Vancouver Whitecaps: Reviewing the Situation

While the current World Cup blinds us all to every other sporting event rather like an alien spaceship hovering over the horizon intermittently blocking out the sun and intermittently dazzling us with its reflection, it’s easy to forget that the Vancouver Whitecaps are back in training and preparing for a game in Philadelphia next weekend.

And how much better the mood must be now the team are finally scoring goals and trying to win games?

Carl Robinson certainly deserves credit for adjusting his team to play in a manner just about everybody else said they should have been playing from the first game of the season and the question now is whether he left that change too late for the season to be genuinely successful.

Hopefully the coach hasn’t used his time away from the players to dwell on the number of goals they’ve conceded too much, but hopefully he has been dwelling on how to use the best group of players he’s had at his disposal.

So what are his options?

Firstly, let’s take the players who should always start if fit.

Marinovic, Waston, Henry, Felipe, Davies, Reyna and Kamara.

That might be harsh on Techera (who is in a hot streak of goalscoring form) Aja (who has been fine in central defence) and Mutch (who has been very good when available) but the named seven are the ones who have done enough to always be pencilled (Damn it man just write it in pen!) to the starting eleven.

There’s nothing much wrong with continuing to alternate the full-backs until the business end of the season as each one of Nerwinski, Franklin, de Jong, Levis and Shea have strengths and weaknesses and can be picked and chosen to suit the demands of the day.

In central midfield Felipe’s “What kind of player is he really?” quality can be useful in platooning other players in.

In Colorado he worked very well with Juarez in controlling the pace of the game (and keeping the ball) and Ghazal or Teibert could slot in as more defensive cover to allow Felipe to move forward when needed.

In home games though the ideal scenario would be Felipe sitting deep as a putative defensive midfielder, while still able to play passes that release the pacy players in the team, with Mutch as the attacking box to box midfielder.

Mutch made much difference when he came on as a substitute against Orlando simply because his first instinct is to always get forward.

The Whitecaps have needed that kind of player since before the Gods that made the Gods were made.

That just leaves the right side of the midfield to be covered and while Techera will (and should) play more games than most here’s where the opportunity for Robinson to switch things up presents itself.

If he wants to pair Blondell with Kamara up front he can switch Reyna out to the right (or play Blondell out there if he feels like it). If he wants to use Shea on the left he can get Davies to switch flanks. If he desperately wants to play an extra defensive midfielder he can use Felipe, Davies and Reyna as the three behind Kamara.

It still feels as though the team are one more really good wide player away from being the real deal (which kind of makes the desire to stockpile central midfielders somewhat strange) but Robinson has far more options than many coaches in MLS.

Let’s hope that turns out be a blessing rather than a curse.


Vancouver Whitecaps: Driving in their car

Is their any love greater than the love of a driver for a really good rental car?

That thrill as the shock of unfamiliarity melts into the excitement of the new and as the initial sense of dislocation and confusion gives way to the right switches always being flicked and buttons being pushed.

And then, just when it all seems perfect, the unspoken sense of an ending descends into the interior and suddenly it’s over.

And yet, although it only lasted a few days, the sheer density of the relationship seems to have bent and stretched the time spent together into meaninglessness.

And the best thing of all is that there’s no bitterness upon parting. No recriminations, just the two going their separate ways secure in the knowledge it always had to be this way.

Maybe in the coming weeks and months the outline of a familiar form will be glimpsed from the corner of the eye, but it won’t be them. In your heart you know it can’t be them.

But that won’t stop the Proustian rush of mountain roads and ocean sprays circling the synapses for a second or two before the real world reasserts itself once again.

And, in almost no way imaginable, isn’t being the coach of a soccer team a bit like being the driver of a rental car?

Trying to figure out what goes where and how to get the best out of this strange and unpredictable beast without the whole thing grinding to screeching and disastrous halt.

Safe to say if we extend this metaphor to Carl Robinson he would be the kind of driver who, no matter what car he was allotted or how many free upgrades he received, would immediately set the cruise control to 58 mph and sit in the passing lane of the freeway oblivious to the tirade of abus from other motorists.

Slow and steady might not win the race but it gets you there in almost the exact time predicted by Google Maps and that’s a victory of sorts.

Except that now he’s started to experiment with putting his foot on the gas occasionally. Maybe even using the passing lane for passing instead of it being just a really nice drive because you never have to think about overtaking any other vehicle.

Sure, he’s occasionally setting the windshield wipers to maximum when he’s really trying to find the AOR channel on the radio and his discomfort is apparent whenever his attempts to open a window result in the gas cap popping open, but at least the car is going somewhere close to the speed it should.

But do you know what the best thing about driving these days is?

The car pretty much does all the work itself.

It’s smart enough to let you know if another vehicle is in your blind spot, won’t force you to turn your head when reversing and will sound a shrill warning if the traffic in front is getting too close.

In other words, the best way to drive a modern car is just to get in and do as little as possible.

And right now Robinson has a squad of players who seem capable enough of figuring things out for themselves when they are on the field. All he really has to do is make sure there’s enough gas in the tank and the oil is changed at the right times and the rest will pretty much take care of itself.

No car will ever fully function to its potential with a passive driver at the wheel but better that than a driver who perpetually has their foot resting gently on the brake pedal for fear of something going wrong.

Less is almost certainly more when it comes to this coach and this team it seems.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Scroll down for more

Now with added “murmurings” from the day after.

One of the things to do in Denver right now is see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition at the Museum of Science and Nature.

The museum itself is great, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition not so much.

Any science museum using the word “miracle” to describe the discovery of one of its displays has crossed a line it probably didn’t want to cross.

And anyway (and this is just a personal preference of course) it’s far more awe-inspiring to see how human beings figured out how to land a working exploratory vehicle on the surface of Mars than it is to walk passed a collection of pots and cups from centuries ago.

Yet the fragments of the Scrolls themselves are a marvellous thing to behold.

The thought that back in the day somebody scribbled down a mix of religious belief, poetry and “I bet they’ll like this bit” in a way that somehow formed the basis of so much of our intellectual world today can’t help but transcend glib observations and ingrained cynicism.

Today those fragments of parchment are safely guarded beneath thick glass but in the 1950’s the archeologists of the time tried to piece them together using nothing but a “can do” attitude and Scotch Tape, leaving future colleagues the unenviable task of trying to remove modern-day sticky tape from arguably the greatest find their field has ever had the opportunity to deal with.

Yet who can blame those Fifties pioneers?

The need to make coherent sense from isolated fragments of information is kind of what religion is anyway and it’s certainly what Carl Robinson is doing right now with his Whitecaps team.

In Colorado he stuck with the 4-4-2 system but this time pairing Blondell and Reyna up front and Juarez and Felipe as the central two midfielders (oh and Brek Shea at left back just for shits and giggles).

And it worked pretty much perfectly.

In the first half the Whitecaps looked dangerous every time they went forward and only a short spell toward the end of the first half, just after the Rapids had pulled a goal back, produced any sustained pressure on the Vancouver defence.

In the second half the Whitecaps managed the game about as well as it’s possible to do on the road with a one goal lead with Juarez and Felipe being particularly effective in both slowing the game down and keeping possession (and how nice was it to see Vancouver play short, simple passes in lieu of the hoofed ball up field?)

Doneil Henry looked impressive in central defence in his first full start for the club and Yordy Reyna is as close to back to his best as makes no difference and that may well explain the recent upsurge in offensive threat as much as any change of formation.

If Henry stays fit that will surely mean Aja will make way for the return of Kendall Waston from World Cup duty. That would arguably be the best central defensive pairings the Whitecaps have had in the MLS era.

But it also opens the possibility of Robinson playing three at the back and making full use of the pacy full backs he has. That would be a risk if the current system continues to produce goals but not a crazy one if the current systen continues to leak goals.

On the debit side Alphonso Davies still needs to learn to make the right decision more often than not and although Brian Rowe will be pleased to finally be on the winning team his lack of presence in the area feels like it invites more pressure than is warranted.

A disappointingly quiet outing for Anthony Blondell as well, although it could be that the current plan is to have the target man play deep in order to create space behind for the onrushing Techera, Reyna, Davies etc.

I’m not sure if we should be grateful Robinson has finally made use of the attacking talent at his disposal or frustrated that it took him this long to do so.

The idea of two central midfielders feeding simple passes to the four attacking players in front of them has changed the whole dynamic of the team.

And the last few games must surely have dispelled the theory that the coach was simply playing the way he did becasue of the players he had. Turns out they could actually pass the ball all along! They just weren’t being allowed to do so.

A rare case of players getting the best out of their coach perhaps?

Nobody should get carried away with a win against the worst team in MLS but a win is a win is a win and watching the Whitecaps right now doesn’t feel like the exercise in futility it has done for so much of this season.

This makes the next home game against Orlando all the more important. If the Whitecaps want to drag themselves back into serious playoff contention they need to win that and go into the World Cup break on something of a high.

The schedule from now on doesn’t get any easier but Vancouver have an uncanny knack of playing to the level of their opponents making a fifth or sixth place finish a distinct possibility (a top four finish seems too much of a stretch given the games played and those yet to come).

Carl Robinson seems to have found a system that just about works so let’s not go ripping off any of the tactical sticky tape holding it all together just yet.

We might discover none of it makes any sense and then it will all just collapse beneath the weight of its own nonsense.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe- 5.5, Nerwisnki-5.5, Aja-5.5, Henry-6, Shea-5.5, Felipe-6, Juarez-6, Techera-5.5, Davies-5.5, Reyna-6.5*-Blondell-5

Vancouver Whitecaps do just enough to not do enough (again)

Now with updated “considerations” using the power of hindsight.

At least the Vancouver Whitecaps are entertaining now.

True they’re entertaining in a The Fall of Rome, Krakatoa erupting, Hindenburg conflagration, Nuclear explosion in a fireworks factory kind of way, but at least they’re entertaining.

They’re still not good enough though.

Yet another home tie (this time a 3-3 against the New England Revolution) was another nail in the coffin of their playoff hopes and leaves Carl Robinson hoping his team can somehow string together a run of three or four consecutive wins to keep them in any kind of meaningful contention.

Robinson stuck with 4-4-2 once again for this game and while Yordy Reyna at least had moments where he looked capable of creating danger Kei Kamara seemed to have decided his main role was to keep the ball out of the New England net.

His first miss at the very beginning of the game was poor given the amount of time he had but his second, where he somehow contrived to send the ball away from goal when all he had to do was kick it forward, was even worse.

That should have been enough to get him replaced but the coach thought not and the arrival of Anthony Blondell simply shifted Reyna to an area of the field where he was far less likely to do any damage.

The main experiment of the night (sadly not a thought experiment but an actual real life one) was allowing Aly Ghazal to audition for the role of central defender to fill in for the World Cup absence of Kendall Waston and it’s safe to say Ghazal flubbed the audition and really shouldn’t be getting the part.

His own goal was poor if perhaps forgivable, but his giveaway for the third and his constant ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time does not bode well should Robinson decide that valour is the better part of discretion when it comes to team selection.

The more one thinks about the decision to play Ghazal in central defence the more perplexing it becomes. Carl Robinson said the Egyptian “needed a game” but the Whitecaps needed a win much more, so switching Waston to the left side of the centre of defence to give another player playing time only created even more instability in a back line desperate for cohesion.

It’s even odder given the Whitecaps have a natural central defender in Aaron Maund who hasn’t done much wrong but seemingly can’t get near the starting eleven.

It will be fascinating to see who Robinson selects at the back next week (and by “fascinating” I mean morbidly not intellectually). 

Elsewhere everybody else did fine without really impressing.

Except for Cristian Techera of course who seems to be on one of those goal scoring tears he goes on from time to time and he certainly provided a lesson in finishing for the rest of the team to ponder over the next few days.

No doubt we’ll hear a lot about how this team has once again shown “character” in coming back from a deficit and no doubt everybody will ignore the cold hard truth that real character is displayed by not going behind in the first place.

That reacting to events is so much easier than initiating them and that this series of Pyrrhic ties have blasted away the foundations of the season.

Robinson did indeed mention “character” with almost his first words of his post-game question and answer session.

But  more interesting was how he revealed how aware he is of the quite specific criticisms aimed at his team and coaching style and the manner in which he discussed the possibility of ever getting a 1-0 win ever again.

For Robinson speaks of 1-0 wins the way other people speak with time-stained wistfulness of the charms of the long-lost love who will forever remain untainted by the scars of familiarity or the passage of time.

It’s clear every fibre of his being is yearning to return to the carefree days of two genuine defensive midfielders, the sunlit afternoons where a lone striker battled insurmountable odds and those half-remembered, half-imagined evenings where two central defenders headed away cross after cross after cross.

If he does leave the club at some time this season perhaps his biggest regret will be that he abandoned (or was forced to abandon) the one footballing tactic he genuinely believes in?

That would be quite poignant in a way,

And nothing gets crowds flocking to football games more than the possibility of poignancy (or “PoP” as it’s known to all those who follow advanced stats).

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-5.5, Franklin-4.5, de Jong-5.5, Waston-5, Ghazal-3.5, Teibert-5.5, Felipe-6, Davies-5, Reyna-6, Techera-7*, Kamara-4

Vancouver Whitecaps: Shea Stadium

The release of the MLS Player’s Salary details this week provided a perfect storm of confirmation bias for fans of the Whitecaps.

For they now knew they had an ownership group who weren’t interested in keeping up with the new spending levels in MLS and a coach who was more than happy to use that lack of ambition as an excuse for the unimaginative way his team played week after week.

And, for the majority of the game, the visit of the Houston Dynamo did nothing other than confirm the arrival of said storm.

The Whitecaps struggled to play any kind of coherent football, missed any half chances that came their way and conceded to a nicely constructed move only to grab a scrappy goal in return just before half-time.

Those of us who wondered if Vancouver would build on that late goal were left disappointed as we simply got more of the same disjointed attacks and half-hearted flurries forward.

But then, without about twenty minutes to go, Juarez and Reyna came on to the field and out of nowhere the Whitecaps looked as though they were actually interested in playing some decent football and actually wanted to score a goal.

A previously lifeless Davies suddenly looked a threat and a previously frustrated Felipe suddenly started playing passes in dangerous areas.

For for the first time in a long time the Vancouver Whitecaps were almost fun to watch.

Obviously they missed all of their gilt-edged chances and conceded a late goal and even a very, very late Waston equalizer couldn’t hide the fact that a home tie against Houston isn’t going to turn around any kind of slump.

But let’s hope those twenty minutes somehow convince the coach that actively trying to score goals isn’t that bad an idea at home and that playing some kind of football along the turf isn’t really the highfalutin madness he sometimes seems to think it is.

Will he send out a more attacking lineup against San Jose on Wednesday evening?

We interrupt this blog to bring you some thoughts from the following morning.

In his post-game presser Robinson spoke of how he asked his team to player quicker at half-time and how he was pleased with the way in which the fans got behind the team.

Let’s assume he realizes (or somebody tells him) that those two events are not unrelated and that playing on the front foot at home can often be a very effective strategy (especially against a very poor road team).

Imagine a world where the Whitecaps try to win a game from the get go at BC Place? Can such a wondrous place exist?

Perhaps the most perplexing thing about the aftermath of that game though is that we are still nowhere close to knowing what the best eleven for this team is.

There are those within the Whitecaps organization who will opine that it really doesn’t make any difference who is on the field, such is the flatly balanced ability of all in the squad, but it really does.

A team can’t find coherence if it’s constantly being switched around to keep everybody happy or if the coach is far too frequently reacting to the last game or the last game but one.

From a supporter’s point of view the best case scenario right now is that the players who can somehow break out of Robinson’s tactical passivity all get to start and that means the likes of Davies, Reyna and Felipe.

Those tantalizing glimpses of pleasant football we saw on Friday evening need to be converted in to something so much more from here on in.

Will Robinson encourage that kind of play against San Jose on Wednesday evening?

We now return you to your previous blog.

Almost certainly not, but we can at least dream.

Finally a special shout out to Brek Shea (a Designated Player and the second highest earner on the Whitecaps) who produced a startling cameo in which he missed the easiest chance to score a goal in the history of humanity before cleverly setting up Houston for their second goal with a nice cross field pass.

That’s efficiency right there.

Time for your Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Rowe-6, de Jong-5.5, Franklin-6, Aja-5.5, Waston-6*, Felipe-5.5, Ghazal-5, Ibini-4, Davies-5.5, Blondell-5, Kamara-5 (Jaurez-6, Reyna-6, Shea-2)

Vancouver Whitecaps: That’s What Gets Results

It’s hard to know if the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Friday evening was a genuinely entertaining game or if it’s just a case of it simply being better than the turgid fare previously on offer.

Whatever the case the Whitecaps won and that should at least be something to build on.

So let’s ignore (for now) Carl Robinson’s increasingly bizarre compulsion to talk down the quality of his players and look at what went right.

Yes! A look at the Whitecaps that accentuates the positive!

(Apart from those previous digs about turgid football and Carl Robinson obviously. And there will be a few negative side comments to come as well but other than that….)

Jordon Mutch and Nicolas Mezquida both did well in the number ten role.

Robinson is never really going to be happy with a creative player in that position so having someone who will harry the opposition and still operate with an attack minded focus works well.

It also worked well in Columbus which was probably Vancouver’s best performance of the season so far.

But if Mutch’s injury keeps him out for a period of time then Mezquida doesn’t have the overall quality to fill the role on a full time basis and Reyna currently has neither the form or discipline to do it either.

And from what we’ve seen of Felipe he isn’t a player who can build his game around pressing.

Which leaves a problem.

Could Blondell play there? Probably but it would limit his ability to get behind a defence. Teibert? To a degree I guess but it would seem cruel to move him out of the central midfield during a period in which he’s playing some of his best football.

Hurtado? No. Juarez? That seems a stretch.

Spolier Alert! I’m not going to come up with a satisfactory answer here because I don’t think there is one. But chances are we’ll see either Reyna or Blondell trying to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear of tactical rigidity.

There was more good news with the performance of Aly Ghazal.

The Egyptian isn’t an obvious “look how much I care” kind of guy but his reaction to having his bouncing shot saved and his collapse to the turf when the final whistle went spoke louder than words.

Far too many people within the club are all too eager to talk the talk and far too few ever really manage to walk the walk.

Having Ghazal once again become a regular in the middle of the field should help with that.

And let’s not forget how well the two new fullbacks played.

Neither Franklin nor Levis looked out of place and the only shame is they are fighting for a place with a young player in the form of Jake Nerwinski.

Could it be that the Whitecaps should have put more faith in youth much earlier on?

That constantly signing players who are “good in the locker room” simply results in high turnover and low morale?

And it could be that Robinson is far more comfortable communicating with young players who are willing to listen to their first coach than more experienced players who have other templates to compare against?

It’s certainly true that every mercurial player who has flown into Robinson’s orbit has been left looking saturnine sooner or later.

Not sure how that problem gets solved this season without the kind of wholesale starting eleven decisions that simply aren’t going to be made and, in the end, the club will once again pay the price for recruiting players based on availability rather than suitability.

That didn’t really end up being all that positive at all did it?

Three points!

Vancouver Whitecaps: Turning Point or Turning in Circles?

Well that was better.

It was still not great and there are probably more questions than answers to come but the 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake at BC Place on Friday evening takes at least some of the pressure off the Vancouver Whitecaps.

You could see how much it meant to the players at the end of the game and it probably meant even more to the coaching staff.

The first half was a poor quality but open and even moderately entertaining game where both teams looked capable of breaching the opposition defence.

But in the second half the Whitecaps recovered from a tentative opening ten minutes to gradually grow into being the most dangerous team.

It still took a penalty from Cristian Techera (who, somewhat hilariously, then got sent off for a second yellow card after removing his shirt to celebrate) but a burst of pace from Alphonso Davies gave Anthony Blondell a tap in for his first goal as a Whitecap and from then on Salt Lake never really looked like getting back in to the game.

So what questions remain?

Well, Blondell missed chances and got caught offside way too often but his style of play meant Vancouver weren’t reliant on the long ball to the big man up front.

True it was strange that Salt Lake persisted with a high line given how often they were breached but the return of Kamara could well lure the Whitecaps back to the security of the punt forward.

Felipe was left out of the team and the Whitecaps didn’t miss him.

Jordon Mutch was good in the number ten role in the first half, always looking for the right pass even if it didn’t always come off and Nicolas Mezquida provided energy as his replacement and won the crucial penalty.

It looked like the Mutch injury was fairly serious so does Robinson just slot Felipe into that attacking midfield role rather than the defensive position he seems to have preferred him in?

Felipe hasn’t been that effective an attacking threat when played further forward.

And what does he do with the returning Juarez and Reyna? They don’t deserve to start given their form and their red cards but how long can they be left on the sidelines before they become restless?

But the big question is what does Carl Robinson take from this.

Is this his road to Damascus moment when he suddenly realizes that getting the BC Place crowd behind the team is better than playing a style of football that kills the atmosphere stone dead?

All the indications from his tenure so far is that he’ll simply see this win as vindication of his coaching style and that nothing of any substance will change in the long run.

That would be a shame for so many reasons and not least because enjoying a game of football is a much better way to spend the evening than not enjoying one.

It really is that simple.

Time for Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Marinovic-6, Franklin-6, Waston-5.5, Aja-5.5, Levis-5.5, Ghazal-6*, Teibert-5.5, Mutch-6, Shea-5, Techera-4, Blondell-5.5 (Mezquida-6, Davies-6)