It’s crunch time… kind of. It still feels like preseason, but the Whitecaps face their first make-or-break game of the year.
A 1-1 draw on the road put the ‘Caps in a strong position and induced a feel good factor to trickle through the team. The acquisitions of Freddy Montero and Brek Shea add a veneer of intrigue to this encounter. There’s also the addition of the ever-popular Mauro Rosales to squad but he is unfortunately cup-tied in this competition having played last year with FC Dallas in the group stages.
While early days for Montero and Shea in the blue and white jersey, any involvement will be highly anticipated by a this fan base that has been screaming out for a proven goalscorer and a man who takes pictures in American-flag tank tops while holding guns. I like all three signings, particularly the Rosales one after Reyna’s injury, and I hope one or two of them will feature at some point on Thursday.
The math is simple enough. A win sees us through, and a loss puts us out. A 0-0 draw sees us win on away goals, a 1-1 draw goes to extra time, and any other draw in normal time sees us lose on away goals, but not in extra time. See, simple!
There are many dimensions to this quarter-final match-up. Historically, the Whitecaps have a solid record against the mighty Red Bulls. There was that 4-2 win a couple of seasons ago, the one where David Ousted saved two penalties, and that other one where Jordan Harvey nicked a winner. We could go on.
In their seven MLS meetings, the ‘Caps have three wins, three draws, and one solitary defeat. That loss came just last season, of course, when Bradley Wright-Phillips buried one in a 1-0 win, as Carl Robinson was sent to the stand, and Vancouver couldn’t even hit the target once in their 12 attempts on goal.
The Red Bulls were the better side last week, but barely. Their build up play wasn’t great, but it was certainly better than what the ‘Caps were offering.
Vancouver’s system was good last week, and should be used again in the second leg. The backline did pretty well, but I would like to see the experienced Sheanon Williams take over for the impressive Nerwinski. Williams’ experience and technical ability were evident when he came on, and we cannot afford any mistakes. Nerwinski does look fantastic, the ‘Caps really know how to draft talent. He’s likely to keep his place, but that could be a risk if New York attack him, and it might be a risk Carl Robinson isn’t prepared to take for such a massive game.
The midfield was functional; I’ve always liked Russell Teibert, but every season he seems to show some attack promise for the first few weeks, then revert to type. Perhaps this is a game for Jacobson, who in my opinion is the most underrated Whitecap player. Laba and Jacobson make a solid, robust pairing. That being said, Teibert is probably our second best firefighting midfielder behind Laba and Robbo may go for a ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach.
The attacking foursome is where it becomes very interesting. Cristian Techera is out after a red card (a trait with this club that I would love to see halted), which opens up one of two spots from last week’s starting XI. With Yordy Reyna definitely out, and Christian Bolanos and Nicolas Mezquida named to the squad but still highly doubtful as they recover from injury, Robbo may have to get creative.
Mezquida seems to be the furthest along, and has trained, but there’s a huge risk that he’s not match fit and/or could break down early. Long term view in mind, and with the other injuries the club currently have at that position, it’s simply not worth it.
Personally, I would go with Kekuta Manneh down the middle, like they played in Wales, Alphonso Davies on the right, Brek Shea on the left and Kyle Greig up top. That is all assuming that Freddy Montero doesn’t start. Asking him to match ready is a big ask, but if he’s ready, I can’t see Robbo leaving him out.
It is fair to say there are a lot of moving pieces at work here.
So, what should the gameplan be? With it being a home game, we can expect more possession than last week. I think it is imperative that we do not get caught on the counter, as Wright-Phillips, who continues to be New York’s main danger man, can hurt us by chasing down balls over the top (a task that the skillful NYRB midfield can do very, very well).
A balanced, responsible approach is what is needed. Do not over commit, because as it stands, the Whitecaps will go through to their first ever CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals thanks to last week’s crucial away goal from Manneh. Which Canadian team can say that? (I’m joking).
Vancouver’s recent history in two-legged ties, especially with the second leg at home, has been horrendous the last couple of seasons with Montreal, Portland, and then Toronto, all coming to BC Place when the ‘Caps seemingly have the upper hand and doing exactly what they needed to do to win the tie.
Let’s hope history is made on Thursday night and not repeated.