What Are They All About? Vancouver Whitecaps Preview
Sir, you’re going to have to check that bag. After a lackluster 1-1 draw at home to DC and a “competitive” training week the Chicago Fire are staring in the face of a three game road trip that will give some of the newcomers quite the intro to North America. The Fire will log almost 6,500 miles of travel in the next ten days as they visit Vancouver, Boston and New York before coming home.
We’d like to say that they are doing so with a sense of confidence and security but in reality they will do so on the back of a start that has been mediocre at best. With just seven points in seven matches Chicago’s start under Veljko Paunovic has been worse than last season’s start under Frank Yallop. While no team wants to count on games in hand it must be pointed out that Chicago is just three points outside of 6th having played three fewer matches than most teams ahead of them. The Vancouver trip could be used to make a statement and three points would go a long way in building momentum. The alternative is of course setting the record for the league’s longest ever winless streak, 28 matches.
The two teams have already met once this year in preseason, a match which featured two rarities, a Sean Johnson start and a Gilberto goal. The result was a 3-2 victory for Chicago. That won’t have much bearing on this match as both teams already look much different than they did in February. Will Chicago put their poor start behind them and win their first ever regular season match in Cascadia, or will Vancouver continue its dominance in this fixture and relegate the Fire to their worst 8 match start since 2007?
Vancouver Form Guide (Last 5 Matches): W-L-D-W-L
Previous match: A 2-1 Home win over Portland.
Formation in the last match: 4-2-3-1: Ousted; Aird, Waston, Parker, Harvey; Morales, Laba; Bolaños, Mezquida, Techera; Kudo
Strengths: While Vancouver has not been able to replicate the form that saw them reach the Western Conference Semi Final last season, there have been a number of bright spots for the team. In our preseason preview we analyzed some of their new additions and it must be said that they have worked out quite well. Let’s take a look.
Return on Investment: In the offseason the Whitecaps added Kashiwa Reysol’s all-time leading goal scorer Masato Kudo. The Japanese forward has impressed in his four starts this season with one assist and one goal, both in the last match against the Timbers. He could be looking to build on that performance against Chicago as he seems to have finally adjusted to the Cascadian scenery.
Another newcomer to the squad is Costa Rican international Christian Bolaños who has been utilized as both a right winger and a CAM in the three man rotating midfield. He’s also on a bit of hot streak with three goals in his last three matches. In that time he’s also been clinical with his passing, averaging 35 passes per match with an 83% completion rate. There is no doubt he will be a handful in the midfield on Wednesday and he’ll make Chicago’s holding midfielders think twice about venturing forward.
A third notable addition was Blas Perez who has largely been reduced to a substitute role. The Panamanian may have turned 35 at the start of the season but has shown that he can still bring energy off the bench and cause problems for defenders late in matches. He showed as much with a late shot that skimmed the post against Portland and he played a pivotal role in causing Jake Gleeson to second guess himself on the Vancouver game winner that trickled through the keeper’s legs. Let’s also remember these are just the three additions, much of Vancouver’s squad remains unchanged from last season.
Style of Play: Due to their consistent squad Vancouver has managed to continuously exhibit a style of play that is fast paced and exciting to watch. They have only failed to score twice this season and have five multi-goal games. Even in matches where they have failed to come out on top they have created chances. As we alluded to above most of their attacking prowess comes from a three man attacking midfield that has included an iteration of Bolaños, Pedro Morales, Cristian Techera, Nicolas Mezquida, Kekuta Manneh, and Erik Hurtado. Each one of those brings some combination of clinical finishing, speed, creative vision, and physicality.
While Chicago has largely failed to create opportunities this season and is still trying to identify a creative midfielder it seems Vancouver is spoiled for choice in that department. In fact, they have so many #10 options that they mask one of them as a #6 in the two man holding midfield. Pedro Morales spent the first two years of his Vancouver career as a CAM and focal point of their attack. In that time he scored 16 goals and added 16 assists in 56 appearances. Carl Robinson has attempted to use him as more of a withdrawn midfielder this season but Morales apparently hasn’t gotten the memo, he’s added four goals and an assist to his tally from that deeper position.
The 4-2-3-1 formation, their attack minded mentality and their skill on the ball have yielded 115 shots with 63 of them on target this season. By comparison Chicago has managed just 49 shots with 17 on target. Basically Vancouver can punish you from any number of positions on the field and Chicago will need to string together their performance of the season if they want to avoid an extremely unwanted record.
BC Place: Aside from an opening day gaff against Montreal, the Whitecaps have gone on a five match unbeaten streak at home winning three of those contests and drawing two. Even if Chicago was good on the road this is not an easy stadium to get something from. When you add the fact that David Accam won’t travel, Khaly Thiam doesn’t have his Canadian visa and matt Polster is doubtful for the match you have to assume Chicago doesn’t get a win here.
Weaknesses: We may have painted a pretty bright picture above but there are always clouds lingering in the background in MLS. Vancouver find themselves in 7th place in the West and have allowed a head scratching sixteen goals in eleven games. There have been some questions about identity in recent Vancouver press conferences that have left Robinson and company visibly frustrated. There seems to be a bit of spark lacking from a squad that didn’t lack any confidence last season.
Consistency: We realize that the section above alluded to consistency as a strength of Vancouver. They have consistently been dangerous in the attack but they have been equally as consistent in failing to defend as a team. The midfielders tend to throw their hands up in frustration or run towards the ref to complain rather than towards the opposition after giving away the ball, and while Kudo and Octavio Riveiro haven’t picked up English quite yet we’re not sure they know the word “defend” in any language. The back four has also been problematic.
Fraser Aird, Kendall Waston, Tim Parker, and Jordan Harvey has featured in all but three matches this season with fixture congestion and a suspension to Waston being the sole causes for any deviation. While on one hand Robinson is showing that he trusts his guys, there are a few matches that just show blatant mistakes unbefitting of professional defenders. The matches that stand out the most are the 4-0 and 3-2 losses to DC and NYCFC respectively.
Against DC, a lack of follow up on the play from both Waston and Harvey allowed Fabian Espindola to tap in a rebound before questionable set piece marking costs Vancouver a second. Robinson was furious as his team let in a goal in the 89th and another in the 91st as DC completed the route. The back line had seemingly given up and halfhearted efforts to catch up to Alvaro Saborio (not the league’s speediest striker) were the source of initial questions about identity.
The loss that handed NYCFC its first home victory of the season raised some questions of its own. The first David Villa goal came from Pa-Modou Kah and Parker both being drawn in centrally with Kah pointing for an imaginary third center back to step towards the onrushing Spaniard. The second Villa goal saw one of the World’s most prolific strikers left unmarked on a set piece being delivered by Andrea Pirlo. The final goal was the product of ball watching as Andres Mendoza had the time to take two touches in Vancouver’s box before tucking away the game winner. If the Whitecaps continue to commit those types of avoidable errors there will be chances for Chicago to get on the board.
Waston: Whether it is warranted or not, Whitecaps center back and Costa Rican international Kendall Waston has garnered a reputation for overly physical play and has received twenty yellow cards and two reds over the course of forty seven league appearances. He gave away both penalties against Chicago in the preseason and has been the center of a number of PK controversies in his time at Vancouver. We wouldn’t condone diving but if Kennedy Igboananike and Arturo Alvarez can drive at Waston he is prone to making mistakes and his reputation precedes him. (Please feel free to insert any version of “the Fire will rue missing Accam in this match” here).
Missing Players: Sorry, the Fire won’t get much help here. Octavio Riveiro is the only key player that will be missing. His “undisclosed injury” is most likely a masked cool off period so that he doesn’t accumulate a fifth yellow prior to two big clashes against TFC and Portland.
Desperation: It is not statistically quantifiable but desperation can be a dangerous thing. If you don’t think this situation applies to Chicago yet then take a look at the standings and the probability of making the playoffs with just seven points from your opening eight matches. The bottom line is that Chicago has had very little to show for its offseason house cleaning and they need not only points but positive play urgently.
History by the numbers in comparing this year’s start to past seasons doesn’t bode well. The Fire need to start picking up results on the road to make up for the lost chances at home. Here’s what it looks like after seven games since the 2000 season.
2000: 10 (2 Home / 5 Away)
2001: 13 (3 Home /4 Away)
2002: 10 (2 Home / 5 Away)
2003: 11 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2004: 10 (2 Home / 5 Away)
2005: 10 (2 Home / 5 Away)
2006: 10 (0 Home / 7 Away)
2007: 10 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2008: 16 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2009: 10 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2010: 8 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2011: 6 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2012: 11 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2013: 7 (4 Home / 3 Away)
2014: 6 (3 Home / 4 Away)
2015: 9 (4 Home / 3 Away)
2016: 7 (5 Home / 2 Away)
Prediction: We’re out of clever quips and positive delusions. Vancouver 3-0 Chicago. The Fire will become holders of another unwanted record, Paunovic will praise their effort, and they’ll look to New England to get back on track.