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.

 

Dallas let Bernie in and the Whitecaps feast

“Once you taste the geometry of a church in a cul-de-sac

you’re going to want to sit with the bad kids in the back”

Dallas-Silver Jews

It’s hard to say exactly what the Silver Jews meant in that lyric but it makes at least as much sense as the Vancouver Whitecaps travelling to Dallas in the heat of July and coming away with a 4-0 win.

But that’s what happened on Saturday evening and although Dallas may well point to a penalty kick and a red card as being decisive, the reality is that both decisions were correct and the Whitecaps were the better team before either and both incidents.

So what went right?

Well, either Carl Robinson made a series of brilliant tactical changes or he left out a few senior players for a game he didn’t think his team could win and somehow produced a nugget of gold from the base metal of pragmatic squad rotation.

But the coach gets the criticism when things go wrong so he deserves the praise when he gets it very, very right as his side produced a textbook road performance.

Actually, “textbook” doesn’t seem strong enough a term. It was more a “textbook that has all the answers in the back and incriminating pictures of the examiners in the dust cover just in case” road performance.

Having Kendall Waston back in central defence certainly helped and both Williams and de Jong provided steady if unspectacular cover in the full back positions.

In central midfield Laba had one of his better games at breaking up play and Tony Tchani is beginning to establish himself as a neat player who will almost always take the simplest pass available (but in a good way).

It was in the forward line though that the Whitecaps really looked like a fresh team with Ibini, Shea, Reyna and Montero displaying the kind of movement that has been sorely missing.

Reyna played closer to Montero than anybody else has this season and it can’t be a coincidence that the Colombian subsequently had his best game for the Whitecaps.

Reyna’s willingness to run at defenders also offered something new for an attack that, for once, didn’t rely on the hopeful punt forward to create chances.

It’s far too small a sample size to make any kind of definitive judgement but it may be that the Reyna, Montero axis will work better with “natural” rather than “inverted” wide players since that should force the opposition defence to play less narrow in the centre allowing Reyna room to run and Montero room to both create and poach.

After the 1-0 win in Los Angeles I wrote that the game appeared to be a turning point in the Whitecaps season and they promptly followed that up with a display against Portland that was so devoid of anything positive that it almost qualified as a piece of performance art.

That can’t be allowed to happen again but how Robinson selects his next team is anybody’s guess because there were at least four players in Dallas who made a very good case for being drafted in from the fringes and offered another chance at a role in the main production.

Let’s just enjoy this game for now though, ending as it did with Nicolas Mezquida nutmegging the goalkeeper with an overhead kick from a ludicrously tight angle.

It was just that kind of night.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6.5, Williams-6.5, de Jong-6.5, Waston-6.5, Parker-6.5, Laba-6.5, Tcahni-6.5, Shea-6, Ibini-6.5, Reyna-6.5, Montero-7*, (Techera-6)

 

Whitecaps v NYCFC: What did we learn?

The 3-2 win over New York City FC at BC Place on Wednesday evening was arguably the Vancouver Whitecaps’ best game of the season in terms of pure drama.

But in the cold light of  day what lessons can we take from the game as we all head into a probably much-needed break from the recent maelstrom of events and incidents surrounding the club?

One Jordy Reyna does not make a summer- it was great to finally see the Peruvian on the field and it was even greater to see that he played the game in exactly the way advertised; a mixture of trickery and directness with a clear eye for goal.

But he arrived on the scene against an opponent who were themselves still pushing for the winner and thus leaving wide open spaces at the back.

If Reyna is really going to be a difference maker in the kind of home games the Whitecaps have so much trouble in winning, the kind where the visitors just back and frustrate, then he’ll need to be used as much more than just a maverick presence.

Carl Robinson’s job now is to figure out how he can combine the attacking talents of Reyna, Montero and Bolaños in particular.

Because if he can do that then his side may finally possess the means to break down any MLS defence.

Formations don’t matter- this is one of the coach’s go to comments in any post-game interview and, on this occasion at least, he was proved right.

The Whitecaps started both halves in a 4-2-3-1 formation but whereas the first forty-five minutes felt like watching a training session in which one side were not permitted to cross the half-way line, the second half showed the value of getting the ball to the three players just behind Fredy Montero.

Once Techera, Bolaños and (When he arrived) Reyna actually got some decent possession the game was suddenly a lot harder to control for New York.

It makes no sense to use players of creative quality as what amounts to the first line of a defensive midfield so let’s hope this win imbues the coach with the confidence to release the better instincts of his quality players.

Jake Nerwinski has earned another start- the youngster may only have fallen into the right-back spot for non-footballing reasons and he may have been poor in Chicago (Although everybody was poor in Chicago) but on Wednesday he was solid at the back and a genuine threat going forward.

Even after he’d set up the winning goal with an excellent cross Carl Robinson had to virtually dive onto the field to stop Nerwinski from charging forward as the clock ticked down passed the ninety minute mark.

Nerwinski has taken his chance and he should be rewarded for that.

The Robinson/Tchani relationship is interesting- there’s not a game goes by without the coach bellowing instructions to Tony Tchani. Now, admittedly he does this to other players as well but to nothing like the degree he does with Tchani.

We can only speculate as to why that might be but the fact that he’s stuck with the player through a number of average at best performances must mean that Robinson sees something in the player that has yet to materialize in Vancouver.

Robinson did play in a similar midfield role in his playing days so maybe that propels him to offer more advice than usual, but there was a moment in the first-half when Tchani seemed to be gesturing towards the touchline and advising his coach to calm down a tad.

It will be interesting to see if Robinson’s input ultimately results in a player who can be genuinely influential on the field.

Kendall Waston shows his importance- there probably wasn’t much doubt about this but the return of the captain certainly helped Nerwinski to a better all round game and it also gave the whole back line greater solidity.

Dubious penalty call aside the Whitecaps may well have fallen too far behind to mount any kind of second half comeback had Waston not been on the field.

Keeping both Waston and Parker seems essential for any continuing success this season.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Season So Far (The Forwards)

The female mosquito has six separate needles with which to extract our blood.

Two that are used to saw through the skin, two to hold that skin apart, one to drip saliva into the blood to keep it flowing and finally one to act as both a straw and a filtration system that separates the water from our blood and immediately excrete it; thus allowing as much top quality red blood cells as possible to be ingested.

We can say two thing about this.

Firstly, since it is sucking our blood while urinating on us the mosquito is a perfect metaphor for modern capitalism.

Secondly, we can only wish the Vancouver Whitecaps had such an efficient system for cutting through any kind of defence.

At least things haven’t been quite as bad this season and so we can conclude our ratings of the players so far with a cursory glance at the forwards.

Fredy Montero- 6.5 There must have been time earlier in the season when Montero felt as though the three attacking players consisted solely of Him, Himself and He.

Things have improved as the year has developed with both the wings and even the central midfield offering support on an almost regular basis.

The most positive thing about Montero has been the amount of work he puts in to every game. After all, the highest paid player could well have fallen into an extended sulk at not having the whole game plan revolve around him but Montero has never let his frustration show for more than a fleeting moment.

There have even been times when he’s effectively been playing both the number ten and the number nine role and that probably explains his slightly disappointing return in terms of goals scored but it’s inconceivable to imagine Vancouver being anywhere near as effective if Montero was absent for any length of time.

Brek Shea-6.5 Shea is a bit of an odd duck. There are times when he displays the qualities of the Premier League player he was for a few years and then there are times when he reacts to being given the ball with the same sense of alarm and despair I display when handed the bill at the end of a hearty meal with friends.

Shea hasn’t been helped by being played out of position in the central attacking role and nor has he been helped by injuries, suspensions and the good form of those currently ahead of him in the pecking order.

The optimistic view (And probably the right one) is that there is still much more to come from a player who should display fewer red card inducing fits of pique as he gets nearer to peak fitness.

Nicolas Mezquida-6.5 We have enough of a sample size to know that Carl Robinson doesn’t regard Mezquida as a regular starter and the coach may just be right about that.

Mezquida certainly doesn’t fit comfortably into the current formation for example.

There are times though when it feels as though he’s the last option to be considered from the bench when a game is crying out for his input.

Mezquida excels in both defending from the front and creating chances out of nothing through the sheer persistence of his pressing of defenders.

What he offers is the opportunity to move to two central forwards without losing too much of the defensive solidity through the middle and although he doesn’t have the most exquisite of touches he at least appreciates where the ball should be played and which runs should be made (Naming no names here).

He’s out of action for a few weeks so this is moot at the moment but if there was a trophy for “Most underappreciated by the coach and most overappreciated by the fans” (Let’s call it the MUBTCAMOBTF Trophy for the sake of simplicity)  then Mezquida would win it hands down.

Kyle Greig- 6  The only other forward to get any kind of meaningful minutes of first team action is Greig who looks a little too slow and a little heavy of touch to make it at the MLS level but does at least offer the possibility of being the “big man up front” for a desperate final five minute push for an equalizer.

It’s certainly better to have him playing that role than trying to force the ill-equipped Shea to do so anyway.

So there we have it.

Like the midfield the forward line has improved in 2017 (Though maybe not quite as much).

And like the defence the midfield has improved in 2017 (Though maybe not quite as much).

Next time out I predict there will be an actual game of football to talk about.

 

Whitecaps find joy looking for Atlanta’s weakness

Atlanta United arrived in town with quite the reputation.

“They won’t just sit back and defend” people said. ‘They play a fast passing game” people said. “They will press the back line” people said.

Well, it turns out that people were right and, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, it seemed as though all of those things would be too much for the Vancouver Whitecaps as the visitors stormed into an early lead and offered the prospect of adding more every time they moved forward.

Gradually though the tide began to change and whether that was a result of Vancouver slowly finding their feet or simply the limitations imposed by the structure of any MLS team is a moot point.

We do know that Matias Laba began to close down more effectively, that the back four finally found their shape and that Andrew Jacobson (who was excellent yet again) and Tony Tchani (who had his best game as a Whitecap) began to not only block up the centre of the field but also began to offer something going forward.

One of the benefits of the 4-1-4-1 system is that Carl Robinson has finally figured out how to get the midfield to act as a conduit between the back line and the forwards and while neither Tchani or Jacobson will ever be in the highest cohort of creative midfielders they served that function well on Saturday.

In the end it was set pieces that did for Atlanta with Kendall Waston scoring two and Fredy Montero getting a much needed end to his goal drought by doing what every good striker does and stealing a perfectly legitimate strike away from Tim Parker.

That was just one of two moments of high quality comedy that this game provided.

Parker and Waston obliviously celebrating scoring a goal while the rest of the game carried on around them was just great, but the highlight was when referee Robert Sibiga saw Fredy Montero fouled in the box and immediately awarded a penalty kick.

The only problem with that decision was that Montero was back defending a corner and the penalty kick had been given to Atlanta.

Turned out the ref had forgotten which way the Whitecaps were shooting!

He fixed the problem with alacrity however so all was good.

The Whitecaps now have a week off and they go into that break having given arguably their best performance of the season.

They dealt with the body blow of an early goal with stoicism, they played to their strengths against an opponent they would have been dismantled by last season and they dominated the second half by always looking to push forward to add to their advantage.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable game of football.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6.5, Harvey-6.5, Williams-6.5, Waston-7, Parker-7, Laba-7, Tchani-6.5, Jacobson-7*, Bolaños-6.5, Techera-7, Montero-6.5 

Whitecaps fall on a sunny (and rainy) afternoon in Portland

When the Spanish fleet first landed in Mexico in March 1520 the country was home to 22 million people but, by December of that same year, only 14 million were still alive.

That tragedy is down to the introduction of smallpox but it does at least mean that the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 defeat in Portland on Saturday afternoon wasn’t the worst away trip of all time.

Actually the Whitecaps weren’t that bad at all, but a lede’s a lede right?

Unfortunately though the lead at half time was with the Timbers thanks to a combination of great finishing from the home team and sloppiness in possession from the visitors and while Vancouver emerged in the second half as a more potent threat their potency had all but fizzled out by the end.

From a tactical point of view Carl Robinson went with a 4-1-4-1 that almost worked.

There were moments when Tony Tchani and Andrew Jacobson (Jacobson in particular) got forward to support Fredy Montero and a slightly better finish or a slightly luckier deflection may well have reduced the deficit.

But one of the defining features of this Whitecaps team is that they never seem to perform for the full ninety minutes and against a side as well put together as Portland are that was always going to be a problem.

So what do we make of the 4-1-4-1 formation?

One one hand it’s kind of nice to see Robinson taking himself out of the comfort zone of 4-2-3-1 but on the other this felt more like the dress rehearsal for the system rather than the finished product (And we can say the same for the three at the back experiment in Salt Lake).

Iron out the kinks and it could be a useful weapon in the team’s armoury but the those kinks need to be truly ironed out before the team take the field.

Robinson was also far too slow in making a change once the fillip of the Montero goal had dissipated and why he chose to remove the effective Jacobson instead of the lacklustre Tchani is something of a mystery.

By the final minutes Vancouver were back in their comfort zone of relying on the hoofed long ball from Kendall Waston which spelled the death knell for any chance of creating an equalizer and once a couple of set piece chances had also been wasted it was all over.

A decent effort that ended in defeat.

It shows how low the expectations have become that, at the end of the game, I was reasonably content with how it all played out and it probably shows how low the expectations the players are having set for them that the coach seemed to feel the same way.

“I thought we played well and deserved something more” is the epitaph for many a failed season over the years and unless the Whitecaps can figure out a way to either genuinely “play well” or actually “get something more” then the upcoming three road games will be a tough row to hoe.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings-

Ousted-6, Williams-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Waston-6, Laba-6, Tchani-5, Jacobson-6.5, Bolaños-6, Techera-5.5, Montero-6.5*