Many commentators have rightly pointed out and complained about the MLS schedule makers and how unfair May was to the Whitecaps. Too many matches and too much travel in too short a time. The fatigue inexorably ate into our performances and degraded our opportunity to significantly move up the table. The final straw, literally and figuratively, was the lacklustre performance against Toronto on Friday night. The lads simply ran out of gas.
Just as the Whitecaps started to gel and gain the benefit of buying into the new coaching staff’s system, they had to contend with ridiculous continent-wide back and forth excursions which simply made no sense. Despite the fixture congestion, there has certainly been some improvement in our play and a measure of respect has been gained. This “unfairness” narrative is undoubtedly true and has been a theme of many of us who write about the ‘Caps and who comment in forums like this one.
However, having stated the obvious, I’d like to look at one element of the 2019 Whitecaps that has been revealed by the scheduling nightmare. Stated simply, my focus is player depth and our present lack of it.
It is a given that every year the MLS allocates each team a certain number of regular season games in a certain period of time and then we sprinkle a little fun on top. We add in Scotiabank CONCACAF excitement, an All Star game, some pre-season warm-ups, a friendly or two, the Gold Cup, the World Cup, (now) the Campeones Cup, the Canadian Championship, the US Open Cup, and a few injuries and illnesses for more thrills and chills. You get the picture.
That’s a lot of matches.
Aside from all of this being a grind, we can also recognize something else in this. It is completely expected and completely predictable. Deep down, you know that, I know that, and the Whitecaps brass knows that. It is a fact of life in the MLS world. So, while we like to complain about it, we also need to live with it and create the best conditions for success in this environment.
While the Whitecaps travel greater distances than the other teams (with 51,210 miles to be travelled during the 2019 regular season), all teams play a similar number of games each year. Difficult months are a fact of life. Let’s not get too distracted here.
After 16 games, the Whitecaps have generated 1.13 points per game. In doing so, we have, on most nights, played what is viewed to be (for the most part) the best 11 available. Some, but only limited, rotation has been possible. Thus, while some teams have the luxury of greater squad rotation and flexibility, we have only so many viable spare parts in this connection.
The ‘Caps have some options at keeper (Max Crepeau and Zac MacMath), right back (Jake Nerwinski and Scott Sutter), centre back (Doneil Henry, Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius, Brendan McDonough, Jasser Khmiri, and now, it appears, Andy Rose) and “sort of” in midfield and upfront.
I say “sort of” because the talent drops off so quickly once an injury or two sets in as we’ve seen. Further, at left back, we have Ali Adnan (for at least a little while longer), with PC and Brett Levis also available, but at a drop in quality.
And therein lies the crux. Beyond the usual starters (and including some of them), we have for the most part fringe MLS level or USL level talent and skills available as plan B.
The limited talent pool only serves to exacerbate the fatigue problem. In effect, a negative feedback loop sets in. If you have to continually play the same horses to scratch out a win, a difficult schedule inevitably results in a gradual decline in performance. We don’t even have the luxury of the odd blow out win where our seconds can come in and pick up 25 minutes of garbage time.
This also results in some other unintended annoyances. For example, many fans lament the lack of playing time afforded our young homegrown and academy players. Unfortunately, this outcome becomes a fait accompli when we consider the context: our best players are needed to eke out a meagre 1.13 points per game, so we can’t risk a significant downgrade in talent in even one position on the field.
Similarly, if we can lift our game just a little, we might even make the playoffs this year. However, by then, just how tired will the Hwangs, Monteros and Erices of the team be after playing the best part of 90 minutes each night just to get us there? How much gas will be left in the tank in October? Will we be able to rest them if we have to give our all just to sneak into the playoffs? Remember that the top team we might play in the first round of the playoffs will likely be able to rest some players on the eve of the festivities.
Good reactive coaching and a good system can help compensate for a lack of depth. Teams like Sporting Kansas City have developed an identity and seek out and insert interchangeable parts to achieve a level of success. Certainly, Marc Dos Santos and crew have been an upgrade on the Robbo era in this connection. But this will only carry us so far. Horses are needed for the interchangeable parts.
We know a transfer window beckons in July and we know that we may lose Adnan by then. We also have been told that the Whitecaps “may” add fresh blood in that window. However, I think we need, in addition to potentially having to replace Adnan, to upgrade our first team roster AND address the depth problem. Given the language limiting our expectations that we’ve heard to date, my asks are likely too tall an order for this year.
Thus, in the end, we can hope that the MLS schedule makers might one day group distant travel in manageable bites. We might also get some measure of relief as more teams are added to the league so that individual conferences might be better geographically grouped.
Regardless of whether or not these things happen, we will simply have to accept fixture congestion as a month to month reality. Rotation and flexibility will be an essential element of future success. Without it, we can only watch our better players struggle to hang on in months like May of 2019.