Vancouver Whitecaps and the fine art of surfacing

I was going to open this with a bit about how krill spend their whole lives constantly treading water and therefore their two main roles within the ecosystem were to act as food for predators and as metaphors for people desperately trying to find an original introduction to their blog.

But it turns out they actually have inflatable air sacs in their bodies which act as flotation devices, thus rendering them metaphorically useless.

Lazy bastards.

Anyway, for much of last season and at the beginning of this it felt as though the Vancouver Whitecaps were treading water when it came to the progress of the team.

The system had grown stale, the coach seemed unaware that the system had grown stale and the players had the disinterested demeanour of a teenager at a family wedding.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Carl Robinson began to make tactical changes; three at the back, Bolaños as the number ten and finally the 4-1-4-1 formation that played well in Portland but lost and then played well in Montreal on Saturday afternoon and won 2-1.

Robinson is often keen to point out that formations don’t matter, players do. And in this particular case he’s both right and wrong.

Because the real strength of this system appears to be how wholeheartedly the players have bought into it.

Listen to any interview with any one of them recently and they will all enthuse about how they are now determined to adopt a more attacking style when playing on the road.

And we can probably conclude one of three things from this.

The coach has thoroughly convinced them of the benefits of this way of playing, they’ve been briefed by the club to say this to drum up interest in the games or the players themselves were partly instrumental in instituting the change.

Whatever the reasons behind it though the win in Montreal will only strengthen the belief in that particular way of playing.

There are still issues though.

Fredy Montero barely gets a look at goal and is used more as the hold up man than the striker and, somewhat bizarrely, two of the goals conceded in the last two games have come about because a Montero pass was hit slightly behind Bolaños causing the Whitecaps to lose possession.

That doesn’t mean that the errant Montero pass was the sole cause of the concession (there were many other factors involved) , but it does indicate a weakness in the formation because Vancouver are now much more vulnerable to conceding once they lose the ball

That’s because the defensive “double shield” is no longer there and though few will mourn the passing of that tactical trait work needs to be done at either getting Laba to stay deeper and more central or for Tchani and Jacobson to not over commit too early in a move (I can’t believe I’m complaining that the Whitecaps midfielders are being too attack minded!).

Another issue is that neither Jacobson or Tchani are true goal scoring midfielders.

Jacobson at least has some of the instincts to play in that way (even if his finishing leaves something to be desired) but Tchani has shown little going forward and that’s going to be an issue as the games go on because a team set up like this can’t afford to spurn chances on a regular basis.

But these are relatively minor gripes given how much things have improved with Bolaños, Techera and Montero beginning to find some kind of understanding and Sheanon Williams looking like the answer to all the right back woes of last season.

The question now is whether Robinson will stick with what he’s got or continue to experiment with systems and lineups.

It would be brave of him to try the latter given how well his side have played in the last two weeks but it’s tough to see how a player like Brek Shea will fit into this lineup and even harder to see a fit again Yordy Reyna playing any of these roles.

So maybe there is room for more tactical tweaks as the weeks and the games go on and that’s no bad thing as long as the core philosophy leans toward going forward more than dropping back.

Because while it may not be true that teams that try to win games always fare better than teams that try not to lose them it is true that fans will forgive the former far more easily than they will the latter.

And the Whitecaps have become almost likeable again.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings-

Ousted-6, Williams-7, Parker-6.5, Waston-6.5, Harvey-6.5, Laba-6.5, Tchani-5.5, Jacobson-7*, Bolaños- 6.5, Techera-7, Montero-6

 

 

 

Portland v Vancouver: What did we learn?

So I was listening to the new WhaleBone Shampoo album the other evening (“Restructuring the Forest” only available on vinyl through the “Perplexed” record label) and while the majority of the tracks are minor updates on the mashup of Trap music and Eastern European influenced Psychobilly that made their debut album “A Carwash for Dr. Ernst Janning” such essential listening it was the title track that I found so compelling.

This was clearly the band stepping away from their comfort zone and featured a kind of Kraftwerkesque electronica backing while individual members took turns in reading out random abstracts from past editions of National Geographic magazine.

Does it work?

Probably not, but it is at least an attempt to create something of an escape clause for the band; something that extends beyond the already slightly tired boundaries of their debut offering.

And as I was listening to that song it made me cast my mind back to the Whitecaps 2-1 defeat in Portland last weekend and then when I further heard Jordan Harvey being interviewed in a post-scrimmage scrum and listened to him opine that the team had vowed to break away from the defensive structure of previous years when it came to road games it made me re-evaluate what had gone before.

So let’s review.

A defeat in San Jose which only came about when David Ousted was red carded after Vancouver had sped into a 2-0 lead.

A mess of a game and a performance in Salt Lake in which an untried three at the back system was utilized with disastrous results.

And finally the recent Portland game where 4-1-4-1 was the order of the day with Andrew Jacobson playing as the most forward thinking central midfielder.

Now, we may not like much of what we’ve seen in those games (and we certainly haven’t liked the results) but there are clear indications that Carl Robinson is desperately trying to break away from the fetters of that old 4-2-3-1 routine that pretty much every other coach in the league figured out how to play against as early as September of 2015.

Much like listening to members of WhaleBone Shampoo earnestly reciting disconnected phrases about the lost tribe of Sapanahua and the latest breakthrough in mosquito repellent we have to acknowledge that, even if we don’t necessarily rejoice in the final cut that made it through the editing process, we should at least rejoice in the willingness of those involved to stretch their boundaries.

So it’s probably time to cut the coach some slack and hope that he continues with this experimental phase of his coaching career and to really, really hope that it produces something more tangible than interesting tactical variations in the very near future because the alternative is too awful to consider.

A return to the kind of road games where the Whitecaps sit back and sit back in the hope that nothing at all ever happens.

And it never, ever did.

 

Whitecaps fall on a sunny (and rainy) afternoon in Portland

When the Spanish fleet first landed in Mexico in March 1520 the country was home to 22 million people but, by December of that same year, only 14 million were still alive.

That tragedy is down to the introduction of smallpox but it does at least mean that the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 defeat in Portland on Saturday afternoon wasn’t the worst away trip of all time.

Actually the Whitecaps weren’t that bad at all, but a lede’s a lede right?

Unfortunately though the lead at half time was with the Timbers thanks to a combination of great finishing from the home team and sloppiness in possession from the visitors and while Vancouver emerged in the second half as a more potent threat their potency had all but fizzled out by the end.

From a tactical point of view Carl Robinson went with a 4-1-4-1 that almost worked.

There were moments when Tony Tchani and Andrew Jacobson (Jacobson in particular) got forward to support Fredy Montero and a slightly better finish or a slightly luckier deflection may well have reduced the deficit.

But one of the defining features of this Whitecaps team is that they never seem to perform for the full ninety minutes and against a side as well put together as Portland are that was always going to be a problem.

So what do we make of the 4-1-4-1 formation?

One one hand it’s kind of nice to see Robinson taking himself out of the comfort zone of 4-2-3-1 but on the other this felt more like the dress rehearsal for the system rather than the finished product (And we can say the same for the three at the back experiment in Salt Lake).

Iron out the kinks and it could be a useful weapon in the team’s armoury but the those kinks need to be truly ironed out before the team take the field.

Robinson was also far too slow in making a change once the fillip of the Montero goal had dissipated and why he chose to remove the effective Jacobson instead of the lacklustre Tchani is something of a mystery.

By the final minutes Vancouver were back in their comfort zone of relying on the hoofed long ball from Kendall Waston which spelled the death knell for any chance of creating an equalizer and once a couple of set piece chances had also been wasted it was all over.

A decent effort that ended in defeat.

It shows how low the expectations have become that, at the end of the game, I was reasonably content with how it all played out and it probably shows how low the expectations the players are having set for them that the coach seemed to feel the same way.

“I thought we played well and deserved something more” is the epitaph for many a failed season over the years and unless the Whitecaps can figure out a way to either genuinely “play well” or actually “get something more” then the upcoming three road games will be a tough row to hoe.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings-

Ousted-6, Williams-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Waston-6, Laba-6, Tchani-5, Jacobson-6.5, Bolaños-6, Techera-5.5, Montero-6.5*

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Wishing they were lucky

Napoleon Bonaparte famously preferred his generals to be lucky rather than good which, when you think about, is a startlingly incompetent way of running any kind of army and can therefore probably go into the history folder marked “apocryphal quotes”.

Nevertheless there are moments in any campaign when the fickle hand of fate can intervene when least expected.

And, while the overarching narrative around the Whitecaps this season has been the tale of woe relating to injuries and such, could there be an argument that Carl Robinson has actually enjoyed a good degree of fortune so far in 2017?

Let’s see if we can’t at least make some kind of case in favour of that contention.

The injury to David Edgar certainly stymied the coach’s plan to use the Canadian central defender as a cohesive force on both the field of play and in the locker room.

But his absence meant that Kendall Waston and Tim Parker were forced together again and the signs are that they are at least returning to something akin to their form of 2015.

It also forced Robinson into making a difficult choice about the captaincy and he eventually settled upon Waston and we soon discovered that while the burden of leadership didn’t eradicate every error from the big Costa Rican’s game it did encourage a more level-headed approach when it came to physical challenges.

Having Waston as captain reduces the risk of Waston as a red card collector.

The next piece of fortune came in the double whammy of the sending off and injury to Brek Shea.

Shea hasn’t done badly since joining the Whitecaps but it was clear that, given the numbers available to play out wide, Robinson was seriously toying with playing him as either a target man or as a number ten alongside Fredy Montero.

Shea is neither of those things and both he and we were spared witnessing any such experiment by his extended lay off.

That also forced Robinson to bring in Cristian Techera and the Uruguayan has now been instrumental in helping the team pick up a much needed six points from their last two MLS home games.

No Shea injury, no whipped in cross from Techera to set up for the first goal against Seattle.

But surely Jordy Reyna being ruled out before the season even began was nothing but bad news?

Well, it certainly looked that way for the first few games as Robinson played around with the ideas of Shea, Mezquida and Hurtado as striking options, but then Christian Bolaños got back to fitness and slotted into the number ten role with aplomb.

The general feeling is that Bolaños much prefers to play out wide but his presence in the centre brings a calmness and vision to a team that frequently lack both attributes.

No doubt that Reyna should be the long-term solution but when he is finally ready to play his first meaningful game he should be doing so in a side that has found some cohesion rather than the generally haphazard lineups we saw in the first few games.

There’s also the fact that the absences of Reyna, Shea, Bolaños and Manneh (For various reasons) helped Robinson through the difficult chore of rotating his squad.

There’s always been the sense that some players will get the nod no matter what their level of play (Witness Laba and Morales last season) but this time around there’s no chance for a player like Techera to feel slighted after being dropped following a game winning performance because there’s almost nobody to drop him for.

And let’s not forget that the arrival of Fredy Montero was the result of the striker being friendly with Mauro Rosales rather than any extensive behind the scenes machinations from the club.

No doubt the upcoming four game road trip will test this hypothesis to the limit but it could be that the virtue of selection necessity has been the saving grace for a team that can now find a level of consistency (In both style and personnel) before they get a fresh induction of renewed blood in the oft difficult to manoeuvre summer months.

You make your own luck in sport to be sure, but sometimes the raw materials are a little easier to assemble than others.

Pride Park versus BC Place: Fight!

To cut a long story short a combination of emigrating to Canada and appallingly timed trips back to the UK meant that I hadn’t been to the home of my “other” team, Derby County for eight years.

As a former season ticket holder there I was curious to see both how things had changed back in Derby and how they compared to the, now more familiar, Whitecaps game at BC Place.

So I will now inflict these “interesting” thoughts on you dear reader, but bear in mind they are inevitably laced with subconscious elements of nostalgia, false memories and inherent cultural prejudice.

The game I saw at Pride Park was a 4-2 win over Fulham so bonus points already for it being an enjoyable game to watch but how did it compare to the BC Place experience?

Well, the pregame outside the stadium was somewhat similar if highlighted with subtle differences.

There was an attempt at the equivalent of a Terry Fox Plaza patio set up outside the ground but in this East Midlands iteration the fans seemed more penned in and chilly than partying and chilling and that meant the majority of the pregame action was taking place at the numerous fast food/food truck outlets scattered around the stadium.

These outlets make a killing because whereas BC Place is a mere five minute stroll from numerous bars and restaurants, Pride Park is a brisk 30 minute walk from downtown and set in the middle of a soulless industrial estate populated by corporate offices, car dealerships and the kind of faux American eateries designed to obliterate any remaining love for humanity (“Have you been to a Harvester before?” “No, because if I’d been to a Harvester before I wouldn’t be here now would I?”).

They also make a killing because the food served in the stadium can safely be classed as “limited”. More reasonably priced than BC Place for sure but any chef’s taster menu would consist of pie crust and assorted grey meat (They don’t do taster menus FYI).

It’s almost as though they don’t want your money!

The first really big difference to be noticed is upon entering the stadium because there’s no security theatre presence whatsoever.

In fact you achieve a kind of English nirvana by not having to interact with any human being at all. Insert ticket into scanner and simply move through the turnstile.

Having swiftly moved through the “food court” (Imagine a very, very small parkade but with less romantic lighting) you walk to your seat and suddenly you are in a “proper” football ground.

Pride Park may have been a cookie cutter kind of design at the time with startling similarities to the stadiums of both Middlesbrough and Bolton but they were pretty good cookies and they worked.

Obviously there’s the sight of the lush green grass but that’s become both a sporting cliché and discussed ad infinitum with regard to BC Place.

The next moment that jars is the build up to the game because there really isn’t one; the teams are announced and then the players run out.

No stirring video about how terrible the weather is in Derby and no deafening intro music.

Just the sound of the crowd.

A quick run through of the terrible/charming song “Steve Bloomer’s Watching” and off we go at the allotted kick off time.

So what about the standard of play?

Derby started brightly and scored after eight minutes but Fulham aren’t above them in the standings for no reason and they reacted to the set back by stroking the ball calmly around the field.

It’s rare to see a team play with such assurance in MLS and that has to be an inevitable consequence of the salary structure because while the likes of Bolaños, Montero and maybe a couple of others could slot into these teams there are many others who would destroy any latent passing combination with the deft touch of a shin.

I had long maintained that MLS was probably at mid Championship level when it came to the quality of play but either the Championship has improved (which is possible given the money now involved) or I’m an idiot.

I’d now say MLS teams would be battling relegation in the Championship. Nothing wrong with that because every league has to have a level but it does show how far there still is to go.

And so to the crowd.

This is probably where my cultural bias shows the most strongest but it really does feel as though everybody is there just to watch the game with nobody grazing on snacks while chatting about their day.

In fact, there’s nobody eating or drinking at all largely because alcohol isn’t allowed within sight of the pitch. That’s a cruel and unusual punishment for anybody who has watched Derby over the years but it would certainly limit the amount of idiots wandering in and out of their seats during play at BC Place.

The other stand out feature is the “supporters section” behind the goal given that it’s one contiguous mass rather than the physically separated (For numerous reasons) set up at BC Place.

The big advantage Derby have over the Whitecaps it seems to me is that they control their own tickets which means there are no season tickets in prime areas that have fallen into the hands of third parties which inevitably means those seats are then taken up by disinterested fourth parties or maybe even no party at all.

Not having full control over ticketing probably makes sense from a logistic or financial perspective but if doing so diminishes a major selling point (“The best sporting atmosphere etc etc.”) it’s not so great.

Anyway, Derby won and all was well the world and, despite the implied criticism above, it was still great to get back to BC Place.

And I’m also aware that when Derby first moved into Pride Park it was seen as a disappointingly bland alternative to the previous home of the Baseball Ground which sat snugly in the middle of the kind of terraced house streets that now only seem to exist in period dramas, Coronation Street and as dumping grounds for bemused and abandoned refugees.

So maybe nostalgia is really just experience plus time and when the Whitecaps do move to their soccer specific stadium there will be somebody somewhere writing paeans to the time they first saw the turf at BC Place or about their love of playing in a stadium with a closed roof.

And I don’t mean that as ironically as it probably sounds.

One last post script though is that at the end of the game Pride Park blasted “White Riot” by The Clash into the cool evening air. No chance that will ever happen at BC Place but be great if it did.

 

 

Whitecaps v Sounders: What did we learn?

The former England striker Gary Lineker was once asked if being a great goal scorer was about being in the right place at the right time.

“No” he replied “it’s about being in the right place all of the time”.

Fredy Montero didn’t do all that much in the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders on Friday evening but twice he managed to find the right sliver of space to head the ball home from close range.

It’s been too long since the Whitecaps had that kind of player.

The game itself began with a “same old, same old” feeling for the home side as they conceded possession to the visitors and resorted to the kind of aimless long balls from the back that left Montero bereft of both support and hope.

It just seemed to be a matter of time before the quality inherent in the Seattle forward line got the breakthrough.

Then Cristian Techera began to find the space out wide to deliver in a couple of decent crosses and the momentum of the game changed ever so slightly.

Suddenly the Whitecaps hearts and intentions were in the right place and although it was neither pretty nor particularly effective they did at least begin to take the game to their opponents.

The second half began with a sense of openness that was inevitably going to lead to a goal and indeed it did  (See! I told you!) when Bolaños spread the ball wide to Techera who delivered the perfect cross for Montero to head home.

The key to that goal wasn’t just the link play of Bolaños and Techera it was the fact that both Bolaños and Davies were in the box with Montero waiting for the ball to be delivered.

Marking Montero and two others is far harder than marking a solitary Montero and if Vancouver want to continue to get the best out of the Colombian then they need to to give him that kind of quality support on a regular basis.

The other major positives from the evening were the aforementioned link play of Bolaños and Techera (Who may well be on the way to forming an effective triumvirate with Montero) and the play of Parker and Waston who once again looked back to their old selves of two years ago.

There were negatives on display as well of course so let’s dwell on those for a short while.

Neither Laba nor Teibert offered any kind of effective attacking presence from the midfield and that’s just not sustainable over the long term.

And Carl Robinson may have to begin to consider Alphonso Davies as more of an impact substitute than a starting player because the poor kid looked both physically and mentally gassed at about the fifty minute mark.

The biggest concern though was the way the team completely lost their collective heads once Seattle did score and the final four minutes of added time were an exercise in hope over organisation in which hope only won by the merest of margins.

That sense of panic is probably to be expected given the way the team have played of late but it was a reminder of just how quickly this season could still fall spectacularly off the rails.

Still, the Whitecaps now have two consecutive home wins against Western Conference rivals under their belts which at least makes the upcoming four game road trip a less daunting prospect and if Robinson can convince his players (Or, more likely, the other way around) that taking the initiative in games isn’t necessarily the equivalent of signing your own death warrant then there is still a chance the season won’t be the disaster it’s already threatened to be.

Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams-6.5, Parker-7.5*, Waston-7.5, Harvey-6, Teibert-6, Laba-6, Techera-7, Davies-6, Bolaños-7, Montero-6.5 (Mezquida-6)

 

 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Well excuse me!

Just over a week spent in the land of Great Brexit meant that I missed seeing the defeats to Tigres and Real Salt Lake as they happened.

That was probably a blessing in many ways but it was also kind of interesting to view the games almost solely through the prism of social media because the people who follow the Whitecaps (Or at least the people who I follow who follow the Whitecaps) are a remarkably forgiving bunch on the whole.

Lose to Tigres: “That’s to be expected because it’s the Champion’s League game”.

Lose to Real Salt Lake: “That’s to be expected because the game was so close to the Champion’s League game”.

I may be paraphrasing slightly for dramatic effect but it’s still not too far away from the truth and if any group of players or any coach didn’t need this kind of forgiveness it’s the current Vancouver Whitecaps.

Perhaps behind closed doors Carl Robinson runs the whole operation with the kind of sadistic brutality of Sergeant Williams in the 1965 movie “The Hill” but all indications are that he runs them more in the style of Sergeant Wilson in the long running TV series “Dad’s Army” (Forgive the overly British references here I’ve only just got back!).

Let’s look at the evidence.

Last season Cristian Techera showed up for preseason clearly out of condition and never found any kind of form until the latter half of the campaign.

This season Robinson himself has admitted that Christian Bolaños was unfit when he arrived at training and when Kekuta Manneh was sent to Columbus Crew their coach, Gregg Berhalter eschewed playing him because, “We want to make sure he’s right and prepared and we did notice a little bit of a difference in I guess his stamina compared to our guys”.

All individual incidents for sure but individual incidents that hint at a culture aimed more at keeping the players happy than keeping them at their physical peak.

And do we really have to listen to Robinson list a series of excuses for yet another defeat before he then utters the deathless phrase “You know me, I don’t like to make excuses”?

Or listen to another player saying that the latest loss will “Only make us stronger” and is “Something we can learn from”?

Here’s a word to the wise; if you keep losing games of football then you’re not getting stronger and you’re not learning anything.

You’re just losing games of football.

The next five games already feel season defining given that they consist of a home game to Seattle followed by four tough road games and while the excuses are already built in to that agenda; injuries, travel, playing good teams (Got to love the last of those as it implies that having a good team is some kind of cheat mode) the Whitecaps could emerge from that spell already adrift of their much coveted sixth spot.

Maybe I’m wrong (Hopefully I’m wrong!) and this is just the jet lag talking and Vancouver are about to embark on a run of form that overturns everything that has gone before but, as of now, the Vancouver Whitecaps feel like a really fun place to be if you’re a player but not so great a place to be if you just want to watch the games.

That’s probably not sustainable as a business model and it’s definitely not sustainable as a way of achieving meaningful success on the field.

Unfortunately, unless Carl Robinson has some kind of unexpected epiphany (Though all epiphanies are unexpected I guess) the likelihood is that things will carry on as is for the forseeable future with the parity of MLS ensuring just enough points to keep the hopes of the playoffs mathematically alive until late summer and the inevitable fading away of yet another season.

As Sergeant Wilson himself would enquire of the coach and the organisation as a whole, “Do you think that’s wise?”