Vancouver Whitecaps: A new world struggles to be born

Heat domes, bomb cyclones, tornadoes and the Vancouver Whitecaps making the playoffs.

Things just get stranger and stranger.

The Whitecaps clinched the much coveted berth with a 1-1 tie against the Seattle Sounders on Sunday afternoon and now travel to Kansas in the next stage of their adventure.

Almost more impressive than that feat however was the way Vancouver approached the game.

We have all lived through the Whitecaps facing a Cascadian rival at home in a crucial game and immediately retreating into their shell. Playing with fear and a hope for the best attitude that admits defeat from the get go.

But, under Sartini, they are a different animal.

They attacked from the first whistle and didn’t allow the inevitable Fredy Montero goal to distract them from their purpose.

Sartini’s decision to play the same system no matter who was available has turned out to be the foundation for the resurgence of the team.

Okay we got to see Baldisimo as a central defender and Metcalfe as a wing back. But the message it sent to the players was that they were going to play their own way and if they lost then so be it. But no more emphasis on how good the opposition were and simply setting up to nullify them.

Sartini is the first Vancouver MLS coach (since Teitur Thordarson) to not go into every game with an inherent sense of inferiority.

He’s also the first coach since Teitur Thordarson to connect with the supporters.

Tom Soehn was an executive in a coach’s tracksuit, Martin Rennie was too out of his depth to think of such things, Carl Robinson didn’t think anybody in British Columbia understood the game as well as he did and felt such statecraft beneath him and Marc Dos Santos was too trapped in the purgatory of the way he wanted his team to play and the way it actually played.

No doubt Sartini’s willingness to connect with the fanbase is down to his personality, but it’s also a savvy PR move on his part.

A club with the need for as much positivity as it can get will find it immensely difficult to remove the most positive figure in the organization.

But would it be the right move from a purely footballing point of view?

It’s possible that Sartini is riding the wave of optimism the players have felt since returning to BC Place and it’s possible that once the fresh scent of change wears off they stop buying whatever he is selling them. It’s also possible that the addition of Ryan Gauld has been enough to propel the team on such a good run. And it’s possible that it could all end in tears and heartbreak before we know it.

But there seems to be more substance to Sartini’s coaching than merely good will and good quotes. He’s got the players to pass and move (it’s an indication of how poor the Whitecaps have been that passing and moving is seen as a major innovation) and suddenly the player on the ball has an option to pass to rather than staring down the blind alley of nothingness that induces the hopeful punt forward.

And do we really think Dos Santos would have used Gauld as anything other than a get out of jail free card from the regular backs to the wall defensive showpiece?

It would be a brave decision by the Whitecaps to replace Sartini and the role would perhaps be something of a poisoned chalice for the new incumbent to drink from.

For now though it’s on to Kansas with the knowledge that the Whitecaps will approach the game in the way it should be approached. An opportunity to be grabbed rather than an ordeal to be survived.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-6, Brown-6, Gutierrez-6, Jungwirth-6, Nerwinski-6, Veselnovic-6, Teibert-5.5, Owusu-5.5, Gauld-6.5*, Dajome-5, White-4.5 (Bikel-3)

Vancouver Whitecaps accept chaos

For sixty minutes the Whitecaps played in a very Whitecaps way against the Colorado Rapids on Sunday evening.

They didn’t really think about attacking, they couldn’t keep the ball because they didn’t want the ball. Any attempt to play it short from the back was defined by lethargy and lack of movement. Any attempt to play it long from the back merely resulted in the ball settling happily at the foot of a Rapids player and there were no attempts to play it through the middle from the back because the midfield existed more as concept in the imagination than a physical entity that existed in the real world.

Somehow though Vancouver were still tied at 1-1 after one solid hour of play and so Vanni Sartini decided to accept that the universe is just a bundle of chaos existing in a vast and empty void and made his substitutions accordingly.

White and Cavallini playing up front at the same time? Why not? Removing the midfield entirely? Let’s give it a go! Playing Dajome in a variety of positions based solely on the premise that there was no premise? Done!

Bizarrely it worked.

Or rather, it both did and didn’t work.

It worked in the sense that the Whitecaps began to create openings and could even have stolen a win.

It didn’t work in the sense that the Rapids had chance after chance and, on another night, could have run away with the game.

But maybe if you play the universe at its own game it will occasionally reward you?

Maybe if you stare into the abyss and see the abyss staring back at you and you somehow don’t blink or flinch or shudder then the abyss will give a shrug of respect and decide that, just this once, it will let you walk away unscathed?

That’s not a long term plan for sporting success but, on the night, it was kind of fun to see a Vancouver coach and team not give a hoot about shape or formation and just let the stars align as they chose to do.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-5, Brown-3, Dajome-5*, Veselinovic-4, Rose-4, Jungwirth-4, Bikel-2, Teibert-3.5, Gauld-5, Caicedo-4.5, White-4 (Cavallinie-4, Baldisimo-4)

Vancouver Whitecaps at the crossroads.

Impressive and important though the ten game unbeaten streak had been the Whitecaps spent much of that time dodging bullets like a prisoner of war zig-zagging across an open field while guards strafe the air with gunfire.

Failing to show any urgency in the first half, waiting for the opposition to score before coming to life, relying on substitutes to tilt the momentum.

Each one of those failings will, sooner or later, hit a major artery.

And so it was in the the 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers on Friday evening.

Not that things were helped by Vanni Sartini’s team selection in which Patrick Metcalfe and Russell Teibert were asked to play as (checks notes) wing backs.

It’s unfair to blame either player for the lack of success of that particular plan, but any system in which Teibert is the better of the attacking options isn’t really fit for purpose.

Sartini rang the changes during the second half and Javain Brown provided more threat in his first five minutes than Metcalfe and Teibert had throughout the whole game, Deiber Caicedo offered some much needed energy and pace and almost netted twice and we also got to see the “Cavallini hat-trick” of consistently failing to hold on to possession, exasperated arms thrown into the air at the imaginary failing of a team mate and an unnecessary scuffle with an opponent.

It has to be a matter of time before Cavallini’s salary is offloaded to make way for a player who better fits the plan for how this team is being built.

This loss doesn’t destroy Vancouver’s playoff hopes, but it should shift the emphasis toward using the remaining games to assess which players deserve to be here next season and which don’t.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-4.5, Metcalfe-3, Teibert-4, Godoy-4, Veselinovic-4, Jungwirth-4.5, Bikel-4, Baldisimo-5*-Gauld-5, Dajome-3, White-3 (Brown-5, Caicedo-5, Cavallini-1)

Whitecaps back in their safe BC Home

For most of the game against Austin FC on Saturday afternoon it seemed that the follow up to Vanni Sartini’s opening triumph would be his Neither Fish nor Flesh. A performance that exposed the flaws of the first outing rather than building on the positives.

Instead it turned into his Give ‘Em Enough Rope. Not great, probably not good, but with enough flashes of promise to indicate the project wasn’t dead yet.

The first half was awful.

The Whitecaps were out pressed, outplayed and out of ideas. Partly because the team selection was wrong. Losing the threat of Javain Brown on the right cried out for extra pace elsewhere on the field, but Sartini opted to move Bikel to replace Brown and Baldismo to replace Bikel in the middle.

If he had flipped his team sheet over to cover players whose name began with the letter C he would have seen that Caicedo was best positioned to provide said pace.

The late Austin goal in that half was inevitable and must have left the coach wishing he had acted earlier in replacing Bruno Gaspar at left back.

It’s unclear what was wrong with Gaspar. An early tackle that made him want none of what was to come? Playing on the left instead of the right? A dislike of MLS as a cultural entity?

Whatever the reason it’s rare to see a player not want the ball that much.

The second half saw the introduction of Caciedo and his pace did indeed make a difference (As I correctly predicted just three short paragraphs ago).

But what was more interesting was Santini’s willingness to adjust the way his team was set up. Baldisimo to a quasi central defence role! Dajome to left wing back! Three at the back and wing backs!

Perhaps the interim tag gives him more leeway to try things? Perhaps working in the academy has instilled the habit of making in game changes when needed? Or perhaps he’s willing to admit he’s got something wrong every now and again?

Having Ryan Gauld starting games doesn’t hurt of course and we’ve now seen enough of the Scot to figure out just what kind of player he is.

He’s certainly not the stereotypical MLS “Number 10”, all languid mercurial skill and pulling the strings of the players around him.

But he is a very good deep lying forward who works hard throughout the game, makes the right runs when he’s not on the ball and makes the right decisions when he’s on it.

And those traits are making all the difference to this team.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Hasal-5.5, Gaspar-1, Bikel-4, Godoy-4.5, Jungwirth-5, Teibert-4.5, Owusu-4.5, Baldismo-4.5, Dajome-5.5, Gauld-5.5, White-5 (Caicedo-5.5*, Metcalfe-5, Veselinovic-5.5)

Vancouver Whitecaps learn to fly

Whether the Vancouver Whitecaps playing in exactly the way Marc Dos Santos had always wanted them to in the very first game following his departure is ironic or telling is a question for another day.

But that’s what they did.

They pressed from the front throughout (or, at least, until a series of substitutions dulled the impetus) and they put Real Salt Lake on the back foot from the first whistle.

Salt Lake may be a team in free fall right now, but the Whitecaps have been the emergency parachute for many a free falling team over the years, but this time it was different.

Perhaps that was down to the shock of the Dos Santos exit providing a wake up call to the whole team? Perhaps it was simply having Ryan Gauld starting an MLS game for the first time? Perhaps it was a reaction from the players to their dire performance on Thursday evening? Perhaps it was the tactical tweaks that Vanni Sartini introduced?

It’s probably a combination of all of the above and more, but the decision to move Dajome alongside Gauld, just behind the striker, certainly made pressing the Salt Lake back line easier.

And the Whitecaps stayed on the front foot even when they went one, two and three goals up. There was no sense of “holding what we have” and hoping for the best. A refreshing change.

It was also refreshing that this wasn’t simply “The Ryan Gauld Show”.

The Scot was good and his ability to arrive unmarked in the penalty area at just the right time feels like a summer shower on a hot desert day after years of watching balls into the box being met by shrugged indifference by midfielder after midfielder.

But he wasn’t the stand out player.

Bikel (in particular) and Owusu ran the midfield. And Russell Teibert did what Russell Teibert should do. Harried the opposition when they were in possession without being asked to be the main outlet for distributing the ball.

Cristian Dajome rediscovered his ability to hit the kind of first time cross that will always lead to defensive uncertainty and Brian White did the Brian White thing of being there when that happens.

The defence was solid with Florian Jungwirth bringing experience of having played in the position for a number of years (rather than just “experience”) and Bruno Gaspar played like a right back in the left back role while never really looking like a mistake was imminent.

But the biggest shout out has to go to Javain Brown.

He was awful against Pacific FC on Thursday (not the only one to claim that accolade of course) but on Sunday he just kept going and going. Offering the kind of attacking play a full back needs to do in such a narrow system.

He created the corner that led to the first goal and, even while looking exhausted, he went on a lung busting run to hit the perfect cross for Gauld to head home the third.

Brown may not be the finished article, but watching him develop should be hugely enjoyable.

This was though only one game and it may turn out to be an anomaly.

But it does put paid to the theory that this group of players are completely incapable of playing in such a way and that Dos Santos was making the best of the hand he was given.

And while it would be astonishing if Sartini was given the role permanently he did at least provide the template for whoever is next in line.

It’s not clear that he would want it permanently anyway given the emotional wringer he went through before and during the game.

As RSL’s own interim coach Pablo Mastroeni shouted at the fourth official as decisions began to go against his team “No worries! It’s only our fu*^i!g livelihoods on the line here!”

It takes a certain kind of person to deal with that kind of burden day after day.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-6.5, Brown-7*, Gaspar-6, Jungwirth-6, Veselinovic-6, Teibert-6, Owusu-6.5, Bikel-7, Dajome-6.5, Gauld-7, White-6

So farewell then Marc Dos Santos

There are probably more than a few decisions Marc Dos Santos regrets during his time as the coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps. But I wonder if the one he regrets the most is the one he made before a ball was even kicked in anger?

For he inherited a squad that needed to be refreshed and decided instead to rebuild it.

With that decision he essentially turned himself into the coach of an expansion team and placed himself firmly on the back foot from day one.

From that point on Dos Santos always seemed to be slightly out of sync with his own vision and what he needed to do to bring that vision into focus.

The Whitecaps finished dead last in the Western Conference that year and the inevitable re-rebuild was disrupted and disjointed by a global pandemic (remember that?) and the inability for the Whitecaps to play in Canada for almost the whole of the year.

This season began with the team stationed in Salt Lake as their home, before they finally arrived back in Canada earlier this month and Dos Santos was given one game at BC Place and one road game in the Canadian Cup to prove his worth to an ownership that were clearly losing patience some time before the final decision was made.

Just reading that brief timeline can leave nobody in any doubt that Dos Santos had a rough ride in terms of circumstance. But, ultimately, he failed to rise above that circumstance and prove himself the man for the job.

The time spent in Utah must have been tough for all kinds of reasons, but that was a time where the squad was together for an extended period, yet still they looked uncoached and inert on the field.

Not being located in Vancouver doesn’t explain why they consistently failed to turn up for the first forty-five minutes of so many games and why they consistently displayed a startling inability to perform the rudimentary basics of the game.

Dos Santos clearly had a plan for how he wanted his team to play. He clearly knew what was wrong with the way his team was playing. He just didn’t have the ability to make those changes happen in any meaningful way.

Whitecaps history will remember him as a coach who always took the cautious option in his tactical approach, who always wanted to avoid the worst case scenario than reach for the best, who never really knew how to change the flow of a game with either tactical tweaks or a timely substitutions and who seemed to select players based on personal preference rather than how they were performing on the field.

But that history will also remember him as an immensely likeable presence who loved the game and and was clearly hurt by the failure to achieve his goals.

It’s a genuine shame he didn’t turn out to be right man for the job.

Vancouver Whitecaps walk right back to winning ways

Before we take a deep dive into the minutiae of analytics and tactics for which this blog is rightly revered, can we first acknowledge how great it was to be back watching live football again?

The manner of the result helped of course, but it was also about the off the ball vignettes you can never see when watching on a screen.

Florian Jungwirth constantly shouting the team on from the bench, the kit man desperately trying to get the blood out of Javain Brown’s discarded shirt (Why the laundry needed to be done quite so urgently is a question for another day) and the sheer mixture of exhilaration and relief shown by Marc Dos Santos in the moment he realized the game was won.

And how great was it to see that the price of the concessions at BC Place remain hilariously exorbitant?

It all felt surprisingly normal. Not “new normal”, just normal.

And the game felt that way too in the first half. The Whitecaps started brightly, pressing LAFC into mistake after mistake without ever looking likely to make the breakthrough the home crowd were aching for.

Then, around the twenty minute mark, Vancouver lost all momentum and the confidence visibly drained from the team. Nobody wanted the ball and those who did get the ball wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible, regardless of who it went to.

It felt inevitable that the visitors would score and they did with a penalty that probably was one in real time, but shouldn’t have been one on VAR review.

But that penalty probably did Dos Santos a favour since it forced his hand in bringing on both Gauld and Baldisimo on for the start of the second half. Baldisimo always looks for the forward pass and Gauld, once again, gave the whole team a lift simply with his presence.

The Whitecaps still weren’t great, but they did at least test an LAFC defence that struggled to deal with anything other than the most straightforward of forays into their ranks.

Yet even the most world weary of cliched hacks could have written the script whereby Gauld scores the winning goal in the final minutes of the game. And he did just that by demonstrating an ability to drift into open space in the penalty area (This ability basically counts as a super power if you are a Whitecap) and his team saw out the inevitably extended period of added time with surprising ease.

The three points accrued felt vital from this game. Not just in terms of the standings, but in terms of giving the players the sense that BC Place was a good place to be. That it was home.

And, all other considerations aside, the coaches and the players deserved that moment after all they have been through in the last eighteen months and, quite frankly, so did we.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-6*, Nerwinski-5, Brown-5.5, Veselinovic-5, Rose-4, Bikel-5, Teibert-4, Owusu-5, Dajome-3, Caicedo-5.5, White-5 (Gauld-5.5, Baldisimo-5.5).

Vancouver Whitecaps crack the road code

By hook or by crook the Whitecaps have somehow maneuvered themselves into a position where making the playoffs can officially be classed as “not inconceivable”.

Although the first half of the 2-1 win against Austin only served to remind us all of their shortcomings.

The better team against a poor opposition, they lacked the will and the ability to press home their advantage and went into the break trailing by a goal.

Then Marc Dos Santos broke from tradition and introduced a substitute at half time. And Ryan Gauld made all the difference.

Not so much in his play (although that obviously helped) but more in the overall sense of belief he seemed to inspire in his teammates.

The belief that, if they passed the ball forward quickly they might create more chances than if they passed the ball backwards slowly.

And it worked!

Gauld was involved in both goals and they now come home to BC Place for a Saturday evening game that isn’t just about seeing them in the flesh, but is also one where they have some skin in the game in terms of the postseason.

There’s been a lot of hope built on that return and anybody who has followed this team for more than a few months will know that hope is the most dangerous feeling of all.

But never mind, we should enjoy the moments while we can.

Somewhat ironic of course that they finally figure out how to win on the road in the final game before they embark on a run of home matches. But there we are.

Next stop BC Place!

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Crepeau-5, Brown-4.5, Nerwisnki-5.5*, Veselinovic-5, Rose=5, Teibert-4.5, Bikel-5.5, Owusu-4.5, Dajome-5, Caicedo-4, White-4.5 (Gauld-5.5).

Vancouver Whitecaps: Slow and Steady

Whether you think the Whitecaps 0-0 tie with San Jose on Friday evening was a good result or not depends on your perspective.

If you think the rest of the season is an attempt to get into the playoffs then it’s almost certainly not enough.

If you think the rest of the season is an attempt at keeping Marc Dos Santos in his role for next season then it might just about be fine.

Let’s deal with the playoffs first.

There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that, once the Whitecaps return to BC Place, there will be a change in both their form and their fortunes.

Any maybe there will be some kind of uptick in the results at first, but they will still be who they are no matter where they are located (and isn’t that true of all of us to some extent?) And the game against San Jose was a classic example of who they are.

A limited team led by a coach who plays to the limitations.

The tactic was clear.

Keep the game tight for sixty minutes and then introduce Gauld and Dajome to try to steal it at the end.

And it worked.

Apart from the “stealing it at the end” aspect of the plan, which kind of was the whole plan really.

Not that the players can be blamed. A midfield of Bikel, Owusu and Teibert is never going to unlock a defence. And watching Teibert and Nerwinski attempting to make attacking progress down the left was like watching two Englishman trying to order Sheperd’s Pie in an Oaxacan Cantina.

Commendable effort but no discernable results.

It’s frustrating to think that just a tad more tactical bravery could have turned all these interminable ties into a combination of wins and losses that could have put more points on the board (unbeaten run be damned).

So if the team isn’t set up to make the playoffs for this season, is it set up to keep Dos Santos in the role for next?

Maybe.

He’s a coach who is happier to just fail and justify that failure with excuses (some reasonable, some not) and examples of “what ifs” and “could have beens” than he is to aim for success and and risk his team being fully exposed.

So, if the Whitecaps improve somewhat toward the end of the campaign and fall short of the post-season by a maybe win or two, then no doubt Dos Santos will point to the time spent away in Utah and injuries and the late arrival of Gauld to justify another run at making this team a success.

There’s every reason to think he might be given that chance, but there’s very little reason to think he would succeed.

He is what he is and neither a different time nor a different place will change that.

His essence precedes his existence.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau-5.5, Nerwinski-5, Brown-5.5, Veselinovic-5.5, Rose-4.5, Teibert-5, Bikel-6*, Owusu-5, Raposo-5, Caicedo-5, White-4.5 (Gauld-5, Dajome-4.5)

Vancouver Whitecaps: Still Breathing

The LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Stadium sounds as though it is sponsored by a corporation who specialize in ensuring your aged loved ones are ushered from the the realms of the living in a tasteful and thoughtful fashion.

Grandma not quite able to climb the stairs anymore? Let Dignity Health make her final few breaths on this earth as meaningful as the long (but not quite as long as she was hoping for) life she has lived.

But it’s not. Dignity Health are a fine upstanding company who run excellent hospitals and health centres and no doubt have access to some very good lawyers.

It did however seem as though the Vancouver Whitecaps were seeing the lights extinguished from their season during a first half in which they failed to attack, defend or midfield successfully.

This wasn’t helped by the absence of Dajome and Gutierrez, nor the decision to replace them with White and Nerwinski respectively.

Nor was it helped by the performance of Lucas Cavallini who, once again, ambled around the pitch with little interest in contributing other than berating a teammate or two for not working hard enough.

Although he did show commendable courage by, immediately after declaring himself unfit to continue, producing an overhead kick which grazed the post.

In Cavallini’s absence the Whitecaps were much better in the second half.

Whether that was correlation or causation is unclear, but once White was moved to his more accustomed central role the Vancouver forward line pressed the Galaxy into mistake after mistake and probably ended the game with a vague sense of regret that they didn’t take all three points.

Obviously it would be remiss not to comment on the late introduction of the player we have all been waiting to see and, thankfully, he did not disappoint.

Leonard Owusu was immediately involved in the game, wanting the ball and looking to push forward whenever the opportunity arose.

Hopefully that is just a taste of what is to come.

Yet there still remains the sense that the Whitecaps are getting better without ever quite doing enough to win games they should be winning and the likelihood is that they will die the death of a thousand ties in terms of making the playoffs.

Playing well for both halves of a game would also be a good tactic to employ.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Crepeau 5, Brown-5.5, Nerwisnki-5.5, Godoy-5.5, Veselinovic-5.5, Metcalfe-4, Alexandre-2, Bikel-5.5, White-5, Caicedo-5.5*, Cavalini-2 (Raposo-4, Teibert-5.5)