When you’re on a five game losing streak, the last two of which have come in the dying embers of the game, the last thing you want to have to do is to head into the lair of an in-form rival.
When you’ve not beaten that rival in over four years and they are currently unbeaten on the season and lead both the Western Conference and Supporters Shield standings, then the task facing Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday against Seattle Sounds is truly monumental.
“It’s real David against Goliath in this moment right now,” Whitecaps head coach said Dos Santos. “They are first in the league, they have no losses. It’s a team with a lot of winning habits.
“We are in a very different world than Seattle right now as a soccer club. It’s just the reality. The fantastic thing in sports is that nothing is impossible. In sports, there’s surprises, there’s things that come out of moments that nobody is expecting, there’s special moments.”
If the Whitecaps get anything from this one it will certainly feel like a special moment.
April 14, 2017 was the last time the Whitecaps beat the Sounders. Fredy Montero hit a double that day for Vancouver against his former club. On Saturday, he’s back in the rave green to try and put the sword to his most recent former team.
There’s been 11 meetings between the sides since that game at BC Place. The Sounders have won eight of them, and have beaten the Whitecaps in four straight, scoring nine goals and giving up just one.
Two of the three draws between the sides have seen a 0-0 scoreline. Right now that’s feeling like Vancouver’s best hope. Shut up shop, stifle, maybe hope for something, anything on a quick counter or set piece, and try and get some feel good factor going by stopping the slump and grabbing a hard won point. It’s not a pretty scenario, and everyone wants more, but it would at least stop the rot. We’re looking at (very) small victories here. Not literally of course, but I’d take anything at this point!
“It’s a difficult moment,” Dos Santos admits. “Nobody wants to be in a run of losses like this. We have to make sure that we have the mental toughness to go on. It’s also an opportunity to see who are the players that are strong mentally and who are the players that are capable to endure in moments like that.
“We have no choice. The only choice we have is to respond. When you just have one option, it makes things much more easier.”
The Whitecaps need to do something different, and I’m not just talking about stopping losing and giving up stoppage time goals. The current formation, tactics, and personnel is simply not working.
Two and a half years into Dos Santos’ tenure and the Whitecaps still don’t have an identity. For all the talk of wanting to play the high press, the players here either don’t seem capable of playing how their coach wants them to or they tune him out and do what they want once they step on the pitch. At least at first.
The team have appeared flat in nearly every first half this season. They have yet to find the back of the net in the first 45 minutes of any game. They come out better in the second half, but even that hasn’t been enough.
MDS has tried many options to spark his teams. This season he’s used a 4-4-2 formation in seven of their nine matches, with 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 once apiece. Last season saw a staggering nine formations used at some point. You can argue that some of those are fluid and debatable, but even with that, this is a team that still feels like it’s trying to throw things at a wall and see what sticks. The Velcro is weak however.
The Whitecaps have used 22 players so far over their nine games. Can we really say with any confidence what is the best line-up and what is the best formation? We’re all crying out for that number 10. As I broke on Monday, the Whitecaps have got a multi-million dollar bid in for Scottish attacking midfielder Ryan Gauld. He’s talented, excelled in Portugal, and coming off the best season of his career. But he’s not here yet, no-one is.
Got a Whitecaps transfer rumour for you! The 'Caps have apparently put in a bid to sign Scottish number 10 Ryan Gauld. Is currently with Portuguese side Farense. 3 year deal on the table paying him $3 million a year. Is said to be close but some other clubs also interested. #VWFC
— AFTN (@aftncanada) June 21, 2021
Does one person fix this mess? Especially one unfamiliar with MLS and that may need time to find his feet. I’m not sure, but it would certainly help. It would help link up the gap between the midfield and the attack, something MDS told AFTN on a recent podcast was one of the team’s biggest issues. It would help add creativity and spark. It may even help that first half flatness.
What it won’t do is to help the attackers finish chances or ensure that defensively the club are fully switched on, marking up, and don’t have the mental lapses that have seen them give up three stoppage time goals in the last two losses.
There is no easy, quick solution to the Whitecaps woes right now. They just have to grind it out. What goes in their favour is that they still have a lot of the season left. They’re only nine games into a 34 game season and this league has shown a bit of momentum goes a long way.
“We’re all together on this,” Whitecaps’ DP striker Lucas Cavallini said in a show of unity. “We’re pushing every day, we’re trying to get out of this storm. For us, it’s a must win. Seattle is probably the best team in MLS right now; they haven’t lost a game. What do we have to lose? Nothing is impossible in life. There is still like 25 games left. We still have a lot to prove, a lot to show.
“I mean, it’s MLS. You win two games and you’re up in a playoff spot. Every team here is inconsistent… unless you’re Seattle. We’re not even halfway done and this season is long. We just need to find that identity that we need.”
The next two games after Seattle, however, are massive. The only club currently below the Whitecaps in the Western Conference standings, FC Dallas, are next up on July 4th. Three days later, they ‘host’ Real Salt Lake in Utah before a 10 day Gold Cup break. Canada’s first game in that tournament is four days after the RSL game so it would seem very likely that the ‘Caps will be missing players for that encounter due to international call-ups.
The Dallas game is a must win, not only for the club you feel, but for head coach Marc Dos Santos, who is cutting an increasingly more resigned figure in his chats with media. Losing that would see them cut adrift at the bottom and, depending on the result in Seattle at the weekend, potentially on a seven game losing streak.
With the Whitecaps hoping to head back to Vancouver for actual home matches in August, the club can’t afford to be there with their season basically done and dusted.
Just to end on an interesting side note. When Carl Robinson was fired by the Whitecaps in 2018 it came on the back of just two defeats, with the team taking seven points in their three prior games. Those two back to back losses that signaled the end of the Robbo regime? A 2-1 loss to Seattle, followed by a 2-1 loss to Dallas.
Will history repeat itself or can MDS and the team turn things around? We’ll soon find out.