“Winning breeds confidence”.
Those were some of Carl Robinson’s words when he was being grilled at training earlier this week about Vancouver Whitecaps current form. If you take those words as gospel, then the ‘Caps confidence must be pretty shot to pieces right now.
Even Whitecaps captain Pedro Morales admitted to us, “From the results, the guys, the team, maybe have lost their confidence.”
Two wins in their last 12 matches, one goal in their last four games (ending a scoring drought of nine full halves of football and over 400 minutes of play), and a string of depressingly disappointing overall performances, doesn’t exactly scream playoff contenders.
Yet despite it all, the ‘Caps find themselves just two points out of the playoff places, albeit needing others to fail to give them even a chance of making the postseason for the third straight year.
Even if results elsewhere continue to go Vancouver’s way, they also need to quickly pull their own finger out and discover form which simply hasn’t been there all season. Right now, they don’t look like a team capable of doing that, but as we’re constantly being told, football is indeed a funny game.
There’s been little signs that the Whitecaps defence is suddenly going to be like a fortress, or the midfield is going to get creative, or anyone is going to remotely go on a goalscoring spree. Or we’re going to be crying tears of joy at the hilarity of football, instead of tears of despair.
The defensive spine of the team – David Ousted, Kendall Waston and Matias Laba – were all signed to contract extensions in the offseason, too much fanfare and delight. Yet all of them have underperformed from what earned them those new contracts.
No matter who is in the defence, the team has struggled and been shipping far too many goals from individual errors. And we still can’t nail down a regular right back.
Morales got his own earlier extension, but, beat up from a slew of injuries that forced him to miss a third of last season, he’s looked a shadow of his former self this year, leaving us yearning for the Pedro of 2014 to suddenly come back from the dead. We miss MoPed.
Kekuta Manneh has been patchy, when he’s not actually been injured. It’s been the same old story from him, exciting and a game changer at times, posted missing at others. It’s also been painfully clear that the ‘Caps need him, no matter what form he is in, to have any oomph whatsoever.
Up front has just been utterly dreadful. Octavio Rivero looked a busted flush last year. The ‘Caps should have cashed in their chips on him long before the summer. Masato Kudo doesn’t look cut out to be a consistent MLS finisher. His horrific injury didn’t help, and to his credit he hasn’t come back looking scared, but the style of play seems a bit too physical for him to thrive. Blas Perez likes that physical play, but Robinson doesn’t want to play him for whatever reasons. And then there’s Erik Hurtado….
If you were asked to list any Whitecaps players that are in any inkling of consistent (decent) form right now, you wouldn’t need a very big piece of paper. Christian Bolaños and Andrew Jacobson are the only two, and the latter of those can’t keep his place in the team. Alphonso Davies has shown genuine exciting flashes when he comes on, and some will argue the case for Nicolas Mezquida, but the consistency just simply isn’t there from him.
None of this makes delightful reading or raises too much hope that the playoffs are an achievable goal for this current Whitecaps side, but Robinson feels that his team doesn’t even need to be in top form, or playing beautiful football. They just need to get points and wins down the stretch by any way possible.
“In the last two years, I think we won four out of five games in the first year and last year we won two or three out of nine or ten, and we’ve got into the playoffs both times,” Robinson told us. “It’s about getting results. It’s not about getting confidence. We don’t need to play brilliant, we don’t need to play perfect, because in the games we’ve lost this year we’ve played really well and in the games that we’ve won, we haven’t played as well.
“It’s about finding a way to win and we need to find a way to win, sooner rather than later, because if you find a way to win then confidence slowly starts building up and that’s what it’s about. I’ll learn a lot about the group over the next nine games in MLS play, and Champions League play.
“Moving forward as well, for next year and beyond, you’ve got to experience losing, you’ve got to experience disappointment to find out how strong as characters you are and we’re going through a period at the moment where I’m learning a lot about my players, which is good.”
Strange that it’s both about getting confidence and it’s not about that, both at the same time!
It is at these times of adversity, however, that you learn a lot about a team and individual players. Who has the stomach for the fight? Who really cares? Who’s pissed off that things aren’t going well and who just takes it in their lackadaisical stride?
On that last point, Russell Teibert said something telling at training this week.
“If you watched training today, you see the spirit in this team,” Teibert said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell that we had a tough result on the weekend. The guys are coming in with smiles on their faces. We’re training hard, we’re working hard. At the moment, things aren’t going our way, but it can happen at the flick of a switch.
“Something can go our way, a little bit of luck and we’re having a completely different conversation next week. I don’t think luck is the only thing that’s going to get us there and I’ll keep saying it, it’s going to be a grind, but we’re ready for that grind.”
Hard to argue with a lot of that you may say, but it’s the second and third sentences that irk me. Surely a team shouldn’t be coming in all smiles when they’ve been playing the way the Whitecaps have for the past month?
Surely, you’d be coming in to training all fired up? Angry. Wanting to rectify what’s wrong with the team. I want to watch a team training and instantly be able to tell that they have had a bad result at the weekend and are wanting to make amends for it. I want to look out at the training pitch and know which players are going to tell the others exactly how it is and kiss some ass, point fingers and tell some home truths.
Is this current Whitecaps side too soft? Too nice? Too complacent? Too settled in the great liftestyle they have in the third most liveable city in the world? Are too many players feeling that their place in the side, and the squad, is safe?
There needs to be changes, and fast. Changes in performance. Changes in attitude. Changes in the short term. And changes moving forward.
Most of all there needs to be changes to the Whitecaps starting line-up.
It doesn’t matter who the players are. Whether they’re our highest paid player, whether they’re a DP, whether they played out of their skin last season, whether they were rewarded with a new contract and thought to be the base to build the team upon. If they are not playing well, they should not be starting.
It seems to have taken an age for Robinson to also reach this conclusion but the indications are that he’s finally reached the end of his tether in this regard.
“I’ve gone past the stage of thinking that people need to play if they’re not playing well,” Robinson said at training this week. A long overdue realisation many would argue, and it comes on the back of him saying this last week.
“I’ve said all along I want a squad of players and you have a squad for a reason, competition of places. You have to make decisions at certain times if players aren’t stepping up, then as the manager and as the coach, you have to make those calls. I’ve made those calls at certain times this year. Now we’re getting down to the nitty, gritty stage of the season, with ten games to go when there’s lot of points on the table. We can’t keep throwing them away, because we’ve done that too often, and decisions will be made.”
Last season, Ousted, Waston, Laba, and Morales were all likely the first name down on the teamsheet every game. They deserved to be. This season it’s clear that they still are those first names written down, but the problem is they shouldn’t be.
Ousted I will give a pass to (one which he hopefully doesn’t fumble for a goal). He’s make a few mistakes this season. He’s cost us goals. He’s cost us points. But he’s also saved a hell of a lot of them too. The scales tip in his favour in that regard, although at a lot of clubs around the world, a manager would have maybe looked at a goalkeeping switch, even for a game, to keep the competition fierce and send a message.
Waston’s had a mare of a year. He’s one booking away from another suspension, and although he’s come back from his last suspension in much better form, you still wonder what it’s all done to him mentally. But if you don’t play him, who do you play there? Parker’s been patchy, Seiler hasn’t played yet, Dean is injured, and Kah is Kah. Although Kah and Jacobson against Houston in March was one of the best centre pack pairings of the season, and one of the five clean sheets.
Then there’s our two remaining DP’s. It’s hard to drop a DP in some ways. The optics look bad, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done, and it needed to be done with Laba weeks ago. He’s had a horrible season. One of the worst adverts going for becoming a father! He looks a step off the pace every game, saunters back slowly when up the field and out of position, lunges into tackles, many of which are mistimed, and has been more of a liability than the defensive rock we need back there.
Pedro has struggled this year, but still is one of the few players on the team that can suddenly come up with some magic. Although with no goals in his last ten matches, it’s been more tragic than magic at times. Harry Potter’s not concerned about losing his wizarding crown any time soon.
Robbo has been saying that there are hungry players, knocking at his door to play. Well play them. It can’t be any worse than what we’ve seen over the last four games.
But then you’re heading in to a crunch game against Sporting KC. One which could see you move to two points back of them with a game in hand, if you win. Do you take that risk or do you play it safe with the guys that haven’t performed for you in the hope that all of a sudden they’ll realise their jobs are on the line and start to play?
For me, you have to roll the dice. Send a message to everyone in the squad that no-one’s positions is safe (and we fully expect a big roster cull in the offseason). Robbo said he wants his team “to go down fighting”, well it’s the players waiting in the wings that look the most likely to do that for him.
Get Fraser Aird in at right back. Move Parker back to where he belongs in the middle of the defence beside Edgar or Waston (you can easily argue for any of the three of them to be dropped and go with the other pair to be honest). Pray to your gods that Jordan Harvey gets back healthy asap. Drop Laba and bring back Jacobson in a 4-1-3-2 formation. Get Morales back as the number 10, with Bolanos out right and give the kid a chance, Davies, on the left. He’s hungry, plays with no fear, and won’t have the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd. Go with two up top, ideally Barnes and Perez.
Take a chance, do pass go, collect $200, and hopefully kickstart a season that already looks in its death throws.
Change is good.
Change is needed.
Change is a must.
And once we’ve changed on the pitch for the rest of this season, we need to talk about change off it during the months to come in the way the club operates above Robbo.