Vancouver Whitecaps: Trying to find a future

One of the more annoying traits of us human beings is our capacity to not do anything about a problem until it gets completely out of hand.

That road junction everyone in the neighbourhood has been complaining about for years? It won’t get fixed until somebody gets killed.

Foreign government interfering in an election process? No way it will make any substantive difference to the outcome.

And it seems we’ve reached that stage with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

There are so many reasons to not change things (playoff games last season, length of Carl Robinson’s contract, the worry of getting it wrong again) that inaction is a far more welcoming bedfellow than action.

But anybody who has watched this team closely over the last two or three years knows there are underlying issues that can’t continue to be covered up by sneaking victories on the road every now and then.

So let’s list them.

Tactics– Faced with the absence of both Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell against LAFC on Friday evening Carl Robinson said that he toyed with the idea of three at the back or playing Yordy Reyna as a False Nine (because “everybody talks about those”) but in the end, and with crushing inevitability, he stuck with playing a lone striker even though Erik Hurtado isn’t suited to the role.

And can anybody figure out where Efrain Juarez is supposed to be playing? A defensive midfielder/right back/number eight might be impressive in a Pep Guardiola team but for a team that’s supposed to be as rigid as Vancouver it’s a mess.

Friday also offered the chance to see Felipe play in a more advanced position but the supposed playmaker on the field didn’t complete one succesful pass into the opposition penalty area.

Actually that’s not true because he didn’t even attempt to make a pass into the opposition penalty area. At home. Against one of the worst defences in MLS.

Defensive Frailties- It’s perhaps reasonable to grant a little bit of a pass on this given how early it is in the season but the lack of cohesion in front of them seems to be throwing the defence out of kilter.

Stefan Marinovic has become a man torn between the Scylla of the punch and the Charybdis of the catch and Kendall Waston is back to doing what he was doing two seasons ago.

Trying to solve everything and thereby solving nothing.

If the Whitecaps don’t have a defence that works then they have nothing.

In Game Decisions- Carl Robinson has never been a man to make an early substitution and he somehow retains the ability to watch his team play dreadfully for sixty-five minutes before even thinking about making a change.

But that’s been exacerbated this season by his compulsion to move Alphonso Davies to left back when his team need a goal.

This isn’t so much tactical thinking at this stage as it is a kind of muscle memory of something that sort of worked once but really hasn’t since.

Maybe somebody else on the coaching staff could have a word? But that seems unlikely because, against LAFC, most of them seemed too incensed about a foul throw that should have been given in their favour.

They were right. But to still be arguing about it fifteen minutes later (with the fourth official no less) indicates a bizarre sense of priorities.

There are times when it seems the whole narrative of officiating injustice and lack of tactical flexibility is all they have to fall back on.

Style of Play- “If it works it works” has been the best defence of Robinson up to this point and that’s fair enough. But as better players arrive (and they have arrived) he needs to have the option of a Plan B. Just the glimmer of a thought that good players could play good football.

But when was the last time you saw Vancouver string a series of passes together? Or even move for each other in a meaningful way on any area of the field let alone around the opposition penalty area?

That should be one of the basics of any team but it’s not for the Whitecaps.

Sense of Their Own Worth– This is a two-edged sword because it’s hard to say whether Carl Robinson does actually think his players aren’t very good or whether he just keeps saying that as a way of protecting his own position.

But for a coach to be so content (even eager) to talk down his players is bizarre, especially when he’s coaching a team that are in the top half of the salary spending league.

And it’s bizarre the Front Office don’t seem to mind this. “Come and see the not very good Whitecaps try to get a result against a much better team” is an odd marketing strategy to hang your hat on.

And it’s odd the ownership group don’t seem to mind this inaction from the Front Office either.

To Conclude– Let’s just say the whole situation has become like a Carl Robinson substitution.

Pretty much everybody else can see things need to change before it gets out of hand but the people in charge of making that change seem content to allow mediocrity to slide into chaos.

It’s just so much easier to do nothing.

Whitecaps: Just gonna have to be a different man

There’s really nothing of interest to say about the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 home loss to LAFC on Friday evening at BC Place.

The Whitecaps were facing one of the worst defences in MLS yet seemed both disinterested and unable to create anything like a meaningful chance, lost to a good goal by a good player and a bad goal thanks to a defensive mix up and ended up with Alphonso Davies playing at left back and Brek Shea playing centre forward.

Oh, and they had Erik Hurtado starting as the lone forward but continued to play as though he were Kei Kamara.

In an interview Carl Robinson gave to ESPN published early on Friday morning he offered these choice quotes.

“…how else could I get my players to compete against the types of players they’re playing against every week?” (Talking about his “us against them” mentality).

“…if we get into an open football match with them, nine times of 10 they are going to beat us.” (Talking about that playoff performance against Seattle last season).

It’s hard to know what the thinking is behind this kind of attitude other than a man who is desperate to justify mediocrity at every level.

It’s also difficult to imagine how his players must feel when they read this kind of stuff.  Or maybe they are used to it by now? Maybe every team talk is just Robinson telling them how much better the other team are?

But it’s becoming easier and easier to see why every creative player who falls into the Whitecaps clutches gradually becomes worn down by the constant insistence on substance over any kind of style.

There are still those who defend Robinson by saying “at least it works” but they are looking more and more like people who deny that smoking can kill you by saying their Uncle Albert smoked two packs a day and lived until he was eighty-nine.

Nobody’s fooled by that anymore.

It’s hard to know how much longer this can carry on. The undeserved underdog complex, the undeserved persecution complex and the undeserved reputation as a good young coach is just producing a team that is so much less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s hope the whole thing doesn’t fall completely to pieces before somebody with some serious say at the club has the courage to make a decision.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5, Nerwinski-5.5, de Jong-5.5, Waston-4.5, Aja-5, Teibert-6*, Felipe 5, Juarez 5.5, Techera-4.5, Davies 5.5, Hurtado-4

Russell Teibert: The Whitecaps Unexpected Item

For the last two years (maybe a little longer) there’s been a plastic shopping bag hanging from the tree that sits directly outside the window from which this very blog is written.

And for all that time it’s taunted me.

During the Fall and Winter it’s dangled there as a constant reminder of the folly of humanity. A damp and dirty piece of plastic wrapping itself around one of nature’s finest creations.

And in the Spring and Summer when the tree is in full bloom it remains visible. Peaking through the blossoms like the spectre of death at Prom Night. A constant reminder that the only permanent and inevitable aspects of our lives are the ones we prefer not to contemplate.

But then, last week, it was gone.

Perhaps somebody else had grown tired of it’s presence and had finally taken action? But the more likely explanation is that two years (maybe a little longer) of Vancouver rainfall had filled it to bursting point and it had splashed to the ground in the night, unnoticed and unmourned.

Except, to my surprise, it’s not completely unmourned because now that it’s no longer there my contempt has been replaced by a kind of melancholy.

After all, if I can project so much feeling onto an inanimate object when it’s there then why not do the same in it’s absence?

If that scrap of plastic can represent the folly of humanity when I can see it, then why can’t it represent our transience when I can’t?

This is all incredibly (and mundanely) human of me of course. It’s what we do. We make up stories about just about everybody and everything in a desperate attempt to somehow explain the inexplicable.

And that’s very much what we do with sports and the players who play them. Turn them into characters in our personal fictionalized version of the world.

But every now and then one of those players does the exact same thing to themselves.

So say “hello” to the new Russell Teibert.

The Canadian is almost the very definition of a limited player. He’s not especially fast, not exceptionally skillful and his range of passing mostly falls within an arc of about twenty metres behind and beside him.

But this season, the season when it seemed the overall calibre of the squad would finally see him eased out of the picture altogether, Teibert has stepped his game up a notch.

It’s a small sample size to be sure but he has at least thought about playing the ball forward this year. And not in the “I’ll hit this in the general direction of Kei Kamara” kind of a way but in the “I’ve seen a breaking player in space and I’m going to find him” kind of a way.

Maybe that change is a reaction to the increased competition, maybe it’s a reaction to instructions from the coach or maybe having better players around him makes Teibert a better player?

But it could just be that he took a good look at where his career was heading during the post-season and decided the narrative needed to change before it petered out in a banal series of increasingly low level moves.

So right now seeing Teibert’s name in the starting eleven isn’t quite the sigh inducing news it used to be because, at the very least, he will offer just a little bit more than safety first, second and third.

It’s still a long shot to suggest he will become a regular starter as the season progresses and as the higher quality players begin to find their feet and their groove, but that’s no longer an impossibility.

Teibert has had the presence of mind to bring his own bags with him and he’s been rewarded by not having to try and explain to a computer screen that he can’t remove the item because the item isn’t even there! (sorry, the whole metaphor got a bit lost at the end) .

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Everybody’s Happy Nowadays

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake on Saturday evening was that there was something in it for everybody.

If you think the Whitecaps are on the right track with their new signings you can point to a first half in which they were easily the better team.

If you think there are core issues that still need to be resolved you can point to another failure to break down a defensive opponent.

It’s hard to convey just how poor Real Salt Lake were (particularly in the first half) but there were times when Vancouver looked to be at least a division above them in terms of quality and organization.

But the Whitecaps couldn’t turn that dominance into goals (or even any clear-cut chances) and a late defensive lack of concentration in the first half and a late breakaway goal in the second half were enough to stave off a very, very late goal from Brek Shea.

In hindsight (and probably with some foresight too) it’s hard to know why Shea didn’t get the start given his road form and aside from one surging run Bernie Ibini offered little attacking threat.

And the same went for Alphonso Davies on the left as he reverted to consistently taking the wrong option with his final pass. It looks like it’s going to be two steps forward and one step back for the kid this season.

It certainly hampers a team built on the importance of the cross to have two wide players who aren’t actually all that good at crossing and the two best deliverers of the ball on the team (de Jong and Nerwinski) aren’t getting forward enough to make their presence genuinely felt.

And that can be the only reason why Kei Kamara felt the need to drift wide so often.

As the second half progressed Salt Lake were content to turn the whole affair into a de facto home game for the Whitecaps and so sat deep content in the knowledge they wouldn’t be broken down.

It’s not hard to see why they would do that given their form and it’s not hard to see why Vancouver failed to breach their back line but it is kind of baffling why Carl Robinson isn’t prepared to throw the dice on something new when things aren’t working out in that way.

Felipe does a decent job of neat passing and the occasional through ball when sitting deep but to have your best passer of the ball closer to your own penalty area than your opponent’s when trying to find an elusive goal doesn’t really make much sense.

And can we now consign “moving Alphonso Davies to left back” to the dustbin of tactical history?

It doesn’t create more offensive chances and it just makes the defence weaker, as outlined by Davies losing his man on the second Salt Lake goal.

Next week the Whitecaps face LAFC, a team who seem determined to play every game in the most open manner possible so the chances are there will be chances and goals galore at BC Place on Friday.

But following the rather impressive performance in Columbus the Whitecaps regressed to their traditional mean in Salt Lake.

A well organized team who don’t really know how to break down a well organized team.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5.5, Nerwinski-6*, de Jong-5.5, Waston-5.5, Aja-5.5, Juarez-4.5, Felipe-5, Ibini-4.5, Davies-5, Mezquida-4, Kamara-6

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Sign on the Cross?

It might be an exaggeration to say that Carl Robinson has been laying out his footballing philosophy in recent days.

But he’s certainly been far more specific about how he believes the game should be played.

Maybe that specificity comes from the confidence of a few good wins or maybe it comes from the sting of criticism in the face of those good wins?

Whatever the motivation it’s refreshing to hear him speak openly about tactics rather than the more traditional post game platitudes and obfuscation.

So kudos to him for that.

Following the scoreless game at BC Place against the LA Galaxy the coach said that his team needed to work on “crosses and shots”.

That’s a fairly simplistic way of solving the problems apparent in that game but he could quite rightly point out that the following match in Columbus was won by those exact skills.

Then, in an even more revealing question and answer session this week, Robinson said “the major factor on where goals are scored is on crosses, so we’re focusing on that”.

Now in a general sense that isn’t true.

Feel free to dive down the rabbit hole of statistical analysis of how and where goals are scored in football in your own time but there’s nothing to indicate that crosses are the “major” factor.

They perhaps become more important if you take into account the effects of the “secondary ball” resulting from the cross but they’re still just one club available in the bag for selection rather than the only game in town.

And don’t go thinking that mixed metaphor was just sloppy writing because that metaphor is a metaphor for how to make the most of crosses.

Because putting it “in the mixer” should be mixed with other approaches if it is going to reap the most rewards.

Against LA the Whitecaps fell victim to the exact plan they use themselves; force teams to constantly put balls into a crowded penalty area where the attacker is outnumbered by two to one at least.

There was no Plan B.

That’s fine on the road because Vancouver rely on the counter which means the crosses are being hit into a much more sparsely attended penalty area. I’d fancy Kei Kamara’s chances of getting decent contact on a ball if the defenders around him aren’t set and are mostly backtracking.

But ask him to do the same thing when four or five opponents are in position and comfortably facing play and the odds change dramatically.

But perhaps when Robinson said “the major factor on where goals are scored is on crosses, so we’re focusing on that” he wasn’t speaking in a general sense but relating it specifically to his own team?

Well in that case he’s probably right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which tells us nothing of interest other than that the team will continue to be one trick ponies.

He is perhaps justified in feeling some of the criticism aimed at his style of play is unfair given the results he’s achieved, but much of that criticism stems from the very philosophy he’s outlined this week and the experience of recent seasons.

It’s a singular vision on how things should be done that will easily be nullified when the playoff train trundles into town.

 

 

Whitecaps find a fair wind in Columbus

Can the Whitecaps just play every game away from BC Place?

The 2-1 win against the Columbus Crew looked like being a case of the all too familiar “Meh” in the first half as Vancouver were easily outplayed by the home team and trailed 1-0 thanks to a Stefan Marinovic error.

But in the second half it all changed.

Jordon Mutch began to play as a kind of hybrid defensive/offensive number ten and suddenly it was the Crew who looked the team bereft of ideas.

Brek Shea scored his customary goal on the road and Kei Kamara got the obligatory “player facing his old club” goal to win the game.

The Whitecaps even brushed aside a glorious Alphonso Davies strike that was (correctly) disallowed following a video review.

For most of the game Felipe continued his penchant for playing deep and offering little of creative value other than from set-pieces but when he moved forward to take up the Mutch role once the Englishman had been taken off it was he who delivered the cross for Kamara to head home.

We’re still in the baby steps period of the season right now but if Mutch and Felipe were both played in more advanced positions,with Ghazal sitting deep, then Vancouver may be able to find a way to consistently threaten opponents beyond the tried and trusted counter-attack or set-piece options.

On an individual basis Shea once again showed that he is a useful player when he has space to run into and Bernie Ibini showed why he will only really be a starter in games played on the East Coast.

But Jose Aja had another good game at the back and is easily the Whitecaps most accomplished defender when in possession, capable as he is of bringing the ball forward as well as being genuinely two footed.

But while Jake Nerwinski did nothing spectacularly wrong from a defensive point of view he remains far too anxious with the ball at his feet and really needs to gain some composure in possession if his game is going to reach another level.

And even with Columbus struggling to find any kind of form in the second forty-five there was still a huge imbalance in the way each team passed the ball but if (and this is a really big “if”) the midfield can find some kind of consistency of personnel and if Carl Robinson allows the likes of Mutch and Felipe a little bit more free rein in home games there is definitely the foundations of the making of a decent team hidden away in there somewhere.

It’s all too often one step forward and one step back with the Whitecaps however and next week’s game against Real Salt Lake probably won’t tell us much more than anything we know already.

But the return to BC Place feels like it will help define the season in some ways.

Can the Whitecaps somehow find a way to be creative and proactive at home?

That doesn’t feel like it’s too big of an ask given the players at Robinson’s disposal but it’s been the one question to have hindered this team for longer than has really been necessary.

For now though Robinson can tuck a well-earned three points underneath his scarf satisfied that his team produced what was easily the best forty-five minutes of their season so far.

We now interrupt this blog for some thoughts from the following day.

That Davies goal may have been disallowed but it demonstrated just how much he has developed as a player this season.

There’s no way he shows that level of composure last year and he’s now gone from a promising prospect who hoped things would happen when the ball was at his feet to a player who knows he can make those things happen.

He is, as they say, “like a new signing”.

Over the years Carl Robinson has been somewhat fascinated by the idea of how much difference any new signing could make to the locker room.

But this season more than one of those signings seem capable of making a difference on the field.

Kamara, Juarez and Felipe all bring a level of, let’s be kind and call it “experience”, that will make the Whitecaps a nightmare to both play against and to referee.

There’s still the potential for so many “Type A” personalities to spontaneously combust given the wrong conditions but for now it’s a heady mix of arrogance and know how.

It always looked as though the opening half-dozen games could be the toughest spell of the whole season for Vancouver given the travel and the opposition so to have picked up ten points with one of those games still to play is a significant achievement.

Let`s hope that achievement can be built on rather than used as a cushion for a poor run of form at the business end of the campaign.

We now return you to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-4.5, Nerwinski-5, Waston-6, Aja-6, de Jong5.5, Felipe-5.5, Teibert-5, Mutch-6*, Ibini-5, Shea-5.5, Kamara-5.5 (Davies-6)

Vancouver Whitecaps: For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen

Well at least we know one thing for sure after the Vancouver Whitecaps scoreless draw with the LA Galaxy on Saturday evening.

Carl Robinson hasn’t changed.

Give him an opposition decimated by injuries, suspensions and international call ups, throw in the most abundant collection of attacking talent he’s had at his disposal since he became coach of the club and he will still send out a team whose only chance of scoring a goal is from a set-piece or an opponent error.

But maybe in a world of increasing unpredictability we should all be grateful that the Whitecaps have a man in charge who steadfastly refuses to learn from the lessons of the past and continues to make the same mistakes over and over again?

It’s reassuring in a way.

Robinson can’t have been surprised that LA would sit deep and try to stifle the game and yet he still sent out a team designed to feed off the scraps of Kei Kamara knock downs.

The only problem with that approach (apart from the obvious one that it was never going to work) is that Kamara was operating in less than splendid isolation and any balls he did win in the air tended to result in Cristian Techera desperately scrambling to get beyond two or three Galaxy defenders.

Felipe’s role was a bit of a mystery too.

He was sitting deep, presumably with the intention of acting as the deep-lying play maker, but given his only option was almost always the long ball to Kamara it’s hard to imagine exactly how that plan was going to come to any kind of fruition.

Or it could just be that he was asked to sit deep because he looks a little bit like Russell Teibert? And that reason probably makes just as much sense.

Elsewhere Yordy Reyna looks bereft of confidence, Efrain Juarez continues to be great entertainment in his ongoing battle to reeducate MLS referees on the finer points of the game and José Aja showed glimpses of his capability to bring the ball out from the back.

But it’s dispiriting to leave BC Place and hear so many people remark on how little they enjoyed the game and while it may not be in Carl Robinson’s remit to make entertainment his primary concern it should be in his remit to get his side to play with more imagination and wit than anything we saw from them in this game.

There must have been at least one or two Whitecaps players walking back to the locker room at the final whistle and thinking “Footballing brain the size of a planet and I’m asked to play hopeful long balls to an isolated forward”.

We interrupt this blog for  bonus thoughts from the day after.

Was moving Davies to left back the right call? Well, it kind of worked in Atlanta since he provided an attacking threat even from deep.

But the Galaxy weren’t playing the same way as Atlanta and, given that Brek Shea is a player who thrives when given space to run in to, his introduction was odd in a game in which there was no space to run in to.

And let’s hope that just “moving Alphonso to a different position” doesn’t become the default replacement for any actual tactical acuity.

Hard to know what it was about that performance to make the coaching staff think no changes were warranted until the seventy-fifth minute but even when the changes came they merited something more innovative than just putting another big man up front.

Switch to three at the back and use Davies and Nerwinski as attacking wing backs? Get Felipe to play as an actual number ten? Pass and move?

Speaking of coaching, Saturday’s game between New England and NYCFC featured a genuinely interesting tactical battle between one team who wanted to play out from the back and another who were employing the high press.

One more sign that MLS is moving on when it comes to coaching.

That’s something we’ve yet to see from Robinson in any meaningul way and Sigi Schmid must have relished getting bonus sessions at the gym simply because he was able to dust off his 2015 game plan on how to stop the Whitecaps at home.

And back to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings!

Marinovic-5, Nerwinski-5*, de Jong-5, Maund-5, Aja-5, Felipe-4.5, Juarez-5, Techera-5, Davies-5, Reyna-4.5 Kamara-5