More questions than answers as Vancouver Whitecaps wrap up preseason games
Carl Robinson wanted more squad depth this season. Ideally two players for each position, strongly competing for places in the matchday squad. Be careful what you ask for, as he’s got it in abundance!
His old guard have performed well, the new additions have come in and excelled and he’s tried different players in some different positions and formations. The end result is a LOT of players seriously pushing for a starting role this year.
“It gives me a nice headache, it really does,” Robinson told us after the ‘Caps wrapped up their preseason games with a 3-1 win over Minnesota United down in Portland. “Players won’t be in form all the time. The ones that are in form will probably play.
“There will be guys who are playing really well, and have done this week, that won’t make the line-up, which is unfortunate for them, but they’ve got to keep going. It’s a long season. We need a lot of players and the competition for places is really fierce. So it’s a nice headache to have.”
You could realistically put out two completely different starting elevens this season, each of them capable of doing the business in MLS. As Robbo says, it’s a wonderful problem to have, as long as he can keep everyone happy. A headache he won’t mind in the slightest and excellent news when you factor in the other two competitions that the ‘Caps will find themselves playing in this year.
The Whitecaps six preseason matches, five of them against MLS teams, and three of them against Western Conference rivals, are now in the record books, and that record reads 5 wins and a narrow loss. 14 goals were scored, seven conceded. Not bad. Not bad at all.
The goals will be the pleasing aspect, but we’ve seen that before and it’s hard to read much from games where there’s so many line-up changes and mixing of full and under-strength teams. But that said, they’ve scored at least two goals in every match. Whatever the opposition, it’s good to get the shooting boots on and the eye in early.
What has become clear from the six games is that Robinson has some very difficult, and interesting, decisions ahead of him with First Kick fast approaching.
So as preseason camp effectively wraps up, let’s break down some of the tougher choices facing Robbo ahead of meeting Montreal next Sunday and beyond.
FORMATION CHANGE OR CONTINUATION OF TWO DMs?
Robbo likes his 4-2-3-1. He feels it works and sees very little need to change it apart from shaking this up as a surprise or a matching line-up for certain games. He’s tinkered with 4-1-4-1 in preseason, even a 4-1-3-2 at times (which I personally would like to see), but you have to feel he’s going to stick with his tried and tested line-up. Initially anyway.
For the final preseason game against Minnesota, Robinson went with two strikers, in Blas Pérez and Octavio Rivero, but the ‘Caps coach says don’t read too much into that.
“I wanted to see what we were like with two forwards,” Robinson said after the match. “I said in preseason I’ll experiment at certain times, playing the 4-2-3-1, the 4-1-4-1 and the 4-4-2. But it’s not about formations, it’s about players. Today we slightly adjusted it and I thought in the first half we played some terrific football.”
The formation was somewhat forced with Matias Laba just back from Argentina after the birth of his first child and Russell Teibert back in Vancouver to get a scan on his recent injury (he was given the all clear incidentally). Even with the two forwards, it was somewhat of a two deep midfielders line-up and that’s what we should expect.
Even with Gershon Koffie moving on, the ‘Caps are stacked with options for the two DM set up. Laba is the guarantee, it’s just who plays around him. Deybi Flores has impressed at times preseason, Teibert is still injured but should return to training on Tuesday, and Ben McKendry is just coming back from last year’s long injury layoff.
Pedro Morales has been playing a deeper role in the games in Portland. He didn’t excel all that much in the first match against Chicago, but by the third one against Minnesota, he seemed to be thriving in it, adding two goals in the process (albeit one being a penalty).
“I thought today he was outstanding,” Robinson said of Morales’ performance against the NASL side. “He got on the ball, he scored his two goals. He should have scored three. His all round play, his passing, his workrate, his positioning, his wanting to get on the ball, was exceptional.
“It’s an option for us. Obviously we’ve had our two central midfield players missing, one through the birth of his little boy and Rusty’s been injured, so Pedro and Kianz come in and done very, very well.”
Playing Morales deeper allows Robinson to get more of his attacking weapons on the pitch at the start of the game, freeing Christian Bolaños up to come inside and play the number 10 role and Cristian Techera and Kekuta Manneh (when fully fit) to terrorise the wings. When Manneh isn’t fit, it allows the likes of Flores or Teibert in as a DM, or opens up a spot for Kianz Froese or Marco Bustos.
Pedro in a free flowing role is an exciting option the way he can spray balls all over the pitch from any part of the park. He just needs to remember his defensive duties in the process. How he fares there in a really competitive match this season will be the big test.
CAN PEDRO MORALES AND CHRISTIAN BOLAÑOS FUNCTION IN THE SAME TEAM?
So, tied in with the above, is a question of can you have too much playmaking talent on the pitch at the same time?
Morales and Bolaños didn’t exactly click together during the Chicago game. Robinson remarked postgame, “They’re both good players. They’ve got a good understanding but I think they got in each others way sometimes. It’s important that you’ve got to find solutions to problems.”.
Solutions seemed to have been found and both players seem to have found their place beside each other in the team by the third game against Minnesota and looked to be far more on the same page, with Morales finding his first strikes of the preseason.
Bolaños was switched to the left wing today, with Techera on the right. Robbo said not to read too much into that, adding that “good players can play anywhere”, but the whole line up was exciting to watch in the first half against Minnesota and will definitely give Robinson food for thought.
Getting both of these talented guys on the pitch at the same time could be a crucial part of Vancouver’s attacking flair this year. Whether the ‘Caps can get the necessary defensive work out of the pair on the other hand, still remains a question.
FULL BACK BATTLE WILL BE INTENSE
Gone are the days of looking to centre backs Tim Parker and Christian Dean to be the effective full back cover. They weren’t bad there, just not ideal, and we still have them at a push.
Now we have two bonafide full back battles on both the right and the left side.
“At the moment I’m not thinking about it,” Robinson told reporters after the Chicago game on Sunday. “But I want there to be full back battles”.
Well he’s certainly got that!
Some may have felt that Steven Beitashour’s departure left a hole at right back, instead the only real hole seems to be the gap his salary left in the ‘Caps salary structure. His experience will likely be missed a times, but Robbo now has two right backs that fit the mould of what he’s looking for from his fullbacks. Almost a good, old fashioned, attacking wing back.
Jordan Smith looked to have the position to lose but Fraser Aird has come in and impressed. He looks a great acquisition, proving my initial doubts wrong for sure. Aird looks like he’s come into preseason and won the starting role though.
Aird likes to attack. So does Smith. Aird seems to get back better, while Smith, especially a couple of times against Portland on Wednesday, sees a play break down but stays up field, making a slow attempt to come back and making other players cover for him. It hasn’t been punished so far, but teams will soon work that out and hit the ‘Caps in that weak spot.
On the left side, last year’s battle between Jordan Harvey and Sam Adekugbe is just as fierce and although this may surprise some, it looks like Harvey has won the battle again, for now at least, and will be the starter against Montreal.
It’s a coin flip for me between the pair. I love what both of them offer the team and Harvey’s experience shone through against Portland on Wednesday. As exciting as Sam is going forward, that’s what the Whitecaps need back there with the young and inexperienced Aird and Parker as part of the back four.
Adekugbe though offers a much bigger threat going forward and I can see him claiming the starting spot by the summer and then not giving it up.
Robinson says his line-up for First Kick still isn’t fully formed in his mind. But it must be pretty damn close to being.
“It’s not 100% set,” Robinson told us. “We’ve got players who are missing at the moment and players who have done themselves a lot of good especially this week.
“Places will be nailed down next week based upon training as well and who’s healthy and who’s not.”
The final three questions are all somewhat interlinked and revolve around the Whitecaps attack, and in particular the strikers…
WILL MASATO KUDO BE STRONG ENOUGH FOR A TOUGH MLS SEASON AND HOW QUICKLY WILL HE SETTLE IN?
Masato Kudo was missing from the games down in Portland after undergoing what Robinson referred to as “a small procedure”. Nothing serious, just “one of those annoying little things”. Kudo flew in to rejoin the camp on Wednesday and may not be good to go for the season opener next Sunday.
He’s hit one goal for the ‘Caps in preseason, which was a tap in, but he’s looked a threat in the box and gets into dangerous situations. He adds a new, exciting dynamic to the team and how quickly he settles in might be a key to early season success.
The Whitecaps have three very different strikers in Kudo, Rivero and Pérez. Each offer something different from the other and each need to contribute fully from the start if the ‘Caps are to finally hit the goalscoring tally they are seeking. Rivero and Pérez have done it in the league and overseas, Kudo is still unproven outwith Japan.
The chances of all of them being in goalscoring form at the same time is more of a dream than a reality. They’ll rotate in and out, their form will go up and down and their goals will come and go. That goes without saying, even thought I just did!
The ‘Caps need all three scoring regularly, supporting each other and taking the pressure off, yet challenging, the guy that’s in a funk.
Kudo additionally needs to settle in quick if he wants to be more than a bench player for Vancouver and you get the impression he didn’t come all this way out here just to do that. There’s a lot for the Japanese striker to contend with – a new league, a new city, a new language and a lot of rain. Then there’s MLS itself with long travel, artificial pitches and poor referees.
It’s also a physical league. Will Kudo be strong enough, both physically and mentally, to deal with the attention he’s going to receive and the ups and down in a new league? Rivero and Pérez can certainly handle it.
The ideal situation is that Kudo gets his MLS account off to a quick start and keeps it up regularly, but a run of initial games where the goals don’t come and the challenges come thick and fast, then we may see him disappear into his shell a little bit.
WILL OCTAVIO RIVERO BE MORE THAN JUST AN EARLY SEASON WONDER?
Just a quick add on to the above. Octavio Rivero started last season on fire, hitting five goals in his first six MLS matches. Then came a dry spell of one goal in 11, before some penalties helped him finish the season with a tally of 10. Not the worst season for a striker, but somewhat worrying when you look at the fact that Rivero has similar form in both Uruguay and Chile – starting the season in good form before petering out.
If Rivero wants to take the next step in his development and career, he needs to find a way to become a season long striker and unlock whatever it is that sees his later season form evaporate.
His workrate and off the ball work can’t be faulted and at least he now has other strikers to both push him and help him.
The addition of both Pérez and Kudo will push Rivero and give him the kick he needs to move up to the next level he looks capable of reaching. He looked hungrier and raring to go the last two preseason matches and was rewarded with his first two goals of the year. With Pérez and Kudo already finding the back of the net preseason, the pressure was on him and Robinson will have been looking to see how he responded.
In a smart move, Robbo has made Pérez and Rivero roommates and is looking for the experienced Panamanian to take the Uruguayan “under his wing”, helping him with his game and to succeed in the league. Will that unlock Rivero into a season long goalscorer? Let’s hope so. It will certainly be interesting to see who is the number one striker(s) come the summer.
The ‘Caps need a ten month striker, not a two month one. Can Rivero deliver that and remain Vancouver’s number one guy?
HAVE THE WHITECAPS GOALSCORING PROBLEMS FINALLY BEEN SOLVED?
Perhaps the key question in all of this. There’s not much point in having a talent stacked side if they don’t produce at the end of the day. We all saw last season how all the attacking excitement and chances created count for little if no-one’s there to put the ball away in the onion bag.
And I know we’ve been down this road one too many times already, but the problem looks to be solved with the squad that Robbo has put together this year.
He has four attacking full-backs who can drill in dangerous low balls across goal and whip in high balls into the area. The additions of Kudo and Pérez has given the ‘Caps two players who will actually be in the box to get on the end of them.
Add in Techera and Bolaños tearing up the wings, and with the proven ability to finish chances as well, and you have a mouthwatering prospect.
Creativity will not be an issue with the number 10 options available and Octavio Rivero will be freed up to continue to do his fine work outside of the box and not have to wish he was also inside it to finish it off.
For now, there’s been 14 goals in six preseason games, with nine different scorers (plus two own goals) and that’s from a team still finding their feet as a cohesive attacking unit. I’ll take that, but ask me again in a month’s time. The promising thing is that every game had at least two goals. No matter the opposition, as we said above, that’s good for confidence.
I have a t-shirt that reads, “goals are overrated, the beauty is in the struggle”. That might be true in MLS. So much was made of Vancouver’s lack of goals last term, but Portland won the MLS Cup by scoring four fewer regular season goals than the ‘Caps. Some food for thought there. A season long run of 1-0 wins would see the ‘Caps scoring fewer than they did the last two years and I’m sure we’d all take that if it meant bringing home the trophy!
We’ll leave you with a quote from Sam Adekugbe about the exciting prospect of this Whitecaps side this season and the confidence within the squad of getting the job done – “If everyone scores 5 goals, we’re looking at 100 goals”.
I’m a little more leery this year about the Whitecaps depth this year than I was last year. Not because the incoming players are bad but because for all the talk about depth last year I’m not really sure it panned out. Depth players struggled badly at times, “battles for spots” never really emerged, and by the playoffs they looked like a broken team.
All that being said, I think we’re looking at another strong regular season. The possibility of a post-season run will be dependent on if the strikers actually finish this year.