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).

Whitecaps fail to press home their advantage

The final home game of the Vancouver Whitecaps regular season turned out to be the perfect distillation of Carl Robinson’s coaching philosophy.

Call it “fine lines” if you want to, but really it’s about creating a game state in which the team will possibly win but, more importantly, probably not lose.

That’s worked well over the regular season with the odd bounce here and there determining the difference between a top two or a top six finish, but as we found out two years ago in the playoffs it really doesn’t work so well when a win is needed.

That’s because there’s no extra gear to turn to, no change of pace or plan to throw the opposition off balance and that’s what was missing in the 1-1 tie with the Earthquakes on Sunday afternoon at BC Place.

The Whitecaps got a precious first half lead thanks to a well worked goal involving Techera, Nerwinski and a Reyna finish but the second half  was all about San Jose pressing forward and Vancouver looking to hit on the break.

Robinson will probably point to the chances his team missed in that second period but if you live by the sword of fine lines you will eventually die by it too.

The visitors inevitably drew level and, apart from a five minutes surge of desperation at the end, the Whitecaps offered nothing to indicate they could turn the game around.

Put that down to the insistence on maintaining two central midfielders who aren’t capable of getting forward or playing incisive passes (and in the case of Tony Tchani often not capable of playing simple passes) and the decision to once again use Alphonso Davies as the first substitute when he’s offered nothing of attacking value since his appearance in the Gold Cup.

Robinson may have a legitimate reason to want his players to play by the numbers but that shouldn’t mean his coaching decisions have to be equally unimaginative and predictable.

In the end the Whitecaps hung on for a point and no doubt retired to the locker room to discover that their Cascadian rivals had each won their own important home games by the score of four goals to nil.

No way the Whitecaps are going to be lulled into that kind of goal scoring madness but the way they once again retreated into the shell of defensive passivity when the game was on the line bodes ill for next week’s trip to Portland.

Lose that and they face the home “play in” game that seemed impossible to achieve just a couple of weeks ago.

Robinson was at least brave in making the decision to replace Ousted and Harvey with the more in form Marinovic and de Jong,  but that courage counts for nought if the whole ethos of the team remains the same.

Who knows what dramas and horrors await us in the next couple of weeks but we can at least enjoy the rich irony of knowing that Robinson’s inherent caution is once again the very thing that has imperilled the chances of his team.

And what’s the point of sport if it’s not to enjoy rich, rich irony?

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6.5, de Jong-6, Parker-6, Waston-6, Nerwinski-6, Ghazal-5.5, Tchani-4.5, Techera-5.5, Shea-5.5, Reyna-6, Montero-6


Which player is essential to the Whitecaps?

So if you had to name the one player the Whitecaps won’t be able to do without during the playoffs who would it be?

Take your time.

Not that much time!

Whatever player you named I’m guessing that you gave both the right and the wrong answer.

“But how can that be?” you ask, while simultaneously wondering when the hell I will get to the point.

Well impatient reader it can be because there are multiple right answers or, more specifically, there’s only one right answer but with multiple right answers contained within it.

And of those multiple right answers one is divided in half and the other has a question mark hanging over it.

This is quite the mystery isn’t it!

But fear not because I feel this is the right time to reveal the answer to the riddle for the simple reason that I have now padded the opening of this piece enough to give the whole thing the illusion of substance.

So, to put it briefly, the Whitecaps don’t have one player who has to be play for them to be a success they have four and, in addition to that, they have half a player in the form of two and one other player who we can’t quite be sure of yet.

Was that brief? It felt brief when I started out but then seemed to take on a life of its own as I went on.

To the bullet points!

Fredy Montero has to play- When the only other options are Hurtado or Ibini/Shea playing out of position it’s clear the Colombian is integral to the team.

He’s the best goalscorer, the best at holding up play and the best at linking up play so without him they are nothing.

Yordy Reyna has to play- Without Reyna the Whitecaps lack any kind of creative spark, but with Reyna there’s always the chance of something happening.

There’s the whiff of Luis Suarez about the Peruvian given that he always seems to be involved in the game for good or for ill and he’s become the straw that stirs the Whitecaps attacking drink and his absence from the postseason would be the final one (straw).

Kendall Waston has to play- Waston has bounced back from a poor season in 2016 to become an essential component this.

Tim Parker has been showing signs of defensive anxiety lately so having the big Costa Rican alongside him is essential if the surprisingly porous Whitecaps defence wants to avoid the kind of first leg defeat that would make any second leg a heartbreaking formality.

Jake Nerwinski has to play- Who would have seen this one coming at the start of the year? It’s not that Nerwinski has been so stellar, it’s just that his counterpart Sheanon Williams has seen his form fall off a cliff.

The left back position has a couple of acceptable options in Harvey and de Jong but the right back role is down to one man or nothing.

One of Cristian Techera or Christian Bolaños has to play- This is the “half” an essential player we spoke of earlier (well I spoke of it, you probably just skipped straight to the bullet points).

I’m coming around to thinking that these two may be the best wide options from the start anyway but they are certainly the best set-piece takers in the team.

And given that set-pieces have so often been the life blood for Vancouver this year having somebody on the field who can be relied upon for good delivery is a must.

Aly Ghazal must play?- And now to the ? player.

We just haven’t seen enough of Ghazal to definitively say that he has to start but we have seen enough to know that he’s the only player who seems to enjoy playing in the purely defensive midfield role.

Jacobson, Teibert, Tchani and de Jong can all do it to some extent, but having Ghazal in front of the back four certainly feels like a reassuring necessity right now.

The good news with all this is that (injuries aside) all of the above probably will be starting come the first game of the post-season.

The bad news is that having half your team as essential starters really does make a coach worryingly at risk to the vagaries of the soccer gods.

Start praying to them now!


Whitecaps starved of chances in New York

What a strange season it has been for those of us who follow the Vancouver Whitecaps.

In almost every game it feels as though they are a team desperately battling through a tough relegation struggle, yet we know they sit atop the Western Conference.

They approach almost every contest as though they are a plucky group of underpaid scrubs being pitted against a Barcelona or PSG, yet we know they sit comfortably in the middle of the salary expenditure curve.

Whet we see is what we get and yet what we see doesn’t quite reflect reality.

And the 3-0 defeat to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday evening slotted very nicely into that familiar pattern.

The Whitecaps were terrible and completely outplayed but it kinda sorta didn’t really matter because they were playing an experimental 5-3-2/3-5-2 formation and were missing crucial players due to international call ups.

But it kinda sorta really did matter because in the last three games the Whitecaps have lost 3-0, won 1-0 in a game they should have lost 3-0 and lost 3-0 again.

Hardly stellar form as the playoffs approach.

Once he knew the post-season was assured Carl Robinson opined that he could now begin to establish his best starting eleven and it seems he’s achieving that in a Hunger Games style of eliminating the weakest by throwing them to the arena and watching them fail.

The Tribute this week was Alphonso Davies who had done nothing to earn a starting spot over the last few weeks but was given one anyway and promptly played just a little bit worse.

Maybe Robinson wants to play him to restore his confidence? It isn’t working.

Davies wasn’t the only one to underperform however.

Tony Tchani had one of his “bet you’ll never find me no matter how hard you look” games, Tim Parker once again looked worryingly prone to a mistake at any time and the pairing of Erik Hurtado and Fredy Montero achieved the difficult feat of creating a lone striker out of two players.

Only the introduction of Mezquida, Shea and Ibini injected any life into the Whitecaps attack but by then it was far too late to matter.

And maybe that hints at part of the problem too?

Because a good number of these players only really influence a game when they arrive from the bench.

Give them the start and they stutter and struggle, give them thirty minutes at the end and they thrill and they thrive.

The good news is that Reyna, Waston and Bolaños will be back for the final two games of the season, which should at least increase the defensive security and add a little more creativity.

The bad news is that the coach still hasn’t fully settled on his best starting eleven.

And, like everything else this season, that makes very little sense at all.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5, Nerwinski-5, Harvey-5, Parker-5, de Jong-5.5, Maund-5, Davies-4.5, Ghazal-5, Tchani-5, Montero-5, Hurtado-5 (Mezquida-5.5, Ibini-5.5*, Shea-5.5)


Vancouver Whitecaps waiting for the end of the world

Well, maybe not the end of the world but definitely the end of the regular season because right now Carl Robinson and his players are caught in the limbo of knowing that they’ve already done enough to make the playoffs but still have three games to get through before all the post season hoopla begins in earnest.

It might even be to the coach’s advantage that he has a few players missing due to international duty for Saturday’s visit to the New York Red Bulls because he can at least keep things fresh by throwing in a few who are on the fringes of the first eleven before hopefully using the San Jose and Portland games to really hone his thoughts on who he starts from that point on.

And that’s important because although these playoffs may not be career defining for Robinson they could well define how he is ultimately regarded by Whitecaps fans once he leaves the organisation.

That’s because in his previous post season test he messed up royally.

He opted to go ultra defensive in the first leg when facing a Timbers team on minimal rest (Gershon Koffie at number ten!) and the resultant 0-0 in Portland was promptly undone as soon as the Timbers got a tie killing away goal in the return leg at BC Place.

And while it’s a truth universally acknowledged that nobody will relish facing Vancouver over two legs this time around they do still feel like a team who are more likely to lose a game by three or four goals than they are to win by that kind of margin.

So it will be interesting to see just how Robinson’s innate caution manifests itself.

He must know that an away goal in the first leg (this is assuming they do indeed get one of the top two spots in the West) would be huge for a team that is never happier than when waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.

But perhaps the biggest advantage he has over his options in 2015 is that this time around he’s in charge of a much deeper squad and while they may still be prey to the whims of form and injury the vast majority of those ready to go will have had the benefit of at least some rest during the slog of the regular season.

And speaking of analyzing the playing style of a particular coach (which we really weren’t but I’m too lazy to think of a cleverer segue) there seems to be another universally acknowledged truth that the coach only opts for the tactics he does because of the players he has.

That given his limited options he has no choice but to play low possession counterattacking football.

That argument is spurious of course because nobody really thinks that every coach in the world  would set up this group of players with two defensive midfielders and a lone striker.

The Whitecaps play the way they do because that’s how Carl Robinson wants them to play and that’s fine as long as the results keep coming, but let’s not pretend that the current squad is simply incapable of playing 4-3-3 or 4-1-3-2 for example.

A slightly more nuanced take on that argument is that the current system may not be the only way this team can play but it is certainly the best way for them to play and at least that argument has some merit given the current position in the standings.

But an advocate of the devil might say that the coach’s philosophy isn’t limited by the players he has but rather that a few of the players are limited by the coach they have.

The whole thing still doesn’t feel sustainable over a long period if we’re speaking in terms of seasons, but it definitely feels sustainable for the rest of this campaign and, right now, that’s all that really matters.

We can enjoy today for what it is and we don’t need to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow (or even the day after that).

Ain’t no doubt the Whitecaps are in the playoffs

The Vancouver Whitecaps played the first forty-five minutes of the game against Sporting Kansas City like a team who had been routinely scythed open in their last outing which, funnily enough, they had been.

Their was very little “counter” and almost no “attack” to their play.

It was simply a case of defending for their lives and hoping for the best which, funnily enough, is exactly what happened.

They survived a penalty kick after a moment of madness from Kendall Waston and numerous other forays into their box before the half time whistle finally blew leaving those of us watching wondering how much longer they could survive playing in a manner that treated the ball as some kind of invasive species that needed to be removed from their possession as quickly and as desperately as possible.

Fortunately we never found that out because the Whitecaps seemed to take sustenance from their good fortune and produced a far more cohesive performance in the second half.

They were still mostly defending of course, that’s the default setting for this team, but this time around there was at least some sense of danger when the ball went into the Kansas half.

So when Erik Hurtado flicked home a Jordan Harvey long ball with a trademark outside of the boot finish we could express surprise, but not astonishment, at what we had just seen.

And from that moment on Vancouver looked at least as likely to score as Kansas did and the introduction of Jordy Reyna gave them exactly the burst of pace they needed for the final thirty minutes.

In the end they didn’t need another goal and, despite a ludicrously harsh red card for Christian Bolaños, ended the game with a degree of comfort that seemed inconceivable during the first period.

What can we take from the game?

Well, we may have reached the point where trying to take anything remotely rational from any Whitecaps game is a forlorn dream but let’s at least try. You have to try!

Stefan Marinovic won’t be available for the trip to New York next week because of international duty but, given his impressive outing, David Ousted may now be one error away from losing his starting spot.

(Memo to self: stick something in here about a New Zealander thriving in the land of Oz).

That would be a huge decision for Carl Robinson to make, but it could well be season defining one way or another.

Jordan Harvey did enough to lock down the left back spot for now and Marcel de Jong did enough to suggest that he is a much better option as the stand in central midfielder than almost anybody else (particularly away from home).

Hurtado and Mezquida fully justified Robinson’s decision to give them the start, but whatever Shea and Davies offered defensively was nullified by their ineffectiveness going forward.

And no need to mention that Jake Nerwinski was once again solid (and yet I do mention it).

A top two finish now seems as good as wrapped up for the Whitecaps and their constant ability to defy both our expectations and their own limitations is a thing of wonder.

Just three more regular season games to go before we get to the point where bouncing back from a bad defeat is no longer an option.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-6.5*, Nerwisnki-6, Harvey-6, Waston-5.5, Parker-6, de Jong-6, Ghazal-6, Shea-5, Davies-5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-6





Panic on the streets of Seattle

Maybe everybody involved with the Vancouver Whitecaps had started to believe their own publicity?

And maybe that’s understandable given their jump in the in the MLS power rankings and after listening to Wednesday’s pregame show on TSN in which the overall consensus from the pundits seemed to be that Carl Robinson had cleverly crafted the perfect footballing machine designed to function no matter which player started in which position.

Those of us who watch the team week in and week out know otherwise of course. We know that they’re a scrappy team who just got ten points out of the last twelve that could just as easily have been six or seven.

But that’s all water under the bridge now because any nascent delusions of grandeur will hopefully have been severely smashed by the 3-0 mauling handed out to the Whitecaps by the Seattle Sounders at Century Link Field.

Robinson once again rang the changes and this time around not a single one of them worked.

Sheanon Williams played like a man who never wanted to see a football again in his life and Christian Bolaños and Bernie Ibini offered nothing going forward from either of the flanks.

Russell Teibert arrived at every interception half a second too late and Tony Tchani seemed unaware that there was a competitive game going on around him.

Fredy Montero hit a good free kick I guess.

And after a manically entertaining first half in which both teams offered at least something the Whitecaps were completely outplayed (out coached?) in the second and the three goal margin was a fair reflection of the Sounders dominance.

The Whitecaps are still top of the Western Conference at least, but it’s not inconceivable that they will lose in Kansas and New York to suddenly find themselves in a battle for fourth place at best come season end.

No need to press the panic button yet (he said with his hand hovering desperately over the panic button) because the return of Ghazal should shore up a midfield that was woefully open in Seattle and none of the players can ever play that badly ever again.

Can they?

The most concerning thing is that the Whitecaps have effectively failed to turn up for the last three Cascadia derbies, putting in lack lustre performances in each.

And a side that can’t perform in the big games isn’t a side that will fare well in the playoffs and neither is it reassuring that the last two decent sides Vancouver have faced (Columbus and Seattle) both worked out ways to open them up through the centre of the park.

Right now Vancouver have just one way of playing and any post-season success could ultimately hinge on whether Carl Robinson has any kind of Plan B up his sleeve at all.

Don’t bet your house on that being the case (or on anything really, it would be madness to bet your house on anything!)

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-5.5, Williams-4, Parker-5, Waston-5.5, Harvey-5, Teibert-5, Tchani-4.5, Bolaños-5, Ibini-5, Reyna-5.5*, Montero-5