Vancouver Whitecaps need a Kamara

The good news is that the Whitecaps have at least realised that signing players who fit with Carl Robinson’s style of play is an eminently sensible approach.

After the announcement of Anthony Blondell a few days ago the club has now added Kei Kamara to the mix (and, indeed, the mixer).

The bad news is that the Kamara signing feels a little bit like opening your main gift on Christmas morning and finding you are now the proud owner of an iPhone5C.

I mean, it will do the job and everything but it’s just it would have been better to have received it at least a couple of years ago when it was a little more state of the art and a little less in a state of repair.

Both the club and Robinson have been keen to emphasise both how suited Kamara is to the way they play and (once more with feeling) how “good he is in the locker room”.

The obsession with constantly repeating this phrase for every new signing aside the actual evidence suggests that Kamara can sometimes be “challenging” in the locker room just as much as “good” and one area where the coach has seemed to yet really find his feet is in dealing with big personalities who aren’t totally content with events both on and off the field.

That dynamic could be an interesting one to watch.

Perhaps more interesting than the Kamara signing is that ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle has indicated that the Whitecaps are still trying to bring Fredy Montero back on loan from his Chinese club for the 2018 season.

Granted this policy of stocking up on proven but ageing MLS forwards isn’t the most exciting or imaginative way of doing business and there’s a degree of short-termism which bodes ill for the long run.

But seeing Montero play slightly deeper behind Kamara with (and this is very much up in the air given the circumstances) Reyna on the left side and Blondell as cover wouldn’t be a bad way of doing things.

But if neither Montero or Reyna are back next season then there’s suddenly an alarming lack of any genuine creativity around the opposition penalty area.

That may not bother Robinson all that much given how well his team fared in the standings in 2017 but the odds of him catching the lightning in a bottle of set-piece goals and a couple of very against the run of play road wins isn’t the foundation for a successful season.

Time will tell as more arrivals and departures unfold in the coming weeks but, as it stands, Vancouver have made a couple of useful additions in the forward area.

That’s good I guess.

Vancouver Whitecaps: At the time of writing

Yes, we are currently in the “at the time of writing” phase of the year in which there’s always the disconcerting sense that as soon as the hapless hack hits “publish” the Whitecaps announce an arrival or departure that nullifies just about everything written.

But, when you think about it, isn’t the whole of life lived through the “at the time of writing” lens?

Every choice we make, every decision we decide upon is subject to the constant flux of an ever-changing world.

And isn’t “constant flux of an ever-changing world” just a pretentious way of saying the same thing twice?

And isn’t asking rhetorical questions just a tedious way of padding out a post that actually has very little to say?

All points well worth considering.

But here’s where we stand with the Vancouver Whitecaps squad rebuild/rebrand right now.

Anthony Blondell will definitely arrive from Venezuela and extensive YouTube viewings imply he may be the kind of big and strong striker to suit Carl Robinson’s preferred style of play.

It was somewhat disconcerting to hear the coach comment that Blondell “can also play out wide” since it brought to mind visions of a misplaced centre-forward lumbering down the wing in the desperate hope of earning a set-piece opportunity.

But hopefully it won’t come to that and Blondell will be looking forward to really getting to know the underside of the giant video board at BC Place as he waits for yet another lofted clearance to finally drop.

Things don’t bode so well for Fredy Montero’s return since all public utterances from the club are somewhere along the lines of a shrug and a smile to indicate there is nothing they can do but sit and wait for a phone call from China.

That would be a shame for two reasons.

Firstly Montero pretty much guarantees goals and secondly because it would have been interesting to see him play in a slightly deeper role behind Blondell as the kind of genuine number ten that Yordy Reyna just isn’t.

The centre of midfield is the most baffling right now.

All the indications are that Nosa Igiebor won’t be back which would make his brief tenure at the club genuinely bizarre.

He was only really introduced to the team for the playoffs, was named the best player of the first half in Seattle by Robinson himself and then that would be that for his Whitecaps career.

It’s hard to believe there wasn’t an agreement in place for next season so either we have to believe the unbelievable or assume one or other of the parties have decided that the said agreement doesn’t look quite so tempting after all.

Weird.

Russell Teibert might be back as the Whitecaps declined his option but are still in discussions with a player who didn’t even make the bench in either of the two final games against Seattle.

Why the club or Teibert would want that relationship to continue is a mystery.

If the squad improves then Teibert necessarily slips even further down the pecking order and the player himself must want more for his career than the occasional run out in games the coach has decided don’t really matter.

And the signing of David Norman Jr to an MLS contract means Teibert can’t even think of himself as the young Canadian hope in the centre of the pitch anymore.

There are some who argue that Teibert is an important part of the club’s public presence in the city but they are wrong.

It’s hard to see Matias Laba returning given his long-term injury and while Christian Bolaños may be tempted to take a lesser deal the chances are that at least one other MLS coach will fancy their chances to get more out of the Costa Rican international than Carl Robinson did.

That would make Brek Shea the current first choice on the left side and (assuming Montero and Laba do leave) the only Designated Player on the team.

That’s probably meaningless in real terms since Shea is very much at the lower level of the DP scale but it screams volumes about the ambition of the club.

So the plan has to be to move Shea on and invest serious money in at least two players of genuine quality.

That has to be the plan right?

Vancouver Whitecaps: Plan B

“Compromise is the devil talking,

and he spoke to me”

The Occasional Flicker-Dexys Midnight Runners

Compromise may be “the devil talking ” to Kevin Rowland, the slightly manic lead singer of a slightly manic band named after a drug designed to make you slightly manic, but to the rest of us it’s often the lifeblood of living in the world.

Giving a little bit here to get a little bit there may be the increasingly eroding foundation of a functioning society but we should cherish it while it still exists.

And given that it seems certain that Carl Robinson will be back as coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2018 (barring the unlikely, but still just possible enough to be cruel, divine intervention of the Welsh FA) maybe it’s time to find a compromise between the way he wants to play the game and the way we want to watch?

So let’s try to figure out if we can find some kind of happy medium.

This whole discussion is predicated on the fact we still don’t know the details of who is in and out of the squad next year of course but such is life.

There seems no reason to believe that David Edgar won’t “return” following his season long injury in 2017 however and that would give Robinson the chance to play three solid central defenders as the foundation of his lineup.

He’s tried it before to mixed reviews but given a preseason to work on the system it’s not inconceivable that Edgar, Waston and Parker could all be starters next year.

That gives Robinson the comfort of lots of defenders on the field but would also allow the full backs to push forward.

Jake Nerwinski was very good at that this year and Marcel de Jong proved capable in the time he was given.

In the ideal world a fit again Brett Levis would be Nerwinski’s counter point on the left given the role requires the ability to get up and down the field with regularity but if it’s not Levis then finding a quality left back should be high on the shopping list.

Those wing backs give Robinson the comfort of even more defenders on the field (particularly in road games) while offering much more of an attacking threat at home.

And the super bonus of this system is that the coach can add one more player to his central midfield.

It’s possible that it was as much the “new car smell” as their play which swayed so many of us toward Ghazal and Nosa at the end of the season, but assuming that wasn’t the case and they actually are a step up in quality then one more decent player alongside them would allow the Whitecaps to really shore up the centre of the pitch in most games.

Even a Tony Tchani or a reassigned Alphonso Davies could do that job with some success.

Up front, and this is the key to the whole thing, if Robinson wants to play a lone striker as a target man (and he really, really does) then he needs to recruit a player who both knows and wants to play that way.

Fredy Montero did brilliantly to turn a sow’s ear of a role into something akin to a silk purse but ultimately it was a waste of both his talent and the club’s money.

If Vancouver can pick up a decent journeyman to lead the line (most likely from Northern Europe) they can then spend the money they save on the striking role to get that extra quality midfielder or even a very, very good left back.

The final piece is to allow Yordy Reyna to roam free somewhere in the vicinity of the number ten position to cause general chaos.

It isn’t a perfect system by any means but on the road it would be able collapse into a veritable seven or eight man defence with the chance of a break enhanced by a genuine target man and at home it could transform into a five man midfield capable of getting in crosses from both flanks.

It wouldn’t be overly pretty football but it might be effective and it might even be exciting at times.

But whatever happens the key is to recruit players designed to fit the system Robinson intends to play.

That should be blindingly obvious but there’s been far too much buyer’s remorse from the Whitecaps over recent seasons as they find themselves constantly trying to force three or four square pegs into two or three round holes.

Can the Vancouver Whitecaps change their ways? (Part Two)

Last time out we wondered if maybe, just maybe, the way the Vancouver Whitecaps dealt with the manner in which their season ended could have been handled in a more effective manner.

This time out we’ll look at the thing most of us care about a little bit more.

What happens on the field.

In a recent article for The Guardian Jonathan Wilson wondered whether Jose Mourinho’s coaching style had drifted from the pragmatic to the dogmatic.

In other words, playing defensively and picking up a point against other top teams in the Premier League was no longer working in a competition where rivals Manchester City were more often than not picking up three points in the same games.

Pragmatism isn’t pragmatism if it doesn’t actually work.

His kindest critics would argue that Carl Robinson is a pragmatist. That he makes the most of his resources by setting up a team designed to shut down the opposition while simultaneously being able to make hay out of the sunshine of their mistakes.

And the final league table gives that argument a degree of validity.

But what if we lived in a world where the Whitecaps as an organization weren’t content with that kind of approach? What if we lived in world where the coach was told his style of play would always be ineffective when it really mattered and the time had come to adapt the way he sets up his team?

Ironically I think we may already have lived in that world and it was called 2016.

Back then Robinson toyed with the notion of a genuine number ten, played with the idea of only one defensive midfielder and even flirted with the prospect of a deep lying playmaker.

None of them really worked of course and we will have to decide for ourselves whether that failure was down to the players (mostly Pedro Morales) or the coach being unable to set up a team capable of taking the game to an opponent.

To be fair to Robinson the form and fitness of Morales was poor for most of that year but the coach’s failure to fit the most talented player the Whitecaps have had in the MLS era into any kind of system other than bunkering counter attack was telling.

And it’s Robinson’s inability to send out a team willing to attack that remains his greatest weakness as a coach.

And logic says that it has to be inability rather than unwillingness because no coach  would fail to attack the decimated Portland Timbers team we saw at BC Place earlier this season would they?

Would they?

And no coach would not want to take advantage of a a decimated Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the playoffs would they?

Would they?

Actually that second one he definitely wouldn’t because he said so after the game.

But the pattern of passivity is now so fixed that it’s become like some kind of Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence in which we are condemned to relive the same incapacity to break down a reasonably competent defence “once more and eternal times more”.

And the most terrifying thing of all, the thing that is the void we must all stare into, isn’t that Carl Robinson doesn’t want his team to play in a more open and appealing fashion.

It’s that if even if he did want it he wouldn’t quite know how to make it happen.

 

Can the Vancouver Whitecaps change their ways? (Part One)

The thing they always say about Watergate is that it wasn’t the crime that destroyed so many careers but the cover up.

I mean, the crime didn’t help obviously, but the sense of wrongdoing was exacerbated by an unwillingness to accept fault and that unwillingness cemented the notion of guilt deep into the mind of the general public.

And after that there was no way back to respectability for the main actors involved.

Obviously nobody would argue the way the Vancouver Whitecaps played those two games against the Seattle Sounders was an actual “crime” (although if  a political party ran with that as one of the main policy agendas I could be tempted to look at their overall platform with a forgiving eye) but what’s made those games an itch that just can’t be scratched is that everybody within the organization, from the coach on up, seems intent on insisting that it really wasn’t too bad.

Almost from the moment the final whistle sounded the official line has been that Vancouver did very well to be where they were and were actually (if you squint a bit, tilt your head to one side and then press your fingers against your temples really hard) quite close to getting a result.

We all saw the games.

They were nowhere near getting a result (although I guess a loss is a result of sorts?)

So one can only asssume that this constant insistence on how splendidly it all went is due to one of two things.

Either it’s an attempt to soft soap those in the local media who don’t really take an interest in the Whitecaps while at the same time supposedly pulling the wool over the eyes of the more casual fans in the hope they can be persuaded that all is well.

Or it’s because the people at the club who really matter, from the coach on up, genuinely believe those performances were acceptable.

If it’s the former then they are fooling nobody who matters to the success of the team and are simply adding to the vague cloud of mistrust that occasionally puffs up from their Gastown offices like an inept mockery of the nearby tourist attraction.

If it’s the latter then heaven help us all because there’s nowhere to go next year but along the same bland and featureless plateau of tolerable competence and intolerable timidity.

The Vancouver Whitecaps were genuinely awful against Seattle and the fact that nobody of note within the organization is willing or able to speak that seemingly unspeakable truth will taint the vision and cloud the minds of supporters for so much longer than ever needed to be the case.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review (The Attack)

It’s tempting to make jokes about the phrase “Vancouver Whitecaps Attack” being an oxymoron like “Charlton Athletic” or “Translink Schedule” but there was at least some attack out there some of the time.

Mostly when the opposition allowed it to be by playing open football but it was definitely there because we all saw it.

So how did the players who comprised that attack fare this year?

Fredy Montero- All signs point to Montero not being back with the Whitecaps next season, which is a shame because Carl Robinson finally found somebody who could prosper in his lifelong quest to prove John Donne wrong.

Maybe “prosper” is overstating it but Montero produced his best ever goal tally in MLS and displayed enough on field savvy to make his isolation not quite the optimism killer it was for those who went before him.

We’ll probably always wonder how much better the team would have been if Montero had been granted more support more of the time but the Whitecaps would likely have been much closer to the basement of the table without his presence.

Good luck replacing him with a cheaper option!

Season rating- 7

Yordy Reyna- There’s a school of thought that can’t help but wonder how the Whitecaps would have fared had Reyna been fit all season.

“About the same” is probably the right answer although maybe the Peruvian would have developed a little more understanding with his teammates given the extra time.

When he was finally fit Reyna showed he had both the devilment and desire to make Vancouver just a little bit unpredictable.

But his end of season form was an indication that opponents had figured out that deploying men to mark Reyna out of the game was enough to extinguish the Whitecaps attacking threat.

Like Montero he’ll need far more support if he really is going to be the “difference maker” he’s advertised as.

Season rating-6.5

Erik Hurtado- What can we say about Hurtado? He’s a player who works hard, has power and pace and even improved his all round game in 2017.

But for all that the fact he featured as often as he did in 2017 is an indication of just how bare the Whitecaps attacking bones were.

Hurtado’s work rate and attitude alone mean he deserves some success in his career but if he’s still an option off the bench for Vancouver in 2018 something has gone horribly wrong with the offseason recruitment.

(Narrator’s voice: “Something went horribly wrong with the offseason recruitment”).

Season rating- 6

Nicolas Mezquida- Mezquida isn’t a great player by any stretch of the imagination but he’s a more than capable replacement for either a forward or number ten if needed.

But the reason he seems to be so popular with the fan base is because he plays the game in the exact same way we all imagine we would if given the chance.

He always gives everything, is overjoyed when the team win and devastated when they lose.

Mezquida is like the Spirit Animal of the supporters’ Id; desperately straining at the leash to express himself despite the limitations imposed by the team’s style of play.

Season rating- 6

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Season Review: The Midfield (Part Two)

There are some couples who only manage to stay together because they are constantly “doing something”.

Renovating the kitchen, building a new deck or turning that small space at the back of the house into an “office slash craft room”.

Because as long as they’re “doing something” they never have to stop and think about the mind-numbing pointlessness of their everyday existence. Never have to question the very fabric of their relationship.

Although I wonder what fabric one would use for the throw cushions in an “office slash craft room”? Why not take a chance and choose a Japanese print from Etsuko Furuya’s Echino line?

It’s bold, but no so bold that it overpowers the space entirely.

Anyway, the early indications are that the Vancouver Whitecaps are very definitely going to be “doing something” when it comes to player movements this off-season, probably in the hope that both they and us will be distracted from the crushing inevitability of another season in which not being able to fault the effort of the players is a high point.

So before a whole bunch of them depart on their merry way let’s begin part the second of our look back at the midfield class of 2017.

Christian Bolaños- Bolaños is the most cultured player in the Whitecaps squad (possibly by some distance) and he’s the only one who looks genuinely comfortable on the ball at all times.

But this season his influence and attitude was a notch down from his impressive debut year.

Put that down to the distractions of World Cup qualifying, a series of injuries or just not fitting into the system the team is playing but whatever the reason if Carl Robinson decides to bring Bolaños back it has to be with an idea of how he will be played in a far more effective role.

It’s telling however that for all the negativity Bolaños was still joint leader on the team in assists for 2017.

Season rating- 5.5

Cristian Techera- The other team leader in assists Techera very much had a bounce back year in 2017.

His set-piece delivery was a crucial factor and he was the only player consistently able to provide quality service to Fredy Montero from open play.

Techera’s form dropped at the tail end of the season but a positive year for him all things considered.

Season rating-6.5

Brek Shea- Shea is about as one-dimensional a footballer as it’s possible to be. He runs hard in the direction he’s facing and offers no nuance or intelligence in his game at all.

On the positive side he proved to be quite a useful substitute during road games, but the impression that he loves what he gets from the game rather than the game itself still lingers.

It’s hard to imagine he will be back in 2018 given his contribution and his salary and his final outing as a bizarre substitute at left-back in Seattle was a fitting tribute to a player who never once looked like finding a permanent role in the team.

Season rating- 4

Bernie Ibini- Ibini’s season felt a lot like Shea’s but with a far more positive spin. An effective substitute who did at least look like he knew what he was doing when he came onto the field and even offered glimpses of quality.

Yet he still lacked the ability to make an impact on a regular basis and “a useful player to have in the squad” might be the best thing we can say about him.

Every squad needs that kind of player of course so perhaps that faint praise isn’t the damning it first appears to be, but the overall impression of Ibini is that he would have been a good signing for an MLS team in 2014 but fortunately/unforunately the league has moved on since then.

Season rating-5 

Alphonso Davies- Maybe now that Davies has turned seventeen he will begin to be analyzed as a footballer rather than simply as a young phenom? Seventeen isn’t that young to be playing professional soccer and next season will be a huge one for Davies in terms of how he grows as a player.

Right now his pace and power cover up his less than perfect first touch and his somewhat perplexing inability to fully slot into the pattern of the team.

Those failings aren’t helped by the sense of expectation that greets his arrival in any game at BC Place and it would be nice if the club toned down the whole “we want to protect Davies while simultaneously mentioning him at every opportunity” vibe.

The best thing next year would be for Davies to be treated like every other player on the squad and incessant media narrative be damned.

Season rating- 5.5 

Nosa Igiebor- We haven’t seen enough of Nosa to make a definitive decision about his qualities but we have seen enough to know that he arrived being touted as a box to box midfielder before being played in a far more defensive role.

His pedigree is undoubtedly good but let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be yet another attacking threat immolated on the bonfire of Carl Robinson’s defensive vanities.

Season rating-5.5