A few years ago, at the start of another Scottish league season, I wrote an article for the East Fife program about how hope springs eternal when you’re a football fan, especially at the start of a new campaign.
This year it’s going to be different you tell yourself. You get excited about the new signings, even if they weren’t the greatest elsewhere or if you’ve maybe never even heard of them to begin with. This year things will be better. This year could be the year.
Then the season starts and you find out it’s more of the same. Sometimes, it’s even worse. Slowly, your hope is sucked out of you, then all you’re left with is anger and bitterness at how the season played out. Sometimes your season is over before it’s even really begun, and you’re cast adrift of those above you with little to play for or really look forward to as the year thankfully comes to an end.
That’s pretty much where the Whitecaps are right now. Clinging on to a relationship with the playoffs that you know is over but you won’t admit it or let go. We’re in mid July and the ‘Caps are already in must win territory to save their season, with two massive games looming at BC Place over the space of five days.
First up, on Saturday night, is the visit of San Jose Earthquakes. A team that was the butt of jokes at the start of the MLS season as they cut a pitiful figure at the bottom of the standings. A team who couldn’t but a point, never mind a win. A team struggling to score, who lost their first four matches, being outscored 14 to 2, and losing five of their first six.
Then something clicked. New boss Matias Almeyda worked his magic, Chris Wondolowski found his scoring boots, and a climb up the Western Conference standings followed. They’ve lost just two matches from their last 14, with four wins in their last five matches. It’s a run that’s seen them rise up to 5th in the West, moving on to 31 points, 11 more than the ‘Caps.
That’s how to turn around a season and that’s what Vancouver Whitecaps, perhaps forlornly, need to take inspiration from. It can be done in this league. The problem the Whitecaps currently have is that they are showing nothing in any shape or form to suggest that such a turnaround is even remotely possible.
A season that brought fresh hope and expectations never really got going. Winless in their first six, one win in their first nine, and things were looking bleak. But they were keeping in touch with the pack and when they went on a run of just one loss in ten league games, albeit six of them draws, there was still that hope that a few key additions in the summer transfer window and they could squeak into the playoffs.
Then the last four games happened. Four straight defeats, the last three of them seeing the ‘Caps outscored 13 to 1, and Vancouver sit rock bottom of the West on life support.
The defence, the only shining light of the season really, has looked like they just met each other for the first time and never heard of such defensive tactics such as picking up players making runs or in wide open spaces on the edge of the penalty area.
The midfield, invisible for most of the season, disappear so much in matches that when you hear a player mentioned in the commentary you are genuinely shocked because you forgot they were playing.
And the frontline, starved with a lack of service, seems to feel that the final third is a no go area that is either cordoned off due to zombies or lava, and if you step inside you will perish, which is then what most ‘Caps attacks end up doing anyway.
Saturday’s game is between two teams going in different directions, so what, if anything, can Marc Dos Santos do to get this team out of their slump? He’s tried different players, different formations. Nothing is working. He indicated after Wednesday’s heavy loss to New England that 4-3-3 seems to be the formation he’ll be sticking with for the majority of what is left of the season.
With that in mind, the backline seems pretty well set for this one with Max Crepeau behind a back four or Jake Nerwinski, ever present Erik Godoy, Doneil Henry, and the back from suspension Ali Adnan. It’s scary to think how out of hand some of the recent games could have gotten without his saves, and they were heavy defeats as they were.
The midfield is the biggest weakness in the ‘Caps, and has been all season. There’s just nothing these, either offensively in terms of creativity or defensively in terms of actual marking men and tracking back adequately. So many midfield combinations, and the same result.
We’re at the stage where giving minutes to Simon Colyn and Michael Baldisimo aren’t just worth a shot, they’re a necessity to add some freshness, some hunger, and to take a look at the homegrowns with a nod to next year. That won’t come quite yet, but you have to feel the blooding is just games away now.
So we’ll see Jon Erice return after being rested midweek, and Inbeom Hwang is a staple it would seem, despite providing very little and not resembling the player we were sold on at the start of the season. If he’s a player that’s only going to do well when surrounded by quality, he’s come to the wrong city.
The third midfielder is really a toss up. You feel it will be Russell Teibert but could easily be the rested Felipe or the workhorse that is Andy Rose. None of those options you feel will be giving Vancouver what they really need back there. Dropping Yordy Reyna back could be the option but his influence in the front three is probably going to keep him there.
And that’s where we should see him on Saturday, on the right wing, with Lass Bangoura on the left and Fredy Montero leading the line through the middle, hopefully wanting to prove his worth.
With still no new faces, and none seeming imminent, it’s not a line-up on current form that gets the juices flowing or the belief going that the ‘Caps slump is about to end.
San Jose head north minus the suspended Marcos Lopez but aside from that, with a full strength squad.
Nine players have found the back of the net for San Jose this season, with eight goal Chris Wondolowski leading the way and Shea Salinas, Vako, and Danny Hoesen adding five apiece. Compare that to Montero leading the ‘Caps on six goals, four of them from the spot, with a number of players tied in 5th place on one goal.
Cristian Espinoza leads the team on eight assists, with Magnus Eriksson on five, and then three players with three. The ‘Caps have four players leading the team with two assists each. It’s woeful.
The Quakes have more goals from open play than the ‘Caps have in total (24 to 22). 24 of their 33 goals have also come from inside the penalty area, so the ‘Caps need to be switched on for rebounds and through balls. They’ve also given up 20 there, of their 31 conceded, but only two from outside the box, so the ‘Caps have to find a way of getting in there and having their shooting boots on when they do.
So is there any point even heading along on Saturday or are things a foregone conclusion? Well I would head along more in hope than expectation, but the Quakes do not do great at BC Place.
They only have one win in 11 meetings and the ‘Caps have to use that as something to spur them on, although only three wins at home from 11 this year doesn’t exactly make the stadium a place of home comforts. The Quakes also just have two away wins all season, although one of them was the recent 3-1 destroying of LA Galaxy and we just saw what they did to LAFC tonight.
The first goal in this one feels key more than usual. If the ‘Caps fall behind then we could see heads go down yet again and this is no longer a team that feels like it has the heart to fight back.
This is a must win. No ifs or buts. Vancouver need three points at home against a Western rival that’s 11 points above them in the playoff spots, having played two games less.
A defeat and the Cavalry game on Wednesday takes even greater importance. Two defeats and the season is gone already. Good luck with the season ticket renewal campaign after that.