Fans of the Whitecaps were well primed to limit expectations in advance of the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. No seasoned strikers and pre-tournament expert prognostications have a way of doing that. Nevertheless, I think many ‘Caps fans went out on a limb with high expectations for the first game against San Jose. Just look at the optimism expressed over at 86 Forever by fans predicting a Caps win or a tie. Matias Almeyda’s side was another bottom feeding team entering the tournament with similar limited prospects.
Personally, I was not expecting a result against the Earthquakes. I didn’t see how we could generate enough chances in the final third and I didn’t see us being able to put away the chances we could create. No frontline strikers, limited depth, and limited prospects for service from the midfield left the Caps with set pieces and possibly a solo run from Yordy Reyna as the most likely routes to scoring goals.
In the end, I was wrong that we couldn’t score sufficient goals to win, as three should just about do it every time out. I didn’t take into account two absolute gift goals from San Jose, but I was right to temper my overall expectations.
Let’s not forget that the Earthquakes are a bottom third team. This was not a team anyone should fear. Leaving it all out on the field is terrific, but a close loss to San Jose is likely not a predictor of success against a desperate Sounders team on Sunday. The Whitecaps were again found wanting and the future doesn’t look bright.
So, aside from the obvious takeaway that playing without your three first choice strikers, midfielder (or defender?) Janio Bikel, and defender Erik Godoy hurts, what did we learn from that first match in Orlando?
First, let’s look at the positives. Overall commitment and desire were generally good. Clearly, the bulk of the ‘Caps wore their hearts on their sleeves and giving up wasn’t the order of the day. We all know that team spirit is essential to success.
Newbies Ranko Veselinovic and Leonard Owusu also showed us some significant positive play. Like most of you, I thought Ranko demonstrated some sound defending and the surprising ability and desire to take an opening and run with it. Similarly, Leonard displayed confidence and comfort on the ball and looked to turn and move play forward with purpose. He can also defend.
Maxime Crepeau once again showed us some fine shot blocking and confirmed he can be a front line keeper in this league.
Second, let’s look at what didn’t measure up. In the midfield, I was, as usual, underwhelmed by Russell Teibert. Sorry to his supporters, but giving your all and running hard are simply not enough.
His lack of forward vision (or any vision for that matter), lack of confidence on the ball (some would say almost panic on the ball), his lack of physical presence to impose his will on the ground and (of course) in the air, his defensive positioning (seemingly designed to corral his mark rather than impose his will) are not what we need. We have a sample size of 200 games and he has obviously hit his ceiling. That ceiling was sufficient in the pre-2015 MLS, but it simply isn’t good enough now for a starter. At best, Rusty is an 80th minute sub to see out a two goal advantage.
Continuing with the midfield, we now have to have concerns with Inbeom Hwang. We’ve seen flashes last season, and this one, of the justification of a Designated Player label, but we should be seeing more. We aren’t seeing him live up to his hype.
I have to wonder about his motivation. Is his heart still in Korea or is he longing for Europe or, worse than that, is he just not good enough? I’ve had high hopes that he can be a midfield general and a fine distributor, but so far I remain underwhelmed. I’m prepared to wait, but not much longer.
Much like Russell Teibert, it is now clear that Jake Nerwinski has also hit his ceiling. He is a satisfactory defender, but is lost going forward. He clearly understands that he should go forward when the opportunity presents itself, but as soon as he is engaged by a midfielder or a defender he loses his momentum. He then suddenly channels his inner Rusty and looks to dump the ball and return to safer territory. How many times has he made the killer service or torched that engaging defender? Exactly, almost never. He is way too predictable.
Jasser Khimiri is finally getting some minutes after a long absence due to injury. Thus, we need to give him some more time to find his comfort zone. In the first half against San Jose, I thought he and Ranko made a reasonable pairing, with some albeit shaky moments. However, in the second half, I think he started to lose it under the constant pressure he was under. His first half positioning got lost to some terrible ball watching and fatigue. On Wondo’s goal, both Jasser and Ranko were guilty of horrific ball watching and marking went entirely out the window.
On Oswaldo Alanis’ goal, Khmiri was simply bossed off the ball by superior desire and toughness. Alanis is four inches shorter than Jasser and there is no way in hell that he should have scored that goal in a professional football match.
I would be remiss to not reflect on the managerial decisions made during and before this match.
The ‘Caps have been drilled in their formation to defend corners. I say drilled as they seem to approach most defensive corners the same way.
We begin with six defenders in the box and three defenders just above them between nine and thirteen yards from goal. Our shortest and arguably weakest midfielder, Teibert plunks himself just below the penalty spot. I find this hard to understand.
Sometimes a man covers the back post, but sometimes not. Each defender then has a zone to mark. Every once in a while, a defender actually gets excited about his closest mark and does a decent job of sticking to him like glue. However, too often the zonal marking stays just that, zonal and never converts to man marking.
Take a look at Hwang’s defending on the first San Jose goal. He does a “terrific” job of marking his zone but inexcusably makes no attempt whatsoever to mark the man in his zone. This affords Andres Rios the opportunity to deflect the incoming pass into the net.
Similarly, our game management was a head scratcher. Trying to bunker for the bulk of the game is a tough one to attempt with a depleted squad. We all know that long term defending (in heat and humidity) is going to lead to fatigue. Why not make the opposition (which is desperate to catch up) work harder than you? Why not aim to maintain possession and make the Earthquakes work side to side and do some chasing?
Once we hit the last third of the game, it was clear that the Whitecaps were gassed and in trouble. Why not react at that stage? Either tactics or personnel changes are the possible responses, but we didn’t see either of them. Obviously, the lack of quality depth was an issue, but nonetheless as the game wore on it became more and more likely that a complete collapse was in the offing.
Finally, we ‘Caps fans have a terrible reality that we must accept. That is, the conditions that brought our striking corps to take a pass on the MLS is Back Tournament are not about to change. For the balance of this tourney AND THIS SEASON AND LIKELY INTO NEXT SEASON, the coronavirus is with us. That means that without a change of heart or medical advice or playing at home, Lucas Cavallini, Fredy Montero, and Tosaint Ricketts are on the sidelines. Our striking corps is now “the not ready for prime time” Theo Bair and the inconsistent Yordy Reyna. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.