Back on the road after a very disappointing 0-0 draw against the Galaxy, the Whitecaps shook off a listless first half in Ohio and grabbed their second road win of the season against a strong Columbus Crew side. The ‘Caps are now 3-1-1 (their second-best ever start to an MLS campaign), all three of their wins have finished 2-1, and they are still undefeated when they have all 11 men. Next up is a trip to Rio Tinto Stadium, where the Whitecaps are 1-5-3 all-time. The Whitecaps’ lone victory in Utah came in 2015 when Darren Mattocks headed home the winner in a 1-0 match, while their last visit to the stadium was the infamous 3-0 loss that ended in a snowstorm.
Given the success of the 4-3-3 last weekend, I would assume Carl Robinson will elect to keep the formation the same. The starting backline seems to be mostly locked in at this point: Stefan Marinović definitely could have done better on Columbus’ lone goal last weekend, but he is still the unquestioned number one keeper as of right now. Jake Nerwinski has played every minute of the season so far (the only Whitecap to do so), while Marcel de Jong has settled back into his role on the left flank after missing a game due to a chest contusion. Kendall Waston is a lock at centre back, but the question of who starts next to him is still somewhat up in the air. José Aja is probably the safest bet as to who will start on Saturday, but Aaron Maund filled in capably the first few games of the season, and we still haven’t seen what Doneil Henry can do.
The midfield remains the most intriguing part of the team selection-wise, as the Whitecaps have five centre-mids you could make the case for starting. Felipe, in my mind, has been the best of the bunch these first few games: he recorded his first assist as a Whitecap against Columbus, and he has looked to be the most creative of the ‘Caps’ midfielders, something that this team desperately needs. Aly Ghazal made his first appearance of the season off the bench last weekend, and I imagine he will slot back into the first-choice XI very soon, allowing Felipe and the other midfielders more license to push up the field.
Felipe and Ghazal are the two midfielders I see as at the top of the depth chart, but who comes next is an interesting question. Efraín Juárez started the first four games of the season, but while I don’t believe he’s been bad, I do think he’s been a little underwhelming in his minutes so far. Jordon Mutch has started to come into his own over the last couple of matches, though he hasn’t completely leapt off the page either. Russell Teibert has provided his usual steady presence, and though he is still a somewhat limited player, you can’t argue with the results so far this season: the Whitecaps are 3-0 when he’s started, and 0-1-1 when he hasn’t.
With regards to Saturday, my prediction is a midfield trio of Ghazal, Felipe, and Teibert. The Whitecaps know exactly how they want to play road games, and that group seems tailor-made for it: tough, defensive-minded and with hopefully just enough attacking punch to support the forwards.
Speaking of the forwards, Kei Kamara has solidified himself as the primary option up top. Erik Hurtado will grab a few goals, and Anthony Blondell will get his opportunities, but Kamara has led the line beautifully in these first few matches. He has three goals and an assist in four games, and has looked every part the target forward Robinson has longed for. If the Caps are able to grab another win on Saturday, you can bet that Kamara will be involved in the goal(s).
On the wings, Brek Shea has shown to be quite the road warrior, scoring in Columbus last weekend to add onto his game-winner in Houston a few weeks back. I would imagine he draws a second straight start after scoring last time out, while the other spot on the wing surely has to go to Alphonso Davies, who managed to challenge for man of the match against the Crew despite playing only 23 minutes. He scored a wonderful goal that was called back by the cold, dead hands of VAR, recorded a game-high four tackles, and made a mockery of Columbus defenders on a couple of occasions. He has taken huge strides this year, and it will be a treat to watch him for however long he has left in Vancouver.
Taking a look at the opposition, it’s been a bit of a rocky start to the year for Real Salt Lake. Heading into the season they were a trendy pick to finish near the top of the West, but they have stumbled out of the gate with a 1-2-1 record, scoring only four goals and conceding nine. After their last match, a 3-1 road loss to Toronto FC, a very displeased Mike Petke stated, “I know what the problem is, and it’s going to be fixed, one way or the other.” Strong words for sure; it will be interesting to see how his team responds on Saturday.
Looking at the injury report, RSL will be missing right back Tony Beltran, who is out until the fall after undergoing knee surgery. Luke Mulholland is listed as questionable due to a hamstring injury, and has played only one minute since the end of preseason. On the Whitecaps’ side, Yordy Reyna and Erik Hurtado both picked up knocks in training ahead of the Columbus game, and neither made the trip out to Ohio. There has not been a further update on their condition, so I would assume they will not be featuring this weekend.
After Saturday’s match, the Whitecaps will return home and face newcomers LAFC for the first time. Despite blowing a 3-0 lead to Zlatan and the Galaxy, the Chivas USA redux have started off life in MLS well, sporting a 2-1 record. Hopefully the Whitecaps will be able to grab yet another road win this weekend and head back to BC Place with a healthy dose of momentum behind them.