Vancouver Whitecaps: Stop, Luke and Listen

I’m delighted to announce that the write up for the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to Toronto FC will be very generously guest hosted by TSN’s main commentator, Luke Wileman.

This is a huge honour for me Luke, glad to have you here.

Thanks Russell, great to be here. Here’s my quick take on the game.

“This game was played in Toronto, Toronto of course is the capital city of the Canadian province of Ontario. With a recorded population of 2,731,571 in 2016, it is the most populous city in Canada and the fourth most populous city in North America. The city is the anchor of the Golden Horseshoe, an urban agglomeration of 9,245,438 people (as of 2016) surrounding the western end of Lake Ontario.

And, interestingly, Lake Ontario is one of the five Great Lakes of North America. It is surrounded on the north, west, and southwest by the Canadian province of Ontario, and on the south and east by the American state of New York.

New York being the city where NYCFC currently play of course and it’s of interest to note that they played their first game in 2015, as the twentieth overall expansion team of the league; it is the first franchise to be based in the city, and the second in the New York metropolitan area, after the New York Red Bulls.

Interestingly, 2015 was a common year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar, the 2015th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 15th year of the 3rd millennium, the 15th year of the 21st century, and the 6th year of the 2010s decade.

A decade being a period of 10 years. The word is derived (via French and Latin) from the Ancient Greek: δεκάς, romanized: dekas, which means a group of ten. Decades may describe any ten-year period, such as those of a person’s life, or refer to specific groupings of calendar years.

The first know calendar is believed to have been….”

Luke! Luke! You can stop now. I’ve got it from here. Thanks so much.

The Whitecaps were slightly better in that they were functional in defence but still offered nothing of any interest or variety going forward.

Most times this game would feel like a weak-hearted affair that pointed to real problems. But after the previous game it feels like a step forward and that, in itself, is a problem.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Hasal-5, Nerwinski-3, Adnan-5, Veselinovic-5*, Rose-5, Cornelius-5, Owusu-4, Teibert-3, Metcalfe-4, Cavallini-3, Ricketts-4

We Need To Talk About Marc

When Marc Dos Santos first arrived in Vancouver to replace Carl Robinson he was a breath of fresh air.

He clearly thought that talking about the game was something to be enjoyed rather than endured and that discussing tactics in public wasn’t beneath him or above the fans.

It seemed the Whitecaps had found a coach who could connect to the supporter base and, given time, could develop a style of play that was at least relatable. Maybe even watchable?

He probably got a pass on the awful first season given the amount of upheaval the squad went through and he should probably get a pass on this season thus far given the whole global pandemic thing.

But all these reasons are starting to sound like excuses and last night’s 3-0 defeat to Toronto wasn’t the start of an itch that doesn’t yet need to be scratched. It was the scab that fell off to reveal the pus underneath.

The Whitecaps weren’t just bad. We have grown used to that. They were disorganized and disinterested. Ambling around the field as if being in possession of the ball would be nice, but not really all that important.

After the game we got the usual soundbites about this is how a team grows and how lessons will be learned.

Which is fine.

But this isn’t a new thing.

It’s a frequent occurrence that the players play abysmally. This gets worked on in training and the next outing is a bit better (See the two opening games of the regular season as a prime example).

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. Players shouldn’t need to play so badly that they are shamed into following the instructions of the coaches and coaches shouldn’t need to rely on shame as their only motivating factor.

Somewhere along the line Dos Santos has either lost the locker room or lost the ability to communicate his vision clearly.

The Whitecaps are, once again, adrift on the sea of disillusion and disenchantment.

It’s a terrible time to make any kind of coaching change of course. What with the whole global pandemic thing I mentioned earlier going on. And do we trust the club to bring in the right person for the role anyway?

It will be what it will be for the rest of this “season” I fear. The Whitecaps will play slightly better in the upcoming game on Friday and that will be used as an argument that things are not too bad and then they will be outplayed by Montreal before playing a bit better in the following game which will be used as an argument that things are not too bad.

An eternal circle of despair that can only be broken by that global pandemic thing I mentioned earlier.

So farewell then Hwang In-Beom

Like many people I have spent the last few months watching in fascination at the habits and rituals of the humble delivery driver.

The “Sorry we missed you” note even though you haven’t left the house all day. The imaginative use of dates to imply a delivery was attempted twenty four hours prior to when it was even possible and the plaintive “Can you let me in?” plea when our hero stands balancing a cavalcade of boxes filled with cat food, printer cartridges and the second volume of that Fantasy trilogy about a dragon who turns out be the White Lord of the North.

Yet one of their rituals remains shrouded in mystery.

For, on most days, a delivery truck will pull into the parking area at the back of the apartment block and, without stopping, circle around and leave.

They are not using the space to simply turn around and change their direction, that makes no sense given the road configuration.

So what is going on?

The best suggestion I have heard is that a tracker in the truck monitors their progress so this quick, yet seemingly pointless maneuver, satisfies a data driven formula that the correct route has been taken.

It may be generations until we discover the true answer to that question, but I like the idea. Trucks that are both there and not there, leaving ghostly trails of their progress. Tricksters making nonsense of the plans of others, leaving nothing but chaotic rhyme and algorithm.

And while Hwang In-Beom’s story in Vancouver may not be as complex as this deep dark mystery he too was, in many ways, here and not here.

Gone before he had arrived.

He never made secret his desire to play “In Europe”, although sooner or later we are going to have to settle on a definition of what “In Europe” actually means. The Luxembourgian third tier? The Spanish Futsal Amateur Cup?

But Russia definitely counts as Europe. The travel will still be brutal and Putin’s Fiefdom doesn’t scream “fun destination”, but it could be a springboard to better things.

But then so could MLS if In-Beom had settled and delivered here. But his always endearing presence off the field was almost always matched by his almost always ethereal presence on it.

The Whitecaps needed a player who could lift them up and they got a player who changed nothing.

Maybe that’s the kind of player In-Beom is? One who plays to the level of the team he is in? Maybe he can keep a good team good, but can’t make a poor team decent?

It’s certainly possible to imagine him fitting in to a well structured system that relies on one touch passing and movement and doesn’t look to him as the creative fulcrum.

From the perspective of the Whitecaps they have lost a Designated Player who didn’t play like a Designated Player (Not a new scenario for them).

They wanted a number ten, but ended up with a player who is best suited to playing number eight playing as a number six.

His replacement needs to be somebody who wants to be here, somebody who is effective in the system and somebody who leaves behind something more than the faintest of traces on a heat map of the final third.

Vancouver Whitecaps stay in the bubble

So, as expected, the Vancouver Whitecaps brushed aside the Chicago Fire by a convincing two goal margin to set up a last sixteen game against either Toronto FC or Sporting Kansas City.

Well perhaps it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but Marc Dos Santos had a plan and it worked; keep a clean sheet for the first sixty minutes and then introduce the pace of Reyna and Dajome for last half hour to take advantage of tired legs.

This plan was slightly disrupted by an injury to Khmiri and a weather delay, but nothing is ever going to be that simple for this team it seems.

But only somebody with a heart of stone could have watched the game unfold and not felt a sense of delight and relief for a group of players and coaching staff who have gone through so much turmoil over the last few weeks.

And only somebody with a brain of stone could have watched that game and concluded that things were just peachy keen for the Whitecaps going forward.

But this tournament neither signifies nor signals anything.

It exists in an independent reality, separate from both the laws of nature and the laws of common sense.

And, because they are in a Time and Space anomaly, Vancouver somehow progress to the knockout stage without ever looking comfortable in defence in any of their three games.

Nor have they ever looked capable of breaking down an opposition defence that was even approaching competency, but speed and a little bit of luck was enough for them against the Fire.

A mere two day break before taking the field again doesn’t bode well for their chances of progressing further but, given the circumstances, they have already achieved more than they should have done.

So we probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to what might happen further along in the bracket and there will no doubt be smirks of confident satisfaction from whichever of Toronto or Kansas ends up facing Vancouver in the next match.

For now though we should just enjoy a rare and fleeting moment of sporting happiness.

It’s 2020. We need to learn to take what we can.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Hasal-5, Nerwinski-5, Adnan-6*, Veselinovic-5.5, Cornelius-5, Khmiri-4, Teibert-5, In-Beom-4.5, Owusu-5, Bair-4, Raposo-4 (Reyna-6, Dajome-5)

 

Where now for Dos Santos and the Whitecaps?

What does the future hold for this Whitecaps team and this coach?

Well, that can probably be split into three separate time frames. The short, medium and long term, with each of them presenting their own unique challenges.

The Short Term- It’s theoretically possible that a comfortable win over the Chicago fire on Thursday would see the Whitecaps progress to the knockout stage of the MLSisBack tournament.

But words like “comfortable”, “win” and even “progress” don’t really come to mind when thinking of this team right now.

So the sole aim for that game has to be to demonstrate some level of organization. Yes, Vancouver have been hamstrung by the absence of crucial players, but a team in that situation has to control the things it can control.

And that includes the basics such as defending set-pieces, playing as a unit and just doing the simple things correctly.

It’s a frequent post-game lament of Dos Santos that his players didn’t do what he wanted them to do. They sat too deep, they didn’t press high enough up the field, they didn’t track runners.

The coaching staff have to solve the problem of why their instructions are so often unheeded or this team can’t move forward at all. Maybe it’s a matter of communication? Maybe it’s about the character of the players? Maybe it’s about on the field leadership? (More on this later.)

The Medium Term- If we are thinking about the remainder of this season then we don’t know what to think. The Canadian government (rightly) hasn’t allowed the Blue Jays to play home games in MLB, so it’s inconceivable they will allow Canadian MLS teams to do the same.

That means that, if MLS pushes ahead with the season, the Whitecaps will have to station themselves south of the border (Hard to believe the players will agree to this) or “hope” that MLS arranges another tournament in lieu of league play.

That probably leaves the still to be arranged Canadian Championship as the sole arena of competitive football and failure to perform well in that competition will be hard to recover from or explain away.

In essence it’s more likely than not that this squad will effectively lose a season of development.

The Long Term- Nobody would blame the players who opted out of the tournament in Florida for their decision. Indeed, if the team as a whole had decided not to travel it would have been more than understandable. Probably sensible.

But soccer players are human beings. More than that, they are competitive athletes who don’t like to lose.

So, while sitting next to each other in a relaxed team meeting it may well be easy to keep the bond going and the emotions in check, it’s more than likely that in a heated training ground confrontation, or a game that’s going awry, accusations will be unthinkingly thrown.

“Where the **** were you in Florida?”, “You sure this is safe enough for you?” etc. etc.

Throw in the fact that most of the players who elected not to travel were both senior and the best remunerated and it’s not hard to imagine divides occurring if things go (metaphorically) south.

It’s also true that the group of players who did travel and went through the whole debacle will always have that shared experience to discuss and to joke about.

The whole situation is a recipe for cliques and resentments that will be extremely tough to curtail.

So, in the near, medium and long term, Marc Dos Santos needs to get his ideas across more effectively, organize the team more efficiently and develop an atmosphere that makes use of leadership from senior players who may have (even if subconsciously) lost some of their standing among their juniors.

Vancouver Whitecaps by definition

They’ve sentenced us to a life of footballing misery so let’s sum up each of the Whitecaps starting eleven versus the Seattle Sounders in a sentence each.

They lost 3-0 by the way.

Max Crepeau- A good shot stopper who has yet to demonstrate he can command the penalty area or organize a back line.

Jake Nerwinski- A Major League Soccer full back.

Ali Adnan- A left back and consistently the most creative player in the team.

Jasser Khmiri- Not as good on the ball as he thinks he is. Treats defending as optional.

Ranko Veselinovic- A small sample size to make a judgement, but seems to have genuine quality.

David Milinkovic- Too ephemeral in every game he’s played.

Leonard Owusu– Could be good in a better midfield.

Hwang In-Beom- Has the ability to influence games. Hardly ever does.

Russell Teibert- Disrupts more Whitecaps attacks than opposition attacks.

Cristian Dájome– Doesn’t look good enough for Major League Soccer

Yordy Reyna– Has the ability to influence games. Hardly ever does.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Crepeau-4, Nerwinski-5*, Adnan-5, Khmiri-4, Veselinovic-5, Owusu, 4, Teibert 3, In-Beom-3, Dajome-2 Milinkovic-2, Reyna-4

Vancouver Whitecaps: Accepting Chaos

The MlsisBack tournament is a terrible idea.

Sending a bunch of professional athletes to live and work in one of Americas hottest of Covid hotspots is spectacularly dumb.

Throw in the ingredients that two of the teams have had to drop out entirely, many of the league’s bigger stars have decided that not attending was the wiser course of action and that games are being rearranged on a seemingly hourly basis and the whole thing should be a recipe for disaster and embarrassment.

And yet the games have been stupidly entertaining.

The combination of player exhaustion, ill prepared defences and the general chaos that encircles many an MLS game has led to a mixture of tension and laugh out loud comedy that have made the whole thing somewhat irresistible.

It may all still collapse in a heap of metaphorical rubble of course but, for now, the whole thing is a testament to how sport continues to overcome the ineptitude of sport administrators.

So, given all this madness, should we be too harsh on the Whitecaps following their 4-3 debacle against San Jose? They were without key forwards who could have held the ball up and bought the defence time as well as taking even more advantage of a disaster prone San Jose defensive system.

A Cavallini, Montero or Ricketts could have been a difference maker.

But the problem for those of us who follow the Whitecaps is that we have been through this move before.

Failure to take advantage of the weakness of the opposition, failure to think that leading in a game gives players freedom rather than imposing asphyxiating restrictions and failure to use the players on the bench in a way that makes any kind of sense.

Marc Dos Santos has claimed that he is reluctant ti use young players who haven’t earned their time. But that shouldn’t be at the expense of older players who are out on their feet.

The final minutes against San Jose were crying out for fresh legs who could close down the opposition and protect the defence. Sometimes it’s okay to be pragmatic rather than principled.

And speaking of pragmatism.

The news that Russell Teibert has signed a new contract through to 2023 can only be met with a shrug of vague indifference.

No team who want to be challengers in MLS would have Teibert as a regular starter, but most teams would probably be happy to have him in the squad.

And the Canadian has become the footballing equivalent of an annoying Christmas song.

You start off thinking “What’s the point of this?”, transition to “Oh this again?”, before settling on the realization that its continued occurrence provides a strangely comforting sense of familiarity and nostalgia in a world that is constantly changing.

The Whitecaps “journey” through the tournament could end tonight against the Seattle Sounders.

The Sounders have been as poor as the Whitecaps in their two games so far, but it’s likely that the extra game under their belt and the general sense that they want to win the tournament rather than survive, it doesn’t bode well for Vancouver.

Maybe there’s another night of craziness ahead to confound our expectations, but nobody could really blame the Vancouver players if they weren’t thinking longingly of a flight back to Canada and the sweet, sweet release of fourteen days of quarantine.

Vancouver Whitecaps Play a Game of Football!

Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures in the air

Pablo Neruda

The year 2020 has been many things. So many things. But perhaps when we look back on it in the years to come we will remember it most as the year of absence?

Absence from our workplaces, absence from our streets and restaurants and also the absence of sport. That modern day religion that measures out our weeks and months in anguish and joy.

But gradually we are creeping back toward our normal lives. Like animals being released from months of captivity we blink our eyes toward the light and tread softly on the path that leads to freedom.

Are we not in many ways experiencing our own rebirth? Both as individuals and as a society. Sensing a new beginning that…..what? You want me to write about the game? But I don’t want to write about the game! I hate football!

Sigh okay.

The Whitecaps began the MLSisback/MLSIsBack/mlsisback tournament in typical style. Almost like they’d never been away really.

Having been gifted two of their three goals by laughable San Jose defending, the Whitecaps decided that, just for shits and giggles, they would sit as deep as they possibly could and allow San Jose the freedom to both run at them while simultaneously conceding more corners than you’d find in Rubik’s Cube factory on dexamphetamine.

That plan didn’t work and they, with crushing inevitability, conceded in the 154th minute to a former player to lose the game 4-3.

Yes, yes, yes it was their first competitive game for the longest time. Yes, yes, yes they were missing many key players. But no, no, no there’s still no excuse for playing so naively. So contrary to everything that works when defending a lead.

On the positive side Adnan and Veselinovic played well and the latter may turn out to be a ball playing defender of genuine quality, but on the negative side In-Beom once again failed to persuade anybody that his longed for move to Europe is anywhere near to being a reality and too many players gave the ball away when attempting a simple pass.

These aren’t the symptoms of the situation, they are seemingly innate problems that exist within the team.

These problems can be (and should be) solved on the training ground (“Not if they’re innate they can’t be!” scream the pedants at the back). And if a team is constantly not doing what the coaching staff want them to do then the way the team is being coached needs to change.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on players and coaches who are facing a situation that most of us would find close to intolerable?

Nah. Part of the fun of it all is venting irrational anger for nonsensical reasons.

And, to end on a really positive note, if the Whitecaps lose to Seattle in the next game there will probably be no need to get up early for the final game of the group that starts at the ungodly hour of 6.a.m.

Hurrah!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Crépeau-4, Nerwinski-5, Adnan-6, Veselinovic-6*, Khmiri-4, Owusu-5, Teibert-4, In-Beom-3, Dájome-3, Milinkovic-5, Reyna-4

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Feel the Love Go

The CEO of a sports team shouldn’t be an important figure.

Correction.

The CEO of a sports team shouldn’t be a publicly important figure. Their role should be to keep the operation ticking over quietly and not have their every action or interaction clanging an alarm that awakens all.

When a CEO does become a public figure it’s usually a sign that something somewhere has gone awry in the way things should be.

Which brings us neatly to the the Vancouver Whitecaps announcing that their CEO Mark Pannes had been fired from his role last week.

The mere fact that this news hit harder than the run of the mill Front Office shenanigans is indicative of the fact that Pannes had been a breath of fresh air pumped in to a Whitecaps culture that had long been a stale and noxious fug.

He interacted with supporters, he initiated schemes that were both beneficial to the community and to the club and he allowed everybody the breathing room to just be a fan of the team and stop worrying about what the Whitecaps would manage to mess up next.

So, given all that, it’s probably not surprising that the reaction on social media was vehemently opposed to the move. And I’m using the phrase “vehemently opposed” here in the sense of “frothing at the mouth angry”.

The Whitecaps had finally overstepped the mark and retribution and/or remorse were demanded.

And yet.

When the histories of our age come to be written there surely has to be at least one tome entitled “Twitter Was Not Real Life: A Study of how Trending Topics Failed to Predict the Glorious Rise of Our Esteemed World Leader Barron Trump“.

Because if we have have learned just one thing over recent years, it is surely that the echo chamber of a bubble set in the void of irrelevance that is all our lives on social media doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. It’s just that our incoherent noise is reflected back as some semblance of coherent signal and we feel less alone.

And, much like an episode of The Murdoch Mysteries, Twitter has both good and bad actors, with Whitecaps Twitter being no exception to that rule.

It sometimes feels as though many of us should invest in a Victorian fainting couch so dramatically do we react to any instance in which the Whitecaps fall below our Platonic ideal of how the club should be run.

The anger is always bubbling and is always dialed up to eleven making it nigh on impossible to distinguish the petty squabble from the insurgency (But special mention to the people who thought a Whitecaps tweet celebrating Juneteenth was still fair game to attack the Pannes decision) and there are those who seem to have cancelled more season tickets than a Network TV executive has cancelled intelligent and darkly witty Sci-Fi seasons.

But real change comes in the streets not the tweets or, in the case of the Whitecaps, the seats not the tweets and, while it’s hard to be certain if this is really a Franz Ferdinand moment for the club or not, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels more like a phony war brought on by a mixture of incompetence, boredom and anger in need of an outlet.

But what the Whitecaps should be worried about it is the apathy that could set in from the larger fan base given the lack of soccer for the last few months and perhaps their continued enforced physical absence for over a year.

Will it be a case of that absence making the heart grow fonder or will it be a case of out of sight being out of mind?

Sooner or later the club will need to actively engage with all their fans in an effort to get them back on board.

And do you know who would have been great at that? Who would have really understood what needed to be done and how to do it in a way that made ticket holders feel valued and appreciated?

You can take that as a rhetorical question.

We don’t know the ins and outs of exactly why Pannes was fired, but we can at least file it into one of two categories.

It was either a rational business decision the reasons for which the people who made it are incapable of articulating, or it was an irrational business decision that can’t be articulated.

Viel Glück Axel!

Time Added On

Toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey the astronaut “Dave” experiences Time as a series of jump cuts. Scenes flashing by devoid of any kind of narrative structure. He is eating a meal, he is watching a glass of wine fall to the ground, he is laying on his bed.

Life in the lock-down can be a little like that.

We move from place to place wondering less about where we are and more about when we are. “Was it yesterday I went to the supermarket or last Friday?” “Why have I lost track of regular meal times?”

And that’s a reminder that Time only seems linear because we try to make it so.

Like fishing vessels adrift on an endless ocean we throw out marker buoys to create the illusion of progress.

The religions of the world have tried to solve the problem of understanding Time by adding circularity to the linear. With their Passovers and Easters and Ramadans and May the Fourth’s and so on and so on ad infinitum.

But those of us who only experience these events as secular points of vague interest are  forced to turn to the only true religion of the modern era.

Sport.

For every sport there is a season and each new season is a reassuring marker buoy to be noted and logged.

But, now that even sport is gone, what is there to give us anchor?

We can no longer make sense of Time because Time doesn’t make sense. Or rather, our senses can’t make sense of Time without the filter of all the “static” events we have carefully manufactured.

Our reality is only comprehensible when viewed through the filter of our illusions.

Gradually though we are creeping back toward the normal, or the “new normal” at least, and we will once again find ourselves secure in the footholds of schedules and tables and team sheets.

We will once again live through Time and not in it.

The last few weeks will no doubt change the way we think about many things. But will it also change the way we think about the way we think about many things?