Saved It At The Death: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers match analysis

Saved It At The Death: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers match analysis

Vancouver Whitecaps won this Cascadia clash, but they did it the hard way.

Or at least, that’s how it felt at the end of the match, after the Whitecaps managed to eke out a 3-2 win over Portland in front of a rowdy BC Place crowd thanks to a last-gasp winner by Ryan Raposo. And while head coach Vanni Sartini’s return to the touchline was marked by a win, it was all but comfortable, despite heralding a 2-0 lead going into half-time.

Flying First Half Proves Potential Once Again

If you want to know how great the first half was for the Whitecaps against the Timbers, look no further than what Sartini had to say after the match was done.

“The first half, guys, was like, I don’t know,” expressed a jubilant Sartini to the media. “If it was a city, it would be Florence. If it was a person, it would be my wife. If it was an idea, it would be socialism. That was how beautiful the first half was, so I’m really happy.”

The ever-quotable Italian may have been a tad hyperbolic, but he has a point. That first half was one of the best first halves the Whitecaps have shown in recent history. A quick early goal set the pace, with Ryan Gauld getting two chances to put it past former teammate Max Crepeau. Ali Ahmed, who started his first game after his pre-season procedure, was the orchestrator of the early move, and it was something he was able to do thanks to being able to break his fast just before kick-off.

Ahmed was also joined by Fafa Picault in terms of bringing dynamism and energy from the off. The Haitian international was finding joy on both sides of the pitch in the first half, swapping with Ali to the left for his own wonder goal. This game made it clear how dearly the ‘Caps missed his presence last week against RSL.

But perhaps the most surprising package was in the veteran midfielder Alessandro Schöpf. Schöpf was placed in an unorthodox position on the right wing when compared to his usual setting in the middle. It isn’t a position that’s entirely foreign to the Austrian, as he did play there early on in his career at Schalke. But last night, he rolled back the years by proving to be integral in creating various opportunities for the Whitecaps to score from.

Overall, it was a completely different story to last week against RSL. The team began with intensity, they got after Portland from the first whistle and took control of the match on their own terms. It was a relief to see that the team still had that determination in them after last week, but to many’s dismay, it would not last for long.

Second Half Switching Off A Concern?

One of the biggest issues from the Whitecaps this season is that, despite them having a great start in terms of results, they have rarely played great across a full 90 minute match. The game against San Jose began with a snore fest. Charlotte and RSL were lackluster for at least 70 minutes. The only game that you could argue they played well across 90 minutes was against Dallas, but even then they tapered off at times.

Of course, to expect the Whitecaps to be perfect in all games at all times is an unreasonable expectation to have. But to play in a pure zonal marking system like the one that the Whitecaps play in, you need to strive to be perfect much more than in other systems. Zonal marking is an idealist philosophy, one that can be unbeatable when perfected, but easily exploitable when a mistake is made, as demonstrated in last night’s match.

Tristan Blackmon was sucked out of his position for the first goal, committing the cardinal sin of zonal marking: tracking the man instead of the space. That is why Evander had so much space to shoot. In the second, Blackmon was once again at fault, for failing to take responsibility for his position and challenging for the ball. Sartini has always said that every man must be in charge of what happens ahead of him, except for the last man, who must also be in charge of a few feet behind him. It is unclear whether Blackmon believed he was not the last man or whether he expected Takaoka to come and claim, but he failed to challenge Felipe Mora in the air.

But Sartini acknowledges that his philosophy will be marked with mistakes, because of its idealism.

“I know that the way that I wanna play, especially defensively, is like a Utopia” explained Sartini in his post-match presser. “Like with a Utopia, we cannot be hundred percent always there. However, the Utopia is there. We know that we always have to mark the space and never the man, and I think today we did it for 85%, 90% of the time. So next time, let’s get 91% or 92%. Because the Utopia is gonna be there, ready for us to be better.”

By his own admission, Sartini is someone that will live and die by his sword. To those that may dislike the “purist” zonal marking that Sartini employs, your complaints will fall on deaf ears for him. He has proven that his system can succeed, but this season will be the true test of how far it can take the Whitecaps in MLS.

A Much Needed Boost Ahead Of Gauntlet Run

While it wasn’t pretty at the end, the win is still a huge result for the Whitecaps in this early stage of the season. Currently, the Whitecaps sit 2nd in the table with 10 points, two behind LA Galaxy but with a game in hand. They are level with RSL, Minnesota, and Houston, beating them on goal difference. Nevertheless, they are right in it at the top of the table. The faltering form of Seattle and St. Louis is opening up the opportunity for Whitecaps to get an early claim on the first few positions, should their fine form continue.

But they now have stern tests ahead of them. Next week they face the wounded animal that is Toronto FC, a fellow Canadian rival that is trying to figure out how to live without their star man Lorenzo Insigne for the next couple of months. Then they face the Western Conference’s only remaining undefeated side in the LA Galaxy the following week, before traveling down for another Cascadia Cup clash against struggling Seattle.

While two out of three matches may seem easier on paper, the rivalry aspect of those games mean that it will still be anybody’s game, making the result from last night’s match all the more important. “It meant a lot,” admitted Sartini on Raposo’s last-minute winning goal. “More so for our next opponents, because if we played fantastic but didn’t win, then we would be like ‘we played fantastic, but what do we have to do to win a game at home’. So the goal, I think, is to give us that, as you said, the boost of being even more conscious of what we can achieve, being even more hard on ourselves for us to be better.”

These next few games could really solidify what kind of season the Whitecaps will have in 2024. Should the Whitecaps come out of the next three games with anything more than seven points, then we could be talking about a potentially historic run for them in MLS. But should they fail to get three points, then we could see all the hard work they’ve done so far come unraveled.

Authored by: Felipe Vallejo

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