Who knew that all the Vancouver Whitecaps needed was a player with genuine quality who could link up with his teammates and keep the ball?
Fredy Montero didn’t quite win the game single handedly against the Montreal Impact on Wednesday evening at BC Place, but it felt that way at times.
Only playing because Lucas Cavallini picked up a red card in the previous game, Montero was clearly out to prove a point before the team head south to who knows what.
He drifted around the field, always offering himself as a passing option and always treating the ball with respect rather than as a hand grenade with the pin pulled out that has been the dominant style for this team all season.
He also used a touch of devilry to make a half-hearted punch to his knee look like a hammer blow to the head as wielded by George Foreman in his prime.
Oh, and he managed to score from the subsequent penalty kick.
Elsewhere Cristián Gutiérrez slotted in at left back in place of Ali Adnan and offered the Impact none of the freedom the Iraqi afforded them last time out and David Milinkovic demonstrated that his best position by far is the number ten role where he can be both creative and an early line of defence.
It’s hard to make any sweeping judgments after a game in which the opposition go down to ten men in the first half. And it’s even harder when we remember that this was yet another change of formation for the Whitecaps with a line up that featured several players who wouldn’t be in the coach’s first eleven all other things being equal.
Which poses this problem.
Both Montero and Gutiérrez have earned the right to start the next game in Salt Lake on Saturday, so does Marc Dos Santos pick them and leave out his two Designated Players? Or does he tinker with the formation yet again to accommodate all four and risk unbalancing a system that at least displayed a semblance of coherence?
No doubt he will say this is a good problem to have. But it isn’t. It’s a potential problem for a squad that always seems to teeter on the cusp of discontent.
Some random thoughts about the Whitecaps because, you know, we don’t want to let the wound heal.
The odd thing about Marc Dos Santos is that he clearly knows what is going wrong with his team.
He isn’t some intransigent coach who refuses to accept the evidence of his own eyes. He knows the team don’t keep the ball, he knows they collapse the moment a game turns against them and he knows they sit too deep and don’t create enough attacking opportunities.
He just doesn’t seem able to translate that knowledge into the real world. Which is a shame.
Time for Hasal to step aside? He was the third choice keeper about two months ago and he’s had a great run in the team. But last night felt as though the trauma of keeping goal behind that defence finally caught up with him. Best not to destroy his confidence just because he has a good narrative.
The thing about Russell Teibert is that he hardly ever gives the ball away, but he almost always gives the ball to somebody in a position where they are likely to give it away. A backward pass to a central defender may keep the ball in the short term but, two passes later, that possession is almost always gone.
There should be a special passing stat for players who play this way.
Leonard Owusu has gone from the “I like the look of him” zone, to the “For the love of all that is holy just pass to one of your own players!” zone in quick fire time. So he’s settling in nicely.
Who are ya? Seriously, who are the Whitecaps? Or, more pertinently, who and what are they trying to be? Their formations change by the game and their tactics change by the minute. They”ll never be able to assemble a functioning squad if they don’t know what kind of system they are buying players for.
And what of Lucas Cavallini? He presses defenders, but the rest of the team give up on following suit after about twenty minutes.
No wonder his is frustrated. But he’s been no friend to himself since he arrived. If he could take a penalty kick he’d have a respectable three goals from seven games right now and, against Montreal, he was clearly fighting inner demons as much as anything else.
He looks like a man adrift in more ways than one.
Did the smoke affect the mood of the game? None of us have enjoyed living under the grey canvas of wildfire smoke. The unnatural chill, the hint of ash at the back of the throat, the sense that our lungs are working harder for less and less reward.
So how much more frustrating must it feel to be a professional athlete having to perform in such conditions?
A recipe for tetchiness and tantrums if ever there was one.
Before we get to the meat of the issues that really count we should acknowledge that the Whitecaps will be playing the Impact tonight. A game that will end in a 2-1 victory for Vancouver with Cavallini and Ricketts the goal scorers.
Now that we have dealt with that minor issue we can move on to the two main items of note to occur in the wonderful world of the Whitecaps this week.
The big news is that they are now scheduled to play three more games in September, including a “home” game against Portland in Portland.
Leaving aside the absurdity of what counts as home or away games in MLS, it’s tough to think of a worse place to be playing football than Portland right now.
Wildfires, protests and a pandemic do not good teammates make and while it’s possible, even likely, that the fires and the smoke will have dissipated by the time Vancouver arrive there the whole situation still feels oddly incongruous, if not inappropriate.
That fact that MLS can only arrange the schedule on a month by month basis indicates just how febrile the situation in the whole of the United States is right now and that makes each game seem less like it belongs to a season and more akin to one of those standalone episodes of a long running TV series that never quite satisfy.
And the November election looms ignored in the distance like a Brek Shea contract clause.
There is no outcome that will “heal” America. There is only the promise of differing levels of chaos. It would be a brave person who planned a a trip to a major US city in the weeks following the vote, let alone plan a series of sporting events (and we can throw in the pandemic winter for bonus uncertainty).
America isn’t quite a a failed state just yet, but it is in a state of failure and any Canadian team would be within their rights to say “Thanks, but no thanks” to the prospect of regular visits accompanied by regular quarantine on return.
The other big news of the week was the announcement that the club would soon be appointing a new Chief Revenue Officer and Chief Marketing Officer.
“Rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic!” screamed the sheeple on social media failing to realize that this was just the latest in a long line of brilliant moves to skirt the arcane MLS roster and salary cap rules.
How those people will be laughing on the other side of their faces when the Whitecaps announce new Chief Revenue Officer Kylian Mbappé and new Chief Marketing Officer Kevin De Bruyne.
I must have walked past this doorway thirty times Just trying to catch your eye You made it all worthwhile when you returned my smile
Back in the day it was often said of The Wedding Present that they were every Smiths’ fans second favourite indie guitar band.
But, now that time and trouble have turned Morrissey’s heartfelt paeans to the sweetness of loneliness into something more akin to the bitter rantings of white privilege, it’s safe to say that The Wedding Present have moved up a place in the odes to unrequited love standings.
And watching the first game of of football played at BC Place since all this began carried the heady scent of lost love amid the sound of the ball hitting a boot and the steady hum of fake crowd noise.
Did I just get a glimpse of where I usually sit? Maybe if the camera pans around a little more I can see it? Was that somebody from the TV crew sitting where I should be? A strangers behind in my favourite seat?
Of all the games since sport resumed this one felt the most disconcerting.
It probably also felt disconcerting because the Whitecaps won a game and, while the performance didn’t merit the three points it behooves us to concentrate on the good given how long it’s been since anything good happened just about anywhere.
Firstly, Lucas Cavallini scored a goal. The kind of close range finish that was supposed to be his trademark by now. Perhaps that will kick start a scoring run? But he is still mostly isolated up front with nobody to link up with. No Bogart to his Bacall. And Ali Adnan’s crossing can’t do all the heavy lifting when it comes to creating chances.
The real standout player though was Michael Baldisimo. He sat deep. He wanted the ball. He wanted to play the ball forward when he got it. He scored a pile driver from the edge of the box.
If the Whitecaps can figure out how to give him options to pass to when he is in possession then Baldisimo may grow as a player in the next few months. But he needs the ball at his feet and not to be constantly chasing back as the opposition mount yet another attacking foray (Memo to Self: Remember to keep it positive!)
It was also good to see Erik Godoy back, even if it was out of position and for just one half and Derek Cornelius looks more and more like the kind of solid central defender the team need him to be.
And while Thomas Hasal’s ability to save shots was never in doubt, last night he looked more comfortable coming for crosses and set-pieces than he has done thus far.
So, in the end, it was a much needed three points and, while even the staunchest supporter surely wouldn’t have the brass neck to claim that all was now right in the Whitecaps world, even a dalliance with victory is a reminder that anyone can make a mistake and we just need to continue to be honest in how we assess this team.
In an attempt to get to the heart of what is really going wrong with the Vancouver Whitecaps I recently conducted a thought experiment in which I imagined myself being suddenly transposed into the body of the club’s Sporting Director Axel Schuster for a day.
I present to you now the unedited notes from this fascinating experiment.
I wake up in a strange bedroom. Where am I? What is happening? I climb out of bed and struggle to find the door. I must complete my ablutions, but the first door I find leads only to a sauna room. It’s an option I suppose, but surely there must be a bathroom somewhere?
Success! Ablutions completed I find a switch and the burst of light almost blinds me, until my eyes focus and see a giant poster of the Whitecaps Sporting Director Axel Schuster.
But wait. This isn’t a poster, it’s a mirror! I reach out to my reflection as my reflection reaches back. It too, seemingly searching for answers in a world thrown off the axis.
Dazed with confusion I stumble out of the bathroom to find myself in a large and brightly lit kitchen. A woman is speaking to me in German and I understand every word. I even reply to her in German.
“Good morning Axel.” She smiles. “Ready for your morning coffee?”
“Who are you?” I ask, my voice faltering. “Who am I?”
She laughs. “Oh Axel, always with the jokes. But you will be late for work.” Her head nods toward a painting of the Whitecaps office in Gastown which, upon closer inspection, looks to be dotted with what seem to be freshly made holes, almost as if somebody had been throwing darts at it.
Slowly my mind begins to get a grip on the situation. I’m not just imagining that I am Axel Schuster. I am Axel Schuster!
I gulp down the coffee and rush to the bedroom to dress. Who knows how much time I have to use my skills to save the Whitecaps?
I survive the slightly fraught drive to the office (I am still getting used to living in this strange body and my feet slam down hard on the brake and gas pedal repeatedly, causing the vehicle to lurch alarmingly). But eventually I walk uncertainly into the Whitecaps office to be met by a smiling receptionist.
“Good morning Axel.” She says.
“Good morning.” I reply in my charmingly clipped English. “Could you tell me where my office is please?”
She laughs delightedly. “Oh Axel.” She smiles. “Is this another one of your jokes?”
I sigh and say that yes of course it is and walk into the corridor, the walls of which are covered with posters of the current Whitecaps team and which, upon closer inspection, look to be dotted with what seem to be freshly made holes, almost as if somebody had been throwing darts at them.
Finally I spot a door with my name on it and enter.
The office is small but functional and I’m delighted to see that the computer unlocks using facial recognition technology. “This will be interesting.” I whisper to myself but, before I can explore further, there is a knock on the door and coach Marc dos Santos enters without waiting for permission to enter.
“You wanted to see me?” He says, taking a seat.
He laughs and points a finger at me. “Is this another one of your jokes Axel?” He asks.
“Yes that’s right.” I say and then suddenly realize that right here and right now is my chance to get to the heart of the matter.
“I wanted to discuss the performances in the three games against Toronto and Montreal.” I say sternly.
He shrugs. “I will admit that they weren’t all that great, but there was definite improvement in the third game.”
“Good grief man!” I exclaim “You can’t be using two games just to build up to a third game that is slightly better and think that’s acceptable.”
He looks at the floor.
An idea comes to me and I type furiously at my keyboard and turn the screen to face the coach.
Have you tried reading this blog?” I say pointing at the latest missive from Soccer Shorts. “It’s full of great ideas.”
Dos Santos looks confused. “But you read it once when you arrived here and said that it seemed to have been written by a moron.”
“I am sure I didn’t say that.”
“Yes you did. You said it failed to achieve even the level of pseudo-intellectualism and that a five year old who had never seen a game of soccer could do a better job of analyzing the game.”
I slump back in my chair.
“And then you said…”
I stop him there. “Yes, yes, yes that is all very interesting, but he makes some very good points about how you don’t really seem to have any tactics to speak of.”
“I do!” He protests vehemently.
“Well, when we take a goal kick we always aim for Ali Adnan because he’s good at heading the ball.”
“Not specifically.” He mumbles, looking back to the floor. “But I’ve definitely asked the players to play better.”
I lean forward. “I just think that picking a system, sticking with it and then coaching the players to play that way every day might have better long term benefits than constantly trying to remedy the problems of the last game with more changes.”
He nods and says nothing.
Just then I am aware of a swirl of colour rushing through my brain, a kaleidoscopic vortex of tones and hues that seem to both sooth and terrify me in equal measure.
“Are you okay Axel? Is this another one of your jokes?”
The words are muffled and distant. Almost as if they have arrived from a completley different dimension.
Am I being called away so soon? Is my work here already done? Have I saved the Whitecaps?
I am plunged into darkness.
After what feels like an eternity I wake up in another strange room. Where am I now? Who am I now?
I struggle out of bed and find a light switch. The brightness dazzles me and I see the walls are festooned with yellowing copies of the Vancouver soccer pages which, upon closer inspection, look to be dotted with what seem to be freshly made holes, almost as if somebody had been throwing darts at them.
I turn to see a giant poster of Russell Teibert. But wait, this isn’t a poster…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.