Any potential momentum from the solid performance against SKC a few weeks ago has dissipated as another pair of losses have left the Whitecaps adrift at the bottom of the Western Conference, just a point ahead of the equally disappointing San Jose.
To make matters worse, the ‘Caps injury report has piled up for this match, with Ryan Gauld, Déiber Caicedo, and Cristián Gutiérrez joining Caio Alexandre and Leo Owusu on the injury report. Érik Godoy, though he was able to play for WFC2 last weekend, won’t be playing for the first team just yet, making it half a dozen regulars out of action.
This rash of absences has necessitated the signing of a couple WFC2 regulars, Ali Ahmed and Vasco Fry, to short-term MLS contracts. Neither of the two youngsters will start against Austin on Saturday, but there’s the slight chance they’ll come in off the bench. The fact that the ‘Caps are able to easily call in a couple of backup players receiving regular minutes shows the benefit of the second team, and any sort of freshening up of the first team is needed.
One thing that the ‘Caps won’t be doing is drastically altering the system, as Vanni Sartini seems fully committed to the general 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 shape. A common complaint of previous ‘Caps teams was that there was never a set identity that they could fall back on when things got tough. Now, there’s sort of the opposite problem, where there is a designated system and way that the club wants to play, but it’s just not firing at all.
If Sartini is dead set on making this system work, then the thing that can be done most easily is switching up who is playing where exactly. Especially with Gauld and Caicedo out, you would think that will open up the opportunity for Cristian Dájome to play further forward, closer to the position where he had the most offensive impact last year.
If Dájome is pushed forward, the wingbacks slots will be likely filled by a combo of Javain Brown, Ryan Raposo, and Marcus Godinho. Given that both Alexandre and Owusu are out, the midfield pivot is likely to continue to be Russell Teibert and Sebastian Berhalter, with Michael Baldisimo the most realistic option to come in for one of them in that role.
The problem with this discussion is that for the most part it means not fundamentally changing the setup of the team that has scored just 6 goals in 7 matches. If the formation isn’t going to be changed the biggest attacking option would likely be to insert Pedro Vite as a number eight, with Dájome, Brian White, and Lucas Cavallini as the front three. It might be a bit of a clunky attacking trio, but what’s been there before clearly hasn’t been working anyway so trying to fully go for the goals would make sense.
Of course, this next matchup isn’t the friendliest option for experimentation like that, as the ‘Caps are on the road in Texas to face an Austin side that are flying so far this season, racking up a tied for league-leading 17 goals and sitting pretty at 2nd in the West with a 4-1-2 record. Austin are coming off a midweek upset loss to USL side San Antonio in the US Open Cup, but they’ve won both of their last two MLS matches against DC United and Minnesota.
Austin are undefeated at home so far this season, while the ‘Caps have failed to record a point on the road. Sebastian Driussi is tied for the MLS lead with 5 goals, just one less than the ‘Caps as a team. The Texans are missing just one player, centreback Jhohan Romaña. On the other side, this match is a homecoming of sorts for Berhalter, who played for Austin last year while on loan from Columbus.
The Whitecaps are definitely in tough this weekend, shorthanded on the road against an in-form opponent. But at the same time, when the start to this season has been this bad there isn’t sympathy for excuses like that. The team needs results any way they can get them, so we will see how resourceful they can be now.