What Are They All About? Vancouver Whitecaps
The beauty of the cup. This past Wednesday, the Chicago Fire were ousted from the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup at the round of sixteen stage by FC Cincinnati. It is their earliest exit from the competition since 2012 when they lost in the third round to the Michigan Bucks. We’ve long spoken about the mystique surrounding one of the oldest domestic tournaments in the world, and the match exemplified what makes it special. Overwhelming possession stats, more shots on goal, a pass count over double that of their opponent, and the heroics of Matt Lampson were all meaningless in the end as a 0-0 draw over one-hundred-and-twenty minutes resulted in a contest decided by penalties.
Whether the Fire had bothered to practice penalties or not was seemingly irrelevant as Cincinnati’s goalkeeper Mitch Hildebrandt put together the performance of a lifetime. Tired legs, hung shoulders, and a broken spirit were all that remained for Chicago as they left the field realizing a goal they had set their sights on is now out of reach. They won’t have time to dwell on the result for too long as the team returns to Chicago on Thursday to prepare for their next league match against the Vancouver Whitecaps at Toyota Park (6:00 CT on CSN Chicago Plus).
Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps head into this match knowing that they’ll have an opportunity to kick start their season and move above the red line with several matches in hand on the teams that they are chasing. Early exits from the CONCACAF Champions League and the Canadian Championship hurt their morale early on, but a three-match undefeated streak in the league is something for them to build on. Furthermore, Vancouver played just three matches in the month of June while the Fire have been stretched thin with six matches in that span. Will Vancouver notch a Canada Day victory against a physically and mentally tired Chicago side, or will the Fire lick their wounds and take their anger out on their northerly neighbors? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Vancouver Form Guide (last five league matches): D-D-W-L-W
Previous Result: A 2-2 draw away to Minnesota.
Formation: 4-4-2 (Flat Midfield); Ousted; Harvey, Parker, Jacobson, Nerwinski; Davies, Tchani, Laba, Techera; Shea, Montero
Strengths: As Vancouver attempts to stretch its unbeaten streak to four matches, there are a few standout attributes that can get them there. A renewed sense of confidence is just the beginning. Let’s see where they will succeed.
Gelling Nicely: As part of Vancouver’s revamp, Robinson solicited the services of Brek Shea, Tony Tchani, and provided an avenue of return to MLS for Freddy Montero. The latter has rewarded Robinson with five goals and an assist in his twelve starts this season, apparently hitting similar form to when he earned himself a move to Europe in 2012. Shea on the other hand has been asked to play seemingly everywhere except for in goal this season, featuring at left back, left wing, underneath the striker, as a second striker, and even as a lone striker. While he hasn’t produced extensively in terms of goals (three) or assists (zero), there seems to be a growing sense of responsibility around the MLS veteran and he’s been able to implement whatever instructions Robinson gives him. The midweek press conference in Vancouver alluded to the possibility of the Whitecaps rolling out two strikers (the formation that earned them the draw in Minnesota) which would feature Shea going up against Meira in the center of the pitch, a physical presence the Portuguese has already alluded to struggling with. Lastly, Tchani has finally capitalized on his move from Columbus and earned himself a constant place in Vancouver’s eleven. It cannot be pure coincidence that Vancouver’s passing percentage, defensive interventions, and points per game ratio has risen since his inclusion.
He Shoots, He Scores: This might be a bit of a stretch in terms of a strength but Vancouver seems to have an uncanny ability to score from shots placed on target. Of the fourteen shots put on frame in their last three matches, six have gone in. Almost half of your shots on target resulting in goals is not too shabby, especially if you struggle in possession (discussed below). Aside from the aforementioned Shea and Montero, Matias Laba has been dangerous from distance, Cristian Techera’s five tallies have come from all angles, and a total of ten different goal scorers have featured on the stat sheet for the Whitecaps this season. Vancouver is dangerous from multiple lines and they shouldn’t be underestimated on Saturday, especially given Chicago’s quick turnaround and the Whitecaps’ freshness.
On Time, Rain or Shine: A vast majority of Vancouver’s goals this season have come from fantastic service from the wide players–Davies, Techera, Bolanos, and the overlapping fullbacks Williams and Harvey–or from impeccable delivery on set pieces–Bolanos and Rosales. It may be a straight forward approach in theory but the South American flare and the pure youthful exuberance present from this Vancouver side could just catch Chicago off guard. Any fouls that come from the tired legs of Chicago could be severely punished given their lack of height and the Whitecaps’ deadly deliveries.
Weaknesses: Despite touting high ambitions in the offseason by bringing in Montero, Yordy Reyna, and trading for Shea and Tchani early in the campaign, the Whitecaps have seemingly sputtered for most of the season. Yes, there have been flashes of brilliance here and there, but this Vancouver side is quickly falling behind the development of fellow Cascadian rivals Portland and Seattle, not to mention being overshadowed by their Canadian MLS counterparts. Let’s see where they will struggle on Saturday.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: If you take a quick glance at the standings, you’ll notice that Vancouver sits just below the red line on twenty-one points. While that may not be too worrisome, would should be eye catching is also that they have a goal differential of zero. They’ve allowed twenty-one goals this season while tallying twenty-one of their own. This in itself may not be too alarming, but the problem is that rather than accumulating such a stat through a series of draws (just three on the season), Vancouver has a strange collection of wins and losses. In this instance, we mean strange in the sense that there are very few streaks (winning or losing), bizarre instances of beating teams they shouldn’t (Kansas City and Dallas), and losses against teams that on paper have no business competing against them (a home loss to DC and an away loss to RSL). To be frank, you never know which Vancouver is going to show up on any given day. As frustrating as that is for opponents prepping for matches or pundits preparing game notes, it has to be more frustrating for Robinson and the Vancouver supporters.
You Don’t Have Poutine and That Makes Me Sad: Perhaps one of the only consistently reliable trends coming from this Whitecaps side is that they’re terrible on the road. Granted, they seemingly don’t believe in consistency but their road form leaves a lot to be desired. Wins against Montreal (scripts go out the window in rivalry matches) and Colorado hardly instill confidence in their ability to get things done away from BC Place. We understand that MLS is a league in which you can’t rely on your road form, but that’s precisely why Chicago will have an extra bit of edge on Saturday.
Maybe Possession Stats Mean Something After All: We’ll leave the debate about the validity of possession stats to others but here’s some more food for thought. Vancouver conceded 73% of the possession to Minnesota in their last match, including over 80% in the first half. Both of Minnesota’s goals in that draw came during that interval. Similarly, Vancouver conceded 50% of the possession to Dallas at home (an unfavorable number for any home side) and barely left with a point after being barraged by twenty shots in the contest. They did manage to beat Atlanta despite another shockingly low 33% of the ball at home but Atlanta’s counterattacking mentality resulted in a bizarre inability to create in possession. The question remains, how can Vancouver come to Chicago and leave with even a point against a Fire side that thrives on possession?
Bruised and Broken: While Chicago has its own issues in this department (call-ups for Dax McCarty and David Accam), Vancouver will be missing several key pieces on Saturday. Alphonso Davies, Marcel DeJong, and Russell Teibert have all been called into the Canadian camp for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Additionally, Vancouver’s injury list looks like something straight out of a World War II action film. Nicolas Mezquida will miss the encounter due to an ankle sprain, a blow to their creativity. Kendall Waston suffered a hand injury on international duty in June and the ensuing surgery will keep him out for a majority of this month (probably the biggest blow for Vancouver in terms of leadership, experience, and defensive capability). Christian Bolanos should miss the encounter as well (shoulder sprain), and Erik Hurtado rounds out the list with a foot contusion (just as he was starting to get some confidence). The list left Robinson joking that there might be a place for Vancouver’s pool reporters in Saturday’s eighteen. Whatever happens, the encounter won’t be much of a window into either side’s full capabilities.
Prediction: As heart-broken as Chicago supporters are, this Fire squad is full of professionals. Saturday is an opportunity to show that they haven’t faltered despite the Open Cup loss and they will capitalize on it. Chicago 2-0 Vancouver. Nemanja Nikolic with a brace.