What Are They All About? Vancouver Whitecaps FC
A recipe for success. Tying your away fixtures and winning at home leads to the playoffs. Or so the adage goes…
This past weekend the Chicago Fire drew on the road against Toronto FC to pick up a positive result in consecutive matches for the first time this season. The point boosted them to eighth in the East and gets them within touching distance of the playoff pack. Consistency in the lineup which beat New York Red Bull the week prior, another standout man-marking performance from Mo Adams, and Nemanja Nikolic breaking his 2019 duck led to a result that surprised a few people. It was the first time that TFC dropped points this season and they arguably could have seen their first loss were it not for a rare lack of clinical finishing from Aleksandar Katai in the dying moments of the match. This Friday, the Fire will have a chance to lift themselves above the red line, albeit momentarily, as they take on the Vancouver Whitecaps before any of the weekend’s other fixtures take place (7:30 CT on ESPN+).
The Whitecaps long trek from British Columbia will be made even more grueling by the fact that they have yet to win this season under new head coach Marc Dos Santos. Although Vancouver knew that rebuilding their squad would be a long process after Carl Robinson’s six-year tenure, they also expected to have more than four goals and just a single point from five matches. Their current situation is exacerbated by the fact that Dos Santos has had a say in all three of the Caps’ designated player acquisitions and took charge immediately at the conclusion of last season—arguably meaning that he knew about his selection prior to that.
While this is his first head coaching gig in MLS, he knows the US scene very well due to his time leading Swope Park Rangers, Ottawa Fury, and the San Francisco Deltas, as well as his assistant positions with LAFC, SKC, and Montreal. He should know the lay of the land well enough at this point, but he is also largely starting from scratch in Vancouver. Is it too early to write his project off? Absolutely. But these early struggles certainly have the Fire looking forward to Friday. Let’s see what’s in Store for the Men in Red.
Vancouver Form Guide: L-D-L-L-L
Previous Result: A 2-0 home loss to LA Galaxy
Formation: 4-3-3; Crepeau; Nerwinski, Godoy, Henry, Adnan; Felipe, Erice, Teibert; Lass, Ardaiz, In-Beom
Strengths: The beauty of MLS is that on any given day the any given side can surprise onlookers. That potential is surely there for Vancouver on Friday and Chicago hasn’t exactly been a bastion of consistency this season. The Whitecaps hold the historical advantage over the Fire (5-2-2).
Starting to Click: While results eluding a team is one thing, that failure is compounded by poor performances. Luckily for the Whitecaps, it is arguable that their place in the standings is not reflective of how they have played. In their last match against LA Galaxy, missed chances, unlucky ball bounces, and a really poor decision to attempt a Panenka by Ali Adnan meant that the hosts went into half time at 0-0 instead of being two or even three goals up. Similar shortcomings against Seattle meant that a draw was all they could muster despite bright play and double-digit attempts at goal. We’re not saying that points should be awarded for style or effort, but there are signs that the Whitecaps are not just buying into Dos Santos’ system but are actually implementing it at times.
Felipe’s midweek presser not only showed confidence in his manager’s approach but the Brasilian’s words gave a glimpse into the progress the squad had made in their first half performance against LA. “I think it’s the best we’ve shown yet and that’s what you build on, because what we showed is what we are about. That’s how we want to play it’s just about how consistent we can do that. A game is ninety plus minutes and that’s what we are going to do this game, to keep that shape and to keep the confidence with which we played”. If they truly find a way to keep the offensive consistency of the first half against LA and couple it with the clean sheet against Seattle, this Caps side will be in good shape going forward.
On the Front Foot: The lack of consistency experienced thus far may have a lot to do with Dos Santos high standards and extensive demands in terms of fitness as well as concentration. Known for building teams that are on the go nonstop, defend as a singular unit, and control possession, Dos Santos has significantly lowered the Caps’ median age to achieve his goals. Flashes of brilliance from In-Beom, Bangoura, Reyna, and young DP Ardaiz indicate the direction and potentially high ceiling for this squad. Players have been quoted as saying that the fitness levels required to play this up-tempo style are new to them and that they’ve needed to adjust when and how they breathe throughout matches. However, such an approach could see the likes of Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, and Bastian Schweinsteiger struggle in this one. If Vancouver doesn’t hold back, there may just be a chance for them to leave Chicago with a result.
Weaknesses: Being joint-bottom of the table even at an early stage of the season implies that you have some significant weaknesses. A side that has failed to consistently find the net since entering MLS is continuing on that trajectory; their DP signings have lacked the star power typically associated with such positions; and possession dominance has been hard to come by for a system built around having the ball. Let’s see where else they might struggle.
Who Knows Some Good Icebreakers?: Last week we discussed the necessity to have a strong core and a consistent roster when attempting to earn and sustain success in this league. Sides like Seattle, Toronto, New York Red Bull, and Kansas City come to mind as examples of this. Vancouver had an excessive amount of turnover in the offseason. A total of twenty-one players departed via trades, transfers, declined options, or expired contracts, while fifteen new faces were brought in to replace them. Sure, they had a complete preseason, took a team trip to Hawaii and have had five MLS fixtures, but the type of chemistry we are talking about takes years to achieve.
When you add the fact that the departures included club captain Kendall Waston, academy wonderkid Alphonso Davies, leading goal scorer Kei Kamara, and the loan of midfield engine Cristian Techera, the uphill climb for Dos Santos becomes all the more surreal. This is of course all after you take into account the volatile locker room situation that boiled over during media day following the close of the season in which players and staff alike took shots at one another and the ambition of the club. Ultimately, you can say that you are playing better until you are blue in the face but points are the true measure of growth.
Mental Lapses: For as good as they were for forty-five minutes last week, Felipe’s words ring even truer in this column, a match is ninety minutes. Their inability to capitalize on chances against a side featuring Zlatan led to the inevitable - two goals in the second interval spearheaded by his clinical positioning in the final third buried the hosts. More specifically, the Whitecaps seem to suffer from a static backline that sits too low against quality opposition. The time and space afforded to Ibrahimovic on his goal was unacceptable and similar mismarking allowed Daniel Steres to notch a tally. One might have thought that the Whitecaps had learned the lesson of avoiding a low block and playing out of the back with their current personnel after a loss against Houston, but alas…
The Necessity for Rotation: Vancouver is set to play three matches in eight days starting this Friday. If that weren’t enough, the Chicago away, LAFC home, Orlando away schedule that the MLS computer generated for them means that this side will travel over 18,000 miles before they earn some time off. The regeneration and recovery science present in the modern game is remarkable but you can’t just shake that type of travel out of your legs which means the Caps will certainly be looking to rotate their squad across those fixtures.
As tends to be the case for this league, you would think that they will prioritize their in-conference home match (LAFC) and see any points earned against the East as a bonus. Yes, they’re desperate to get that first win of the season, but they also cannot be embarrassed in front of their home crowd yet again. Viewers shouldn’t be surprised if newcomers Jon Erice, Lass Bangoura, and Hwang In-Beom see limited minutes on Friday to stay fresh and explosive for next Wednesday. Dos Santos alluded to slight rotation himself, but this might be a case of evaluating the fringe players on the road in adverse weather conditions.
Prediction: This match could very well be a turning point in the Fire’s season. There’s too much going wrong for the Whitecaps at the moment and this trip to the Windy City will not do them any favors. Chicago 3-0 Vancouver. Nemanja Nikolic, CJ Sapong, and Mo Adams for the hosts. A clean sheet for David Ousted against the side where he spent four and a half years.