Vancouver Whitecaps continue to confound

It’s been a rough few days for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Losing the Voyageurs Cup in such heartbreaking fashion and then following that with a 2-0 MLS loss to the LA Galaxy on Monday evening.

The game began with an air of mystery surrounding the absence from the eighteen of Kekuta Manneh (the official reason given was “coach’s decision”) which means that either the youngster was absent because Carl Robinson wanted to send a very specific message or he’s become involved in the same kind of transfer imbroglio that has kept Octavio Rivero out of the picture in recent weeks.

Time will tell I guess.

Yet the Manneh no show wasn’t the only mystery of the evening so, as the fireworks and confetti slowly dissipate from the hallowed grounds of the StubHub Center, come with me as we delve deep into the riddles and enigmas of this particular Independence Day (actually don’t come with me, you can just stay right where you are and just read the rest of it).

The Mysterious Case Of Blas Pérez – With Rivero and Manneh unavailable it’s an unassailable fact that Blas Pérez is the best striker the Whitecaps have, yet time and time again Erik Hurtado gets the nod for the starting eleven.

I get there’s an argument that his power and pace can unsettle a team but his inability to finish probably settles them right back down again. Pérez for sixty minutes and Hurtado for the last thirty just seems a much more effective way of using each player.

And the fact that Pérez almost immediately goaded Nigel De Jong into a horrendous red card challenge makes one wonder how he would have fared against a relatively inexperienced backline from the get go.

Pérez was played as a starter for Panama in the recent Copa America and if it’s good enough for them….

The Strange Case of the Jekyll and Hyde Team- It really is quite amazing how many times the Whitecaps play a second half that is so very different from the first. Occasionally they get noticeably better but more often than not they take two steps back.

That was certainly the case in LA where they reverted from a team that was constantly creating chances in the first forty-five minutes to one that was huffing and puffing more in hope thaN expectation in the second.

Sure the second LA goal didn’t help but it’s hard to know how eleven players can change so much in so short a time. Tactical adjustments from the opposition maybe?

The Bizarre Curse of Kendall Waston- I’m not sure how many mirrors Waston broke in the offseason but he can’t catch a break this season to save his life.

He probably should have closed down Robbie Keane for the opening goal, attacking corners rained down on to his head like (well, rain I suppose) yet he couldn’t get near to one in any meaningful way and to top it all of he produced a “trademark” sliding tackle in the final minute which escaped punishment on the day but may well get the DisCo mirror ball spinning this week (maybe he actually broke a DisCo mirror ball?).

He can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.

The Astounding Case of the Vanishing MLS Security- Major League Soccer has been very big on stadium security this season with the list of what is and isn’t allowed into grounds approaching Draconian levels and yet in LA at least two fans were allowed to run onto the field and approach players.

Now that’s a genuine security risk.

Oh well, time for the less than mysterious Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 6, Smith-5, Waston-5, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Jacobson-7*, Bolaños-6, Morales-5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-5 (Pérez-5)

 

Heartbreak for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Well that was a rough one to take if you’re a Vancouver Whitecaps fan.

Losing the Voyageurs Cup with essentially the last kick of the game on away goals to Toronto FC can now be added to the litany of ways this trophy has mostly eluded Vancouver over the years and this game simply built in tension and excitement as the game wore on.

That wasn’t that hard to achieve given how terrible the first half was with Carl Robinson reverting to the two defensive midfielder set up which saw Russell Teibert and Matias Laba sitting deep and Pedro Morales in the more forward number ten role.

The problem with that formation is that Morales tends not to get his foot on the ball when playing behind the striker and neither Laba nor Teibert offer any realistic and consistent attacking threat and it was only an injury to Teibert (who had played well in the defensive third of the pitch) that forced the coach’s hand and saw the introduction of Nicolas Mezquida.

The fact that Mezquida scored within minutes of the restart is almost beside the point because suddenly the home team had men forward all the time and loose balls were being picked up on the edge of the Toronto penalty area rather than the edge of the Vancouver one.

All the momentum was with the Whitecaps and when Tim Parker latched on to a long Matias Laba clearance/pass to slide the second goal home all Vancouver had to do was to keep the visitors at bay to retain the trophy.

Easier said than done of course (especially for this Whitecaps team this year) and there are probably a number of moments the Whitecaps will look back on and wonder what they could have done differently.

Score from one of their many breakaway chances is the obvious one, but the introduction of fifteen year old Alphonso Davies immediately after taking the lead may be something Robinson will regret.

It felt like he was making the change based as much on the potential narrative as he was the game situation and while we certainly can’t say that Manneh or Cristian Techera would have made better use of the chances that fell to Davies it always felt as though the youngster was (both literally and metaphorically) finding his feet for the time he was on the field.

The Whitecaps bench also indulged in a little too much “clever” time wasting by throwing balls on to the field whenever the game was stopped and while they may claim the referee played over the allotted four minutes of stoppage time that unnecessary time wasting is almost certainly the reason why.

Nevertheless with four minutes gone the ball was with David Ousted to take a goal kick and there’s no way that same ball should be pumped back into their own penalty area less than five seconds later.

That’s partly because Ousted kicked the ball into the centre of the field and not out of play and partly because at least two or three of the Whitecaps players had their arms in the air celebrating the victory as soon as it was kicked.

“Play to the whistle” may not be the oldest adage in the football phrase book but it’s not far off.

Of course maybe when the ball did come back in Ousted should have punched rather than trying to catch it and colliding with Kendall Waston but the real damage had been done earlier.

This is all unnecessarily curmudgeonly to be honest because the game was terrific entertainment in the second half; the Whitecaps attacked with verve and may even have found the answer to their defensive woes with the back four of Parker, Waston, Jacobson and Harvey.

Last season the Whitecaps won The Voyageurs Cup and it felt as though their season faded away almost immediately after that, this season the trick is to use this anguish as the fuel to push them on to better things.

After all tomorrow is another day.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings

Ousted-5, Parker-7*, Harve-6, Waston-6, Jacobson-6, Teibert-6, Laba-6, Morales-5, Bolaños-6, Hurtado-6, Manneh-6 (Mezquida-7, Davies-5,)

 

 

Whitecaps find some Philadelphia freedom

You know those “five things we learned” articles that tend to appear after every major game?

Well I’m not convinced they have much value at the best of times but I’m even less convinced they have a value when being applied to Major League Soccer games which are, more often than not, a series of random incidents masquerading as a football match.

Okay I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect but the Whitecaps 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union was about as disjointed a game as you could wish to see even though it was brightened by a couple of well taken goals for the Whitecaps.

So instead of five things I learned let’s just go with five things I noticed. That seems more reasonable.

Octavio Rivero wasn’t missed- With rumours swirling about a move to Chilean side Colo Colo Rivero wasn’t even in the eighteen for this game and his deputy Erik Hurtado did a very good job as the target man.

Hurtado isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (he isn’t even most people’s idea of a target man) but against Philadelphia he kept things simple, used his strength and his speed to good effect and even helped set up the third goal for Bolaños.

He may not be the long term solution as first choice striker but he’s getting more and more convincing as a very useful member of the squad.

Manneh showed why he always has to start- He may not have been all that involved in the game but essentially won it near the end of the first half when he picked up a ball near the halfway line and ran with it to the edge of the Union penalty area before firing home.

He’s the only player on the Whitecaps who can do that and it’s an invaluable asset for any coach to have.

A new central defensive partnership- It’s almost certain that Kendal Waston will be back in the team when he returns from suspension but Jacobson and Parker are starting to look like the better option.

Two goals conceded isn’t great but neither was down to those two and they have a solidity and calmness that Waston has been lacking all season.

The big Costa Rican hasn’t earned the right to start but the weight of his salary may prove to be too much for Carl Robinson to ignore.

Morales and Bolaños are casual but smart- It was a Morales giveaway which ultimately led to the opening goal for Philadelphia and Bolaños always seems to have at least one moment per game where he tries a no look pass that ends up at the feet of an opponent in a dangerous attacking position but it was Morales who played the ball that set Manneh free (Manneh still had tons to do but at least the ball was played in front of him rather than to his feet) and Bolaños kept his cool near the end to effectively seal the game with some chest control and a smart finish.

Both have flaws but the Whitecaps are always a better team when both are on the field together.

So who next? Assuming Rivero does leave it’s in inconceivable (or incomprehensible at least) if there isn’t another striker in line to replace him.;

Who that player is will tell us a lot about how Carl Robinson sees the team developing for the rest of the season.

Do we see another young gun with something to prove? A proven MLS goal scorer? Or maybe even a “name” player from Europe?

Whoever it is will probably define the remainder of the season.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Laba-5, Morales-5, Manneh-6, Mezquida-5, Bolaños-6, Hurtado-6*

Glass half full for the Whitecaps?

The 1-0 victory for Toronto FC over the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of The Voyageurs Cup is a result that probably leaves both sides in a state of emotional flux.

The home side probably feel they could have got a second but will be equally relieved they didn’t concede an important away goal whereas Vancouver will be pleased to have survived an early second half onslaught from TFC but must be ruing their inability to find the net.

All to play for at BC Place next week then.

It was no surprise to see Carl Robinson ring the lineup changes but perhaps it was a surprise to see Kah and Waston both starting in central defence and Teibert and McKendry both getting the nod in midfield, but the Whitecaps were the better team in the first half and were unlucky to fall behind to a deflected Giovinco shot.

The second half was a different story however as TFC gradually turned the screw and we were once again faced with the sight of Octavio Rivero becoming more and more isolated as the rest of the team began to sit deeper and deeper inviting pressure on to them.

Robinson doesn’t always get his substitutes right but this time he did as the introduction of Pérez for an ineffective Morales and Manneh for Davies almost immediately wrestled the momentum away from the home team.

The Whitecaps never really looked like fashioning a clear opening from that point on but neither did Toronto and the game ended with both sides torn between the Scylla of pushing men forward and the Charybdis of leaving men back.

No wonder there was no further breakthrough.

For the Whitecaps there was a decent outing from Ben McKendry, a much needed one for Sam Adekugbe and fifteen year old Alphonso Davies once again didn’t seem completely out of place among a field of professionals.

It was also good (and a relief) to see both Waston and Kah have solid and uneventful games at the back and any team that nullifies Giovinco to one lucky strike over ninety minutes is doing something right.

Carl Robinson can take a fair degree of satisfaction from the evening; he rested important players, gave returning players valuable minutes and his team are still in a good position to retain the Cup.

But that lack of away goal may be the one thing to really play on his mind when he looks back at this game.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Aird-5, Adekugbe-6*, Waston-6, Kah-6, Teibert-5, McKendry-6, Bolaños-6, Morales-5, Davies-5, Rivero-5

Whitecaps play a game about nothing

There’s a sense in which there is no point in analysing the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-1 defeat to the New England Revolution at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

After all the Whitecaps were without three starters due to suspension, had players returning from the COPA America and this was also the first game back from an extended break.

But maybe there is no sense in analysing any game of soccer?

Fabricating a narrative from a series of random occurrences may have helped humanity create cohesive and coherent societies but when applied to people kicking a ball around it seems futile at best.

So let’s go with a Festivus style “Airing of Grievances” instead and pick out individuals to complain about; that seems much more in tune with the current zeitgeist.

Ismail Elfath- Yes it’s tedious to keep going on about MLS refereeing but the current EURO 2016 tournament has been a timely reminder of what good officiating looks like.

Elfath isn’t one of the worst referees in the League but on Saturday he turned a fairly benign affair into a fractious occasion simply because he seemed to be operating an “if in doubt blow the whistle” policy until the shrill sound of his small ball oscillating in air simply became the signal for exasperation and confusion.

Let the players play.

Erik Hurtado- Hurtado has been a pleasant surprise this season proving himself to be a useful member of an MLS squad.

But he just can’t play the lone striker role effectively. His hold up play may have improved but his link up play is still lacking and he should really only be used as either a late substitute or as one of a pair of forwards (as he was with Manneh in Toronto where his own nuisance value created space for his partner).

Actually none of this is his fault and the blame should go to Carl Robinson for the tactical lineup against New England but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Russell Teibert- It’s hard to know where Teibert goes from here on in. Like Hurtado he’s a useful member on an MLS squad (which is fine for the Whitecaps) but he’s not progressing as a player.

He may in fact be regressing because his play has become as predictable as his media interviews.

And if we were forced to choose one word to describe Teibert it would have to be “safe” because he almost always opts for the safest pass possible and even his crosses are designed to be lofted into the right area rather than pose any actual danger.

There was a time when Teibert could whip in a genuinely threatening ball, and obviously he still has that ability, but somewhere along the line he appears to have lost the confidence to try it anymore.

There was also a period late in the second half when New England were sitting deep yet both he and Matias Laba were still occupying space closer to the centre circle than the opposition penalty area. The Whitecaps were crying out for an extra body further forward but to no avail.

The blame for that is certainly as much on Laba and Robinson as it is on Teibert but nobody ever said Festivus was fair!

Cristian Techera- Techera may well be taking the prize for “least return for salary spent” in the Whitecaps squad at the moment as he has transformed from a player who last season was a constant goal threat and all around nuisance (in a good way) to a player for whom the most positive thing we can say is that “his set piece delivery isn’t bad”.

In a game where the Whitecaps spent a deal of the second period peppering the opposition penalty area Techera never once came within a sniff of a chance.

That would have been unimaginable last season and he’s surely lost the right to a place in the starting eleven.

Hopefully we all feel better for venting and before we move on to the “Feats of Strength” here are the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6*, Laba-5, Teibert-5, Techera-4, Mezquida-6, Manneh-5, Hurtado-5 (Pérez -5, Bolaños -5)

 

 

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the attack)

I’m willing to wager that if any of us were asked to conjure up a single image to define the Whitecaps forward line in 2015 it would be that of Octavio Rivero surrounded by opposition defenders as he plaintively stared in the direction of either an unimpressed referee or an uncooperative ball which had just bounced haplessly off his shin.

Clearly this wasn’t a recipe for long term success and so Carl Robinson used the off season to bring in both Masato Kudo and Blas Pérez; two players specifically designed to offer either support or alternatives to the Rivero isolationism.

The coach was never going to make instant changes to how he set his team up but defeats in the first two games of the season maybe pushed him to be a little more adventurous a little earlier than planned and a road trip to Seattle saw Pérez start alongside Rivero in a 4-4-2 formation.

And the 2-1 victory which followed probably did as much to convince Robinson of the virtues of tactical flexibility as all the articles podcasts and blog posts combined (although it’s not that hard to achieve better than 0% influence to be fair).

After that day we saw Kudo play alone upfront, Manneh and Hurtado as an attacking pair, Hurtado on his own, Rivero with Mezquida just behind him and Pérez and Kudo as a forward duo.

Not all of them worked, but enough of them did to offer the Whitecaps greater tactical options while simultaneously keeping opposing coaches on their toes far more than they were last season.

So, after all the to-ings and the fro-ings where do we stand on the best attacking lineup for Vancouver?

Still in a frustrating state of flux I’m afriad because the best individual pieces don’t necessarily fit in with the puzzle overall.

Pérez has been the best striker in terms of consistent quality but he doesn’t combine as well with Mezquida as Rivero does, Manneh showed in Toronto that his pace and his better decision making when playing centrally rather than out wide helps his game (or maybe it’s just that there are less decisions to be made when playing as the forward most striker?) and before his horrendous injury Kudo displayed the kind of quick and clever movement the other strikers are lacking.

So here are the (less than definitive) conclusions about all concerned.

The team always seem to be better when Nicolas Mezquida is on the pitch or, at least, the other forwards always seem to be better when he is on the pitch largely because his constant energy makes the life of a defender so much harder.

His goal against Ottawa doesn’t completely allay any qualms about his goal scoring record in general but it does at least dampen them.

Octavio Rivero has scored in three of his last four starts meaning that he probably gets the nod when he is either fully fit or not suspended but he seems to need Mezquida in the team more than any of the other forwards.

I’m not saying “don’t play Rivero if Mezquida isn’t available” but I’m definitely thinking it.

If Pérez could guarantee he could play a full ninety minutes every week he would be the default setting for this team (and there may be the worry that Robinson “does an Earnshaw” and underutilizes a quality striker based solely on his age).

Manneh must be a frustrating player to both coach and select; capable of winning games on his own in one performance while grinding the gears of any attack to a standstill in the next.

His sheer pace on the ball alone makes him an outlier but the biggest problem he now poses is that his best position is central striker alongside a more robust partner and that means playing a 4-4-2 system that is a nice option but not the best use of the rest of the attacking or creative talent.

Erik Hurtado was a forgotten man last season and his not particularly impressive loan spell in Norway hardly inspired thoughts of a triumphant return to MLS, but he has at least shown his worth this year.

As an attacking substitute he’s been useful and he worked well with Manneh in Toronto but….he was poor as the lone striker in Portland and his brief appearance as a more defensively minded wide player against Ottawa was a timely reminder of how limited a player he actually is (knocking an over hit and needless pass for an exhausted Pedro Morales to chase after being a particular highlight).

And we have to hold back on any decision on Kudo until we see just how he returns from his lengthy layoff.

So Rivero works best with Mezquida, Pérez works best with Bolaños and Manneh has had his best game alongside Hurtado and somehow Carl Robinson has to make one or all of these disparate pairings click with the rest of the team.

Do UEFA do a badge in relationship counselling?

 

Whitecaps blast passed the Fury

Maybe Carl Robinson should tell his team they are 2-0 down before every game?

That knowledge certainly helped to get the Vancouver Whitecaps out of the blocks quickly in the return leg of the Voyageurs Cup as they overturned a two goal deficit to win 3-0 on the night and beat the Ottawa Fury 3-2 overall.

Every Canadian Whitecap who started in Ottawa was dropped for this game, but fifteen year old Alphonso Davies did get the nod and after a shaky opening half hour he finally produced a little bit of magic before caroming the ball off the far post and coming within inches of giving the BC Place crowd a fairy tale story.

The real narrative of the evening though was how well Vancouver played in the opening twenty minutes as they produced the kind of fast paced, one touch football that left the visitors reeling and a penalty kick from Pedro Morales and a first goal of the season for Nicolas Mezquida sent them in at the break all square on aggregate.

Octavio Rivero added another with a fine strike after a little piece of Morales trickery and, despite a few minutes of anxiety at the end, the Whitecaps held on to face Toronto FC in the final in late June.

This result doesn’t bode well for the players left out of the starting eleven however as the more experienced squad members gave them a lesson in both ability and desire and it must surely be getting harder and harder for Robinson to leave Mezquida out of the team.

Perhaps the one knock against the Uruguayan is that he doesn’t score enough goals but he remedied that in this game and once again brought a level of energy to the forward line that is conspicuously absent when he’s not around.

In fact replace Davies with Christian Bolaños (and maybe Smith with Aird) and what we saw on Wednesday may well be the Whitecaps best outfield lineup with Jacobson proving to be an experienced and calming influence alongside Parker in the centre of defence and Rivero mercifully finding himself with company when he was near to goal (the second goal came about simply because Vancouver were willing to get men forward to pick up the second, third and even fourth phase of play; an almost unheard of trait up until now).

In the end this game was about digging themselves out of the hole they created last week and they did just that with some style and some aplomb.

The criticism that Robinson rightly faced last week is replaced with the plaudits he is equally deserving of this week and the ten day break before the next game is suddenly a whole lot easier for all concerned.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Smith-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Morales-7, Laba-6, Techera-6, Davies- 6, Mezquida-7*, Rivero-7