Vancouver Whitecaps: The Wild Brunch

For all the angst of watching Seattle and Portland breeze though MLS in recent years perhaps no team has really brought home how bad the Whitecaps have been at this whole thing quite like Sporting Kansas City.

An “unfashionable” team who don’t spend a fortune but have an established style of play and who bring in players who suit that style of play rather than chasing either the big name signing or whichever player happens to be available at the time.

They are a template for how to run a team in MLS.

And, unsurprisingly, they beat the Whitecaps 3-0 on Sunday brunch time, not least because they have built a better squad and have a better coach.

It’s possible that Marc Dos Santos looked at the previous games this season and thought that Jake Nerwinski had done just fine and didn’t really need much cover from the wide player in front of him.

It’s also possible that he thought he did need cover and that Ryan Raposo was the best option to do so.

But neither of those possibilities place the coach in a favourable light and Kansas eyed up the right side of the Whitecaps with the same relish a hungry lion eyes up a wounded antelope.

The game was over before Dos Santos replaced Raposo with Baldisimo and the Whitecaps somewhat improved for ten minutes before half-time, but the second half was a return to Kansas failing to score from the numerous chances they created and Vancouver snatching at the very occasional chance that fell their way.

The only real positive from this performance is that it will have surely dented the belief that the Whitecaps were establishing a consistent style of play and that little needed to change other than the occasional tweak here and there.

The whole “no goals from open play” thing is starting to look less like an amusing quirk and more like a harbinger of doom as, with Dajome out of sorts, they produced no real incisiveness with Cavallini once again being the bulwark to more attacks than the defenders around him and Alexandre, once again, operating in areas of the pitch where his capacity to inflict damage was mostly related to his reputation for falling to the ground at the slightest provocation.

This was the first time the Whitecaps have been embarrassing to watch this season, but there were so many things wrong with the performance that it seems hard to think of it as “just one of those games”.

“We have to be better”, “Lessons will be learned” and “It’s a process”.

Time for the post-game hits to get an airing.

Time also for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-5, Nerwinski-1, Veselinovic-4, Cornelius-4, Gutierrez-3, Bikel-5, Alexandre-4, Raposo-1, Dajome-3, Caicedo-2, Cavallini-2 (Baldisimo-5*)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Something Good

After the Whitecaps loss to Colorado last week I whined that the two previous good results had been false dawns. Anomalies that tricked us all into thinking progress had been made whereas, in reality, the Whitecaps were still the same old Whitecaps.

So where does the narrative stand after the 2-0 victory over whatever the hell Montreal are called these days?

The narrative stands with a foot in both camps. Awkwardly hopping from foot to foot, unsure of where to finally come to rest.

The first half on Saturday was confirmation bias catnip for those who think that Vancouver are still too passive when they need to be proactive. All safe and slow passing that pads possession stats without making any kind of progress towards the opposition penalty area.

The second half was power of positivity bindweed for those who think a squad that has been strengthened without being disrupted can grow into the season. All high pressing and pace going forward.

But the simple truth might just be that Marc Dos Santos got his tactics wrong last week.

Moving Dájome away from the centre, playing Alexandre in the number ten role and asking Russell Teibert to be the creator are the kind of decisions that probably feel innovative in some 4 a.m. fever dream but collapse into incomprehension when exposed to the Utah sun.

Against Montreal, Teibert was back on the left where he could protect Gutiérrez, Alexandre was playing in the role he was brought in to play and Dájome was back alongside/just behind Cavallini in attack.

And Dájome is turning out to be a crucial player for the team.

Last year he seemed a somewhat peripheral, if intermittently effective, wide player who could deliver decent crosses for Cavallini to finish. This year he’s been the main creative force simply because he never stops harassing the opposition defence and plays with a refreshing directness.

Alexandre wasn’t his creative equivalent on Saturday but, in the second half, there were signs the Brazilian could play the kind of instinctive first time forward pass the Whitecaps have been severely lacking.

But now let’s turn, with a heavy heart, to Jake Nerwinski.

Nerwinski looked disturbingly out of his depth yesterday. He was targeted as a weak point and almost always took one touch too many that meant his passing was rushed and thus offered Montreal the chance to gain possession in dangerous areas.

If Gaspar is fit he surely has to start on Wednesday and give Nerwinski the break he seems to need in order to get his head back in the right place when he’s on the field.

That game and the visit to Kansas on Sunday should suit the way the Whitecaps want to play and they should also mean more players are given the chance to make a larger contribution.

Dos Santos now has decent depth at his disposal. How he uses that depth will be as important as how sets up the team in each game.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crépeau-6, Nerwinski-2, Gutiérrez-6, Rose-5.5, Veselinović-5, Bikel-5, Alexandre-5.5, Teibert-5.5, Caicedo-5, Dájome-6*, Cavallini-5.5

So what did we learn?

So (now that the dust of disappointment has settled) what did we really learn from the Whitecaps defeat to the Rapids on Sunday evening?

We were too happy- In retrospect, many of us viewed the first two games through the rose tinted spectacles of results rather than performance. The Whitecaps were fine in those games, but that’s all.

But they weren’t the seeds of recovery we thought they were. Two set pieces and a penalty kick do not a foundation make and the law of averages came back to bite the team on Sunday.

Lessons to be learned- In his post-game presser Marc Dos Santos admitted that his team needed to be better at breaking down a defence that sits deep.

Yes they do.

But they’ve needed to be better at that for the last fifty-nine centuries. One assumes they are working on this defect in training, but it constantly seems to be a source of deep bafflement to everybody on the team that hitting hopeful long balls from the back isn’t the infallible master plan they seemingly think it is.

Dos Santos also said that perhaps his players started slowly because the pressure of getting to seven points may have got to them. It’s certainly easy to see how reaching such vertiginous heights would freeze even the best of footballers.

Let Cavallini be Cavallini- The Canadian forward is good at getting on the end of crosses (high or low) and annoying opposition defenders to within an inch of a red card.

He’s not good at running forward with the ball for anything more than a few steps. Let Dajome and Caicedo do the running forward with the ball. They can then kick it across to where Cavallini is standing and he can try to head or kick it into the net.

They need a number ten– I’m instinctively anti the number ten role. Especially in MLS. Yes, yes, yes it will get results, but it’s such a reductive way of running a team and leaves you always one bad injury away from disaster.

It was my (seemingly forlorn) hope that the Whitecaps could build a team. A squad of players who slotted together in a system that made the reliance on the mercurial talents of an individual the redundant dream of a bygone MLS age.

But no, the only way they will flourish is by adding that one player who can make things happen for the others. A golden talisman for the leaden footed support act to rally around.

There is hope- Well, I say “hope” but really it’s an acknowledgment that they probably have enough to squeak into the playoffs.

Good set-pieces will get you points and the eventual return of Erik Godoy should make both the defence better and the midfield more willing to get forward (That “should” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence).

But will they be more than that? A team that genuinely believes the top four is within their reach? A team that doesn’t fail to perform the moment even the most minor of achievements is within their grasp?

That looks a lot less likely than some of us thought it was just one short week ago.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Revenge of the Rapids

In the 1983 Italian movie, Zeder, a young journalist discovers that the ribbon of an old typewriter he has recently bought still retains the imprint of a story written by its previous owner.

As he slowly pieces together the words he discovers it to be a macabre tale that lures him into the world of the dead and the undead, until his existence is nothing but dread and fear.

And the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to the Colorado Rapids was a bit like that.

Not the dead and the undead, fear and dread parts (although feel free to insert your own jokes here if you wish) but rather the idea that the substance of this team is still as indistinct as the the faded words on an abandoned typewriter ribbon.

Marc Dos Santos is still struggling to make his side into anything we would call meaningful. They are a ghost that has yet to be born, the echo of a song that is yet to be sung.

And the game on Sunday was full of echoes.

The inability to build on good results by losing to a team that was in a slump. The reluctance of the midfield to get forward. The insistence that the best players to play the searching forward balls were the two central defenders.

But the most haunting thing of all was the unwillingness to play the brave pass. The reluctance to challenge the opponent with anything other than a set piece or a pounced on error.

This wasn’t helped by the decison to play Caio Alexandre (roundly touted as a a box to box midfielder) in the number ten role, nor was it helped by asking Russell Teibert to play the Baldisimo role and dictate the play from deep.

Maybe, on another night, the Whitecaps would have won this game with a couple of set piece goals but that would have distracted from the fundamental flaws that still remain.

It was disappointing to see Vancouver once again shrink from the opportunity to gain a statement win that would have set them up nicely for the early part of the season.

But it was more troubling to watch yet another game where Dos Santos was incapable of sending out a team that could create chances from open play.

The words on his typewriter ribbon are growing feinter with each day that passes. But what if it turns out those words don’t form a tale that makes sense? What if they are just the random tappings of a malevolent spirit?

That would leave us all with nothing to do but scream helplessly into the endless void.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-6*, Nerwinski-2, Veselinovic-3.5, Rose-3.5, Guttierez-5, Teibert-4, Bikel-3.5, Dajome-5, Caicedo-4.5, Alexandre- 3, Cavallini-4.5

And so it begins…

Strange to think that by nine o’clock tonight we will know all there is to know about how the 2021 season will pan out for the Vancouver Whitecaps. But, while we wait for this slew of knowledge to be downloaded into our brains, let’s take some time to think about what we need from the team this year.

People often come up to me in the street and say “What we, the general public, want to read about is three fairly abstract things that will make the team better this season. We, the general public, would like that very much”.

So here is the answer to this oft asked query.

Understand how numbers work– The Whitecaps seem to be labouring under the mistaken belief that three points at the start of the season aren’t as important as three points near the end.

Time after time a team like the Philadelphia Union (And, in MLS, about forty percent of the teams are “like the Philadelphia Union”) will arrive at BC Place for the first game of the campaign with a weakened team that features the Assistant Kit Manager’s fifteen year old son playing on the wing and an inflatable kayak in the holding midfield role and Vancouver will fold like a cheap suit.

Four games later they will have two points, already be five points off the playoffs, but spend all their time talking about the need to settle in the new players and adapt to the new system.

Come season end there will be a desperate attempt to win the last three games in a futile attempt to sneak into the last playoff place.

Maybe treat the opening games as seriously as the closing ones?

No excuses- “Player A hasn’t got a visa sorted”, “Players B and C are injured”, “Player D needs time to adapt to MLS”.

You know what? Cry me a river.

The Whitecaps unspoken Mission Statement since they moved to MLS has effectively been “It’s not our fault!”

And that lack of sense of responsibility has seeped down onto the field and become toxic. Give professional athletes an excuse for their failings and, nine times out of ten, they will embrace it.

The team need to play the hand they are dealt and stop leaning on the crutch of what might have been.

Stick to the plan- The most disappointing aspect of Marc Dos Santos’ tenure has been his flip flopping on how he sets up the team to play. Always just two games away from changing to a new system without giving the current one time to bed in.

If he fails this year then it’s hard to see him sticking around for another season, so best to fail on the thing he actually believes in than on a desperate attempt to chase success based on the latest tactical whim or random good performance by Player E.

It would also be great if the Whitecaps signed some players with last names rather than just letters, but we are where we are.

See you on the other side of the Portland game.

Vancouver Whitecaps: We Need A Little Time

Chancing upon the Twitter exchange above the other day couldn’t help but send a frisson of anxiety pulsing through my synapses. A feeling akin to seeing a significant other surreptitiously flirting with Chad from Marketing at the annual office Pot Luck.

But, always wanting to be the adult in the room, I didn’t waste my time on pointless angst and idle imaginings. I simply called the Whitecaps directly to clarify the situation. And, for the benefit of posterity, I have transcribed the details of the call below.

ME: Hi.

VW: Hi.

Me: Just wanted to check how the flight went and that you’re settling in in Utah.

VW: Thanks so much! Yes all good so far.

ME: Good to know. I see you’ve started to make friends with the locals.

VW: What?

ME: I saw the tweets between you and a Salt Lake fan and I think it’s good that you’ve wasted absolutely no time in making new friends.

VW: …….

ME: Still there?

VW: Is that what this call is about?

ME: What do you mean?

VW: Are you calling to check up on us?

ME: Of course not!

VW: Because we really can’t do this right now.

ME: Do what?

VW: This.

ME: …..

VW: You know how hard it was for us in Florida last year right? Isolated and away from everybody.

ME: Of course I do. And I supported you through that.

VW: Sure you did.

ME: What does that mean?

VW: It means that sarcastic tweets and passive aggressive blog posts don’t always come across as supportive.

ME: Passive aggressive?

VW: Yes. Passive aggressive.

ME: Well, I don’t know about passive aggressive, but I wish your passing was more aggressive. You might score more goals.

VW: There we go! You always have to bring it back to the passing don’t you? Every time!

ME: It’s important! Anyway, it’s not just the passing. It’s the getting people into the box as well. I mention that a lot too.

VW: We noticed.

ME: I’m trying to help.

VW: But it doesn’t help. How do you think it makes us feel?

ME: Well, I’m not sure but..

VW: And we know that you watch Premier League and Champions League games when we’re not around.

ME: Everybody does that!

VW: Exactly. You’re just like all the rest. Sometimes it feels as though you don’t support us for who we are, but for who you want us to be. And we just can’t be that team. We’ll never be that team.

ME: Well, I didn’t mean to upset you and….

VW Look, we’re tired. We’ve got a lot going on. And I think it will be good for us to spend some time away from you. Just so that we can re-focus and get ourselves together again.

ME: But you’re coming back right?

VW: Of course we’re coming back! Why do you have to be so suspicious all the time?

ME: Well I’ve heard stories about teams going to other cities and never coming back. So I’m worried.

VW: We’re coming back. We just need space to ourselves to figure some things out.

ME: Okay if that’s how you feel. Should I call you again?

VW: We’d prefer it if you didn’t.

ME: I’ll write though.

VW: You don’t have to.

ME: No, I really don’t mind. I’ll write after every game and let you know what I thought of it. That way you’ll know all the things you’ve been doing wrong and that will help you to……hello? Hello?

At that stage the line went dead. Probably symptomatic of the poor infrastructure that America is blighted with after decades of under investment.

Safe to say though that I helped to ease the situation and put everybody’s minds at ease.

Wishing and Hoping

I’m old enough to remember when the release of the Whitecaps schedule meant scrolling through the list of games and considering the questions surrounding them.

In what specific way had MLS made travelling to Portland and Seattle difficult this season? Is there the chance of a weekend in Denver? A midweek trip to Sandy, Utah?

This year a visit to Austin would probably be high on many a wish list, but I’m also old enough to remember when the Whitecaps played their games in Canada so am content to make my wish lists more prosaic than doing things like travelling to new places or going to actual games.

My three wishes for the season then you ask? Fair enough.

Erik Godoy stays fit- Godoy is one of those players you don’t really notice until he gets a clever yellow card in the eighty-fifth minute. But he’s also one of those players who makes those around him better.

Whether he gets paired with Veselinovic (a young player with what feels like significant potential) or Cornelius (a young player who did all that was asked of him and more last year) the presence of Godoy will give the Whitecaps a level of confidence at the back they were lacking far too often in 2020.

Caio Alexandre turns out be a genuine Number 8- While others pine for a Number 10, I while away the hours pondering how much better the Whitecaps would be with a “proper” number 8.

A player who arrives at the edge of the area to fire home a scuffed clearance. Who pounces on a goalkeepers parry to fire the ball unceremoniously into the roof of the net.

It could be argued that most midfielders in the modern game are a default mix of the number 8 and number 6 anyway, but the whole identity of the Whitecaps in recent years seems to have been built around the lack of attacking players in the box so, for now, a traditional number 8 will do just fine.

Lucas Cavallini comes good- What we learned last season is that Cavallini is a forward not a goal scorer. He wants to score goals but he doesn’t need to score them.

His overall contribution is based around work rate rather than his finishing, but this season he should (hopefully) get the kind of service he needs from both flanks and (hopefully) he won’t be playing in a team that considers counterattack the only form of attack.

His stats suggest he’s a one goal in three games player as his default setting, but Vancouver probably need an uptick on that if he’s to justify his existence.

Inside Number Ten

When I eventually die and go to hell I’ve no doubt that one the first levels of torture I’ll be forced to endure will be an endless loop of those god awful clips that DAZN airs between games and at half-time.

While the flames lick at my heels, my eyelids will be forced open while Gary Neville talks to a monotone and monosyllabic Paul Scholes, or two badly groomed men shout at each other over a Zoom call about whether corner flags should be square or rectangular for the rest of eternity.

The current iteration of the genre features James Rodriguez trying to encapsulate the talent of Dennis Bergkamp in the allotted thirty-eight seconds but, astonishingly, James does get to say something interesting.

The Colombian announces the demise of the “number ten” as not fit for purpose in the modern game.

I suppose it’s possible that he’s doing this solely to troll those in the Whitecaps fanbase who seem to believe that the answer to all the ills of the team is said number ten but, more likely, he’s just reflecting a fairly obvious truth that has been acknowledged for more than a few years.

The traditional number ten is no more, he has ceased to be, he is bereft of life, he rests in peace and is an ex-footballer.

The romance lingers on however. The yearning for a mercurial presence just behind the striker, pulling the strings and pushing the ball between defenders is a tantalizing prospect for those deprived of even a semblance of footballing imagination in recent years.

After all, there are only so many times a human being can watch a ball bounce haplessly away from another human being’s foot before the spectacle begins to induce a certain ennui.

But what the Whitecaps need isn’t a saviour in the form of a languid playmaker. They need a consistent system that isn’t reliant on the ability, or health, of an individual. A system that runs at speed both backwards and forwards. A system that acknowledges current reality.

When he arrived in Vancouver, about eight lifetimes ago, that was the plan for Marc Dos Santos. But circumstance and what seems like a lack of self-belief reduced the team to facsimiles of that idea. Always hamstrung by caution and the inability to stick to any kind of method for more than a few games in succession.

Maybe that won’t change this year? Maybe the Whitecaps are destined to be prisoners of their own misfortune? Always one hamstring away from disaster. Always one defeat away from reinvention.

But don’t let the sugar rush of signing a number ten be the hill they choose to die on.

Don’t base the season on a thing as anachronistic as a rotary dial on a smart phone, a TV Guide in world of streaming.

“Traditional” and “artisanal” should be words we associate with street markets and cheese. Not the major signing of a professional sports team..

It Takes A Village

I live in a village now.

Strange that it would take a global event to limit our lives to the local. To lower our horizons to two or three blocks.

But in days like this the coffee shop knows my order, the bar knows my beer, the store knows I don’t need a bag and ID is no longer required when collecting a parcel from the post office.

They know me and I know them.

But not really.

All we really know are the three dimensional avatars that drift in and out of each others lives from time to time.

But that’s enough to create a connection. A shared experience. A common thread.

So maybe the Whitecaps were on to something with their “It Takes a Village” marketing campaign? Maybe they were right to try and turn the the team into an emblem for belonging?

But then the world changed and a connection got severed.

How could it not?

We were all so busy burying our heads in our own lives that we didn’t have the energy (physical/emotional) to spare for a team that barely even played in Vancouver.

That wasn’t their fault. But the necessary distance this year and the constant change of personnel over the last two has made it hard to to turn the majority of the team into those three dimensional avatars we need them to be.

Ali Adnan has been around long enough for us to know that he will argue with anybody while a game is ongoing and we know that Russell Teibert will listen to the coach’s instructions with all the sombre seriousness of a toddler trying to button up a raincoat.

But Bikel, Veselinovic and Owusu?

We barely know them outside of pixels on a screen and disheartening heat maps.

All the indications from the club are that there will be less turnover of the squad in preparation for next season and, while that may be a disputable decision from a footballing perspective, it’s almost essential in terms of a sense of kinship.

In an ideal world we love the players in our team, in a good world we root for them and in an acceptable world we hate them for the pain they cause.

It’s a cruel world in which we don’t even know who they are.

Vancouver Whitecaps tread softly into the dying of the light

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2020 season was always going to be more interesting for the questions it raised in retrospect than it was to watch in real time.

Questions such as, what conclusion can we draw about any player or coach given the circumstances?

In more “normal” times would Marc Dos Santos have been able to shape this squad into one that resembled an effective unit or not?

The season was put out of its misery (barring more Covid related nonsense) by a 1-0 loss to the Portland Timbers on Sunday evening. A loss that encapsulated the year as whole.

The Whitecaps played the game as though trying to win it was a little bit too ambitious. Best to keep it tight and hope the lucky break fell their way rather than to their opponent.

But it didn’t.

And that’s the price you pay when you live your life by the coin toss.

If the limit of your dreams is to squeak into the playoffs then don’t be surprised if your dreams get trodden on.

If you don’t try to beat a terrible LA Galaxy team, then don’t be surprised if they steal a last minute winner.

If you rest almost the whole team for a game against Seattle then don’t be surprised if that defeat turns out to be as important as the defeat you suffered with all the rested players back.

There are mitigating circumstances flying around like murder hornets in a vacuum tube of course.

But, in the end, the Whitecaps never really controlled the things they could control and that was their undoing.

There will be time enough to go over what all of this means in the coming weeks and months but, right now, no one would blame the coaches and the players if they forewent the final meaningless game against the LA Galaxy and got out of Dodge before Tuesday.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Bush-5.5-, Nerwinski-5.5, Adnan-5.5, Veselinovic-4.5, Godoy-6.5*, Bikel-5.5, Owusu-5.5, Teibert-4.5, Dajome-3.4, Montero-2, Cavallini-3