As we near the end of May, and Vancouver Whitecaps look forward to a three week break from MLS action after Saturday’s game as Copa America gets underway, it’s been something of a mixed start to the season for Carl Robinson’s squad.
Fourteen games in, the ‘Caps are sitting fourth in the Western Conference standings on 20 points. Seven points off the top of the West and three above the playoff line. They’re also sitting fourth in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
All in all, not a bad position for the ‘Caps to be in on the surface, especially considering their early season goalscoring woes. But you only have to scratch a little deeper to find some lasting, underlying concerns. All of which just shows how high expectations are of this Vancouver side under Robinson.
The Whitecaps, along with Dallas and Sporting KC, have played the most games of all the teams in the league so far. Three more than some and three teams could jump above them if they were to win their games in hand. Far too early to be table watching of course, but just to put the ‘Caps current position into a bit of perspective. But as we also say every year, give me actual points on the board rather than games in hand any day.
The goalscoring woes from earlier in the season have reduced, but certainly haven’t completely disappeared. Octavio Rivero still seems to be struggling to actually put the ball in the back of the net, and the ‘Caps are now without two of the men who have been scoring – Christian Bolaños and Blas Perez.
But the goals are coming and those worries seem to pale when compared to what’s going on at the other end of the pitch and elsewhere.
Let’s break some of those down, and get the thoughts of Robbo on them from some chats with him after the Portland game on Sunday and at training on Tuesday….
The turnaround in the Whitecaps’ defensive play this term has been drastic. The league’s best defence in 2015 has become a horror show at times, with individual errors being heavily punished. The trouble is, no-one knows what the fix is.
“The fact is if we had the answer, we’d be gutting it out right now,” goalkeeper David Ousted told us after Sunday’s shambles in Portland. “We’ve got to look at it from both a personal point of view of obviously being better individually, but also, from a team point of view, of helping each other out.
“There’s going to be mistakes in any game we play, but helping the guys around the man who makes a mistake to clean it up for him. We were good at that last year, but then we haven’t been this year.”
The ‘Caps acted quickly to re-sign their key defensive core this offseason. David Ousted, Kendall Waston and Matias Laba all inked new deals, and the general feeling was more of the same was to come. It’s been far from it and very little of it can be pinned on the loss of Steven Beitashour.
Right back has not been the prime problem, it’s been elsewhere. Fraser Aird has come in and after his struggles in the first game against Montreal has been improving and looking more solid since, despite being given an initial baptism of fire against some of the league’s most dangerous attackers one after the other.
Jordan Harvey in the other fullback position has been the Whitecaps best outfield defensive player all season, while David Ousted has once again kept Vancouver in games and earned them points with some crucial saves.
But there’s only been three clean sheets so far and the goals have been leaking like crazy, with many of them due to individual errors. This was the league’s best defence last year. The fewest goals conceded and the most clean sheets. Now, the ‘Caps find themselves having let in the most goals in the entire league, already two thirds of the amount (24) that they conceded in all of last season (36).
“Too many goals,” is Robinson’s take. “We’ve conceded 24 goals in 14 games. If you actually look at individual errors, far, far too many, so we need to cut them out. If we cut them out then we’ve got half a chance.”
Sunday’s Portland game was riddled with individual mistakes. The centre back pairing of Kendall Waston and Pa Modou-Kah had a nightmare. Two penalties given up (admittedly one was very contentious), slipping for a goal and then a sending off. Quite the trifecta.
“I just think we made individual errors,” Robinson feels. “If you look at all four goals, we actually maybe gifted them. Haven’t made them work hard enough for it and it’s cost us in the end.
“You can’t legislate for mistakes, but when they happen you deal with them and move on.”
I was happy with the line-up on Sunday. It was what I would have ideally gone with. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and with it, you’d have either kept Tim Parker in the centre of the defence or bring Andrew Jacobson back in to that role after he didn’t look out of place against Houston instead. We might actually see a Parker/Jacobson partnership this weekend against the Dynamo after what happened at the Piggery.
Was Sunday a sign to Robinson that Kah is past his prime and more of a backroom role is what is desired going forward? He played well with Waston last year, and had a clean sheet alongside Jacobson. Can he bounce back and perform at the top level again?
Waston himself hasn’t covered himself in glory this season either. He’s looked a step off, not as commanding, not as fearsome. After being sent off in his last two outings, if the referee clampdown wasn’t already playing with his mind, it will be now.
Cole Seiler is waiting in the wings with the USL team, and has been a work in progress there so far. Christian Dean is back training, but limped out of training today looking in some pain and may have a knee injury now (we certainly hope he hasn’t as he was in excellent spirits about his return when we spoke with him last week). Might we see Robbo splash out for a new centre back in the transfer window. I’d have thought you crazy to suggest that couple of weeks ago. Not so much now.
Then we have Jordan Smith. The Costa Rican has looked poor in his MLS outings so far and Robbo didn’t have the faith to play him against Portland on Sunday. That sends a message to player, public and pundits alike. Can there be any future for him here in Vancouver? Surely not. He’s on a loan deal and he’s taking up an international spot. He needs to get shipped out and soon.
We’re all wanting to see a more attacking Whitecaps, ideally with a two striker set up, but it seems to have come at the expense of a solid backline and Robbo’s trusty two man defensive shield falling apart.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
If we’re looking at players who look a shadow of what they were last year, winger Cristian Techera is also right up there.
Ousted aside, Techera was my Player of the Year last season. He was exceptional at times on his way to 7 goals and 5 assists from 22 appearances. The Bug was just that to many defences. A real thorn in their side and a danger on the wing and in the box. Then he got his new contract and it feels like we signed a completely different player by mistake.
He’s contributed two assists so far this season, but has yet to find the back of the net. He’s sent in some fantastic crosses, but not enough, and many of them are to no-one in the middle. So what’s happened?
Well he didn’t seem to come into preseason camp in the top shape and may have been playing catch up ever since.
He’s still trying to get up to the levels that he did last year,” Robinson told AFTN. “I think he’s done a lot of good things, but I still think he’s got another level to go to. His crossing was good [against Portland] but his athleticism, his dynamic ability, we need to improve on that.”
They certainly do. With the attacking places at a premium, and the likes of Bolaños and Manneh in excellent form, if you’re not performing you won’t be starting for long, especially as a winger like Techera. Hopefully he’s saving his best for the second half of the year when it really matters. If he doesn’t find it soon, last year’s most exciting attacking threat is going to be reduced to being a bench player.
DISCIPLINE, OR LACK OF
Another unwanted area that Vancouver lead the league in right now is their poor disciplinary record. If a week goes by now that the ‘Caps come out of it with someone suspended, that’s a win.
There’s been nine suspensions through 14 games, with Kendall Waston getting two of them. Three have been straight red, two have been for picking up two bookings, and four are subsequent action thanks to the DisCo. Octavio Rivero and Blas Perez are also one yellow card away from a suspension for card accumulation.
It’s woeful stuff. You can lay a fair share of the blame are awful refereeing but at the same time, the discipline simply isn’t there at times and that was evident on Sunday. Frustrated by the second penalty call and the free kick that led to the goal, both Jordan Harvey and Pedro Morales picked up bookings, followed by Waston’s sending off after the final whistle.
All experienced guys and not the ones you’d necessarily expect to lose the plot so easily when the younger players on the team are somewhat keeping their heads. Robbo agrees but also added that it shows their passion.
“I don’t condone them getting booked, without a doubt, but that might tell you a little bit about the decisions,” Robinson told me after Sunday’s game. “We all make assessments on the decisions and judgements, and it’s easy to see…. An expression of a player to speak to the referee, which the captain is allowed to, to ask him a question, can sometimes be misinterpreted.
“I can’t say I don’t want them to because I think we’re too quiet at times and when we do do it, the yellow card’s flashed out. And it was flashed out at a number of our guys today and there’s other players who get four, five, six warnings, so disappointing.”
The only good thing to come from all the suspensions is that players are getting a rest. Enforced squad rotation! But when it gets down to the business end of the season, this is something that just can’t continue if the ‘Caps want to be at their best.
Vancouver play Houston on Saturday in their last MLS game for three weeks. But before they return to league action, they’ve got the not so small matter of facing Ottawa Fury home and away in the Canadian Championship.
It’s nice to not be facing FC Edmonton again. A new challenge and a new stadium for the travelling Blue and White army to visit. But that said, it’s another horrendous cross country trek for the ‘Caps, as Robbo noted.
“We know our travel schedule,” Robinson mused. “It’s a nightmare. Listen, why not. When it’s a nightmare, let’s make things harder. It’s going to be a difficult game for us. They’re a good team, they’ve got good players but we’ll focus on one game at a time.”
The final squads haven’t been announced yet for the game. The reason behind that is that there’s been some confusion around who the Whitecaps can actually add to play in the games. Just MLS guys? USL guys? Non MLS Canadians? Homegrowns only? Yup, a week before their first game, and a couple of weeks after the tournament started, this is still all getting resolved.