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:

davies

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.

Whitecaps found legs first in opener, and then Toronto woke up

Captain Pedro Morales takes a corner in the Whitecaps' home opener against Toronto FC. (Photo RosieTulips/Flickr)

Captain Pedro Morales takes a corner in the Whitecaps’ home opener against Toronto FC. (Photo RosieTulips/Flickr)

During the off-season, a soccer team doesn’t exist in any of the important ways, like the way it does during the ebb and flow of a game. The pre-season is used to prepare and predict what the team will be like when it exists again for real; come the opening whistle it blips back into the physical plane. With some new limbs and some limbs missing, it lumbers into motion and begins to walk and pass and try to score a goal, just like it did the last time, but for the first time as a new group.

The Vancouver Whitecaps figured this out early and had a good first half in its opener Saturday against Toronto FC. Then Toronto woke up, and they had a very good second half en route to a 3-1 win.

Two of the biggest new faces introduced to the Caps this year, and the only two new players in the starting lineup, were Pa-Modou Kah, the centre-back picked up from Portland, and Octavio Rivero, the Uruguayan striker brought in to fill the fans’ hunger for a goal-scorer and whose predecessor had not quite managed to satisfy.

Their integration was a success, with Kah picking out the new central striker from almost 30 yards away that released him on a run that culminated in Rivero beating Joseph Bendik on his right side. Rivero basked in the moment, getting a chance to make his mark on his debut early, like Sebastien Le Toux in 2012.

By contrast, Toronto looked nervous, bending under the expectations that come with their wage bill. When a ball from Michael Bradley deflected through the box to their winter signing Sebastien Giovinco, the new man turned at the same rate as everyone around him, a second behind the ball like he was surprised to be alone with it, before putting a blistering shot just wide on the 17th minute.

But even without cohesion, individual players can still shine. Jozy Altidore, fresh from a disappointing term with Sunderland in the English Premier League, was given a gift of a Giovinco ball across the carpet and, as though through muscle memory, deftly turned past the goalkeeper.

The Caps stayed good for the rest of the period and were more aggressive at finding space to exploit, but didn’t convert it to goals. Kekuta Manneh, on 39 minutes, couldn’t work the same magic 1-on-1 with Bendik that Rivero had earlier, and Vancouver went into the tunnel on even terms with a Toronto side that hadn’t figured out how to make all of its expensive pieces snap together.

But you can’t count on your opponent’s ill fortune. The Toronto that came out of the tunnel was more determined and less nervous, converting that with a smooth run from Justin Morrow that bamboozled Vancouver defender Stephen Beitashour and put him in a position to pick out Robbie Findley.

It was now Toronto, not Vancouver, that was striding past back lines and executing smart runs. On 62 minutes, there was a strange crossover that looked almost like a Whitecap stole the ball from another; on 83 minutes Pedro Morales recovered the ball from the defense, but through fatigue couldn’t find an outlet before being overrun in his own half.

The penalty that ended the team’s chances was cruel, although not undeserved. After Gershon Koffie had a foul shout at the other end, Kah, fulfilling jitters from fans that don’t fondly recall his performance in Portland, clattered into Altidore on 89 minutes. If he touched the ball, he launched his frame into the air so clumsily that nobody could really argue.

The 2015 Whitecaps exist now, and the result was promising, if not disappointing. They lacked the ability to control Toronto’s firepower, when it woke up, and with more time for Kah and Kendall Waston to work together and more time for Rivero to earn the confidence of fans in a way past strikers couldn’t, they might be able to assert themselves down the road. It begins now.

Stats after the jump.

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“Lost” goals and off-season blunders aren’t the problem or solution for the Vancouver Whitecaps

Camilo's 22 goals in 2013 didn't help the Whitecaps make the playoffs and now that he's gone, the club must concern with scoring when it counts rather than scoring in his absence. (Photo Vancouver Southsiders/flickr)

Camilo’s 22 goals in 2013 didn’t help the Whitecaps make the playoffs and now that he’s gone, the club must concern itself with scoring when it counts rather than scoring in his absence. (Photo Vancouver Southsiders/flickr)

It’s been a long, dark off-season for the Vancouver Whitecaps, but the good news is that none of the blunders, miscues or departures have made the team’s biggest problems worse.

Nothing has stung as stung as bad as Camilo, the league’s top scorer in 2013, who ducked a club-triggered contract option and appeared in another team’s jersey in a successful attempt to force a move to Mexico. Whether you blamed Camilo for being an amoral mercenary or the front office for not working harder to make sure the man who wore a Golden Boot was happy (or both!) it was an emotional tragedy that seemed impossible to recover from.

It’s not the only time the five-person panel of front-office staff led by Bob Lenarduzzi at the helm has been left looking poor this winter. It was clear the club wanted former U.S. national team manager Bob Bradley for Rennie’s spot. He passed, forcing the Whitecaps to very publicly settle for their second choice, the able and patient assistant manager Carl Robinson. Usually-moribund Toronto FC brought in two stars in the same week while YVR’s international arrivals section was devoid of blue and white. It had appeared, briefly, that first-round draft pick Andre Lewis was, in fact, committed to the New York Cosmos before the league clarified that they had arranged a deal with the NASL club.

I am here to tell you that none of this matters. Camilo’s unreliability is as legendary as his brilliance, the Whitecaps will sign a new designated player or they won’t and Lewis, if desired, will be prised from the Cosmos, unless he isn’t. Carl Robinson is as well positioned as any man to deal with the only problem that matters for the team, which can only be solved in the pre-season: the team’s inability to take and hold games in key situations.

The intensity of despair that surrounds Camilo’s departure is based on two assumptions. The first is that Camilo somehow took his 22 goals with him when he left, and the second is that replacing those goals is an unlikely task that is necessary for the team to succeed.

The reality is that the value of goals is fluid. Camilo and Eric Hassli combined for a talismanic 22 league goals in the Whitecaps’ 2011 last-place finish (next on the scorers list: Alain Rochat with three) and scored seven (five and two, respectively) the next year. The Whitecaps “lost” 15 goals then, but five >3 goal scorers (Sebastien Le Toux, Darren Mattocks, Barry Robson, Gershon Koffie and Dane Richards) scored 20 goals between them in 2012 and the club made the playoffs.

That team scored 35 goals; next year’s edition scored 18 more times and missed the playoffs by two places. They only allowed four more goals. The point I’m making is that none of these numbers matter. They’re a good indicator of individual contribution, and indeed Camilo was important: his boot sealed that 2-2 draw against Portland and kept the Whitecaps on course to win their first Cascadia Cup since 2008.

But goals alone do not deliver a playoff spot. Secondary scoring was fine in 2013, with Koffie, Mattocks, Kenny Miller, Kekuta Manneh and Jordan Harvey (!) contributing 24 goals between them. But the team lacked a cohesiveness and consistency that harmed them at key moments, combining a narrative of early failure with an inability to hold key results. The hypothetical nine points lost from winning and drawing positions in the last 20 minutes would have put them in a tie for first place in the West.

That Camilo’s last game as a Whitecap saw him score a hat trick at home against the Colorado Rapids one game after the Rapids eliminated them from the playoffs on the road with a 77th minute goal tells the whole story of the team’s season. A sorry August 14 road loss to the Rapids when the Whitecaps were in the playoffs by two points and four places was another opportunity lost that typified the club’s troubles.

Intangibles like organization and desire can’t be pinpointed and diagnosed, but instability on the backline started with captain Jay DeMerit’s Achilles rupture injury in the home-opener that kept him out for most of the season. His age and injury history make him a question mark, but he is a leader in the locker room and his return for the new season is a positive omen. Brad Rusin, Andy O’Brien and Jonny Leveron wavered in and out, and the trade of Alain Rochat remains a puzzling question mark that kept the defensive unit in constant flux.

This is why I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure on draftee Andre Lewis, but I have high hopes for Christian Blake. We get a new influx of young, talented attackers that need time to grow into the league every year. But if Blake can come under the wing of DeMerit and O’Brien and can help add energy on defense without getting hurt, that will work wonders. A replacement for Young-Pyo Lee must also be found.

The cohesion of the team makes the pre-season camp vital. Can the well-liked Robinson succeed in forming a indefatigable unit where his boss couldn’t? (First, let him diverge from Rennie’s path by ditching the suit. It didn’t seem to fit him well at the draft.) It remains to be seen, but this is a matter of chemistry that you can’t predict. Let’s see how it works.

Offensively, the only thing that matters is picking people who can deliver when it really counts. Let it sink in that Jordan Harvey scored more goals than Darren Mattocks and the need for a reliable striker who can deliver results is obvious. If the Whitecaps have got $1.5 million for Camilo, that plus the extra breathing room in salary cap helps improve their prospects in the transfer market dramatically. In MLS, this decision can never be taken lightly.

In the end, you could never predict whether Camilo would score 22 goals or 5 or whether he’d end up in training camp when he had a theoretically valid contract. That’s not going to put you in the playoffs, and though it seems a lot of these off-season headlines won’t either, the path back to the MLS Cup hunt starts only one place: on the training pitch next Monday. Let’s hope for greener pastures.

Is Camilo gone? Probably.

Whether or not Camilo is contract is valid, he's wearing a Queretaro F.C. shirt. He's probably gone. (Photo Club_Querétaro/Twitter)

Whether or not Camilo’s contract is valid, he’s wearing a Queretaro F.C. shirt. He’s probably gone. (Photo Club_Queretaro/Twitter)

In weird off-season transfer sagas, the safest position to take is “I’ll believe it when I see him in the shirt.”

So on January 1, when ESPN Deportes reported that Querétaro F.C., a club with a strange history in Mexico’s top division, were about to sign Camilo and the Whitecaps denied they had agreed to any such thing, the safe money was on waiting and seeing. And on Monday, when Querétaro’s twitter account published photos of Camilo in the Mexican club’s kit, no amount of money seemed safe any more.

This debacle seems complex, and it is, but it can be boiled down to this: Camilo’s 2012 contract extension gave the Whitecaps the option to renew automatically without negotiation, which the Whitecaps did in November. Camilo’s camp doesn’t believe they have to submit to that extension and, after his pretty impressive 22-goal 2013 season, looked for a deal and found one in Mexico, where ESPN reported his transfer was seen as a done deal as early as December 17.

So, what’s about to happen? Regardless of whether or not club options are legal (and Ben Massey has written a great post on that topic), there are FIFA rules that permit breaking contract, with penalties, in the off-season. (Open your FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players copybook now.) But when it comes to international transfers, matters are a bit more hazy.

The Canadian Soccer Association must pass Camilo’s “soccer passport”, called an International Transfer Certificate, to Mexico before a Mexican team can sign him. When Querétaro asks, the CSA, which has provided proof of Camilo’s registration, must say no, and then we’re heading to arbitration.

The former association shall not issue an ITC if a contractual dispute has arisen between the former club and the professional. In such a case, the professional, the former club and/or the new club are entitled to lodge a claim with FIFA. (Annexe 3, 1.2)

While FIFA could annul the contract, the rules only explicitly forbid breaking contract during a season. What we’re dealing with, now, are issues of punishment: should Camilo and Querétaro be hit with fines and suspensions for this, or were they acting within their rights?

Either way, Camilo is wearing a Querétaro shirt. He can’t sign a contract until the FIFA hearing, which has 60 days to reach a conclusion, and appeals complete; since those regulations handle sporting sanctions before making any decision on the ITC, that could be a very long time. (Querétaro just played its first game of the Liga MX winter season last Friday.)

Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi told reporters that the club hopes the self-evident nature of Camilo’s contract will make their case for them. “The process in world football is pretty straightforward… the CSA will the look at his contractual status, realize that he’s bound to the Whitecaps, they’ll send the information back to the Mexican federation and say that he’s signed, you can’t sign him,” he said. “The club has acknowledged receipt of the documentation, we’re assuming that they’re going to back off, but they’ll need to take the next step.”

It is unlikely that Queretaro is going to back off. According to these two articles (and I’m going off of Google Translate here), the club was relegated last year. Its owners’ response: purchase Liga MX team Jaguares de Chiapas and move it to the city of Querétaro. This created a strange relocation carousel that resulted in Chiapas and Querétaro retaining top-division teams. Regardless of whether or not Camilo’s contract is valid, we can assume that this is not a club that is likely to beg off with an “oops, my bad” and flip him back to Vancouver.

So it all comes down to Camilo. Lenarduzzi said he thought that Camilo was misled: “I really believe that the situation has been misrepresented to Camilo,” he said. “I think he’s put a lot of faith in an agent and has gone with the agent’s advise and has got himself into a situation where it doesn’t look good on him.” But Lenarduzzi also said that Camilo has been contacted twice by the club since this story started, and informed that he wasn’t free to go.

Realistically, there’s nothing stopping Camilo from turning around and coming back to the Whitecaps; he’s not under contract in Mexico, after all. Querétaro, who announced they had signed DaMarcus Beasley last month before retracting the announcement, could decide it’s too much work and close the door on the deal. The Whitecaps might get money, and Camilo and his new club might get punished. Either way, FIFA is unlikely to stop it from happening.

Regardless of whether or not his agent was right to say that he could duck the club option, Camilo chose to do it. The club told him he was in the wrong, and he didn’t come back to Vancouver. He’s in Mexico wearing another team’s shirt.

You can now safely assume that he wants to stay there.

EDIT: Querétaro’s president has told a journalist the club hasn’t signed Camilo (which makes sense, because of the ITC situation) and all of the tweets and publicity have been deleted. Cold feet? Maximum penalty for the club for aiding in the breaking of a contract is a two-window transfer ban. The story continues.

Whitecaps take control of their own destiny with landmark 2-0 win over Seattle

Photo RosieTulips/Flickr

Photo RosieTulips/Flickr

There are few experiences so helpless for a fan as watching a lead slip away.

But on Saturday, the Vancouver Whitecaps did not meekly let a victory slip away or even sheepishly escape with points they did not deserve. They improved at half-time, pushed hard in the attack and scored at the very beginning and the very end to finally pick up a 2-0 victory against the Seattle Sounders.

Seattle, of course, has made Vancouver feel helpless before. Despite a respectable record against the Sounders in the second division — 5 wins, 7 defeats and 9 draws from 2004 to 2010 — Seattle has made Vancouver miserable in MLS, with the Whitecaps losing six times, drawing four and winning precisely never.

This especially hurts because it is Seattle. With the great success Seattle had entering the league, both in terms of results and community engagement, the Whitecaps made noise about copying their approach when they made the same jump. But of course, the 2011 season didn’t go nearly as well. For Vancouver, the results against Seattle (and Portland), coupled with the image of crowds over 40,000 uniformly standing and singing, scarves aloft, is enough to make the Whitecaps fan despair that perhaps they are miles behind their Cascadia rivals as they watch tourists in green dance up Robson Street after the final whistle.

At least three times, the Whitecaps have given up leads against Seattle. 2011 brought a 3-1 home loss, the last game played in Empire Field, which started so brightly with a goal from Camilo. Last season’s rollicking 2-2 draw at BC Place was going to be a win until Fredy Montero scored in the 90th minute. And of course, there was the defeat in Seattle last month, when the other shoe dropped in the form of a 2-1 road win flipping to loss late, again.

Surrendering points from a winning position has become The New Problem for the Whitecaps after the demoralizing loss to Montreal in the final of the Canadian Championship, a thread that runs through the Seattle game and to the last game against Kansas City. I mean, we will take a point from an out-of-conference road game and four from six points on the trip, thank you, but it’s been worrying.

So when Kenny Miller cut through with an early goal at BC Place on 4 minutes, the first feeling was elation. The goal came from nothing, a great ball that Corey Hertzog arced from the halfway line without looking speculative. Miller bamboozled Hurtado with a cut to the right and slapped the ball with the side of his foot, leaving it to run past two sprawling Sounders. The effect Miller’s return has had on this team has been tremendous; his technique and experience has now wholly eclipsed his disappointing first season.

However, the next feeling was fear. The Whitecaps were defensively terrifying in the first half. All the defenders produced decent plays, but Seattle, especially the tandem of Obafemi Martins and Lamar Neagle, found it just too easy to slice through. For the fan bruised often and recently by collapses from early leads, it seemed saner to prepare for disappointment again.

Brad Knighton’s performance in this half was one of the most important of his career. Despite winning the starting role mid-season two consecutive years there remains, as Ben Massey recorded, a feeling that perhaps neither Knighton nor Joe Cannon are good enough.

Just as the club’s move to bring in David Ousted from Denmark validated that sentiment, Knighton has been fighting like hell to retain his grip on the spot in the two weeks between the signing and when Ousted is eligible to suit up. A save on Martins as he drifted over on 22′ and two quick saves in procession after a Neagle corner were crucial in keeping the Caps level by halftime. Ousted is active now, and will play in the reserves tomorrow. Knighton’s seven-save clean sheet was a fierce effort to ensure he stays there.

Despite Knighton’s heroics, the outfielders did not inspire confidence in the first half. But something shifted in the second period.

Jun Marques Davidson, who had been invisible before the interval, stepped up and took control of the fulcrum at midfield, helping create a logjam in the Whitecaps area. (Most notably: Intercepting a dangerous Brad Evans pass from the goal line.) The midfield was a lot more challenging to pass through for the Sounders, and that’s because the Whitecaps were much better off the ball, depriving Seattle of time and options in possession.

When Corey Hertzog, admirably filling in up front for the absent Russell Teibert, was taken off on 63′ with a left-ankle sprain, the TSN commentators wondered aloud: defense or attack? Should manager Martin Rennie bring in a pacy young forward like Kekuta Manneh to cause problems or act conservatively, perhaps bringing on a midfielder to folding the 4-3-3 into a more defensive formation to grind out a 1-0 result?

The way the Whitecaps handled this question can tell you everything about how they did not simply avoid defeat but seize victory. Before Daigo Kobayashi’s introduction, the ‘Caps had a total of four shots, only two on goal. But Daigo helped reinvigorate the attack, pushing the play up the pitch so that Seattle had to make up ground to try and mount any kind of assault of their own.

The next sub sealed the attack-is-defense approach: Darren Mattocks. So quiet lately, appearing only once in the last six games, Mattocks exploded onto the pitch, matching the intensity of the crowd with a rapid five shots and quick runs, terrorizing poor Djimi Traore.

The decision to play attacking players like Kobayashi and Mattocks is what sealed victory. And when a Knighton goal kick — clean sheet and an assist! — was flicked on at the centre circle by Gershon Koffie, Mattocks did the rest himself, chesting the ball down, cutting through Traore and batting a half-volley up and over.

2-0. With 11 minutes left, that was something like certainty. Knighton stayed strong. Mattocks kept coming out of nowhere to terrorize Seattle on the break. There would be no capitulation. The fear of lingering oblivion that was thick and black after the Canadian championship vanished into thin air. The Whitecaps are on top of the Cascadia Cup standings.

It was a good night to walk down Robson after a Seattle game for the fans in blue, for once.

Stats after the jump.

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Whitecaps win on the road against New York and dismiss some old ghosts

Photo betancourt/flickr

Photo betancourt/flickr

Life in the middle of the standings is often a series of small crises.

Until two weeks ago, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ crisis was a series of uninspired performances that saw either gutless road losses or just-barely-rescued draws at home. Following a heartening 3-1 win against Los Angeles, the crisis for the last two matches has been the opposite: going up and then watching much-needed results melt away.

Tonight, the Whitecaps were able to come up with a result that did various things it seemed the club couldn’t do recently: Win on the road. Engineer a second-half comeback that goes all the way. Play confidently with a draw and a lead. Play well up a man.

But let’s start with the road win. A road win. The team’s first MLS road win since a 1-0 scrapper nine months ago in Colorado on July 4th, 2012. It certainly did not start out looking like it was going to be any different than your average Whitecaps road match.

It’s hard to overstate how little Vancouver created in that first frame: they got exactly zero shots on target and were outpossessed a staggering 72 per cent to 28 per cent. One of the biggest problems was that they were just a bit sloppy when they took control of the ball. Maybe it was a focus issue — all the Whitecaps looked highly affected by the heat — but a particularly large problem was an inability to readily take control of the ball when they did have possession. Too many balls rolled two, three, five feet on first touch, and players found themselves too far out to do anything with it.

But hey! They weren’t behind heading into the half, and they’d managed to put New York on edge; after the refs gave the Whitecaps the benefit of the doubt on a few consecutive fifty-fifty defensive calls, Dax McCarty responded by grabbing Camilo by the shoulders about thirty yards out of the New York goal and hauling him to earth.

Greg Klazura’s own goal near the beginning of the second half was part of a tragic first start for the mascot Vancouver defender that, as well an early exit due to injury, disguised the fact that he played okay, all things considered.

It also put the team back on script for a disappointing result. See how powerful these stories can seem? It was just like a 2-0 RSL road loss in May earned with a 47th minute opener, or the that opened with a conceded own goal. You’d be forgiven for calling the game a wash then and there. (Many on Twitter did.)

But sports, like life, measures us by how we react to the successes and challenges we encounter. Painfully, lately, the Whitecaps haven’t been able to deal with it, whether it’s being unable to come back from a goal down on the road, being unable to turn a draw into a win, as against Dallas and Salt Lake at home in April, conceding despite a red card as against Portland or, heart-breakingly, watching leads slip away last Wednesday against Montreal.

And hey, you know what? It worked out. Jordan Harvey, of all people, smashed in a goal to put the Whitecaps level, the team was able to respond to a change in shape when New York’s Jamison Olave was sent off, Kenny Miller got one (to put a nice capper on what was not a great game for him) and despite squandering a late breakaway, the Caps were able to hold in injury time. Neat.

This should be good going forward. Like the LA win, it will quell the chattering about Martin Rennie’s future, because it’s a lot more pleasant to come home with three points and see ourselves just four points out of the playoffs (and only two behind next week’s opponents, Seattle!) than to feel perpetually on the brink of oblivion, as Vancouver sports fans are wont to do.

Stats after the jump.

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Unexpected wonders lift Whitecaps to break slump, beat LA 3-1

Players exhale after the Vancouver Whitecaps' 3-1 win over the LA Galaxy at BC Place. Photo courtesy frostcake

Players exhale after the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 3-1 win over the LA Galaxy at BC Place. Photo courtesy frostcake/pic.twitter.com

Sometimes you spend forever planning, and then something entirely different and wonderful happens instead.

The Whitecaps were in a rut of seven league games where everything should have worked and little did. So many chances, but not enough finish, not enough runs on. No combination of players or formations — go back to the diamond! Switch to 4-3-3! Koffie! Davidson! Koffie and Davidson! — seemed to produce the desired result.

The starting XI against the LA Galaxy felt like that: 1. Run out players who have had issues like Rochat, Davidson, Kobayashi and, most notably, Darren Mattocks. 2. Hope they turn it around. 3. ??? 4. Profit?

And yet, the player who did the most to change the game didn’t even start on the pitch. Injuries are always unfortunate, especially because Daigo Kobayashi’s 14th minute exit came as he tried to stay stuck in after being brought down by a tackle, keeping in mind recent criticism around soft play in the team. However, Kobayashi had been having trouble as of late and his early substitution created an opportunity that Russell Teibert seized with both hands.

Teibert, whose parents had come from Ontario to watch him play, stuck with the starters instead of peeling away with the subs in the pre-match warm up, and seemed determined and not a step behind upon his introduction.

His first goal was the most impressive. It was the kind of play the Whitecaps have been flubbing repeatedly of late: Teibert got himself on the end of a ball, weaved in and out of the box looking for an opportunity and was able to create something dangerous. It immediately changed the complexion of a game that had been thoroughly tentative to that point.

Though out-possessed, the Whitecaps had looked like they could still, with luck, get something from the game at half-time. But oblivion loomed. Thanks to out-of-town results, even a draw in this game would leave the Whitecaps back on the foot of the Western Conference table. Mattocks was, regrettably, still looking out of ideas on the ball.

LA defender Omar Gonzalez had a header that, though it was just past the far post, cut through the Whitecaps defence like hot butter two minutes before the goal. Had it gone in, these would all have been different conversations.

But it was Teibert’s confidence that put a different stamp on the game. Watch his second goal again to see how thoroughly he masterminds the opportunity. First, he calls for the pass. Not recieving it, he buzzes around Y.P. Lee until the ‘Caps defender decides to leave it for him anyways. He sends a ball through to Gershon Koffie, who holds the ball up and turns to see Teibert blazing into the box. Koffie’s pass is simple, like the shooting drill the team ran just before kickoff. Teibert, who that morning had never scored a professional goal, blasts in his second to give the Whitecaps, whose stalemate looked so tenuous just fifteen minutes earlier, not just a lead but a cushion.

These elements of the game are hard to describe or quantify, because they’re so immaterial. Why does one chance go in and another spill just wide? How can you turn around a team having such trouble with finishing when it seems so often to come down to circumstance? Teibert managed to do it.

And speaking of confidence, let’s return one last time to the issue of Darren Mattocks’ luck. It is impossible to overstate how mystifying his lack of success has been in front of goal has been week-in, week-out. He brought a portable raincloud to the attack in the first half against Edmonton, and nothing seemed to be working. Management was pleading for ideas, and supporters were anxious to know how long Mattocks needed to sputter before he could produce.

When I saw Mattocks pounce on a turnover and break in one-on-one with a defender only to put it right on LA goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, I thought his confidence may have broken for good. He collapsed onto his knees and stayed down for moments. When he got up again to contest the resulting corner, he hung his head and A.J. DeLaGarza, the defender marking him, gave him a consolation pat on the back. I thought I had seen a low from which it would be nearly impossible to recover.

And yet.

It is, like I said, hard to quantify confidence or belief. But Mattocks, who has been so often out of position or ideas or plain unable to find and complete opportunities, saw a ball get away from Jordan Harvey and float tantalizingly in front of him for just a moment. He broke away from DeLaGarza easily and whacked it in off of Cudicini’s insole. The relief for Mattocks but also his whole team on seeing that goal go in is palpable. What makes this different than all the other attempts of late? Can’t say. But he was in the right place. He went for it. He made it count.

It remains, regardless, Teibert’s night. And perhaps it’s better that way; now Mattocks and the ‘Caps can put this long, dim run of three points from a possible 21 behind them. They managed to neutralize the defending champions in front of a (as far as the club claims) sell-out crowd. Nobody could have laid out, prior to the game, the road map to this victory. But it happened. Onwards.

Stats after the jump.

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Whitecaps watch the game pass them by in road loss to Salt Lake

The moment where Reo-Coker realizes that a simple goal kick could possibly be fatal.

The moment where Reo-Coker realizes that a simple goal kick could possibly be fatal.

I was once told that in journalism, your chances of getting a big story were based not just on talent, but availability: your freedom to pick up a phone or run across town to do something now.

In sports, if you wait for something to happen to start moving, it will be finished before you arrive. Maybe you’re on the road or tired or tense, but you have to react and stay ahead of the game if you’re going to pull off anything impressive. I was working during the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2-0 road loss to Real Salt Lake on Saturday, but watching the highlights it was clear that both the offense and defense faced situations where starting late killed their chances of pulling off the big play.

Observe the first goal at 2:11 of this highlight package, after Nigel Reo-Coker’s free kick from distance sails over everyone’s heads into the stands. While the team exhales for a moment, frustrated after the chance went nowhere, exactly two Whitecaps start running. Look at the gif above to see the exact moment when Reo-Coker, already near the halfway line, realizes the danger that the Whitecaps face from Rimando’s free-kick and starts sprinting.

By the time Joao Plata takes possession just outside the box, four Whitecaps are marking three RSL attackers. Andy O’Brien lets his man, Luis Gil, go on as he watches to see where the ball goes. It goes to Luis Gil, now standing five feet behind him, who heads it home.

At 2:10, when Reo-Coker sends a speculative long ball to Corey Hertzog, the rest of the team is moving at about quarter speed. Watch Daigo Kobayashi. At 5:57, he is standing just over the penalty spot. As Kekuta Manneh crosses in on a volley, Kobayashi is straining away from it, towards the goal, and is pushed over by the defender. He rolls over backwards before standing up. Reo-Coker fights off two men to send in a second ball that just misses Corey Hertzog, who has run across the box but cannot make it to a ball which rolls to nowhere. Kobayashi has walked exactly two feet from where he stood up after rolling over.

The aftermath of the loss has been continued handwringing over why the team loses games on the road. The manager and Reo-Coker, the acting captain, have criticized the desire of the team. Reo-Coker said to the TEAM 1040 that the ‘Caps weren’t “being tough and hard to beat. Defending properly, running back, doubling back, helping your teammates and making unselfish runs.” Basically, if you work hard and you move fast, you have a chance to be a factor. If you don’t, you’re just watching the game go by.

Stats after the jump.

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