Whitecaps take no wins from a no-win scenario

(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps)

(Photo courtesy of Vancouver Whitecaps)

The true no-win scenario is something you can’t determine until you’re in the thick of it. This past week, the Whitecaps faced a nearly impossible task: two games in four days, with a flight to Mexico in the middle, the second against last year’s Liga MX Apertura winners.

But even impossible soccer games start at 0-0; certainly both games started brightly. You don’t realize you’re in Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru test until you’ve already lost it: when wave after wave of attacks hit until you can no longer defend.

It’s the bright start that hurts the most. The first game, Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes, could have been a footnote, another 0-0 draw that went nowhere. Certainly, that’s what the lineup indicated, with Matias Laba, Brek Shea and Sheanon Williams out of the lineup, held for Mexico. But then Hurtado stunned the Quakes two minutes in, a bit of brilliance out of nothing from a striker the Whitecaps leave isolated too often. Fifteen minutes later, he turned provider for Nico Mezquida, who perfectly shifted the ball from his left to his right to go up 2-0. Great, right? It all feels like it’s going well until David Ousted gets sent off.

The Great Dane faced no good choices on that play, as Kendall Waston and Christian Dean both came up for the same header and missed it, letting the ball lope towards Chris Wondolowski with about 35 yards of space. Instead of waiting for the threat to come, Ousted made the choice to come to meet it, a joust in which he couldn’t manage to avoid a foul. All of a sudden, those daydreams of Monterrey vanish and the Whitecaps were jolted into the present to meet A Big Problem.

Manager Carl Robinson’s decision to remove the goalscorer Mezquida is a choice he told the AP he would have “taken back,” a road chosen poorly as time closed in on him. So was Ousted’s challenge. Little mistakes and errors, cutting off options until there is no mistake: that’s the no-win scenario. The Quakes had 77.8% possession throughout the game, and though the fact that only four of San Jose’s 21 total shots were on target speaks well to the Caps, there’s no substitute for space and time. Nick Lima was able to pull into open space to score the tying goal and Anibal Godoy, sitting off the edge of the box, was on the ball long enough to call his parents before uncorking a stellar looping ball to score the go-ahead. The waves kept coming, and the loss came eventually, stinging all the more because they were two goals up.

That left the second leg of the no-win scenario against Tigres UANL. Flying to Mexico for what may be their highest competitive level of match ever, depending on how you rate the old NASL Cosmos and Rowdies, four days later against a team that didn’t play the previous weekend. That FC Dallas got their April 1 match rescheduled in the same circumstances shows how unenviable a position it is. And Tigres is in mid-season form as the Liga MX Clausura continues; the Whitecaps, on the other hand, still haven’t managed to combine the pieces this year, playing situationally-appropriate lineups based on the availability of players like Kendall Waston, Fredy Montero or Shea. The starting XI had only Ousted and Jordan Harvey in common to the one that started in California.

The CONCACAF Champions League has question marks that surround it, but you want to play teams that are better than you in order to improve, and if you want to win the competitions you are in and play at the highest possible levels, you must stand your head high, even if it means walking into El Volcan with a low chance of joy.

But it started bright enough, which is the pleasant surprise that brought pain later. The Whitecaps were able to stand the atmosphere, and it looked, through half-time, like they might be able to even bring a 0-0 draw home to Vancouver. But they weren’t able to get enough forward, sans one great chance from Mezquida. Again, wave after wave, and not enough bite on the counter; If the penalty for Tigres making a mistake is missing out on an opportunity and the penalty for Vancouver is conceding, you will make that mistake eventually. Waston did, trying to deflect the ball and kicking it into the goal instead. Tigres’ second goal from Eduardo Vargas, another screamer from outside of the box with lots of space and time. It was those last twenty minutes where the inevitability of it all came crashing down on the Whitecaps. 14 shots, with 7 on target, 79.4% possession. The waves kept coming.

The one counter to the admirable sporting philosophy of giving your all regardless of the odds during the season is that there is usually a match next week where you pay for it, and the Whitecaps face Toronto on Saturday without David Ousted and with the weight of a 0-1-1 record on their heads. It’s hard to look back positively on those games because once the whistle sounded, they seemed winnable, but those four days presented an insurmountable task. We have now seen how this team faces the walls closing in. Next time, perhaps they will create their own way out.

Alphonso Davies doesn’t have to answer to you

(Photo courtesy Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps)

(Photo courtesy Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps)

The push for transparency and accountability shows up in the most unlikely places sometimes. Occasionally when MLS people talk about it, they speak of fans like annoying children, as if to say, “I can’t believe they care about this stuff.”

Criticism has a unique role in sports and soccer. It’s an entertainment, but teams are selling hope for future success, which brings joy enough to deal with the sorrow of any present-day losses. So GMs, coaches and players are held accountable to whether or not they are good enough to deliver the success that fans desire. When a manager like Carl Robinson or a player like Russell Teibert tries to stay positive in the face of a bad result, that frustrates some, as though fans want to see their sorrow reflected in their heroes’ faces to justify it.

If a coach doesn’t win enough, fans wonder if they will be sacked; if a designated-player striker like Octavio Rivero can’t score the goals that ostensibly justify his salary, they will be shown the door, and if a promising young prospect like Darren Mattocks squanders opportunities to score, some will question whether they are worthy of those opportunities. The promise of youth implies delivery, and sometimes people feel cheated when it does not arrive.

This brings us to Alphonso Davies. The 16-year-old is a true prodigy, in that it’s incredible to consider that he has this much skill at this level. He accomplished many key milestones last year, including first MLS start and first Whitecaps goal, in the CCL, both of which he’s repeated this year in just three games. It was on display in the Whitecaps’ 0-0 draw against the Philadelphia Union last Sunday, which was void of much interesting except for Davies’ eye-popping runs. When he’s on the ball, people seem to take a half a second to stop and watch. Look at his movement before this Techera chance, and his quick ball at the end of it:


It’s a joy, and part of it is that it’s so audacious; so carefree, unlike the fundamental, mechanical slog that can characterize regular-season soccer. Carefree is the key word here, though. The Whitecaps have done a good job protecting him; holding him away from media, preventing him from getting an ego, trying, in a sense, to raise him. Giles Barnes, who just got traded, drove and cooked for “his son”, according to ESPN’s Julie Stewart-Binks. Robinson wouldn’t let him speak to media much, if at all, last year. But he can’t be hidden for ever. The league is starting to notice Davies, now. There are stories about him attracting interest from Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. The AFTN Soccer Show noted that there’s chatter about whether he should join the senior Canadian national team, and he doesn’t even have his passport yet.

It seems scarcely fair to put him on the field with men old enough to be his father, but he’s clearly good enough for it. His composure and ability to score goals are clear. The question becomes, how should his successes and failures be judged? Kekuta Manneh is 22 and, debatably, has matured and become a reliable person to start any game. Davies could be four-to-six years away from it being fair to even hold him to that standard. That’s an eternity.

Davies appears to benefit from free run, and any young player starts to get shackled sometime. Maybe they don’t track back enough (though Davies does) or don’t score enough (though he’s doing that). What happens when he misses a sitter at a key moment? What will people say about the teenager on Twitter then? Can he stay protected for four, six years?

Davies presents an interesting challenge for the MLS world: a player free from accountability. This will be interesting because though I will always argue for the necessary role of criticism, soccer fans can be pretty negative sometimes, and this is a player for whom negativity is unwarranted. It’s just not important right now. He doesn’t have to answer to you. He should not be punished. He should learn. Expectations to deliver on promise can be a weight on a young player. If we can keep ourselves in check, he may be able to fly.

A new year brings new answers for the soul-searching Whitecaps

(Photo by Andrew Bates)

(Photo by Andrew Bates)

The Vancouver Whitecaps have been through an identity crisis in the last year, asking who their players are and not liking the response. Some key additions may make those answers good ones.

The 2017 season starts for the Caps after a disappointing year that was supposed to have promise, but fell apart about midway through due to a few listless games and a few listless players. Part of the issue was the search for scoring touch that never came; in Octavio Rivero the Whitecaps hoped for the talisman who arrived with five goals in his first six games the year before. He was stone cold until he was moved, but after that point the Whitecaps were left with spare parts up front. While the salary was lighter, no player found themselves growing into the designated player mold, which nobody truly could. Pedro Morales had been a key playmaker, but in 2016 he was a leader that lagged behind, and left at year’s end.

In the preseason this year, it seemed that manager Carl Robinson seemed committed to encouraging stardom from players who hadn’t managed to break out, but supporters wished for someone that could be inspiring and, most importantly, put the ball in the goal. How do you find someone you know you can rely on? Pick someone you already know.

Fredy Montero’s signing was typically risk-averse from the Whitecaps. After bringing a number of signings in on hope that they are who they said they would be, they instead signed a veteran who is well-known to the league and Vancouver. He was brought in on a one-year loan, so no transfer fee was necessary up front and there was minimum responsibility in case it all fell apart. Montero is no diamond in the rough, but he came well recommended by Mauro Rosales, who helped set up the deal and then joined the team himself: another familiar face.

Both are former Seattle Sounders players, which is how fans knew them first. This creates a stumbling block for some. Does supporting a once-rival player betray a fan’s commitment? I think that in a league with salary cap, allocation and trades, you have to accept that players come and go, and as long as they represent the team, you have to trust them to do their best. If anything, it’s the old team and old supporters that should hurt, but for the new team, goals and time heal all wounds. Sebastien Le Toux, Pah Modou Kah and Blas Perez all took the same path, and if Montero is who the Whitecaps believe him to be, that has to be enough.

He did his best to prove it during Vancouver’s 3-1 aggregate win over New York in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal. His goal, fired in after a deflection from a slick backheel by Tim Parker from an Alphonso Davies cross, was as much victory as confirmation: with fists clenched, confirming that he can score goals here that matter. I was at the first leg in New York, and it was a celebration of improbabilities: the Kendall Waston ping-pong header, David Ousted coming up strong from the penalty spot again, and after the red card, a frenetic exercise in frustrating Bradley Wright-Phillips. The second leg Thursday never gave Wright-Phillips more release. Instead, it allowed Davies to start and dazzle with a goal and some incredible runs, and it allowed Montero to shout: I am here.

The season starts Sunday, at home against the Philadelphia Union. There’s a lot to be decided: as of writing, the captaincy, currently carried by Kendall Waston, who was branded an outlaw after his awful disciplinary record last season but now believes he can lead. Yordy Reyna, after being acquired to add attacking flair, broke his metatarsal and will be out until summer, leaving his value mostly unknown, and Brek Shea, who had a good game against New York, still must prove he can surpass his past in England and Orlando.

But taking that series the way they did in two halves: through guts on the road and goals at home, proves something. They may be the team that the players, coaches and Vancouver wants them to be.