Whitecaps still have no particular place to go

The first priority of a football coach is to win games. The second priority is to entertain the home fans.

Take care of both and you’re a god. Take care of the first and nothing else matters. Take care of the second and you’ll be given some leeway before the axe finally falls.

Right now Carl Robinson is taking care of neither and for the second consecutive home MLS game the Whitecaps failed to score and failed to even threaten against an Eastern Conference opponent as they went down 2-0 to Toronto FC at BC Place.

The only thing that really worked out for Robinson on the day was the red card to Brek Shea (actually a second yellow for dissent) because that will no doubt move the narrative away from just how poor his team were.

Everybody knows how to play the Whitecaps at BC Place by now; sit back and let them come at you because they never really do come at you anyway.

Never has a team been able to turn an attacking corner into a back pass to their own goalkeeper with the alacrity of the Whitecaps and there can’t be many home teams who are so unwilling to use the home crowd to their advantage.

Quietening the supporters with dull football is a great idea if you’re on the road but not so great when you need those fans to be the twelfth man.

Vancouver did get better in the second half with the introduction of Christian Bolaños and, for a brief fifteen minute spell, it even seemed as though they were intent on scoring a goal.

That all fell apart once Shea got that red however and while we can argue all day about the rights and wrongs of the call it’s tough to criticize a player for doing the exact same thing his coach does for almost the entirety the game.

There was a moment in the first half when Robinson was making an unnecessarily petulant point about where a throw in should be taken and if I’m officiating that game I know which team I’m going to be happy to make a big decision against when the time comes.

Even MLS referees are human.

If Robinson spent as much time telling his players where they were going wrong as he does the match officials the results might actually improve.

Hopefully the coming two week break will prompt a little bit of introspection about how the team is being set up because (Soccer Shorts bingo cards at hand!) those two defensive midfielders are killing the team and Fredy Montero looked a figure of despair as he left the field because once again not one chance had been created for him from open play.

That’s partly because almost every other player on the team is being asked to prioritize their defensive duties over any notion of attack and that turned both Shea and Alphonso Davies into meaninglessly insignificant figures going forward.

It’s great that Davies does the defensive duties so well but the kid needs to be allowed to play and to enjoy his football, otherwise he’s going to be transformed from a phenomenon into a journeyman before our very eyes.

On the plus side the weather seems to have got much better!.

Time for Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Richey-6, Williams- 5, Parker-6.5*, Waston-6, Harvey-6, Laba-5.5, Teibert-5, Davies-5, Shea-4.5, Mezquida-5.5, Montero-5.5, Bolaños-6.5

 

 

Whitecaps soar before falling in San Jose


Ken Loach isn’t a great movie director but he has directed some great movies.

True, there’s a certain Cinéma vérité about his style but, primarily, he’s concerned with substance over style and that substance is mostly about the heartbreaking futility of working class people trying to negotiate a system that is explicitly set up to thwart their dreams.

A generation of British schoolchildren grew up watching Loach’s film “Kes” in which a boy escapes the trials of his mining village upbringing by finding, nurturing and training a young kestrel.

In those moments in which he watches the bird soar he glimpses a kind of redemption for himself; the possibility that a frail and injured thing can somehow live magnificently in the world.

Then one day he comes home and finds that his elder brother has snapped the kestrel’s neck and left it dead in a trash can.

Cheers Ken! Life lesson learned!

Anybody who has seen the new “Rise Up Rain City” segment that’s played on the big screen before the Whitecaps home games this season will have noticed the Loachian influence.

The dreariness of the city, the players miserable and clearly pining for warmer climes they will never attain and a bedraggled pigeon standing sadly in a dirty puddle.

It doesn’t quite end with Alphonso Davies finding the pigeon in a trash can with a snapped neck but that’s the general tenure.

The system, it seems to say, will always thwart your dreams.

And that feels apt for the team this season because they are still battling to find a way to get the best out of themselves.

In San Jose on Saturday evening they raced into a two goal lead over the Earthquakes before a defensive mix up between Kendall Waston and Christian Dean enticed David Ousted to rush out of his penalty area and leave a trailing leg to bring down Chris Wondolowski and earn a red card.

At that time nobody thought that the player to bring off was Nicolas Mezquida. After all the Uruguayan is one of the hardest working players in the team and often proves to be a very effective first line of defence.

Much better to remove one of the more defensively limited forwards such as Techera  or Manneh.

I say “nobody” thought that but it’s actually not true because one person did think exactly that and, unfortunately for the Whitecaps, that person happened to be Carl Robinson and his reputaion for not being able to make effective in game decisions took yet another hit.

There was a sense of inevitability about the subsequent three goals with Manneh failing to track back for the second and Russell Teibert failing to close down for the third and a bright start was left amounting to nothing.

Robinson does get some credit for fielding a weakened starting eleven that was able to make such an impressive start but he was as complicit in undoing that good start just as much as his players were.

And right now it feels as though he’s forcing those players into a system that seems explicitly designed to thwart their strengths.

In the post game interview Robinson went on at some length about how important it was for the officials to make the correct call on the big decisions.

Right back at you Carl.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Ousted-4, Nerwinski-5.5, Waston-5, Dean-5, Harvey-5.5- Teibert-5, McKendry-5.5, Manneh-4, Techera-4.5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-6* (Tornaghi-5)

 

 

The Random Analogue Soccer Hydrocollider

Time to throw some ideas into The Random Analogue Soccer Hydrocollider to see which ideas it throws out of the state of the art quantum interface with regard to the Whitecaps.

And here they are (that was quick)!

New contract for Nicolas Mezquida- “Hooray!” say most of the fans while simultaneously suspecting that he still won’t get as many minutes as he should.

Mezquida has never been a firm favourite of Carl Robinson and the arrival of Fredy Montero and Brek Shea only add to the logjam of people ahead of him in the pecking order.

It’s conceivable that Mezquida could be the ideal foil for Montero given that both can play as either a number ten or a little further forward, but that would require a change in the way the Whitecaps play.

That’s a long shot but just about possible given….

The return of Christian Bolaños- Bolaños has been training this week and should get at least some minutes in either San Jose or Mexico.

That’s good news for the Whitecaps because if they needed anything at all in the last couple of games it was a player who could put his foot on the ball and slow the game down.

Bolaños is the best hope of preventing the team from becoming  a track meet with a ball thrown in.

Which leads us to……

There’s playing young players and there’s playing young players- Carl Robinson rightly gets kudos for his willingness to give young players a chance in the first team (although there may be one or two in the squad who don’t agree with that assessment).

The concern though is that with the Whitecaps current playing style these youngsters are rapidly learning the value of being rapid while not really getting up to speed on the value of slowing down.

As mentioned, the return of Bolaños should help that and Montero certainly wants a different kind of service than the likes of Hurtado and Rivero so hopefully needs must will be the driving force in enabling the young contingent to add another dimension to their game.

And speaking of adding another dimension….

A good week for MLS referees- That may be a sentence seldom seen but credit where it’s due. The officials were much less PRO-active (See what I did there?) in the opening round of games and that was all to the good.

Sure there were mistakes but at least they didn’t appear to be consciously looking to make them as was the case so often last season.

Maybe they’ve finally realized that when it comes to officiating then less is more?

Speaking of which, there is no more…..

 

 

Whitecaps versus Union: What did we learn?

Mostly we learned that the world is a strange and terrible place and that although we may try to avoid staring into the void there will be times when the void stares straight into us with it’s unblinking and uncaring gaze.

Okay the goalless tie with the Philadelphia Union wasn’t quite that bad for the Vancouver Whitecaps but it certainly felt like it at times.

Once again Vancouver were faced with an opponent content to sit back at BC Place and once again the home team had little idea of how to break through such a tactic.

Long balls to a fast forward line are inevitably less effective if the opposition are sitting deep yet that remained the go to move for the Whitecaps for much of the game.

That way of playing is inevitable when a team has no central midfielder who is either willing or able to get forward and, the odd scrambled clearance from a set piece aside, the Union were left largely untroubled at the back and will no doubt be delighted to take away a point from such a long road trip.

The main positive on the night for the Whitecaps was the play of Christian Dean who was both solid in defence and displayed a degree of quality distribution that neither Waston or Parker is capable of.

That leaves Carl Robinson with an interesting choice; if his team largely relies on the long ball from the back then much better to have a player back there who can play those passes with aplomb.

It’s hard to see him dropping either Waston or Parker so early in the year but that may prove to be the right move to make as the season progresses.

Otherwise Kekuta Manneh looked lost in the centre and clearly needs the space to run into that the wider role provides and Brek Shea looked like a drunken gazelle on ice as he repeatedly failed to find either his feet or the ball.

We’ll put that down to the early days of playing on turf.

We shouldn’t get carried away with how bad the performance was I suppose because there were the mitigating factors of it being early in the season, injuries and players just starting to get to know each other on the field.

Yet there have been mitigating factors for this team for the last eighteen months; “they are young”, “the schedule”, “fine lines” etc.

So we are probably just going to have to accept that Carl Robinson is a coach who wants to play in this limited style and that he will never produce an aesthetically pleasing brand of football.

The good news is that this can still be effective (especially in MLS) but the bad news is that when it doesn’t work it can be brutally uninspiring to watch.

And Sunday’s game was brutally uninspiring to watch.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams, 6- Dean-6.5*, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-5.5, Jacobson-5.5, Techera-5, Manneh-4.5, Davies-6.5, Hurtado-5.5 (Montero-5.5, Shea-4.5)

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Life with the lions

It’s debatable just how widespread kleptoparasitism actually is among humans, but there is certainly some video and anecdotal evidence that in parts of Africa humans will steal meat from a pride of lions who have just downed their prey.

And this isn’t a group of guys in a Jeep firing guns and whooping and hollering; this is just two or three people who simply use “attitude” to move the big cats away from the big kill.

Now we can argue all day about how much things like “attitude” and the like really matter in sport, but if there has been a narrative arc for the Whitecaps in their recent signings then it has definitely bent toward “experience”.

Since the wheels fell off in 2016 all the major acquisitions have each possessed at least some degree of knowledge of the game in North America.

Granted there’s an argument to be made that each of these individual additions was merely a random occurrence that we have since conflated into a coherent whole (Edgar and de Jong to reclaim the locker room and the defence, Barnes a desperate throw of the dice to save the season, Montero initiated by Rosales, Shea a means to ship out Barnes and Rosales initiated by Montero) but if we forsake such cynicism then the pattern is clear.

And the recent arrival/re-arrival of Mauro Rosales helps to confirm it.

The Argentinian may be thirty-six, have lost at least two yards of pace and will probably only be good for cameo appearances but he’s almost instantly become the de facto captain of the team (in the locker room if not on the field).

That hints at the issues that may still remain of course but at least the “we are a young team” excuse has been stripped away from the mitigating factors arsenal and, by the end of last season, it certainly felt as though the team needed fewer alibis and more censure for the their mistakes and failings.

And hopefully Rosales is another stepping stone on the path to self-accountability.

Anyway, here’s some humans scaring off some lions; a solid midfield three if ever I saw one.

Warning! There will be blood!

 

 

 

 

Whitecaps trade Barnes for Shea (or Shea for Barnes)

I think we can place this in the “I did not see it coming” file.

The arrival of Brek Shea doesn’t make a ton of sense from a squad construction point of view but it’s been clear for a while that the Whitecaps have been keen to get Giles Barnes (or at least his salary) away from Vancouver and Shea was likely the best, or only, option.

So where will he play for the Whitecaps??

Well, Carl Robinson is quoted as saying that Shea will “bring a different dimension to our attack” which rules out him carrying on in the left back position he played in Orlando and the Whitecaps are just fine for left backs anyway.

So that leaves two possible options.

Either Shea fills the same role that Cristian Techera does within the squad, playing either wide left or wide right depending on who else is in the lineup and Robinson will no doubt like the more defensive aspect that Shea will bring to that role.

The problem with that though is that Techera won’t be a first choice starter once everybody else is fit anyway so he either drops even further down the depth chart or becomes virtually superfluous to requirements.

If the Whitecaps can handle that level of salary warming the bench for most of the year then fine, but it’s not a great idea in a league where every dollar (both real and imagined) counts.

The other possibility is that Robinson envisions converting Shea to a central midfield role so that he can play alongside Matias Laba.

This makes a kind of sense given that he has both defensive experience, the ability to get forward and a track record of being able to change positions at the whim of a coach.

And maybe Shea will indeed turn out to be the box to box midfielder the side so desperately need.

The reality though is that this probably wasn’t a trade made with a specific purpose in mind but one driven by a “needs must” agenda and only now will Robinson begin to think about how best to utilize his new signing.

One more versatile player isn’t necessarily a bad thing but there’s the danger that an awful lot of squareish pegs are going to be forced uncomfortably into roundish holes this season.

And that doesn’t sound pleasant for anybody!

A sit down with “The Red Card Brigade”

With the news that Mark Clattenburg will soon be moving to China and that Howard Webb has been headhunted by MLS to oversee the introduction of video technology it’s clear that referees are the emerging stars of the global game.

Even so I was slightly startled to hear of the formation of an Official Supporters Group dedicated to an individual match official.

The “Red Card Brigade” have announced that they will be following MLS PRO referee Kevin Stott at all of his games this season and a mixture of amusement and inquisitiveness led me to meet the founder of the group, Connor Blanton, at a British themed pub in downtown Los Angeles.

He was easy to spot of course, dressed as he was in his replica yellow MLS officiating jersey and my first question to him was the obvious one.

“Why?”

“Why not?” he laughed taking a sip of Harp lager. “But seriously the game is moving further and further away from the grassroots fans and it just feels as though referees are the last bastion of a culture worth saving”

“They get paid a pittance and get nothing but abuse. They’re the anti-heroes that the game needs”

“But why Stott in particular?”

Blanton shrugged “I saw him officiate a Galaxy game last year and that was it for me. I guess you don’t really choose your favourite referee they choose you”

“So how many are there in this group of supporters?”

“Almost two hundred now. It’s taken off way more than I thought it would. It seems to have really tapped into a need”

“But what will you do at the games?”

“Stand up and sing like any other group of fans. We’ve adapted a good number of traditional football songs to suit our purpose”

“Such as?

“‘Booked in a minute, you’re getting booked in a minute’, ‘All we are saying is send someone off’ and my personal favourite ‘Kevin Stott is magic, he wears a magic hat, he saw some holding in the box and said I’m having that, you may play in yellow or you may play in white, Stotty doesn’t give a shit ‘cos he is always right'”

“Won’t that antagonise the home fans?”

Blanton laughed “I hope so! We’ll be like a constant away presence at every game. It will really add to the atmosphere. And I’m looking forward to Kevin getting a Cascadia derby because then it will be three different supporters groups in the stadium at the same time. We’ve got plans to unveil a TIFO of him sending off a player from both teams. That would be mental!”

“That could lead to trouble though?”

“It’s not that aspect I’m too worried about funnily enough” he said finishing his pint “It’s groups that follow other refs that are the danger. In a preseason friendly we went to watch Portland play Minnesota because Kevin was the fourth official. Problem was that there was a group of ultras there from ‘The Whistle Blowers’ who follow Edvin Jurisevic who was refereeing the game”

“It was all quite friendly banter at first but when Jurisevic missed an obvious penalty call we all starting shouting ‘How clear do you want the foul? How clear do you want the foul?’ and it all kicked off. Honestly, MLS is going to have start thinking about who it pairs up as ref and fourth official or it could get  really serious. No way do we want trouble but we’re not going to let Stotty take shit from some other group”

“So there’s other groups? How many?”

“Quite a few. There’s ‘The Geiger Counters’, that’s self evident who they follow, ‘The Crazy Gang’ who follow Baldomero Toledo, ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ for Alan Kelly and ‘The Moby Dicks’ who support Ismail Elfath. There’s others too but they are the main ones at the moment”

I thanked Connor for his time and bid my farewell to him just as he was pulling a red card out of his pocket and waving it vociferously in the direction of a group of drunken youths at the bar.

And as he was being pummeled mercilessly to the ground I couldn’t help but wonder if he and his group weren’t actually on to something. Maybe following a referee is as close as anyone can really get these days to what first drew so many of us to the game?

The sense of camaraderie, the love of an underdog and a sub culture that’s accessible to only a chosen few.

But whatever any of us think about the subject it will certainly be a development worth following in the coming years.