The Whitecaps season so far (the midfield)

At the beginning of the season the quintessential (maybe even existential) question surrounding the Whitecaps midfield was “How would Gershon Koffie be replaced?”.

Koffie’s leaving may have been at Carl Robinson’s behest but the Ghanaian had been an essential bulwark in helping to create the best defensive record in the league in 2015.

Robinson’s answer has been to (mostly) play Pedro Morales in the deep lying role alongside Matias Laba and that approach has (mostly) worked.

Morales isn’t the defensive liability he might have been and playing deeper has granted him the freedom to influence games far more than he does when playing just behind the forward line.

It could just be that a fit Pedro Morales will be effective wherever he plays (as he was on the left against Toronto) but it seems that deep lying position not only suits his own game but offers the rest of the team more flexibility in how they lineup for any particular game.

Nobody could claim that the loss of a purely defensive minded midfielder hasn’t impacted the team in terms of goals conceded however and so perhaps there needs to be an examination of just how Laba is playing in the new set up.

Last year Laba’s attacking influence was somewhat underrated if only because he wasn’t so much involved in forward thrusts as initiating them; not through a clever pass or a well-timed run but simply because he frequently broke up opposition passing moves and so created the perfect opportunity for the counterattack.

His hustle and bustle style of play was ideally suited to a side happy to concede possession, especially with the comfort zone of Koffie alongside him.

This year there may have been an expectation that Laba would be a more static presence in front of the back four; more of a watchdog than a hunter.

But that hasn’t been the case and even though (after a rocky start) he has settled down to being just as good as last season at breaking up plays that may not be quite what Vancouver need from their only defensive midfielder.

Maybe Laba can’t play any other way? Maybe Robinson doesn’t want him to play any other way? But a defence that has been so vulnerable could well benefit from the constant presence of a more reactive Laba than the occasional presence of his proactive alter ego.

Elsewhere Russell Teibert has been Russell Teibert; reliable enough without ever looking capable of being the difference maker he needs to be to become a regular first team player and Kianz Froese’s season was thrown off the rails by a suspension and a concussion and he now seems to be well down the pecking order when it comes to first team minutes in MLS.

New signing Andrew Jacobson has been “as advertised” but may well find that his minutes in midfield are surpassed by his time spent in central defence given the plethora of suspensions, injuries and mishaps that have become the calling card of that particular section of the team.

And perhaps the biggest disappointment in the middle of the park has been Cristian Techera.

Last season Techera was a mid-season breath of fresh air as he proved to be just about the only Whitecaps with a genuine eye for the half chance; where others were back on their heels Techera was on the front foot always ready to pounce on an opposition mistake.

This season though he has reacted to every chance with diffidence and deliberation; always taking one or two touches too many and though that’s probably a confidence thing for “The Bug” rather than a feature a goal needs to come soon before that confidence drains away entirely.

And while none of the Whitecaps wide players are spectacularly good at helping out in defence Techera has been noticeably poor in that area too and he now has the second-half of the season to prove that Robinson’s faith in him wasn’t misjudged.

The good news though is that the arrival of Christian Bolaños has been a huge upgrade for the team and although the Costa Rican may never win any “Look at me I’m trying really hard” awards he has settled down to be exactly the kind of player the newly redesigned Whitecaps needed; capable of creating and scoring goals while also being able to slow the game down to his own pace when required.

There have been tantalising glimpses that he could form a formidable partnership with Blas Pérez if given the chance but, for now, when Bolaños and Morales are on the pitch together the Whitecaps have a genuinely enjoyable and watchable midfield.

Who would have thought it?

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the defence)

You could probably make an argument that David Ousted was personally culpable for at least three or four of the goals he’s conceded this season and that those mistakes have cost the Whitecaps valuable points (the games against NYCFC and Montreal in particular).

But the other side of the ledger is so stacked in favour of the Great Dane (Note to self: brilliantly funny nickname. Well done! Maybe try to get in something about bacon too, “saving their bacon” that sort of thing) that those mistakes quickly fade into insignificance.

Not only has he produced a string of magnificent saves which have been the highlight of many games, but he’s also had to play behind a defence desperately struggling to find any semblance of the solidity of last season.

A committed contrarian may claim that one of Ousted’s main roles is to marshal and organize said defence and as such he has failed, but such a task has been akin to herding a clowder of cats for much of the year as those defenders seem more intent on recreating the making of “Apocalypse Now” rather than simply kicking the ball away from their own goal.

But Ousted’s value to the team goes beyond his performances on the field because he’s also the only player (and probably the only person in the whole organization) willing to go on the record to say that the Whitecaps played really badly in any given game.

It’s sometimes easy to underestimate how important it is to most fans that some acknowledgment of a poor performance is made and Ousted readily provides that conduit.

It was almost certainly Carl Robinson’s plan to start the 2016 season with Jordan Smith as the regular right back with Fraser Aird filling in occasionally as he transitioned from winger to defender but Smith’s pre-season performances were so off kilter that the Flying Scot (Note to self: you’ve only gone and done it again with the nickname thing! Maybe throw in something about kilt and kilter to really finish it off?) was given the nod on opening day.

Aird had a nightmare opening forty five minutes but from that moment on his progress was both perceptible and impressive; still not immune to occasionally being caught out of position but not a constant liability and also more than capable of providing attacking thrust it was only a red card and an injury that allowed the door to open up again for Smith.

And, to be fair to the Costa Rican, he grabbed that opportunity with at least one hand.

After not even being selected for the game in Portland he was in the starting eleven at home to Houston and did enough to suggest that Aird will face a little more competition for the right back slot than he has so far.

Let’s not get carried away though because Smith wasn’t great (the Dynamo goal came from his side of the field) but he did get forward with purpose and he did at least look as though he had been on a football field before.

The most worrying aspect of the campaign is surely that it’s shaping up to be “The Year of Disappointment” when it comes to the Whitecaps younger players with the horrendous performance in Ottawa being the signature example.

And perhaps nobody has personified that disappointment quite as much as Sam Adekugbe.

At the beginning of 2015 it seemed to be a coin toss between Adekugbe and Jordan Harvey as to who would be the regular starting left back, but by season’s end Harvey had decisively won that battle and hasn’t looked like backing down this year either.

If anything Harvey has improved and has easily been the best defender on the team while Adekugbe’s occasional appearances have been marked by indecision and an overall lack of focus that belie just how important this season is to the youngster (who isn’t actually that young in footballing terms).

And so to the “central defence” which has at least fulfilled the first part of that description without really making many inroads into the second.

Let’s play a word association game with the personnel involved.

Waston- “Frustrated”

Parker- “Erratic”

Kah- “Yikes”

Jacobson- “Hmm?”

Delving deeper into those responses we see that Waston is frustrated because he hasn’t adapted to either the more open style of play employed by Robinson or the MLS clampdown on tackling and that frustration has resulted in a a tiresome and eternal circle of yellow cards and suspensions.

Parker has been okay but there’s an element of sophomore slump about his season; particularly a propensity to hit a careless pass or two and a lack of composure from time to time.

Kah has surely reached the stage where he is only employed as an absolute last resort rather than the fairly reliable go to guy he was last season.

And Jacobson has been the most solid central defender which is somewhat ironic given that he doesn’t really want to play in that position anyway.

As things stand the best central defensive partnership looks to be Parker and Jacobson and there’s just the chance that circumstance and the stars have aligned to give that pair a solid run of games together over the next few weeks and they could coalesce into a very effective unit.

And so we bid farewell to the Whitecaps defence and watch in amusement as they wander haplessly into the door frame before slipping on a carelessly discarded banana skin and falling head first into that unfortunately positioned bucket of iced water.

Next time out it’s the midfield; a (mostly) happier tale entirely.

 

 

Whitecaps enter the MLS break with a whimper

Only time will tell if the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo at BC Place on Saturday afternoon will turn out to be a point gained or two points dropped, but a home tie against the worst team in the Conference can at least be described as “less than optimal”.

True the Whitecaps were without a number of key starters but that doesn’t excuse the lethargy with which they began the game and it came as no surprise when the Dynamo took the lead in the twentieth minute thanks to some nice build up play and some sloppy defending from the home team.

Vancouver didn’t really wake up until the fortieth minute when referee Drew Fischer decided to eject both Alex and Pedro Morales for an altercation that should have been a yellow card for each at most.

There’s nothing more tiresome than constantly harping on about refereeing standards in MLS but too many officials resemble those teachers we all had in our school days who couldn’t control the kids through gaining their respect but instead always went for the nuclear option of meaningless shouting or undeserved detention or the stick (depending on your age and your geography).

This of course simply lessened their authority in the same way that instantly reaching for the red card does to a referee.

But at least the Whitecaps came out with fire in their bellies for the second half and Octavio Rivero hit a fine shot into the top corner just seven minutes in and suddenly it felt as though Vancouver would surge to victory.

But then nothing.

They allowed the Dynamo to settle back into the game and seemed bafflingly content with picking up a point and maybe sneaking something on one of their forays forward without ever really committing to those forays with either belief or man power.

Maybe Carl Robinson was so unsure about his patched up back four that he felt the need to keep two defensive midfielders on the pitch for virtually the entire game, but having six defensive minded players against a team who hadn’t picked up a single point on the road was unnecessarily cautious.

It also meant that a huge gap opened between the Whitecaps forwards and the rest of the team with nobody capable of making use of the space that existed between those channels.

The Whitecaps did have such a player but he stayed on the bench until the ninetieth minute of the game.

It’s hard to know what Nicolas Mezquida needs to do to get more meaningful minutes but Saturday’s game was crying out for exactly his type of player; full of energy, can play centrally and just behind the forwards and so drag opposing defenders out of position.

And even in his three minute cameo he helped to inject more urgency into the attack than had been evident up to that point but all to no avail.

One further thought before we consign this game to the history books.

For the second consecutive game the Whitecaps played the first half at half throttle and then came out in the second all guns blazing and Robinson himself admitted this was an issue that needed to be addressed.

Maybe that issue is exacerbated by his policy of always giving the starting eleven a chance to redeem themselves in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the second half?

If players know they won’t be withdrawn at half time (or sooner) then they are always playing in the comfort zone (subconsciously at least) and the performance against Houston was a perfect chance for the coach to take them out of that comfort zone by making a change as early as the first thirty minutes.

If it’s not working then fix it as quickly as possible and let the players know that they will be held accountable for it not working.

Here then are your Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Teibert-6, Laba-7*, Morales-6, Techera-5, Manneh-5, Rivero-6 (Hurtado-5)

You can follow me on Twitter: Twitter.com/squadplayer

 

 

 

All hands on deck for the Whitecaps

Back in 1903 the British government lent the Cunard shipping line a significant sum of money to allow them to build the passenger ship The Lusitania.

The main conditions of the loan (worth about one billion dollars when time and inflation are factored in) was that the ship be fast enough to reclaim the Atlantic crossing record for the British (which it did) and that it be designed in a way that meant it could readily be converted to a battleship in the event of war breaking out.

It so happened that one of the main specifications for battleships at the time was that the coal used to power them be stored in two tunnels on either side of the hull; these tunnels of coal acted as an extra layer of protection against shells fired from enemy boats.

A perfectly logical and effective piece of design which saved many a life in the days when warfare was conducted solely above the waterline.

The advent of the submarine however, and more specifically the German U-Boat, meant that ships were now coming under attack from below the waterline and suddenly those very same tunnels were not only susceptible to damage but also exacerbated the danger as they quickly filled up with water and made any damaged vessel almost fatally unstable.

What was once the first and strongest line of defence suddenly became the area of greatest weakness.

Last season Kendall Waston was clearly the Whitecaps best defensive stalwart, largely because the team were set up to guide opponents to cross the ball as frequently as possible thanks mainly to the two defensive midfielders forcing all forward forays out wide.

The Whitecaps were ideally set up to deal with attacks from above the waterline.

By the end of last year there were already signs that teams had figured out that the low cross was the way to go and this season with the effective removal of one of those defensive middlemen opponents are suddenly finding themselves not only able to hit low crosses but also to run directly at the Whitecaps defence with much more ease.

Nobody has suffered from this change more than Kendall Waston as the previous towering presence now finds himself having to deal with far more threat at his feet than at his head.

This leads to him getting too close to his man for fear of being turned and this getting too close leads to yellow cards which lead to frustration which leads to unnecessarily hot headed challenges.

Waston just isn’t built to deal with attacks coming from beneath the waterline.

So what to do?

In a way Carl Robinson has had his mind made up for him. Christian Dean is still injured, Pa Modou Kah is a Russian roulette of a defender who can only be pressed into action in acute emergencies and Waston himself is out due to both international duty and a likely suspension.

So step forward Andrew Jacobson.

Jacobson made it clear when he joined Vancouver that he preferred to play in the midfield role, but not only do desperate times require desperate measures it could well be that the American is exactly what the Whitecaps need in a central defender.

For while the rest of the team has been reimagined as a much more possession based entity the central defence has been immune to any such change.

Granted Tim Parker is capable of hitting a good pass, but he also capable of hitting a bad one too and Waston and Kah provide either power without any attempted precision or attempted precision without any reliability.

So a player who normally plays in midfield may be the ideal addition; capable of finding the likes of Morales and Bolaños with greater ease and even step forward himself from time to time to help set attacks in motion.

It’s possible such a player could take the Whitecaps to a further level in the development of their passing game.

The nature of MLS makes finding any degree of consistency almost impossible at this stage of the season unfortunately but as the year unfolds it may turn out that Waston’s prolonged absence defines this season almost as much as his impressive presence defined last.

SPOILER ALERT- The Lusitania was torpedoed by a U-Boat in 1915 causing 1,198 passengers and crew to lose their lives.

Perhaps the biggest mistake any General can make is to try and fight the current battle based on what worked in the previous one, no matter how successful that campaign proved to be.

MLS: No time to think

Of the twenty coaches currently working in Major league Soccer a full seventeen of them got their first top level job in the league itself.

Maybe we can put that down to insularity, maybe we can put that down to penny pinching by the clubs or maybe we can put it down the relative lack of success of coaches who arrive in MLS from elsewhere (Hello Ruud Gullit, pleased to meet you Carlos de los Cobos) but whatever the reason if a young coach wants to cut his teeth in the professional game then MLS is a pretty good place to start.

Or is it? (Ooh! See what I did there?).

MLS may be a league unto itself in terms of the complexity and quirks of roster rules and player acquisition mechanisms but at times it also feels like a league unto itself in terms of how little emphasis is placed upon tactics on the field.

Earlier this week the Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni said

“In this league the parity is such that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. The edge that you get in this league is more psychological than it is anything tactical, and when you believe that you’re a good team, and you start to play to that standard, other teams perceive you as that team.”

Mastroeni has taken the Rapids to the top of the standings this season so on one level it’s hard to argue with the thrust of his argument but on another level it’s hard to imagine such an assertion being accepted without comment in many other leagues around the world.

There’s certainly no harm in saying that a team has to believe in what they are doing and, even more specifically, believe in what the coach is asking them to do but when the foundation for that belief is belief itself then we’re wandering dangerously into the area of magical thinking.

What will Pablo do when his side suffer through a couple of bad results? Try to make them believe more?

Fair enough I’m taking him at his most literal word here because I’m sure he and his coaching staff do have some kind of plan going into games, it’s just that he doesn’t seem to think that plan is as important as the confirmation bias he hopes will make the opposition think the Rapids are better than they actually are.

And there was a similar air around the Whitecaps last season as Carl Robinson stubbornly refused to move away from the 4-2-3-1 formation which worked so well for two thirds of the year but ultimately failed the team at the business end of the season.

And while stubbornness may be one of the most crucial attributes every football coach needs it’s only valuable when mixed with the right amount of objectivity with regard to reacting to actual results on the field.

So roll on to the 2016 season and the big question wasn’t really how the Whitecaps new acquisitions would adapt to Major League Soccer, it was more along the lines of how Carl Robinson would adapt to the new acquisitions.

And, after a hesitant start, the signs are looking pretty good.

Even when playing 4-2-3-1 Robinson has mostly played Pedro Morales as one of the ‘2’ alongside Laba and thus turning an inherently defensive formation into a far more attacking lineup, but Saturday’s 4-3 win over Toronto kind of felt like a sea change in the development of both the coach and the team.

Social Media and predicting starting elevens is pretty much the old “an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards will eventually create the collected works of Shakespeare” given life but even the great and the good of Twitter et al probably struggled to foresee a 4-4-2 lineup that featured Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado as the two forwards designed to burn a hole through the Toronto central defence, with Pedro Morales in a wide left role which simultaneously moved him away from  the heart of the action while also freeing him from the attentions of both Will Johnson and Michael Bradley.

It didn’t work perfectly (three goals conceded is never perfect) but it still felt like a victory earned for a team based on tactical tweaks rather than TFC’s “give the ball to Giovinco and see what happens” approach.

Whether this flexibility will be a template for the season remains to be seen, but at least the likes of Bolaños, Pérez, Kudo and even a reinvigorated Hurtado offer the potential for Robinson to spring the occasional surprise on the opposition manager.

So what does any of this tell us about the value of being a young coach in Major League Soccer?

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, MLS coaches are not exactly sought after by other countries and no doubt there’s an element of shortsightedness to that disinterest but there must also be the sense that the skills required to coach an MLS team aren’t directly transferable to the rest of the world.

“So Mr. Vanney you’re interested in the Aston Villa job? What are your plans?”

“I’d just buy one brilliant player and let him win all the games for us”

“Next!”

“Hi Mr. Mastroeni. Your plans for Villa?”

“I think once we start playing well we will carry on playing well and other teams will then think we are really good.”

“Welcome to Aston Villa Mr. Moyes.”

I guess the point of all this is to say that while soccer in North America may be taking steps to improve the development of young players, MLS itself is almost inherently designed to stunt the growth of young coaches.

Maybe Carl Robinson has recognized that fact and has decided that a) there are genuine on the field advantages to be gained through tactical flexibility and b) he will learn nothing about himself as a coach by simply accepting that what’s good enough to get into the playoffs is good enough and that’s the end of the story.

It could be that the most fascinating part of this whole season will turn out to be witnessing how the coach continues to grow into the role and how that shapes the Whitecaps as a whole.

(Or it could just be that having a fit and in form Pedro Morales is all that really matters?).

 

 

Whitecaps win seven goal thriller in Toronto

There are times when “It just made no sense” is about a good of a summation as you can make about any game of football and the Whitecaps’ 4-3 win in Toronto pretty much fits that criteria admirably but, for the sake of something to write, let’s see if we can’t at least make an effort to bring some semblance of order to all of that chaos.

With his hand forced on a number of lineup changes Carl Robinson went with an unexpectedly innovative starting eleven. He paired Russell Teibert with Matias Laba in the centre of midfield and he played Bolaños and Morales as the creative wide midfielders with Hurtado and Manneh as the lightning quick forwards capable of hitting TFC on the break.

And, from an attacking point for view, the plan worked like a charm.

Manneh was involved in every goal (scoring two and setting up Morales and Bolaños for the others) and Hurtado proved himself to be a useful foil as one of the attacking two.

The only question is whether Robinson looks at this game and thinks his team as a whole were defensively unsound or whether he thinks every goal conceded was the result of a specific circumstance; a piece of Giovinco brilliance, a Bolaños error, bad marking from a corner.

It’s hard to be a critical of a team that scored four goals on the road however and the coach is in the enviable/slightly awkward position of having a number of ways of setting up his side for the next game in Portland.

Does he stick with what (just about) worked in Toronto? Or does he revert to the more traditional 4-2-3-1 once Octavio Rivero returns to the fold?

Only time will answer that question but what he did learn from this game is that Russell Teibert is capable of being an effective partner to Laba, that Pedro Morales can be just as dangerous playing as a wide midfielder as he is in the deep lying playmaker role and that Kekuta Manneh really is a confident and composed finisher on his day.

Foundations to be built upon or the ephemeral permutations of a one off game?

Probably the latter and, in truth, we learned as little about the players as Robinson did from that mixture of circus and Kyōgen but it did feel as though we were seeing the coach himself become more confident in adapting his team to fit the specific circumstances.

And that fact alone may be even more important than earning three wins in the space of just one week.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-5, Harvey-6, Kah-6, Parker-6, Laba-7, Teibert-7*, Bolaños-6, Morales-7, Hurtado-6, Manneh-7

You can follow me on Twitter: Twitter.com/squadplayer

 

Whitecaps find the cutting edge to down Timbers

There are times when a team finds its best first eleven through careful planning and there are times when it finds it through happenstance and there was probably a little bit of each in how Carl Robinson arrived at the starting lineup that beat the Portland Timbers 2-1 at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

He was certainly keen to continue with Pedro Morales in the deeper role but an injury to Octavio Rivero and a suspension for Kekuta Manneh meant that the players in front of Morales were all of a certain type; they all prefer the ball to be played to their feet.

And lo and behold the Whitecaps began the game playing by far their best football of the season so far with both Morales and Bolaños pulling the creative strings and the only real concern was (once again) the number of chances being spurned.

That concern elevated to Code Red when Nat Borchers gave the visitors an undeserved lead in the thirty fourth minute and there was suddenly the danger that the Whitecaps’ whole season could lurch even more off course than it already was.

We’ve all sat through this movie before of course; Vancouver start well, fail to take advantage of that good opening, concede a goal and then struggle to break down a resolute defence.

This time around though they emerged in the second half looking equally as dangerous as the first with Bolaños drifting inside more and so opening up space for Aird to run into and also give the Timbers’ defensive midfielder Diego Chara a little too much to handle.

Ironically both goals relied on the touch of luck the Whitecaps have been missing in front of goal with a deflection from a Portland defender setting up Kudo to fire home from a tight angle only seconds before he was due to be taken off and the Portland keeper Jake Gleeson allowing a floated Bolaños ball to find its way between his legs and into the net.

Good fortune for the Whitecaps but fortune that was well deserved.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their whole performance though was that taking that lead didn’t entice them into the all too familiar “backs to the wall, we have what we hold” style of play and instead they simply carried on passing the ball, carried on moving and carried on creating chances.

It all leaves Carl Robinson with some interesting choices for the Wednesday evening visit of the Chicago Fire.

Masato Kudo probably didn’t do enough to make himself an automatic starter ahead of Rivero but whereas the Uruguayan prefers to play with his back to goal Kudo always wants the final ball to be played in front of him and that puts the opposition backline in a far less comfortable frame of mind while simultaneously removing the easy long pass to Rivero that has been the staple diet of the team for so long. 

Likewise the absence of Manneh takes away the all too tempting (but low percentage) pass over the top of the opposition defence.

No doubt Robinson will say that it’s nice to have these kinds of tough choices but they really are tough choices because he’s had a glimpse of how well his team can play without two players (and two good players) who have been an integral part of the side for a long time now.

Whatever he chooses to do it was clear at the final whistle just how much this win meant to both the players and the coaching staff and the hope now is that a foundation has been laid that can be built upon with the only concern being that the Whitecaps’ two most complete performances of the season have both come in Cascadian derbies.

That’s great on one level but now they need to prove they can produce the same kind of quality and intensity on a warm Wednesday evening against Chicago.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-6, Harvey-6, Waston-6, Parker-6, Laba-7, Morales-7, Bolaños-7*, Techera-6, Mezquida-6, Kudo-6 (Pérez-6, Rivero-6)