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*







Whitecaps v Sounders: What did we learn?

The former England striker Gary Lineker was once asked if being a great goal scorer was about being in the right place at the right time.

“No” he replied “it’s about being in the right place all of the time”.

Fredy Montero didn’t do all that much in the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Friday evening but twice he managed to find the right sliver of space to head the ball home from close range.

It’s been too long since the Whitecaps had that kind of player.

The game itself began with a “same old, same old” feeling for the home side as they conceded possession to the visitors and resorted to the kind of aimless long balls from the back that left Montero bereft of both support and hope.

It just seemed to be a matter of time before the quality inherent in the Seattle forward line got the breakthrough.

Then Cristian Techera began to find the space out wide to deliver in a couple of decent crosses and the momentum of the game changed ever so slightly.

Suddenly the Whitecaps hearts and intentions were in the right place and although it was neither pretty nor particularly effective they did at least begin to take the game to their opponents.

The second half began with a sense of openness that was inevitably going to lead to a goal and indeed it did  (See! I told you!) when Bolaños spread the ball wide to Techera who delivered the perfect cross for Montero to head home.

The key to that goal wasn’t just the link play of Bolaños and Techera it was the fact that both Bolaños and Davies were in the box with Montero waiting for the ball to be delivered.

Marking Montero and two others is far harder than marking a solitary Montero and if Vancouver want to continue to get the best out of the Colombian then they need to to give him that kind of quality support on a regular basis.

The other major positives from the evening were the aforementioned link play of Bolaños and Techera (Who may well be on the way to forming an effective triumvirate with Montero) and the play of Parker and Waston who once again looked back to their old selves of two years ago.

There were negatives on display as well of course so let’s dwell on those for a short while.

Neither Laba nor Teibert offered any kind of effective attacking presence from the midfield and that’s just not sustainable over the long term.

And Carl Robinson may have to begin to consider Alphonso Davies as more of an impact substitute than a starting player because the poor kid looked both physically and mentally gassed at about the fifty minute mark.

The biggest concern though was the way the team completely lost their collective heads once Seattle did score and the final four minutes of added time were an exercise in hope over organisation in which hope only won by the merest of margins.

That sense of panic is probably to be expected given the way the team have played of late but it was a reminder of just how quickly this season could still fall spectacularly off the rails.

Still, the Whitecaps now have two consecutive home wins against Western Conference rivals under their belts which at least makes the upcoming four game road trip a less daunting prospect and if Robinson can convince his players (Or, more likely, the other way around) that taking the initiative in games isn’t necessarily the equivalent of signing your own death warrant then there is still a chance the season won’t be the disaster it’s already threatened to be.

Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams-6.5, Parker-7.5*, Waston-7.5, Harvey-6, Teibert-6, Laba-6, Techera-7, Davies-6, Bolaños-7, Montero-6.5 (Mezquida-6)





Aim not true enough for the Whitecaps

“If there’s anything that you want

If there’s anything that you need

There’s no need to be evasive

Money talks and it’s persuasive


Elvis Costello is right of course.

If you do want good possession stats in soccer then money really is a persuasive talker because good players pass the ball better than bad players and good players command a higher salary than bad players do.

We shouldn’t get over obsessed with possession stats however because although they do tell a story about how a game has played out they don’t always tell the true back story.

Some teams (Whitecaps included) are happy to concede control of the ball knowing full well that the opposition is often at its most vulnerable while in an attacking formation and a swift and sudden breakaway can be their undoing.

The problem for the Whitecaps is that their possession stats in the last two games have been so bad they restore the intuition to any counter intuitive arguments to be made about counter attacks.

Against both San Jose and Tigres the Whitecaps were south of thirty percent when it came to being in control of the ball and even the provisos of being a man and a level of class down can’t hide the fact that those numbers can be brutally damaging to a team.

So what’s the cause?

Function mostly follows formation in this case because the two deep-lying midfielders offer little in terms of receiving the ball from the back four and even when they do they offer equally little in terms of distribution.

None of Laba, Jacobson or Teibert are consistently capable of quality passes and the result is that either one of those three or one of the back four hits a hopeful long ball to the designated lone striker of the day.

In a perfect world said striker would either hold up the ball or flick it on to a marauding team mate but now that opponents have figured out that particular plan any such play is almost always shut down at birth.

That leaves Erik Hurtado charging valiantly across the forward line, Brek Shea wondering why yet another coach isn’t playing him in his best position or Fredy Montero perplexed at the prospect of constantly craning his neck upwards in an attempt to find the ball.

But it doesn’t have to be this way and there is at least hope that the style of play will become easier on the eye as the season develops.

Getting Christian Bolaños back into the first eleven is crucial because even in his brief cameo in Mexico he demonstrated the ability to actually stop and think about what he wanted to do with the ball while it was at his feet.

Combine that with the quality of Alphonso Davies and some combination of Brek Shea, Nicolas Mezquida and (when fit) Jordy Reyna and it’s not inconceivable that Montero may one day get the kind of service he wants.

That’s dependant on Carl Robinson showing a degree of tactical flexibility so let’s not get too over excited but, for home games at least, the team is crying out to be released from the shackles of those two defensive midfielders (And then maybe I can write something about the Whitecaps without having to use the dreaded “two defensive midfielders” phrase?).

This coming Saturday the Whitecaps face a Giovincoless Toronto and while Robinson is never afraid to give his players an excuse for underperforming both he and they need to put thoughts of physical and mental weariness out of their minds.

Firstly, it’s only the sixth game of the season and secondly there’s a two-week break to come following this game, giving everybody a chance to fully recover.

People mostly felt good about the team after the defeat to Tigres but much of that good will was due to tempered expectations and another uninspiring performance at BC Place would undo much of the good work from Tuesday evening.

Has Robinson got the will to unleash his team at least a little bit?

Let’s hope so.

Tigres v Whitecaps: What did we learn?

Well, apart from the obvious fact that a team with higher paid and better quality players will always outplay a team with lower paid and lesser quality players that is.

Fredy Montero won’t create chances on his own- Let’s not say that Carl Robinson didn’t want to sign Montero but let’s at least accept that the striker sort of turned up on his doorstep after being dropped there by Mauro Rosales.

The Whitecaps weren’t in a position to turn down a proven MLS goal scorer but it will be interesting to see how Montero fits into Robinson’s view of how a striker should be utilized.

In that world the forward tends to be a combination of a man isolated on an island away from the rest of the team while simultaneously being set up to comically fail due to no fault of his own.

A kind of Robinson Clouseau.

Erik Hurtado makes the most of the role because he runs around a lot and Nicolas Mezquida showed against Tigres that he can carve out a chance through his harrying of defenders but Montero already looks like the kind of striker who feeds on other people’s scraps.

Being paired with Mezquida up front feels like it would be the right move but Robinson’s aversion to the Uruguayan probably means we’ll see a platoon of  Brek Shea as the target man he isn’t and Hurtado as the hard worker with limitations he is before we see that.

Kekuta Manneh drops down the depth chart-  There was a time when the last thirty minutes of the Tigres game would have seen the automatic introduction of Manneh.

Unleashing his speed against a team that were pressing for a goal was virtually Robinson’s “go to” move when it came to substitutions.

But a mixture of indifferent form and unwillingness to put in a defensive effort meant the coach couldn’t trust the former rising star in such an important game.

It’s ironic that the man he did trust, Cristian Techera, also failed to track back for the crucial second goal but either Manneh treats his lack of deployment as a wake up call for the season or he should be used as trade bait before his stock falls any further.

Parker ahead of Waston in the defending stakes- Nobody should underestimate just how difficult it was for the Whitecaps defence on Tuesday evening.

A team that is used to facing one or two dangerous players was suddenly facing a plethora and while Ousted was excellent and Harvey admirably steady it was Tim Parker who stood out for his ability to only go to ground when absolutely necessary.

The modern defender needs to be as much a shepherd as he is an enforcer and Parker demonstrated the necessary patience for such a role.

Kendall Waston was mostly excellent too but he’s developing an unnerving ability to throw in at least one disastrous mistake per game.

That probably comes from a desire to be a “leader”  on the field but more often than not the end result is that he tries too hard to intercede in situations where intercession is best left to somebody else and that tends to leave a gaps where no gap should be.

Isolated incidents to be sure but ones that add up to a less than stellar body of work.

He can’t be blamed for deflecting the ball into his own net against Tigres but he can be blamed for what went before and what went before was two failed attempts at a hasty clearance.

Suddenly he’s rushing back to make amends and the rest is history.

All in all though the game offered more positives than negatives for Vancouver and the trick for Carl Robinson now will be to somehow configure his team so that it can regularly threaten the opposition goal.

That would be nice.

Whitecaps versus Red Bulls: What did we learn?

The CCL games against the New York Red Bulls existed in a strange netherworld between pre-season friendly and most important games of the MLS era for the Whitecaps.

But at least the game on Thursday evening was close enough to the regular season to allow us to draw some kind of meaningful conclusions despite the slightly alarming number of absentees for the home team.

And those conclusions probably confirmed what we already knew (confirmation bias notwithstanding) but the new season is finally here so ’tis the time for rapidly evolving mood swings and definitive statements that change on an hourly basis.

Two defensive midfielders doesn’t work-  Yeah, yeah, yeah this is playing the same old song but the Whitecaps were fortunate to score an early goal which really forced the Red Bulls to come at them and so set up the “sit deep and counter attack” style that Carl Robinson finds so endearing.

The problem with that is the same problem they faced all last season at home; visiting teams aren’t going to allow space for Manneh and Davies to run in to so Vancouver need to find a different way to break teams down and they won’t do that with both Laba and Teibert on the field.

Jacobson is a slightly better option in the role as he at least possesses some attacking instinct, but Thursday was a classic example of a formation designed to draw the opposition forward and not too many teams will accept that invitation at BC Place.

Fredy Montero needs support- It was great that the Colombian scored on his debut but that can’t disguise how isolated he often was in his thirty minute appearance.

Sure, the state of the game had some influence on that but (and this comes back to the first point) he won’t flourish if all he has to go on are long balls forward from the back four.

A deep lying number ten could be the link man he needs or perhaps the pairing of Davies and Bolaños could offer more consistent support, but let’s hope that what we saw against New York wasn’t a harbinger of loneliness to come (Memo to self: “A Harbinger of Loneliness to Come” would be a great title for that pretentious novel you keep meaning to write) .

The squad depth looks impressive- It feels as though we say this every year but Carl Robinson isn’t short of options if he wants to switch things around.

Bolaños, Mezquida, Techera, Hurtado, Reyna and Rosales were all unavailable for selection but he was still able to put out a decent first eleven and bench. And the performances of Jake Nerwinski and Marcel de Jong in particular must have pleased the coach.

Both are expected to be bit part players this year but although Nerwinski got caught out of position a couple of times he didn’t lose his calm and even offered an attacking threat. And he also understands the right back position which by itself is an improvement on last season.

Marcel de Jong was even more impressive aligning defensive duties with an attacking threat and some great deliveries and it’s easy to see Robinson giving him plenty of minutes, especially on the road.

Overall this probably feels a bit harsh given the injuries, a 2-0 win and a place in the Champion’s League semi-final but deficiencies are deficiencies no matter what the score and they still need to be addressed.


Vancouver Whitecaps bullish after tie in New York

The CONCACAF Champion’s League quarter-finals exist in some strange kind of hinterland for the MLS clubs involved; existing as they do just at the end of the pre-season but just before the regular season gets under way.

That makes the games both hard to predict and even harder to parse for harbingers of what is to come.

Nevertheless the Whitecaps 1-1 tie with the New York Red Bulls was both a pleasing result (even more so considering the home team were given a penalty kick and the advantage of an extra man after Cristian Techera had been dismissed) and offered at least few clues about what to expect from Vancouver in 2017.

The most positive aspect was the somewhat constant movement of the forward line with Hurtado, Manneh, Davies and Techera frequently switching positions and at least giving the Red Bulls backline something more to think about than a solitary striker.

It’s a little easier to see Fredy Montero fitting into that version of 4-2-3-1 than those previously envisioned.

Not surprisingly the pace of both Manneh and Davies always offered a threat on the break and if Manneh could just learn to play the right pass at the right time he would be a guaranteed game winner more often than not.

Defensively the Whitecaps were solid too (or at least more solid than many of us feared) with Parker and Waston looking more like the effective 2015 pairing than the porous 2016 version.

The worrying aspects remain the lack of any creativity or link up play from the defensive midfielders with both Laba and Teibert offering next to nothing going forward and while that may be forgivable on the road it still remains to be seen how dangerous the Whitecaps are when faced with an opponent who sits back and negates their pace.

The red card and the penalty kick (both good calls) also offered a painful reminder of the indiscipline of last year, but at least the ten men held on and that should instill a little more confidence in the ability to close out games in a way they were barely able to do in 2016.

It’s all set up very nicely for the game at BC Place next Thursday and if the Whitecaps can come out of that game advancing to the semi-finals then the mood around the whole club should get both a little lighter and a little more forgiving.

It’s ludicrously early in the season (I mean really, really ludicrously early) to be talking about a game having so much importance but that’s the way it is.

The positive news is that both the result and the performance in New Jersey offered somewhat unexpected glimmers of hope for what is to come.

It’s the hope that kills you of course, but at least it’s a relatively pain free death (until the final moments anyway).

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Ousted-6, Nerwinski-5, Parker-7*, Waston-7, Harvey-6, Laba-5, Teibert-5, Techera-5, Manneh-6, Davies-6, Hurtado-5 (Barnes-6, Williams-5)





Whitecaps fall flat in Portland

Let’s start with the traditional caveat that preseason games should always be taken with more than just a pinch of salt.

But even so the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Wednesday evening was so replete with familiar issues from last season that it probably should have been preceded by some kind of trigger warning for long-suffering fans.

So in the spirit of the performance itself let’s just throw some random thoughts at the wall and see if any of them make any sense whatsoever.

There’s nothing wrong with sending out a team to play defensive football; many of the world’s best coaches do exactly that.

But “defensive” doesn’t just mean sitting back and letting the opposition attack. It means a level of organization in both the defence and midfield and it means at least some degree of connection between the midfield and the forward line.

There was none of that against the Timbers.

As was the case last year the Whitecaps looked like a team that had simply been sent out to play rather than one that was being coached or managed.

In other words, players were playing as individuals rather than as a team with Laba charging around the middle, Hurtado isolated up front, the full backs offering little in the way of attacking threat or defensive cover, the wide players offering the same, Barnes playing in a position that clearly doesn’t suit him and Parker and Waston failing to function as a unit.

Consequently once the first goal went in it was clear that the players lost any faith or confidence in what they were doing.

That still doesn’t explain the appalling sense of stasis that emanated from all quarters however with the defence content to stand and admire Portland’s build up play and the forwards equally content to stand and admire when one of their own had the ball.

It’s one of the basic tenets of football that movement is key to success so it’s hard to know if the lack of it was down to players either not knowing where they should be moving to or simply a lack of interest in doing so.

At the end of the game Timbers coach Caleb Porter opined that “In some ways the game was too easy” to be a useful work out for his players and if that isn’t as damning a comment as could be made then I don’t know what is.

The counterpoint to all this negativity is that both Montero and Bolaños were missing and they are undoubtedly the team’s two quality players, but that absence of quality should have made the rest of the team concentrate on the basics even more.

The first game of the Champion’s League tie is less than a week away and a good result there would change everything but, as of now, the Whitecaps look to be as adrift and as rudderless as they were last year.



Fredy or not here he comes!

So finally the long and seemingly painful search for a proven goal scorer has come to and end for the Vancouver Whitecaps with the loan signing of Fredy Montero from Chinese side Tianjin Teda FC.

This being MLS the details of the actual deal are about as murky and convoluted as an Oliver Stone movie but at least the former Seattle Sounder has a bona fide record of putting the ball into the back of the net.

The big question now is whether the Whitecaps can get the best out of him.

Carl Robinson has already said that he intends to use Montero as a number nine which begs the question “Exactly what kind of number nine?”.

Play him the way that Octavio Rivero was played (unsplendid isolation) and the Colombian will likely end up as a diminutive tribute act to the Uruguayan; all rolling eyes and forlornly outstretched arms.

But if Robinson can figure out a way to get players in support of Montero then the forward line could be formidable indeed.

And the positive news is that he now has exactly the kind of players to do just that with Reyna, Manneh, Barnes, Techera, Bolaños, Davie, Mezquida et al all far happier going forward than tracking back.

It’s debateable whether the coach will be willing to grant his team that kind of freedom but he could use his favoured double defensive midfield set up to simply allow all those ahead of them free reign.

It’s an exciting prospect for the fan but it’s probably something of a pipe dream.

For one thing Robinson just isn’t that kind of coach and for another the disappointing nature of last season may well instill even more initial conservatism into both him and the players.

Perhaps if he were given a cast iron guarantee that the fans and the media would show patience over the first few weeks if things didn’t quite work out as promised then Robinson would be willing to take more of a risk, but the memory of 2016 and Champion’s League qualifier against the Red Bulls cuts that slack down to almost nothing.

So we’ll probably see Montero playing with a high number ten with the two wide men operating as much as midfielders as forwards.

Not as great from an aesthetic point of view but at least a step up (both literally and metaphorically) from last season.