Vancouver Whitecaps: The Wild Brunch

For all the angst of watching Seattle and Portland breeze though MLS in recent years perhaps no team has really brought home how bad the Whitecaps have been at this whole thing quite like Sporting Kansas City.

An “unfashionable” team who don’t spend a fortune but have an established style of play and who bring in players who suit that style of play rather than chasing either the big name signing or whichever player happens to be available at the time.

They are a template for how to run a team in MLS.

And, unsurprisingly, they beat the Whitecaps 3-0 on Sunday brunch time, not least because they have built a better squad and have a better coach.

It’s possible that Marc Dos Santos looked at the previous games this season and thought that Jake Nerwinski had done just fine and didn’t really need much cover from the wide player in front of him.

It’s also possible that he thought he did need cover and that Ryan Raposo was the best option to do so.

But neither of those possibilities place the coach in a favourable light and Kansas eyed up the right side of the Whitecaps with the same relish a hungry lion eyes up a wounded antelope.

The game was over before Dos Santos replaced Raposo with Baldisimo and the Whitecaps somewhat improved for ten minutes before half-time, but the second half was a return to Kansas failing to score from the numerous chances they created and Vancouver snatching at the very occasional chance that fell their way.

The only real positive from this performance is that it will have surely dented the belief that the Whitecaps were establishing a consistent style of play and that little needed to change other than the occasional tweak here and there.

The whole “no goals from open play” thing is starting to look less like an amusing quirk and more like a harbinger of doom as, with Dajome out of sorts, they produced no real incisiveness with Cavallini once again being the bulwark to more attacks than the defenders around him and Alexandre, once again, operating in areas of the pitch where his capacity to inflict damage was mostly related to his reputation for falling to the ground at the slightest provocation.

This was the first time the Whitecaps have been embarrassing to watch this season, but there were so many things wrong with the performance that it seems hard to think of it as “just one of those games”.

“We have to be better”, “Lessons will be learned” and “It’s a process”.

Time for the post-game hits to get an airing.

Time also for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-5, Nerwinski-1, Veselinovic-4, Cornelius-4, Gutierrez-3, Bikel-5, Alexandre-4, Raposo-1, Dajome-3, Caicedo-2, Cavallini-2 (Baldisimo-5*)

Vancouver Whitecaps: It is what it is

In retrospect, the 1-0 loss to Minnesota United was always going to be “one of those games” for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Minnesota had lost their first four games and, for a team who are bascially fine, that run really wasn’t going to last.

On another day the Whitecaps could have won by two or three and, on another day, they could have lost by the same score.

It was that kind of game.

The main positive is that Vancouver treated a road game as a chance to pick up three points, rather than the equivalent of an excursion to some uncharted alien territory where simple survival was the very best they could hope for.

They pressed well, they broke with pace when they had the chance and (of course) their set-pieces were a constant threat.

Bruno Gaspar looked better going forward than Nerwinski (a low bar to be sure, but still a bar) and Bikel and Alexandre were composed in midfield.

In an ideal world Alexandre would have been more involved nearer to the opposition goal but at least he wants to (and can) play quick forward passes.

Russell Teibert once again demonstrated that his best position (by far) is in the wide left role and Cristián Gutiérrez once again demonstrated that he can deliver both a good cross and a heartfelt chat with anybody on the field should the opportunity arise.

It’s tempting to wonder how the loss of Andy Rose at half-time tipped the balance of the game. Derek Cornelius did fine as the replacement but he and Veselinovic were split by the game winning cross in a way that may not have happened had Rose still been on the field.

It’s also tempting to wonder if Marc Dos Santos will ever substitute Lucas Cavallini.

The Canadian forward looked gassed in the last fifteen minutes and the introduction of Ricketts or Bair may not have won the game, but it would have given the Minnesota defence more to worry about than the equivalent of a fatally wounded beast slumping slowly across the Savannah in a futile attempt to find the final resting ground it’s DNA told it was out there somewhere.

But, all things a considered, we would have been ecstatic with even a mildly entertaining road game in recent years and this was not only more than mildly entertaining it was an example of a team who knew what they were doing and actually seemed to be enjoying their football.

If Dos Santos can find the balance between that and putting points on the board then that would be perfectly acceptable.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-5, Gaspar-5, Gutiérrez -5.5, Veselinovic, 5.5, Rose-5.5, Bikel-6*, Alexandre-5.5, Dajome-5.5, Caicedo-5.5, Teibert-5.5, Cavallini-4

Vancouver Whitecaps: Something Good

After the Whitecaps loss to Colorado last week I whined that the two previous good results had been false dawns. Anomalies that tricked us all into thinking progress had been made whereas, in reality, the Whitecaps were still the same old Whitecaps.

So where does the narrative stand after the 2-0 victory over whatever the hell Montreal are called these days?

The narrative stands with a foot in both camps. Awkwardly hopping from foot to foot, unsure of where to finally come to rest.

The first half on Saturday was confirmation bias catnip for those who think that Vancouver are still too passive when they need to be proactive. All safe and slow passing that pads possession stats without making any kind of progress towards the opposition penalty area.

The second half was power of positivity bindweed for those who think a squad that has been strengthened without being disrupted can grow into the season. All high pressing and pace going forward.

But the simple truth might just be that Marc Dos Santos got his tactics wrong last week.

Moving Dájome away from the centre, playing Alexandre in the number ten role and asking Russell Teibert to be the creator are the kind of decisions that probably feel innovative in some 4 a.m. fever dream but collapse into incomprehension when exposed to the Utah sun.

Against Montreal, Teibert was back on the left where he could protect Gutiérrez, Alexandre was playing in the role he was brought in to play and Dájome was back alongside/just behind Cavallini in attack.

And Dájome is turning out to be a crucial player for the team.

Last year he seemed a somewhat peripheral, if intermittently effective, wide player who could deliver decent crosses for Cavallini to finish. This year he’s been the main creative force simply because he never stops harassing the opposition defence and plays with a refreshing directness.

Alexandre wasn’t his creative equivalent on Saturday but, in the second half, there were signs the Brazilian could play the kind of instinctive first time forward pass the Whitecaps have been severely lacking.

But now let’s turn, with a heavy heart, to Jake Nerwinski.

Nerwinski looked disturbingly out of his depth yesterday. He was targeted as a weak point and almost always took one touch too many that meant his passing was rushed and thus offered Montreal the chance to gain possession in dangerous areas.

If Gaspar is fit he surely has to start on Wednesday and give Nerwinski the break he seems to need in order to get his head back in the right place when he’s on the field.

That game and the visit to Kansas on Sunday should suit the way the Whitecaps want to play and they should also mean more players are given the chance to make a larger contribution.

Dos Santos now has decent depth at his disposal. How he uses that depth will be as important as how sets up the team in each game.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crépeau-6, Nerwinski-2, Gutiérrez-6, Rose-5.5, Veselinović-5, Bikel-5, Alexandre-5.5, Teibert-5.5, Caicedo-5, Dájome-6*, Cavallini-5.5

So what did we learn?

So (now that the dust of disappointment has settled) what did we really learn from the Whitecaps defeat to the Rapids on Sunday evening?

We were too happy- In retrospect, many of us viewed the first two games through the rose tinted spectacles of results rather than performance. The Whitecaps were fine in those games, but that’s all.

But they weren’t the seeds of recovery we thought they were. Two set pieces and a penalty kick do not a foundation make and the law of averages came back to bite the team on Sunday.

Lessons to be learned- In his post-game presser Marc Dos Santos admitted that his team needed to be better at breaking down a defence that sits deep.

Yes they do.

But they’ve needed to be better at that for the last fifty-nine centuries. One assumes they are working on this defect in training, but it constantly seems to be a source of deep bafflement to everybody on the team that hitting hopeful long balls from the back isn’t the infallible master plan they seemingly think it is.

Dos Santos also said that perhaps his players started slowly because the pressure of getting to seven points may have got to them. It’s certainly easy to see how reaching such vertiginous heights would freeze even the best of footballers.

Let Cavallini be Cavallini- The Canadian forward is good at getting on the end of crosses (high or low) and annoying opposition defenders to within an inch of a red card.

He’s not good at running forward with the ball for anything more than a few steps. Let Dajome and Caicedo do the running forward with the ball. They can then kick it across to where Cavallini is standing and he can try to head or kick it into the net.

They need a number ten– I’m instinctively anti the number ten role. Especially in MLS. Yes, yes, yes it will get results, but it’s such a reductive way of running a team and leaves you always one bad injury away from disaster.

It was my (seemingly forlorn) hope that the Whitecaps could build a team. A squad of players who slotted together in a system that made the reliance on the mercurial talents of an individual the redundant dream of a bygone MLS age.

But no, the only way they will flourish is by adding that one player who can make things happen for the others. A golden talisman for the leaden footed support act to rally around.

There is hope- Well, I say “hope” but really it’s an acknowledgment that they probably have enough to squeak into the playoffs.

Good set-pieces will get you points and the eventual return of Erik Godoy should make both the defence better and the midfield more willing to get forward (That “should” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence).

But will they be more than that? A team that genuinely believes the top four is within their reach? A team that doesn’t fail to perform the moment even the most minor of achievements is within their grasp?

That looks a lot less likely than some of us thought it was just one short week ago.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Revenge of the Rapids

In the 1983 Italian movie, Zeder, a young journalist discovers that the ribbon of an old typewriter he has recently bought still retains the imprint of a story written by its previous owner.

As he slowly pieces together the words he discovers it to be a macabre tale that lures him into the world of the dead and the undead, until his existence is nothing but dread and fear.

And the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to the Colorado Rapids was a bit like that.

Not the dead and the undead, fear and dread parts (although feel free to insert your own jokes here if you wish) but rather the idea that the substance of this team is still as indistinct as the the faded words on an abandoned typewriter ribbon.

Marc Dos Santos is still struggling to make his side into anything we would call meaningful. They are a ghost that has yet to be born, the echo of a song that is yet to be sung.

And the game on Sunday was full of echoes.

The inability to build on good results by losing to a team that was in a slump. The reluctance of the midfield to get forward. The insistence that the best players to play the searching forward balls were the two central defenders.

But the most haunting thing of all was the unwillingness to play the brave pass. The reluctance to challenge the opponent with anything other than a set piece or a pounced on error.

This wasn’t helped by the decison to play Caio Alexandre (roundly touted as a a box to box midfielder) in the number ten role, nor was it helped by asking Russell Teibert to play the Baldisimo role and dictate the play from deep.

Maybe, on another night, the Whitecaps would have won this game with a couple of set piece goals but that would have distracted from the fundamental flaws that still remain.

It was disappointing to see Vancouver once again shrink from the opportunity to gain a statement win that would have set them up nicely for the early part of the season.

But it was more troubling to watch yet another game where Dos Santos was incapable of sending out a team that could create chances from open play.

The words on his typewriter ribbon are growing feinter with each day that passes. But what if it turns out those words don’t form a tale that makes sense? What if they are just the random tappings of a malevolent spirit?

That would leave us all with nothing to do but scream helplessly into the endless void.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-6*, Nerwinski-2, Veselinovic-3.5, Rose-3.5, Guttierez-5, Teibert-4, Bikel-3.5, Dajome-5, Caicedo-4.5, Alexandre- 3, Cavallini-4.5

Vancouver Whitecaps: First Steps, still with Mallett

Anyone who has attended the Imagine Van Gogh exhibition currently showing at the Vancouver Convention Centre can’t help but be impressed by the sheer visual wonder of seeing the artist’s greatest works swirling and moving around them in a wave of colour and form.

And, once the initial motion induced nausea subsides, the mind turns to the magnified minutiae of the paintings. How each, seemingly random, brushstroke compounds with those around it to create a coherent and knowable whole.

And perhaps our visitor will also consider the connection between those brushstrokes and a game of football?

For, if you think about it for long enough, isn’t each pass within a game the corollary of a swipe of an artist’s brush? Each one adding to the whole until, at the final whistle, we see the picture in all its glory or despair.

That might be stretching it somewhat, but the tickets to that Van Gogh thing were quite expensive so I’m going to bleed as much value out of them as I can.

But it’s fair to say that while the Whitecaps performance in the 2-2 tie with Toronto wasn’t a work of art, it was at least a sketch of something that could go on to be more.

Gutiérrez once again looked like the definition of a modern full back, Dájome and Caicedo both have the first instinct to move the ball forward rather than stop and ponder their options and that instinct brings Cavallini into games far more than if he occupied the traditional “Island of No Possession” that has been the natural habitat of Whitecaps strikers over the years.

There are still fault lines of course.

Nerwinski again looked like the very definition of an MLS full back, the centre of defence was an accident waiting to happen throughout the game with Veselinovic in particular always hungry to give the ball away and Crepeau displayed questionable positional sense unless the ball was flying directly toward him from an opposition shot.

But when was the last time the Whitecaps got a point away from home and we all thought “Ugh, that’s two points dropped”?

What we’ve seen in the first two games or, more specifically, the second half of each of the first two games is a team that isn’t solely relying on sitting deep and hitting the opposition on the break (although they leaned on that a little too much in the last ten minutes on Saturday) but wants to create chances with their own play rather than relying on the flaws of others.

A contrarian may point out that the Whitecaps haven’t scored from open play in either of these games, but the contrarian can be quiet for now because they aren’t looking at the picture as a whole.

Or, more specifically, they are concluding that the picture is finished when there are still unused tubes of paint on the artist’s palette (that’s another dollar off the ticket price right there).

For Vancouver still have players to either return or introduce for the first time and, when we look back at the season, it’s possible we’ll conclude that the best thing to happen to this team was to be shorthanded in the early games.

That’s meant players already familiar with each other have started games and provided a level of cohesion that the influx of new faces may not have done.

What’s more, those new faces can now be introduced into a team that plays a functioning system (a first for any recent arrival to the Whitecaps).

In short, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the direction of this team.

It’s only a two game sample size and the wheels can fall off faster than a razor blade through an earlobe, but at least a decent outline has been penciled into the notebook.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crépeau-4, Nerwinski-5, Gutiérrez-6.5*, Rose-5,  Veselinovic, 4, Bikel-5.5, Baldisimo, 5,  Caicedo, 5.5, Teibert-6, Dájome-6, Cavallini-6

Vancouver Whitecaps Sprint Out of the Blocks

For the first forty five minutes of the game against the Portland Timbers it all felt very déjà vu for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The passed the ball successfully but with little ambition and, by the end of the half, they were starting to drift back towards their own goal as the Timbers started to increase the pressure.

But in the second half déjà vu turned into déjà new as Vancouver came out of the blocks with some fire in their belly and were rewarded by Lucas Cavallini heading home from a corner on which he was mysteriously ignored by the Portland defence.

After that they belied their history once more by not being terrible at holding on to that one goal lead.

Maybe they could have pushed forward more? Maybe they allowed the Timbers a bit too much of the ball? But, besides the odd inevitable chance here and there, they mostly kept their opponents at arms length and racked up an all too rare three points to start the season.

And it would be easy to dwell on a few more of the negatives. So let’s do that.

There was still a limited ability to create chances from open play, the midfield rarely got involved in an attacking sense and Max Crepeau was keener to parry the ball into dangerous areas than catch it.

But on the positive side Cristian Dajome was excellent, Déiber Caicedo made a promising debut and the defence looked like a functioning entity rather than a collection of individuals desperately trying to kick or head the ball in the right direction.

It’s still ridiculously early to make a definitive judgment of course, but the Whitecaps can take hope from this performance and, throw in the arrival of what feels like a whole army of players who can’t yet play, the 2021 season might not turn out to be a pit of hopeless despair after all.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-4.5, Nerwinski-6, Guttierez-6, Rose-6, Veselinovic-6, Bikel-5.5, Baldisimo-5, Dajome-6*, Teibert-5, Caicedo-5.5, Cavallini-5

And so it begins…

Strange to think that by nine o’clock tonight we will know all there is to know about how the 2021 season will pan out for the Vancouver Whitecaps. But, while we wait for this slew of knowledge to be downloaded into our brains, let’s take some time to think about what we need from the team this year.

People often come up to me in the street and say “What we, the general public, want to read about is three fairly abstract things that will make the team better this season. We, the general public, would like that very much”.

So here is the answer to this oft asked query.

Understand how numbers work– The Whitecaps seem to be labouring under the mistaken belief that three points at the start of the season aren’t as important as three points near the end.

Time after time a team like the Philadelphia Union (And, in MLS, about forty percent of the teams are “like the Philadelphia Union”) will arrive at BC Place for the first game of the campaign with a weakened team that features the Assistant Kit Manager’s fifteen year old son playing on the wing and an inflatable kayak in the holding midfield role and Vancouver will fold like a cheap suit.

Four games later they will have two points, already be five points off the playoffs, but spend all their time talking about the need to settle in the new players and adapt to the new system.

Come season end there will be a desperate attempt to win the last three games in a futile attempt to sneak into the last playoff place.

Maybe treat the opening games as seriously as the closing ones?

No excuses- “Player A hasn’t got a visa sorted”, “Players B and C are injured”, “Player D needs time to adapt to MLS”.

You know what? Cry me a river.

The Whitecaps unspoken Mission Statement since they moved to MLS has effectively been “It’s not our fault!”

And that lack of sense of responsibility has seeped down onto the field and become toxic. Give professional athletes an excuse for their failings and, nine times out of ten, they will embrace it.

The team need to play the hand they are dealt and stop leaning on the crutch of what might have been.

Stick to the plan- The most disappointing aspect of Marc Dos Santos’ tenure has been his flip flopping on how he sets up the team to play. Always just two games away from changing to a new system without giving the current one time to bed in.

If he fails this year then it’s hard to see him sticking around for another season, so best to fail on the thing he actually believes in than on a desperate attempt to chase success based on the latest tactical whim or random good performance by Player E.

It would also be great if the Whitecaps signed some players with last names rather than just letters, but we are where we are.

See you on the other side of the Portland game.

Vancouver Whitecaps: We Need A Little Time

Chancing upon the Twitter exchange above the other day couldn’t help but send a frisson of anxiety pulsing through my synapses. A feeling akin to seeing a significant other surreptitiously flirting with Chad from Marketing at the annual office Pot Luck.

But, always wanting to be the adult in the room, I didn’t waste my time on pointless angst and idle imaginings. I simply called the Whitecaps directly to clarify the situation. And, for the benefit of posterity, I have transcribed the details of the call below.

ME: Hi.

VW: Hi.

Me: Just wanted to check how the flight went and that you’re settling in in Utah.

VW: Thanks so much! Yes all good so far.

ME: Good to know. I see you’ve started to make friends with the locals.

VW: What?

ME: I saw the tweets between you and a Salt Lake fan and I think it’s good that you’ve wasted absolutely no time in making new friends.

VW: …….

ME: Still there?

VW: Is that what this call is about?

ME: What do you mean?

VW: Are you calling to check up on us?

ME: Of course not!

VW: Because we really can’t do this right now.

ME: Do what?

VW: This.

ME: …..

VW: You know how hard it was for us in Florida last year right? Isolated and away from everybody.

ME: Of course I do. And I supported you through that.

VW: Sure you did.

ME: What does that mean?

VW: It means that sarcastic tweets and passive aggressive blog posts don’t always come across as supportive.

ME: Passive aggressive?

VW: Yes. Passive aggressive.

ME: Well, I don’t know about passive aggressive, but I wish your passing was more aggressive. You might score more goals.

VW: There we go! You always have to bring it back to the passing don’t you? Every time!

ME: It’s important! Anyway, it’s not just the passing. It’s the getting people into the box as well. I mention that a lot too.

VW: We noticed.

ME: I’m trying to help.

VW: But it doesn’t help. How do you think it makes us feel?

ME: Well, I’m not sure but..

VW: And we know that you watch Premier League and Champions League games when we’re not around.

ME: Everybody does that!

VW: Exactly. You’re just like all the rest. Sometimes it feels as though you don’t support us for who we are, but for who you want us to be. And we just can’t be that team. We’ll never be that team.

ME: Well, I didn’t mean to upset you and….

VW Look, we’re tired. We’ve got a lot going on. And I think it will be good for us to spend some time away from you. Just so that we can re-focus and get ourselves together again.

ME: But you’re coming back right?

VW: Of course we’re coming back! Why do you have to be so suspicious all the time?

ME: Well I’ve heard stories about teams going to other cities and never coming back. So I’m worried.

VW: We’re coming back. We just need space to ourselves to figure some things out.

ME: Okay if that’s how you feel. Should I call you again?

VW: We’d prefer it if you didn’t.

ME: I’ll write though.

VW: You don’t have to.

ME: No, I really don’t mind. I’ll write after every game and let you know what I thought of it. That way you’ll know all the things you’ve been doing wrong and that will help you to……hello? Hello?

At that stage the line went dead. Probably symptomatic of the poor infrastructure that America is blighted with after decades of under investment.

Safe to say though that I helped to ease the situation and put everybody’s minds at ease.

Wishing and Hoping

I’m old enough to remember when the release of the Whitecaps schedule meant scrolling through the list of games and considering the questions surrounding them.

In what specific way had MLS made travelling to Portland and Seattle difficult this season? Is there the chance of a weekend in Denver? A midweek trip to Sandy, Utah?

This year a visit to Austin would probably be high on many a wish list, but I’m also old enough to remember when the Whitecaps played their games in Canada so am content to make my wish lists more prosaic than doing things like travelling to new places or going to actual games.

My three wishes for the season then you ask? Fair enough.

Erik Godoy stays fit- Godoy is one of those players you don’t really notice until he gets a clever yellow card in the eighty-fifth minute. But he’s also one of those players who makes those around him better.

Whether he gets paired with Veselinovic (a young player with what feels like significant potential) or Cornelius (a young player who did all that was asked of him and more last year) the presence of Godoy will give the Whitecaps a level of confidence at the back they were lacking far too often in 2020.

Caio Alexandre turns out be a genuine Number 8- While others pine for a Number 10, I while away the hours pondering how much better the Whitecaps would be with a “proper” number 8.

A player who arrives at the edge of the area to fire home a scuffed clearance. Who pounces on a goalkeepers parry to fire the ball unceremoniously into the roof of the net.

It could be argued that most midfielders in the modern game are a default mix of the number 8 and number 6 anyway, but the whole identity of the Whitecaps in recent years seems to have been built around the lack of attacking players in the box so, for now, a traditional number 8 will do just fine.

Lucas Cavallini comes good- What we learned last season is that Cavallini is a forward not a goal scorer. He wants to score goals but he doesn’t need to score them.

His overall contribution is based around work rate rather than his finishing, but this season he should (hopefully) get the kind of service he needs from both flanks and (hopefully) he won’t be playing in a team that considers counterattack the only form of attack.

His stats suggest he’s a one goal in three games player as his default setting, but Vancouver probably need an uptick on that if he’s to justify his existence.