Vancouver Whitecaps set sail in the playoffs

Who are you and what have you done with the Vancouver Whitecaps?

The Whitecaps finally did what they’ve never really threatened to do all season and took an opposition team apart at BC Place as they cruised to a 5-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in the post-season “play in” game on Wednesday evening.

In retrospect the game was only really a cruise for the final thirty minutes because up until that point it had been more of pedalo ride on a park lake; not in any way threatening but not really promising high jinx and parties either.

The first half was stereotypically tense for a playoff game but a Fredy Montero headed goal from a set-piece was enough to give Vancouver the lead at half-time.

The Earthquakes began the second-half with purpose but then a fantastic Cristian Techera free-kick effectively ended their resolve.

Throw in a Kendall Waston tap in (also from a set-piece) and two Nicolas Mezquida strikes and everybody following the home team headed out into the Vancouver night with a song in their heart and a spring in their step.

Perhaps the only real surprise in Carl Robinson’s starting eleven was the inclusion of Christian Bolaños who was particularly poor in Portland but clearly the coach felt the night was made for experience over tactical experimentation and though the Costa Rican didn’t completely cover himself in glory his ability (compulsion?) to slow the game down proved particularly useful once the lead was achieved.

Shout out too to Marcel de Jong who was a frequent outlet on the left side and even offered more than one dangerous foray forward as a nice counterweight to Jake Nerwinski on the right.

The only area of concern from such a great evening is that Yordy Reyna followed up his own poor performance against the Timbers with another game where he searched in vain to find his touch and though his set-piece delivery was still top-notch it seems likely the Whitecaps will need at least one moment of magic from Reyna if they are to progress beyond the Seattle Sounders in the next contest.

Can they do that?

Well the worst case scenario is that the club as a whole feel that the elusive playoff win is achievement enough and take their foot off the gas and eye off the ball for the next two games.

The best case scenario is that they use this win as a springboard to even better things.

And, for a few hours at least, we’re all allowed to believe that the best case scenario is entirely possible.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-6.5, Waston-6.5, Parker-6, Ghazal-6, Tchani-5.5, Bolaños-6, Techera-6, Reyna-5.5, Montero-6, (Mezquida-6.5, Shea-6) 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps have just enough sting to shoot down the Rapids

Let’s get one thing straight.

The Vancouver Whitecaps were fairly terrible in the first half of their 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids at BC Place on Saturday evening.

Taking a fourth minute lead against the worst road team in Major League Soccer should have been an invitation to build on that goal and then coast through the rest of the game and thus  save legs and minds for the Wednesday trip to Seattle.

Instead the Whitecaps decided the best option was to immediately concede possession and hang on for dear life in the hope that the visitors wouldn’t be able to breach their defence.

But they did.

And what should have been a comfortable game of football was transposed into an edgy encounter for those both on and off the pitch.

We all know that Carl Robinson likes to play the game in a certain kind of way but there are times when the fine line between tactical pragmatism and tactical pusillanimity become somewhat blurred.

And the first half of the game against Colorado was one of those times.

Thankfully Vancouver were a little better in the second half but still failed to increase their tally once Jordy Reyna had restored the lead in the fifty-fourth minute and we were subjected to watching Colorado lump high balls into the box for much of the rest of the time.

Yet for all the underwhelming nature of the victory the Whitecaps now sit four points clear at the top of the Western Conference and the much coveted home playoff game seems to be a more likely occurrence than not.

Watching this team one can’t help but be reminded of Mary Kay Ash’s famous quote about the humble bumble bee

“Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.”

I mean, logically this team shouldn’t be able to win so many games, but they don’t seem to know that and so they go on winning them anyway.

Anything else we can take from the match?

Well, Fredy Montero and Jordy Reyna are clearly vital to any success since they provided the only attacking threats of any note with both goals set up by sublime assists.

Brek Shea is still yet to prove he is deserving of a regular first team place.

Nerwinski and de Jong both offered something going forward, although probably not as much as they either could or should have done given the opposition they were facing.

And just maybe Tim Parker isn’t captain material? He got the nod again given the absence of Kendall Waston but he was badly at fault for the Colorado goal and on a number of occasions took options that were atypical of the way he normally plays the game.

That might just be the result of not having the comfort of Waston alongside him, but it may also be that the burden of captaincy clouds his mind rather than clears it.

It’s now on to two tough games in Seattle and Kansas this week and they will go a long way to deciding which of the top four playoff spot the Whitecaps are really battling for.

But don’t bet against this team continuing to fly no matter what the science may tell you.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-6, Parker-5, Jacobson-6, Ghazal-6.5, Tchani-5.5, Techera, Shea-5.5, Reyna- 7*, Montero-6.5

 

 

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)

 

Whitecaps sail to three points

The Vancouver Whitecaps knew they were facing a dangerous opponent on Saturday evening at BC Place.

An opponent that was unpredictable, operating as a coherent unit and featuring the unconventional inclusion of Mariposa Monarch Butterfly Aerial Beings and Swallowwort Fossil Twins.

That’s right, the Whitecaps were fighting for patrons with “Nomadic Tempest’ the experimental opera currently performing on a tall ship docked in False Creek.

Fortunately I regard the words “experimental opera” in the same way Carl Robinson regards the words “early tactical substitution”; fine for other people, but not the sort of thing I care to indulge in.

So I was able to see the Whitecaps earn a valuable three points with a 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo at BC Place.

The Whitecaps really did need to win this one if they were serious about a top four finish and win it they did thanks to goals from Fredy Montero and a screamer from Jordy Reyna.

But after spending most of the first half playing a decent amount of good football they came out flat in the second half and allowed Houston back into the game and from there on in it was more backs to the wall defending than the procession it promised to be.

Still, there were enough positives to make this more than just about the three points.

Reyna will probably turn out to be a player who can infuriate with his decision making at times, but he’s already shown he can be the difference maker the team has needed and Bolaños and Montero were both excellent in the first forty-five minutes.

Another good outing too for Tony Tchani.

He can occasionally take the overly safe option with his passing and he lacks composure whenever he does get near the six yard box, but when he’s playing simple passes to the more creative players he’s doing a job that hasn’t been done for the Whitecaps for quite some time.

And there was a time when conceding that early second half goal would have led to the team losing their heads completely.

That didn’t happen and though we can obsess about the importance of “locker room spirit” a little bit too much this iteration of the Whitecaps has shown on more than one occasion that it responds to adversity in a far more steadfast manner than last year’s version.

So it’s on now to another big game against Seattle at BC Place on Wednesday evening.

And although Robinson likes to reward players who earn a win with another outing he does face a few selection issues.

Jake Nerwinski got burned a little bit at right back so does Sheanon Williams make his first start back at BC Place since his enforced absence?

Techera and Bolaños were playing much narrower than usual to allow the full backs space to break forward and Reyna the licence to roam, but will that work against the Sounders?

And why are the Swallowwort Fossil Twins so intent on destroying the planet?

(Oops! That’s back to the opera again).

Anyway, the win against Houston offered foreshadowing of all the positives that could make the Whitecaps a decent playoff side and all the deficiencies that could ultimately undo them.

That’s what I call real art!

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player ratings.

Ousted-6.5, Nerwinski-5.5, Parker-6.5, Waston-6.5, Harvey-6.5, Jacobson-6, Tcahni-6.5, Techera-6, Bolaños-7, Reyna-7*, Montero-6.5

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)