Stick or twist for the Vancouver Whitecaps?

Like many of those who attended the disappointing 1-1 tie with the San Jose Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon I tried to take the edge off the old familiar weltschmerz by wandering into the recently opened casino/hotel complex/urban resort situated next to BC Place.

Somewhat surprisingly the clang of rampant capitalism, the glare of neon and the painted on smile of phony bonhomie did little to assuage the existential dread that seeped deeper and deeper into what remained of my soul.

I did win a dollar fifty on the “Neptune’s Quest” slots though so the detour wasn’t a complete waste of time.

But as I was leaving, taking care to avoid looking too intensely into the cold reflectionless eyes of my fellow thrill seekers lest the combined negativity force each of us to implode like the collapsing stars that created us, my thoughts turned to the final game of the Vancouver Whitecaps season.

A suddenly crucial visit to the Portland Timbers .

If you’re reading this then you probably already know the permutations for that game but let’s recap for those at the back.

A win or a tie and the Whitecaps avoid the one game “play in” game and go straight to a two leg series with a week of rest as an added bonus.

But if they lose (and the Sounders beat Colorado in Seattle) then it’s two days of rest, the “play in” game and barely any time to breathe if they win that one.

And the question for Carl Robinson isn’t whether he gambles on the lineup for the visit to Portland, it’s more what he thinks the gamble actually is.

Play his first choice eleven and avoid defeat and it’s all gravy.

But play his first choice eleven and lose then suddenly that gravy is a very different kettle of fish because he now has a tired team going into a genuine “must win” game against an opponent who will probably be far happier to be there than Vancouver will.

And is it inconceivable that a Kendall Waston, a Yordy Reyna (or just about anybody) could pick up a red card in the heat of a season defining local derby?

No it isn’t.

So suddenly the coach could be facing a game he has to win with a squad without rest and at least one key player missing due to suspension.

So does he switch things around and field a slightly weaker team in Portland?

He’s done such a thing already this season.

In Seattle to disastrous effect, in Dallas to triumphant effect and if he does just that and it pays off then that aforementioned kettle of fish is still different but in a “Catch of the Day” kind of a way rather than a “That should be thrown back immediately” kind of a way.

The smart money would still be on Robinson fielding his best team, but both he and us will be watching the game with even more trepidation than usual because the chances are that whichever team comes away from a bruising derby game beaten, bloody and bowed will be staggering into the first few minutes of Wednesday’s game still not quite knowing where they are or how they even got there.

And no “urban resort’ in the world can put a positive spin on that (or on anything really).

A familiar story for the Vancouver Whitecaps

To be fair to Carl Robinson he has solved one long standing issue with his Whitecaps team this season; they no longer view conceding the first goal as necessarily fatal to their chances in any game.

But an issue he has very definitely not solved is how to beat a team who come to BC Place with the main intention of sitting back and stifling Vancouver.

On Sunday afternoon the Portland Timbers were decimated by injuries, suspensions and international call ups but still managed to leave the building with all three points after a fairly simple 2-1 win.

They were helped out massively in that regard by the Whitecaps starting the game seemingly confident in the knowledge that simply turning up would be enough to secure the win and that displaying any kind of urgency would really be quite unnecessary.

They paid the price for that attitude by conceding the inevitable goal which gave the visitors a sense of belief that could, and should, have been snuffed out of them by a home team attacking with gusto from the get go.

Miraculously the Whitecaps levelled just before half-time through the obligatory set-piece and there was suddenly the hope that such an unlikely reprieve would tempt the coach into making the changes needed during the break.

He didn’t of course and his side came out with the exact same plan in the second half and promptly conceded again and that, effectively, was all she wrote.

A couple more set-piece scrambles offered a glimmer of hope but nothing more and eventually the Whitecaps capitulated to a Cascadian rival with barely a whimper.

So what went wrong besides the intangibles of “attitude” and “heart”?

Well the major tactic on the day seemed to be to hit long balls for the lone striker to run on to and mostly that lone striker didn’t get anywhere near the ball because he was surrounded by at least three Portland defenders.

But even if he did get the ball he couldn’t do anything with it because he was surrounded by at least three Portland defenders.

Fortunately though Carl Robinson had a plethora of attacking options to utilize from his bench and he used these to good effect.

Just kidding, he may well have used those options but in ways that became more and more mysterious as the game wore on.

First it was Reyna to replace Mezquida in the exact same role that wasn’t working anyway, then Davies for Tchani in the middle, then Shea for Montero which moved Bolaños  into the middle, Davies out wide and put Shea up front.

And through all those changes the Whitecaps still managed to leave their lone striker isolated from the rest of the team.

Shea as centre-forward is a terrible idea anyway but if he is going to play there then there has to be somebody near him to pick up any knock downs. I mean, there won’t be any knock downs because Shea isn’t a centre forward but at least that feels vaguely like a plan.

There was a telling moment in the second-half when both teams had a player down injured resulting in a lengthy stoppage.

Portland coach Caleb Porter used that time to call a group of his players over and detail what he wanted from them for the rest of the game. Carl Robinson decided that the time would be better spent complaining to the fourth official.

Hard to know which approach would help a team more.

Once again the Whitecaps have wasted an opportunity to give themselves some breathing space in the playoff race and now face three tough road games before they are back at BC Place in the middle of August.

The most concerning thing of all though is that while we’ve all been looking forward to having a full squad of fit players available we didn’t stop to think whether the coach would know how to use those players to good effect.

The signs from Sunday are that he probably doesn’t.

One step forward and one step back as always with this team.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 6*, Nerwinski-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6-Laba-6, Tchani-5.5, Bolaños-6, Techera-4.5, Mezquida-5, Montero-5 (Reyna-5.5, Davies-5, Shea-5.5) 







Whitecaps fall flat in Portland

Let’s start with the traditional caveat that preseason games should always be taken with more than just a pinch of salt.

But even so the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers on Wednesday evening was so replete with familiar issues from last season that it probably should have been preceded by some kind of trigger warning for long-suffering fans.

So in the spirit of the performance itself let’s just throw some random thoughts at the wall and see if any of them make any sense whatsoever.

There’s nothing wrong with sending out a team to play defensive football; many of the world’s best coaches do exactly that.

But “defensive” doesn’t just mean sitting back and letting the opposition attack. It means a level of organization in both the defence and midfield and it means at least some degree of connection between the midfield and the forward line.

There was none of that against the Timbers.

As was the case last year the Whitecaps looked like a team that had simply been sent out to play rather than one that was being coached or managed.

In other words, players were playing as individuals rather than as a team with Laba charging around the middle, Hurtado isolated up front, the full backs offering little in the way of attacking threat or defensive cover, the wide players offering the same, Barnes playing in a position that clearly doesn’t suit him and Parker and Waston failing to function as a unit.

Consequently once the first goal went in it was clear that the players lost any faith or confidence in what they were doing.

That still doesn’t explain the appalling sense of stasis that emanated from all quarters however with the defence content to stand and admire Portland’s build up play and the forwards equally content to stand and admire when one of their own had the ball.

It’s one of the basic tenets of football that movement is key to success so it’s hard to know if the lack of it was down to players either not knowing where they should be moving to or simply a lack of interest in doing so.

At the end of the game Timbers coach Caleb Porter opined that “In some ways the game was too easy” to be a useful work out for his players and if that isn’t as damning a comment as could be made then I don’t know what is.

The counterpoint to all this negativity is that both Montero and Bolaños were missing and they are undoubtedly the team’s two quality players, but that absence of quality should have made the rest of the team concentrate on the basics even more.

The first game of the Champion’s League tie is less than a week away and a good result there would change everything but, as of now, the Whitecaps look to be as adrift and as rudderless as they were last year.