, but a slow start for the youngster leading to a few weeks on the bench and suddenly the nagging itch of doubt will start to feel like something that even Davies himself can’t help but scratch.

A defining year for him? It probably is.

Defender X- The coach has already hinted he will be looking at playing three central defenders this year and that means one other player has to slot alongside Kendall Waston and Tim Parker.

Robinson has name checked Marcel de Jong  as the leading contender but Aaron Maund and Doneil Henry must feel they are in with a shout given a fair wind and a clean bill of health.

But whoever gets the gig will need to supplement the pairing of Waston and Parker without detracting from their defensive solidity from last season and it would also be great if they could pass the ball with a reasonable degree of competence.

That certainly makes de Jong the favourite but let’s bear in mind…

Carl Robinson- Robinson has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to try different formations and systems but he’s also shown that he’s not hugely successful at making them actually work and that, when push comes to shove, he will revert to the style he feels most comfortable with; containment and reactive football.

Whether he can break out of that rut this year is open to debate (although I don’t really think it’s open to debate but we have to start the season with some hope right?) but to hear him talk about new signing Efrain Juarez with the all too familiar refrain of being a”good presence in the locker room” brings on the kind of ennui that really should be saved for the dog days of summer when the traditional late season slump has really taken hold.

But, putting all the gloominess aside, the coach has the squad to play the way he wants to play and the MLS experience under his belt to optimise the way he uses that squad week in and week out.

Which is all good.

No excuses from here on in then (well there will be excuses, but there really shouldn’t be.)

Vancouver Whitecaps say “Adiós” to Bolaños

So farewell then Christian Bolaños.

It’sen announced that the Costa Rican international has moved back to his home country to play for his former club Saprissa.

So how do we assess his time for the Vancouver Whitecaps?

Well, his first season was an undoubted success with five goals and eight assists leading him to be voted Player of the Year and it was a joy to watch his ability to play the game at his own speed no matter what the circumstance.

The second season was less impressive and we can probably put that down to a combination of injuries, lack of focus due to the distractions of international duty and the team not playing in a style suited to his game.

 

In an ideal world the Whitecaps would have got more from his undoubted quality on the ball but by the end he had simply turned into a “useful at set pieces” kind of player and there are others that can fill that role for far less of a salary hit.

Maybe there will be a direct replacement signed but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move Yordy Reyna to his more natural left wing spot and stop thinking of him as the number ten that he actually isn’t.

In other news the Whitecaps have signed Efrain Juarez from Mexican team Monterrey and he can play in a number of positions but is most suited to either right back or defensive midfield.

In that ideal world we were dreaming of earlier he’d slot in at right back to give Jake Nerwinski another season of learning the ropes of defending but given Carl Robinson’s tendency to view playing defensive midfielders with the same restraint Winnie the Pooh views a jar of honey that central spot may prove to be his main role.

That would mean the ongoing “talks” with Nosa Igiebor are less likely to prove fruitful and would surely make him one of the strangest signings the team has made.

Igiebor didn’t play for the first few moths of his time in Vancouver but was then thrown into the playoffs in a manner which suggested Robinson felt he was the answer to whatever ailed his team at the end of the campaign.

He wasn’t the answer, but it seems odd that the current prevarication seems to be leaning more toward departure than extension.

To be fair it’s still too early to make any kind of definitive judgments about the comings and goings around the squad until we see the final picture but the hope has to be that any moves are designed to support the style of play Carl Robinson favours (while simultaneously wishing he didn’t favour that style of play).

I also really wanted to get some kind of Dylan themed”Lost in the Reyna in Juarez” kind of pun into this post but to no avail!

Vancouver Whitecaps: A fair and balanced schedule

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years about making predictions around how the MLS schedule will impact the Vancouver Whitecaps it’s that we just can’t do it.

That tough stretch of four road games that we suspect will derail the season yields ten points, those three easy home games in July yield two.

This time around though even those scenarios are taken away from us as the team are faced with their most balanced fixture list (in terms of home and road games in a row) in the MLS era.

At first glance it even looks like a “traditional” season with as close to a home game followed by a road game as makes no difference.

This is MLS of course so there’s always the hidden easter egg of one extra game against San Jose to slightly destroy the illusion.

And the fact that Seattle and Portland get to play each other three times while facing the Whitecaps twice not only messes with the Cascadia Cup it also takes away one of the moderately accessible trips for any travelling supporter.

Given how poor Vancouver were against their Cascadian rivals in 2017 that may be no bad thing in the long-term and the Sounders and the Timbers beating each other up (metaphorically and literally) might be a blessing in disguise come season end.

If I were Carl Robinson though (I’m not) my biggest concern would be the opening of the season with five of the eight games on the road and the three home games consisting of Canadian rivals Montreal and the two LA teams.

Nobody really knows what to expect from either of those entities but it’s just possible that Vancouver could have a really bad start to the season which would only exacerbate the negative feelings some of us felt towards Robinson given how the 2017 campaign ended.

Looking back through my posts from last season it seems I wrote this in May

Anyway, this is a very all around the houses way of saying that whatever anybody may have thought of him before…..Carl Robinson has displayed a somewhat remarkable degree of tactical flexibility this season.

Gone is the rigid belief (and fear) of the power of the first goal and gone too is the stubborn adherence to 4-2-3-1.

It’s only May in 2017 and Robinson has already trotted out a greater varieties of tactics than he did in all the previous years of his tenure.

It’s true that this doesn’t always feel like the perfect fit for his (football) personality and there’s still the sense of a man desperately trying to come to terms with a belief system that he doesn’t quite buy into.

No coach who genuinely believed in pure attacking football would leave Fredy Montero quite so isolated for example, but it’s also true that often the most zealous adherents to any faith are those who have converted late in life.”

It turned out that Robinson wasn’t going to be a radical zealot proselytizing the beauty of attacking football and I was as slow as anybody to fail to hear the thrumming of the rumble strip as the coached veered back to the security of what he knew.

Will Robinson be as tactically adventurous at the start of 2018?

Well, given he’s already said his main regret of 2017 was not taking the opening games of the season seriously enough (and concentrating on the Champion’s League instead) he clearly wants his team to hit the ground running this year.

That doesn’t seem to be a good fit for variety and change.

So what we see at the start of the year will likely be what we can expect to get for the rest of the season.

Let’s hope it turns out to be a road worth travelling.

 

 

Can the Vancouver Whitecaps change their ways? (Part Two)

Last time out we wondered if maybe, just maybe, the way the Vancouver Whitecaps dealt with the manner in which their season ended could have been handled in a more effective manner.

This time out we’ll look at the thing most of us care about a little bit more.

What happens on the field.

In a recent article for The Guardian Jonathan Wilson wondered whether Jose Mourinho’s coaching style had drifted from the pragmatic to the dogmatic.

In other words, playing defensively and picking up a point against other top teams in the Premier League was no longer working in a competition where rivals Manchester City were more often than not picking up three points in the same games.

Pragmatism isn’t pragmatism if it doesn’t actually work.

His kindest critics would argue that Carl Robinson is a pragmatist. That he makes the most of his resources by setting up a team designed to shut down the opposition while simultaneously being able to make hay out of the sunshine of their mistakes.

And the final league table gives that argument a degree of validity.

But what if we lived in a world where the Whitecaps as an organization weren’t content with that kind of approach? What if we lived in world where the coach was told his style of play would always be ineffective when it really mattered and the time had come to adapt the way he sets up his team?

Ironically I think we may already have lived in that world and it was called 2016.

Back then Robinson toyed with the notion of a genuine number ten, played with the idea of only one defensive midfielder and even flirted with the prospect of a deep lying playmaker.

None of them really worked of course and we will have to decide for ourselves whether that failure was down to the players (mostly Pedro Morales) or the coach being unable to set up a team capable of taking the game to an opponent.

To be fair to Robinson the form and fitness of Morales was poor for most of that year but the coach’s failure to fit the most talented player the Whitecaps have had in the MLS era into any kind of system other than bunkering counter attack was telling.

And it’s Robinson’s inability to send out a team willing to attack that remains his greatest weakness as a coach.

And logic says that it has to be inability rather than unwillingness because no coach  would fail to attack the decimated Portland Timbers team we saw at BC Place earlier this season would they?

Would they?

And no coach would not want to take advantage of a a decimated Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the playoffs would they?

Would they?

Actually that second one he definitely wouldn’t because he said so after the game.

But the pattern of passivity is now so fixed that it’s become like some kind of Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence in which we are condemned to relive the same incapacity to break down a reasonably competent defence “once more and eternal times more”.

And the most terrifying thing of all, the thing that is the void we must all stare into, isn’t that Carl Robinson doesn’t want his team to play in a more open and appealing fashion.

It’s that if even if he did want it he wouldn’t quite know how to make it happen.

 

Frankly, Mr Robinson

“Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor”. Bill Shankly

Carl Robinson will almost certainly be back as coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps next season.

After all, he’s a safe pair of hands who can do enough to get them into the playoffs most years and who is happy to talk down the potential of his own team to ensure nobody gets too upset whenever they fall short or fail to perform.

But if there’s one metaphor to sum up his tenure thus far it’s those “ceilings” spoken of by Bill Shankly.

There’s the ceiling of his own coaching ability which is limited to one particular style of play no matter who is in the squad.

The illusion that a forward of genuine quality and a dynamic creative presence would allow Robinson to play more attractive football has been shattered by the realization that Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna are still playing in a team that is specifically designed to isolate them.

Neither does it matter who is touted as a box to box saviour because Robinson won’t want them to play as a box to box saviour. He will want them to sit deep and stifle the midfield.

And in every game of consequence he has been out coached to an alarming degree, largely because the way he sets up the team is so predictable.

Don’t give away silly fouls near your own penalty area, don’t push too many men forward and the Whitecaps just won’t be able to beat you.

There’s the ceiling his style of play imposes on young players.

It can be argued that defenders such as Parker and Nerwinski have flourished under Robinson but not a single young attacking player has improved.

What that means for the future of Alphonso Davies is cause for concern.

Is playing in a team that doesn’t want possession good for his long-term growth? Is playing in a team that seems to value his defensive contribution over all else beneficial? Is playing in a team in which the coach constantly thinks the opposition are to be feared no matter who they are or where the game is played good for his confidence?

The answer to all those questions is “No” by the way.

There’s the ceiling of how much the club can grow under his stewardship.

It’s true that Robinson’s main focus has to be on getting results but the first leg against Seattle was so devoid of ambition that very few of those “Whitecaps curious” attendees among the 27,000 will be coming back.

Play conservative football and win and perhaps something limited but substantial can be built. Play conservative football and lose and the foundations will begin to shift.

Right now the Whitecaps are at the limit of how far they can go in terms of crowd numbers with this style of play (actually, that limit may have already been reached last season and this year could be the start of the decline).

Whatever the case, more of the same next season will see those numbers dissipate just a little bit more.

There’s the ceiling of his relationship with the supporters.

It’s kind of odd that Robinson, who clearly has a very good relationship with his players, has never really connected with the Whitecaps fan base.

Part of that is because he treats all interviews and press conferences as a way of either saying nothing or as a way of dissembling.

And again, just like his preferred style of play, that’s his prerogative.

But if you don’t engage with the fans by acknowledging their concerns or speaking in a way that elicits or invites empathy then those poor performances are so much tougher to get through.

It could be that his whole “we are up against it” philosophy precludes him from this kind of engagement or it could be that he regards his own knowledge of the game to be so far above those who pay for tickets week in and week out that they don’t merit consideration.

But if Robinson displayed the same openness and willingness to engage with the fans as he does with an opposition player taking a throw in he might be given a little more slack when things go awry.

And finally there’s the ceiling of his own ambition.

Maybe he’s not to blame for this particular flaw because it could be the club ethos as a whole but the overwhelming sense is of a coach who once he’s reached a level he thinks is acceptable for the season regards anything else as simply a bonus.

From the moment the Whitecaps reached the playoffs this year Robinson began to tinker with team selection and tactics and lo and behold the performances dipped.

Instead of asking more of his players he asked less. He left in-form performers out of lineups and seemingly saw the final three games of the campaign as the chance to decide what his best eleven should be.

Which is kind of crazy once you really think about it.

Unsurprisingly any momentum was lost and we ended up watching the team turn in those two performances against Seattle.

So after four years of observing his body of work as a coach we can conclude that while Robinson really wants to win games and trophies he doesn’t really need to win them.

He’s more than happy to hit whatever preseason target the back or front office assign him and then explain with a smile that his players just aren’t as good as their opponents.

Despite all of the above though he will probably be back in 2018 and there will no doubt be talk of new signings and rumours of departures and then the preseason advertising campaign will proclaim how much everybody involved with the Whitecaps cares for the club and for the supporters and for the history.

And then this time next year Carl Robinson will once again be shrugging his shoulders and giving a “Well, what can you do?” grin while our Cascadian rivals celebrate in the background.

 

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!