Vancouver Whitecaps win the battle in Portland

Anyone who has seen the Bard on the Beach production of Macbeth this summer will no doubt have left the performance with the eternal question about the play circling through their mind.

Is the unfolding tragedy the unstoppable result of the will of malevolent supernatural spirits or is it the result of all too natural human beings latching on to the supernatural to justify their lust for power and glory?

Whatever answer you choose to that conundrum the inevitably of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth destroying themselves and others with every attempt to undo their own destruction makes for compulsive viewing.

And you know what else made for compulsive viewing?

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 victory over the Portland Timbers at Providence Park on Saturday evening.

For weeks now the Whitecaps have seemed to be slowly drifting out of playoff contention and prior to this game it felt as though it may well be the one to make the demise be done quickly but, for the first half at least, Vancouver produced some of their best football of the season.

They were a constant threat on the break against a Timbers team who lacked any real coherence going forward and goals from Kei Kamara and Cristian Techera either side of a Diego Valeri penalty miss gave the Whitecaps a surprisingly deserved two goal cushion to defend in the second half.

There were a number of standout performances in that first forty-five but Aly Ghazal stood out in particular. The Egyptian can be far too erratic with his passing at times but when he is on his game he is exactly the kind of defensive midfielder the team needs; breaking up play and providing the cover the back four has been lacking so often this year.

Praise too for Aaron Maund and Brett Levis who used their appearances as understudies to impress.

The second half though was less impressive.

Carl Robinson pulled his team back further toward their own goal with every substitution, eventually switching to five at the back in a move which only served to upset the solidity of the back four and invite more pressure and when the Timbers were awarded another penalty (“Out damn spot” indeed) which Valeri converted the remainder of the game was the kind of “backs to the wall”, “kick it anywhere”, “what is fair and what is foul?” defending that isn’t sustainable over the long term.

And while there’s something Shakespearean about Robinson finding short term success with the very tactic that is constantly his long term downfall nobody can deny that he is capable of sending out a team that is both bold and resolute when given something to hang on to although they still required something of a charmed life to come away with the three points that keep their regular season still relevant.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this win however was that it was achieved without their two most potent attacking threats.

Neither Alphonso Davies nor Yordy Reyna featured which only serves to emphasise just how deep the squad really can be and the late season renaissance of Brek Shea has offered Robinson an option that wasn’t really there before.

Shea is capable of turning a renaissance into a new Dark Age faster than he can buy a new hat of course and he will no doubt once again become a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the field

The same can be said about the Whitecaps as a whole and it’s impossible to say just who they will be when they play Toronto in the second leg of the Voyageur’s Cup on Wednesday and at home to the New York Red Bulls next Saturday.

Before the Portland game it was clear that Robinson was targeting the cup as the main focus but that Cascadia derby victory may skew his thinking once more.

A win at BC Place followed by two games against the fairly terrible San Jose could make those post-season hopes more corporeal than they have been since it last rained in Vancouver.

For now though what’s done is done and only time will tell if that win in Oregon signifies anything at all.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Marinovic-6, Franklin-5, Waston-6, Maund-6, Levis-6, Ghazal-7*, Felipe-5.5, Shea-6, Techera-5.5, Mezquida-6, Kamara-6.5 (Nerwisnki-6, de Jong-5.5)

Vancouver Whitecaps: So good they scored twice

Now with additional “Hot dog takes” from the day after.

Any game in which Bernie Ibini is in the Vancouver Whitecaps starting eleven can safely be classed as a “I hope we get something but I don’t think we will” kind of game for coach Carl Robinson.

Ibini started in the 2-2 tie against New York City FC but the fact that Robinson made all three of his substitutions by the sixty-eighth minute indicated that he wasn’t quite so laid back about the result as his initial selection suggested.

And, in the end, his approach was able to bring home a fairly valuable point.

At this stage it would be nice to outline just what the thinking was to achieve that reward but, aside from introducing the pace of Davies and Reyna in the second half, that’s pretty hard to do.

Was that a harsh assessment of a point on the road against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference? Possibly.

But we’ve sat through this movie before, or rather, we’ve sat through this scene of the movie before.

The Whitecaps sneak an undeserved win here, a late point there and everybody gets to say “well it wasn’t pretty but it worked” and the coach gets to say how much he loves the character of his players and just about everybody gets to ignore the fact that playing exactly this style of football has led to the Whitecaps limping out of the playoffs every time they manage to get there.

But false positives gleaned from small sample sizes will no doubt continue to be the theme.

Perhaps the real secret lies within ourselves?

There can’t have been many of us watching that game who saw New York score two goals either side of the half-time whistle who didn’t think that was essentially game over.

After all the Whitecaps had produced one shot of note in the first-half (a low Nicolas Mezquida strike from outside the area which gave his side the lead) and had produced absolutely nothing of attacking worth until the final ten minutes of the second half.

Maybe, like us, NYCFC were lulled into complacency and torpor and thus were surprised, like us, to see Erik Hurtado slot home from a Brek Shea cross?

That sentence certainly doesn’t get any more believable no matter how many times you read it out loud but Hurtado has done more this season than Anthony Blondell to earn the right to be the backup striker to Kei Kamara.

Blondell hasn’t set all that high a bar to be fair but if Robinson is really going to pick players based on their performance then it should be Hurtado over Blondell on the bench for the next game.

Elsewhere Aaron Maund had a decent enough game in central defence to make his continued absence seem even more perplexing than it already was and Franklin and Levis helped to confirm that Nerwinski and de Jong should remain the first choice full-backs.

It’s still baffling to make any sense from how Felipe is being used (he hit one pass into the New York area all game) but at least Stefan Marinovic seems to be back to his sharpest.

In the end it was a good point from a poor performance.

And that has become Carl Robinson’s stock in trade over his years with the club and those of us who watch the team consistently play ninety minutes of incoherent football probably have to resign ourselves to more of the same for the foreseeable future.

But this week feels pivotal for how we will remember the season.

Next week’s trip to Portland bookended by Voyageur’s Cup games agasint Toronto won’t be easy. Portland are arguably the best team in MLS right now and TFC are on something of an uptick following their horrendous start to the season.

But they played in Atlanta on Saturday and must have one eye on making a late run for the post-season.

So will the Whitecaps try to take the game to them at BC Place on Wednesday evening and give themselves a cushion for the second leg?

Probably not, and the tenor of the game will really hinges on how the visitors approach it. If they push for an away goal that will suit the pace of Davies and Reyna, but if they choose to sit back then we could be in for another one of “those” games where Vancouver treat the home crowd to ninety minutes of not really trying to score.

And speaking of not trying to score it was infuriating to see them spurn the chance of going for the three points by opting not to swing a last kick of the game free-kick into the NYCFC penalty area last night.

Sometimes footballers try to be too clever for their own good

It would be nice to see the Whitecaps play as a team rather than rely on individual moments of magic and opposition error but what we have is what we have.

That won’t be quite enough to get to the post season but it will be just enough to prevent anybody from having to make a tough decision.

One person’s purgatory is another person’s paradise I suppose.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, Franklin-4.5, Levis-4.5, Ghazal-5, Maund-5, Felipe-5, Teibert-5, Ibini-3, Shea-5.5, Mezquida-6*, Blondell-4 (Davies-5.5, Reyna-5.5, Hurtado-5.5)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Happy Days

The big question following on from the Alphonso Davies transfer to Bayern Munich was how the player himself would react to the move.

Would the excitement of joining one of the biggest clubs in the world weigh heavy on his shoulders?

Would the remainder of his time in Vancouver feel somewhat anti-climactic?

No.

Davies was subdued in the first half, but in the second he took the game by the scruff of the net and former Whitecap Michael Boxall must still be spinning in circles half expecting Davies to appear on his blind side.

Davies won’t face defenders of the calibre of Boxall in Germany but you can only beat what’s in front of you and that he did.

The rest of the game was a fairly neat summary of the issues still facing the Whitecaps.

In the first half they had Russell Teibert and Aly Ghazal as defensive midfielders and looked fairly comfortable when Minnesota pushed forward.

Then a Ghazal injury saw Felipe replace him and the defence suddenly felt much more vulnerable.

It’s hard to see what Felipe brings to the team when he is played so deep. He doesn’t have the defensive instinct of Ghazal or the hustle of Teibert, so a player who is best suited to finding the right pass to a forward becomes an amalgam of nothingness.

But at least Carl Robinson now seems to have settled on a regular back four with de Jong and Nerwinski both playing their best football of the season.

Nerwinski in particular is back to providing the attacking threat he did so often last year (and he may well be the best crosser of a ball in the squad) and that improvement is likely down to the fact those two defensive midfielders provide the cover he needs to make his forays.

Another good game for Yordy Reyna too.

The Peruvian has discovered the little bit of arrogance that’s been missing from his game all year and, for the first time in a long time, it feels as though he both wants the ball and wants to do something with it.

The lone forward position remains an issue however (this could be the new club motto given how perennial a problem it is).

Anthony Blondell stood in for Kei Kamara and was poor.

His hold up play was horrendous, his passing not much better and his connections with the rest of the team pretty much nonexistent.

That wouldn’t be such a huge problem if Kamara was firing on all cylinders but he’s been nowhere near that of late.

Perhaps his goal from open play last night will kick-start his form again?

Or it could be that the chances created by Davies will be all he really needs but the Whitecaps face two tough road games in New York and Portland (parenthesised by Voyageur’s Cup games against Toronto) and if the illusion of still being in the playoff hunt is going to be maintained they need more than they will probably get from their travels.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5.5, Nerwinski-6, de Jong-6, Waston-5.5, Henry-5.5, Ghazal-5.5, Teibert-6, Davies-7.5, Reyna-6.6, Techera-5, Blondell-4 (Felipe-5)

Vancouver Whitecaps: You say you want an evolution

Life must have been so much more simple back when Pangaea was the single super-continent on earth.

Everybody spoke the same language and there was no need for planes because you could just drive to wherever you wanted to get to (and the road trips must have been amazing).

Plus Netflix worked everywhere with none of that pesky regional blocking.

Then the decision was made to split Pangaea into separate smaller continents (possibly for tax reasons) and many historians now believe the first planet wide war was caused by people disagreeing over whether there should be five, six or seven of these.

But at first everybody seemed happy with this move.

Kangaroos flourished, tortoises frollicked and even the simple minded Dodo lived a life of uninterrupted bliss.

But gradually, over the course of dozens and dozens of years, people lost touch with all continents but their own and eventually new languages and subscription VPNs began to emerge.

But then, thanks to the invention of Duty Free alcohol and fragrances, humanity cast off their blinkers and began to explore their world anew.

Unfortunately this new found adventurousness coincided with the rise of the airline companies allowing Service Animals to fly free of charge and the introduction of several invasive species caused mayhem among the native population.

Sure, the kangaroos were fine; they can punch a hole in the side of a Buick.

But the tortoises were too slow for the newly arrived hares and the Dodos too stupid for their natural predator the owl.

It turned out that “Evolution and Unintended Consequences” wasn’t just the name of a new Vegan restaurant in Kitsilano, it also had real world implications.

Which inevitably brings us to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

When they first joined MLS the League was approaching the end of its Pangaea stage, but there was still enough uniformity and harmony to allow the lesser species to survive and even occasionally flourish.

But in the League of today the rifts and shake ups of the last few years have led to tectonic plate shifts of massive proportion.

The likes of Atlanta, NYCFC and Toronto bestride this new world with little fear of predators (Not even the Lethal Zone version).

And things remain fine for the species of team who have adapted well to this new reality; Kansas, Columbus, Portland and NYRB have all evolved to find a niche to keep them functioning and relevant.

But with each passing season some teams find themselves edging more and more toward the Dodo end of the spectrum.

Not necessarily because they aren’t spending money at all but because they aren’t spending money in the right way.

A big name signing to play among duds, a player beyond his prime to withstand the rigours of MLS travel, a badly scouted central American here, a converted inverted winger there.

And the Whitecaps have gradually been slipping down to the Dodo level with each passing season and with each badly thought through move.

But suddenly! Miracle of miracles!

They’ve been given the chance to turbo charge their own evolution, to upgrade their gene sequence and add lots of fancy new features to their defensive and offensive mechanisms.

The money arriving from the Alphonso Davies transfer is a “once in a species” opportunity to get things back on track.

And that means not rushing into moves just because a player is available (Jordon Mutch) or bringing in players in the hope they can be converted into something they are not (Efrain Juarez) or play in a role they are not suited to (Fredy Montero) or sign them just for the sake of signing them (Giles Barnes who subsequently evolved into Brek Shea).

But what it really really means is not allowing the people who made all of those decisions to now go on and make the next, all important, ones.

If a scientist recreated a killing machine of a dinosaur from prehistoric DNA leading to the deaths of hundreds of tourists and causing all round chaos you wouldn’t “give them another go” in the hope they would get it right next time (although that would be a good idea for a movie now I come to think about it. I’d call it Dinosaur Island!)

So if the Whitecaps think the Davies sale is convincing proof they are doing everything right and there is no need to change their ways at all then they are doomed to extinction.

But if they see it as the metaphorical equivalent of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider then they can use that insight to use their powers for good.

It just needs somebody at the club to have the humility to understand they need the advice and wisdom of their very own May and Ben Parker to prevent them from firing their web at the first available overpriced defensive midfielder they see.

Spiderman or Dodo? The choice is theirs.

Vancouver Whitecaps take their chances

Now with additional points de vue from the day after.

Well that was better.

For what feels like the first time since the introduction of the steam engine the Vancouver Whitecaps played like an actual team who wanted to win an actual game of football rather than a disparate collection of ne’er do wells happy to collect the mercenary coin of an employer they neither cared for nor held in high regard.

The 2-0 victory over the Montreal Impact at BC Place on Wednesday evening felt more like the release of a pressure valve than a sporting achievement but it does lead us to ask a question that hasn’t been asked about this team for the longest time.

What went right?

Well, Aly Ghazal and Russell Teibert provided the defensive midfield coverage that has so obviously been missing.

It’s a fairly damning indictment of Carl Robinson that he still can’t figure out how to successfully set up a team without the presence of two defensive midfielders (particularly at home) but we are where we are and what works is what works.

Marcel de Jong and Jake Nerwinski both took the opportunity to get forward from the full back position whenever they could (and helped to create both of the goals).

Brek Shea and Cristian Techera were both involved in the game from the get go and Yordy Reyna was a menace whenever he was on the ball.

Could we play amateur psychologist and wonder if the departure of Alphonso Davies has set Reyna back to being the creative hub of the team and that being the centre of such attention suits his on filed personality?

We could. But only time will tell if we are right.

Time will also tell how the reintroduction of Davies for the remainder of the season affects the rest of the team.

There are already signs the club will be making a push to turn the whole thing into a farewell tour for the kid and while all who have followed him for the last couple of years are thrilled there are still competitive games to play and there has to be some kind of limit set on how much a team should be celebrating the departure of their best player.

The Davies to Bayern Munich story must be like catnip to the marketing arm of the Whitecaps of course but the footballing appendage of the club needs to keep focused.

Time will also tell how the Whitecaps build on this performance as a whole.

The last thing they need to do, the very last thing, is to consider this game as proving the naysayers wrong and simply assuming that all is now well.

At the time of writing this performance sits as an outlier rather than the norm and they need to go out and do it again and again and again before anybody will really be convinced by their coherence.

We can probably give Carl Robinson some leeway when he suggested in his post game interview that the character of his players has never been in doubt given how relieved he must have felt with the win but the character of his players has very much been in doubt and remains very much in doubt given the appalling run of results and lack of discipline they’ve exhibited in recent weeks.

That character will continue to be tested and assessed over the course of the rest of the season and only then will anybody be able to make a definitive claim to its worth.

That gives Carl Robinson some tough choices.

Neither Ghazal nor Teibert should be left out after the way they played against Montreal but that would mean confining Felipe to the bench.

He should leave Felipe on the bench if only to hammer the home the idea that what the players do on the field is more important than what they earn in their paycheck but the smart money would bet against that.

But hopefully this performance will put paid to the line of thinking which argues this group of players is incapable of competing in MLS.

Sure, they were only playing a second string Impact side but they created chances, worked for each other and defended as a unit.

Any team consistently doing all of those thing will be difficult to beat and will certainly be edging much closer to the playoff line than Vancouver currently are.

Maybe we’ll never find out why the season up to now has been such a shambles (and let’s not bet against the shambles returning before too long) but we’ve at least seen a template for how this side can function successfully.

Robinson would be unwise not to follow that template for what’s left of the campaign.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6, de Jong-6, Waston-5, Henry-6, Nerwinski-6, Teibert-6.5, Ghazal-6, Shea-6, Techera-5.5, Reyna-6.5*, Kamara-5

Vancouver Whitecaps do what they’ve done before

“Sometimes it gets so hard to care, it can’t be this way everywhere”

Bob Dylan-Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine

So this is where we are now.

The Vancouver Whitecaps will sell Alphonso Davies for north of ten million dollars and we have no idea if that money will be spent on players or on some other chunk of club expenditure (New filing cabinets perhaps? Upgrading from Windows XP?).

And even if the money is spent on players the person in charge of selecting them and coaching them will be Carl Robinson. A man who has consistently proven himself incapable of dealing with or getting the best out of players with more experience of football than the confines of MLS.

And even if Robinson is let go the people in charge of selecting his replacement will be the people who selected Martin Rennie and then Martin Rennie’s assistant to lead the team.

For this whole scenario to end in any good way for the supporters of the team it either needs a complete clear out or a once in a generation bout of good luck.

It’s not looking great.

The latest debacle in an ever growing catalogue was a 2-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders at Century Link Field, a game in which the Whitecaps barely looked like creating a meaningful chance of any kind and gave up two goals which were the product of their own failings.

In the absence of Davies, a quick and strong wide player who is ideally suited to a 4-3-3 system, Robinson switched away from 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 with the slow and not strong Techera slotting into the Davies role.

It didn’t work.

There’s a wonderfully rich irony in having watched the likes of Rivero and Montero be bombarded with high balls only to find the arrival of Kei Kamara result in the tall, lanky forward sending in crosses to the not tall or lanky Techera.

And if we can reasonably conclude from all this that the team is not being coached effectively we can definitely conclude it isn’t being managed correctly.

In another timeline Efrain Juarez would be the experienced leader this team needs but in this timeline his petulance is his defining feature and there are some coaches who wouldn’t let him start for the team again this year.

“I’m sick of it” Robinson said after the game (speaking of the general lack of discipline within the team) although many of us were sick of it much earlier than now and maybe some of us even believed him earlier in the season when he said the matter of poor discipline had been dealt with internally.

Three red cards and an additional three game suspension in the last five games certainly hints at a locker room that isn’t really listening to their coach anymore.

Did anybody emerge with credit from that game in Seattle?

Marcel de Jong had the will to keep making forays down the left hand side no matter how little support he received and Nicolas Mezquida added his typical energy and willingness to actually try when arriving as substitute.

But the rest of the players either looked like they didn’t want to be there at all or, at best, didn’t really care about losing a Cascadia Derby game.

Things need to change in a hurry before nobody cares anymore.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-3, Nerwinski-4.5, Waston-4.5, Henry-4, de Jong-5.5*, Felipe-4, Juarez-3, Mutch-4, Techera-3.5, Kamara-4, Reyna-5.

 

 

Whitecaps fail to make an impact (again)

Now with additional réflexions from the day after.

If a person were forced to select Carl Robinson’s least appealing trait as a coach than that fellow could do worse than select his propensity to view the limitations of his squad as a safety net rather than a challenge to be overcome.

After the game on Wednesday Robinson was of the opinion that his team “went after” the away goal in Montreal which we can accurately describe as more than a slight gilding of the lily. 

He also thought the team worked “extremely hard” which is basically covering the lily in molten gold until it crumples beneath the weight of its own sadness and withers and dies.

Robinson has never seen his team suffer a loss that couldn’t be put down to the lack of relative quality of the players he manages, or the travel or the squad rotation or something or something or something.

And he seems fine with that.

The post match shrugs and smiles befit the aura of a man comfortable in the knowledge that extracting more than the sum of said squad parts isn’t really within his remit.

And boy did we see that in full effect in the 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact in the first leg of the Voyaguer’s Cup.

This time around it will no doubt be squad rotation that gets brought to the fore as the reason for yet another tepid display.

But here’s the thing.

If you’re going to keep rotating your first eleven then you’d better figure out a way to make that rotation work and not just use it as one more punchline at the end of another “You know me, I don’t make excuses but…” post game quote.

And sooner or later the coach is going to have to accept that the team needs somebody in front of the defence to protect them. Giving up goal after goal from the edge of the box isn’t a coincidence. It’s happens because the Whitecaps have nobody to close down the shooter because they’ve all either dropped too deep or haven’t tracked back. 

As things stand Vancouver would be better off planting a fence post at the outer edge of the “D” to at least give opposition players some obstruction to think about before lining up a shot.

So what were the standout features from the loss?

Anthony Blondell seemed set on trolling those of us who have argued he deserves a decent run in the team by giving a display shot though with appalling first touches and decision-making.

Maybe he just needs more minutes? Maybe he’s run out of hope? Maybe he was just trying too hard?

Whatever the reason he was fortunate to even appear for the second half (although he didn’t improve at all).

You know who will never be accused of working too hard?

Yes, spot on.

Whatever we may think of Shea’s salary in Vancouver to see a senior player display that level of disinterest and sheer carelessness speaks volumes as to why the team consistently fail in the character stakes.

It wasn’t just Shea who played badly of course and by the end of the second half most Whitecaps fans were probably reduced to exclaiming “Oh, is he still on the field?” whenever one of their players touched the ball.

Robinson tried to turn the game around by bringing on Hurtado, Franklin and Ibini but to no avail and………….

Wait! What?

Yes, the competition the club really, really care about was subjected to that level of tactical wizardry.

So it seems Robinson has thrown all his eggs into the playoff basket (probably because of an edict from on high?) so this Saturday’s game against Seattle gains even more importance than it did before.

The Sounders have been terrible for much of this season but they have shown the odd glimpse of life in recent weeks.

For those of us who already feel the post-season schedule is one that will be unencumbered by actual games of football for the Whitecaps it will be a game filled more with macabre curiosity than genuine hope.

But at least feeling macabre curiosity is better than the studied disinterest this team currently seems determined to engender into their fanbase.

In the end the Whitecaps were astonishingly lucky to escape with just a one goal defeat but let’s not pretend it was anything more than another nail to the heart of whatever hope any of us have of anything getting remotely better in either the short or long-term.

But why would it get better when the only net anybody seems genuinely interested in is that metaphorical safety net of just about acceptable mediocrity?

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5.5*, Nerwinski-5, Maund-4.5, Ghazal-5, Levis-5, Teibert-4.5, Norman-4.5, Techera-3.5, Shea-3, Mezquida-5, Blondell-2.5