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.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The clip show

You know those sitcoms that always have one episode which is just a series of clips of other episodes?

We all love those because it shows just how much effort has gone into creating something special for the viewer. Right?

Right.

So think of this particular post in similar lines. It’s really just a collection of thoughts that either could have been (or have been) just as well expressed in tweet form.

But, because I really care about each and every one of you, here are the expanded and less pithy versions.

The Whitecaps don’t need to sign any more players- Now that it’s pretty much confirmed that there will be no more Designated Player signings this season that leaves any other additions the team might make as more likely to be “squad strengtheners” than “game changers”.

And the last thing Carl Robinson needs right now is more players to think about.

He still hasn’t figured out a way of fitting Brek Shea into his starting eleven, let alone found a consistent role to use Bernie Ibini in.

The recent return of a number of players from injuries seems to have thrown the coach into a fevered state of throwing square pegs at round holes in the desperate hope that one will somehow fit.

More square pegs for the same number of round holes definitely isn’t the answer.

The Gold Cup Golden Boot is a double-edged sword for Alphonso Davies- It’s great that the young Canadian picked up this trophy (and the “Young Player of the Tournament” as well) but that shouldn’t hide the fact that his overall play just wasn’t that stellar.

He did confirm that he was a very good finisher however because Davies always seems to pass the ball into the net rather than opting for the hit and hope style we’ve all come to know and love at BC Place.

But the accolades will only lend more credence to the voices who already think that simply starting the youngster will solve all of the Whitecaps issues.

It won’t.

And what he needs more than anything else right now it to start in a few selected games where he’s able to develop some kind of chemistry with his Vancouver teammates.

That’s hard to do in the heat of a playoff race and it’s even harder to do in a team that plays as though an incisive short pass is a great idea in theory but that nothing beats the effectiveness of frantically trying to pick up knock downs from long punts forward.

Would a coaching change help the Whitecaps?- Last season the Seattle Sounders struck gold by firing Sigi Schmidt and now the LA Galaxy have announced that they hope to find the same gold by..er…hiring Sigi Schmidt.

And after four seasons we know the limits of Carl Robinson as a coach.

For all his brief flirtation with open football earlier in the year he will always revert to his natural belief that benefiting from errors is a better way to go than creating chances organically.

That’s worked well in home games against Atlanta, LA and Seattle who all played with a degree of openness but the tradition is that in the second half of the season the better coaches will have sussed out their opponents and know the best way to shut them down.

One of Robinson’s biggest issues is that he just isn’t a very good “in-game” coach. He rarely makes effective or timely changes and seems mostly incapable of either seeing that his team is playing poorly or even acknowledging the fact.

I could add that an awful of the coaching that he actually does during a game revolves around telling individual players where they should be at any given moment and that’s indicative of either futile micro management or a lack of preparation during the week because these are the things that should come naturally to a well-drilled side.

This is a great read on that particular topic by the way.

For all that though the decision to replace Robinson should only be made if there’s somebody really good in the wings ready to go and who has been well researched by the club.

That’s a highly unlikely scenario, so the best hope for now seems to be that either the current coach can somehow find a way to change his tactical ways in the next few weeks or that a serendipitous quirk of fate throws the best formation into his lap one beautiful Vancouver morning.

Next time out we’ll return to regular programming.

 

A familiar story for the Vancouver Whitecaps

To be fair to Carl Robinson he has solved one long standing issue with his Whitecaps team this season; they no longer view conceding the first goal as necessarily fatal to their chances in any game.

But an issue he has very definitely not solved is how to beat a team who come to BC Place with the main intention of sitting back and stifling Vancouver.

On Sunday afternoon the Portland Timbers were decimated by injuries, suspensions and international call ups but still managed to leave the building with all three points after a fairly simple 2-1 win.

They were helped out massively in that regard by the Whitecaps starting the game seemingly confident in the knowledge that simply turning up would be enough to secure the win and that displaying any kind of urgency would really be quite unnecessary.

They paid the price for that attitude by conceding the inevitable goal which gave the visitors a sense of belief that could, and should, have been snuffed out of them by a home team attacking with gusto from the get go.

Miraculously the Whitecaps levelled just before half-time through the obligatory set-piece and there was suddenly the hope that such an unlikely reprieve would tempt the coach into making the changes needed during the break.

He didn’t of course and his side came out with the exact same plan in the second half and promptly conceded again and that, effectively, was all she wrote.

A couple more set-piece scrambles offered a glimmer of hope but nothing more and eventually the Whitecaps capitulated to a Cascadian rival with barely a whimper.

So what went wrong besides the intangibles of “attitude” and “heart”?

Well the major tactic on the day seemed to be to hit long balls for the lone striker to run on to and mostly that lone striker didn’t get anywhere near the ball because he was surrounded by at least three Portland defenders.

But even if he did get the ball he couldn’t do anything with it because he was surrounded by at least three Portland defenders.

Fortunately though Carl Robinson had a plethora of attacking options to utilize from his bench and he used these to good effect.

Just kidding, he may well have used those options but in ways that became more and more mysterious as the game wore on.

First it was Reyna to replace Mezquida in the exact same role that wasn’t working anyway, then Davies for Tchani in the middle, then Shea for Montero which moved Bolaños  into the middle, Davies out wide and put Shea up front.

And through all those changes the Whitecaps still managed to leave their lone striker isolated from the rest of the team.

Shea as centre-forward is a terrible idea anyway but if he is going to play there then there has to be somebody near him to pick up any knock downs. I mean, there won’t be any knock downs because Shea isn’t a centre forward but at least that feels vaguely like a plan.

There was a telling moment in the second-half when both teams had a player down injured resulting in a lengthy stoppage.

Portland coach Caleb Porter used that time to call a group of his players over and detail what he wanted from them for the rest of the game. Carl Robinson decided that the time would be better spent complaining to the fourth official.

Hard to know which approach would help a team more.

Once again the Whitecaps have wasted an opportunity to give themselves some breathing space in the playoff race and now face three tough road games before they are back at BC Place in the middle of August.

The most concerning thing of all though is that while we’ve all been looking forward to having a full squad of fit players available we didn’t stop to think whether the coach would know how to use those players to good effect.

The signs from Sunday are that he probably doesn’t.

One step forward and one step back as always with this team.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 6*, Nerwinski-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6-Laba-6, Tchani-5.5, Bolaños-6, Techera-4.5, Mezquida-5, Montero-5 (Reyna-5.5, Davies-5, Shea-5.5) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Danger! High Voltage

There can’t have been many Vancouver Whitecaps fans who approached the game against the in form Chicago Fire with much hope or expectation, but the ensuing 4-0 rout must surely have been at the low end of those hopes and expectations.

Carl Robinson reverted back to a 4-1-4-1 formation with the returning Christian Bolaños deployed to distract Bastian Schweinsteiger in the centre.

And that worked well for the first ten minutes or so as the Whitecaps looked dangerous from a set-piece and Bolaños hit a post after a nice piece of trickery.

Then Schweinsteiger dropped deeper and the whole plan fell apart.

Tactical flexibility? To adapt to an in game situation? That’s not how Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps roll and suddenly there was ample space for the Fire to play the ball in the centre of the field and the goals arrived with the inevitability of a Donald Trump tweet during the Sunday morning news cycle.

The second half consisted of Chicago allowing Vancouver to have the ball confident in the knowledge they wouldn’t cause any damage.

And they didn’t.

If there was one thing to separate these two teams (There was far more than one) it was the way the final ball was played. Chicago hit their crucial passes with calm and purpose, Vancouver hit theirs with hope and not much else.

Things then got worse with a red card to Matias Laba who will hopefully face at least some kind if internal discipline in addition to the automatic game he will miss because to make that kind of challenge so late in a game already lost is unforgivable.

Maybe his absence will be for the best though?

He was yet again culpable for giving up a goal after conceding the ball thanks to a bad first touch and it could be that opponents have identified this as a weakness to be exploited.

Steal the ball from Laba and the Whitecaps are dangerously exposed to runners.

Chicago got their fourth following Laba’s dismissal but by that stage everybody was just keen for the whole thing to be over.

We all know what the excuses are for this performance; injuries, travel, Chicago are a good team (As though having a “good team” is some kind of cheat code) but the upcoming game against New York City at BC Place on Wednesday evening suddenly feels particularly important.

They too are a “good team” and if the Whitecaps get beaten again they go into an extended break with nothing to lift their spirits other than the hollow sound of more post game interviews speaking of “character”, “belief” and “bouncing back”.

The good news (Yes, there is some good news) is that in addition to Bolaños starting there were also places on the bench for Mezquida, Dean, Hurtado and Reyna.

There’s an awful lot of hope riding on the return to fitness of Jordy Reyna and I suppose we can’t really judge Carl Robinson until he does have a full compliment of fit players.

But if he fails to shape this squad into coherence and quality in the second half of the season and if he allows this campaign to drift into the torpor and futility of the last then it will surely be time to look elsewhere for our repetitive soundbites.

The Fire were no doubt celebrating at the disco last night (Maybe even the Taco Bell?)

The Whitecaps weren’t too far away from the gates of hell.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Nerwisnki-5, Jacobson-5, Parker-5.5, Harvey-5.5, Laba-4, Bolaños-6*, Tchani-5, Techera-5, Shea-5.5, Ibini-5 (Mezquida-5.5, Montero-5)

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps passing passeth all understanding

Of all the stats that now bounce around soccer as chaotically as a ball at a Whitecaps training session there is perhaps none to have undergone such a change of perception as that of “possession”.

In the heyday of the peak Tiki Taka period of Barcelona and Spain high possession percentages were presented with all the reverence of a Springsteen cover band tentatively striking the opening chords of Born to Run.

Then over time the pendulum swung towards the Mourinhoesque view that possession, if not inherently dangerous, did at least offer more opportunities to those teams without the ball than those with.

Nowadays those possession stats have become so ubiquitous they just seem to serve the purpose of whoever is opining about whichever game. Team won with low possession stats? Possession doesn’t mean anything. Team won while dominating possession? The numbers don’t lie.

Under Carl Robinson the Vancouver Whitecaps have almost always edged toward the negative side of the ledger when it comes to being in control of the ball but a few recent games (And in particular the recent 2-2 tie in Minnesota) have taken those deficits to a fairly astonishing level.

Against the expansion team Vancouver managed to retain the ball for only 26% of the time and remarkably there wasn’t a single five-minute period in the whole game in which they out-possessed Minnesota.

There are two possible explanations for this failing; the first is that it was a feature of the tactical plan, the second is that it was a bug.

The chart at the head of this piece is the passing map of the two central defenders on the day, Tim Parker and Andrew Jacobson.

Parker managed to compile a somewhat remarkable 26.7% pass completion rate while Jacobson exceeded even that figure with a law of averages defying 16.7%.

And, as you can see, they just about managed to complete one succesful pass into the opposition half.

Not that it wasn’t for the want of trying though as they each launched a number of high balls forward to the rather small Fredy Montero and the ill-equipped for the role Brek Shea.

Hard to say why that tactic didn’t work, but might it be because Montero is rather small and Shea is ill-equipped for the role?

If it was Carl Robinson’s plan to make use of this kind of distribution then it clearly failed miserably.

But maybe that wasn’t the plan (Let’s really hope it wasn’t the plan) and it was ultimately the circumstances on the day which lured Parker and Jacobson into personifying the definition of hope over experience?

After all, the options open to them were limited.

Not since Pedro Morales departed have the Whitecaps had a player who could comfortably drop back and pick the ball up from the back four in the hope of launching a legitimate attack.

Christian Bolaños can fill the role but he is currently injured and even if he were fit forcing him into that position removes him from the wide areas where he is at his most dangerous.

So Jacobson and Parker were left with Laba and Tchani as their main outlet.

Laba picked the ball up deep seven times and on six of those occasions (Six!) he gave the ball away.

Tchani picked the ball up just once from either of the central defenders during the entire game (In fairness to Tchani his passing accuracy was off the scale compared to almost all other members of the team) but he clearly wasn’t tasked or asked to be the conduit between the defence and the midfield.

So what about the fullbacks?

Well, Tim Parker successfully passed the ball to Jordan Harvey once and er…that’s it.

Throw into the mix the fact that David Ousted distributed the ball twelve times and only on three of those occasions was it within his own half and either by accident or design the Whitecaps became a team simply lumping long balls forward to two players who don’t like to play in that kind of way.

I could probably add the overall lack of team movement (Which also seems to be a feature of Robinson’s coaching style) as yet another factor to throw into the mix explaining the inability to keep the ball because a Whitecaps player in possession rarely has the option of more than one teammate to pick out, thus making it so much easier for the opponent to press and close them down.

Lots of reasons then as to why Vancouver failed to keep hold of the damned thing on Saturday, but not so many answers as to how or if the coaching staff will address those issues in either the immediate or long-term future.

Safe to say though that a 26% possession return in Chicago this coming Saturday would almost certainly be a recipe for disaster.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Something we learned yesterday

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 half time lead over Minnesota United on Saturday evening wasn’t so much a vindication of Carl Robinson’s switch to 4-4-2 as it was a statistical anomaly caused by a penalty kick and another set piece goal.

A better coach (Or even a more proactive one) would have cashed in his chips at the break and reverted to the 4-1-4-1 system that has served the team well in recent weeks.

That didn’t happen though and the home team came out with something to prove and levelled the game with relative ease.

Fortunately that seemed to be the limit of their ambition and from that moment on the game felt like two broken down boxers taking half-hearted swings, each more concerned with feeling the mind numbing force of the knockout punch than landing it.

I’m not sure what it will take for Robinson to realise that Brek Shea is unable to play the central attacking role effectively, but Brek Shea constantly being unable to play the central attacking role effectively doesn’t seem to be it.

Against Minnesota he and Fredy Montero weren’t so much supporting each other as drifting in orbits dictated by a differing gravitational pull.

And though it’s good that the team are now so effective from set-pieces sooner or later they will have to figure out how to give Montero some actual service or risk turning their Designated Player into yet another journeyman forward scampering for space where none can be found.

Elsewhere Alphonso Davies provided a modicum of momentum when he was on the ball and Tony Tchani finally produced a goal without ever offering much of an attacking presence from the middle of the field.

And the makeshift defence did what we expected it to do; be largely solid while always hinting at the possibility of conceding when under genuine pressure.

Whether we see this game as two points dropped after being 2-0 up against one of the League’s less impressive teams or a point gained on the road during an injury crisis will largely depend on the tale of the table at the end of the year.

But next week’s trip to Chicago and the following home game against New York City will be much tougher tests than the one faced on Saturday and just doing enough to get by won’t be doing enough against either of those opponents.

Injuries and suspensions are no doubt a cause of much of the malaise but those injuries and suspensions seem to be tempting Carl Robinson back to the comforting cloak of safety first football that he looked to have discarded earlier in the season.

Let’s hope not.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6, Nerwisnki-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Tchani-6, Davies-6.5*, Techera-6, Shea-5.5, Montero-6