The Mask speaks for all of us. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)
If you can spin that game positively then you're a better man than I.
Spinning the environment? That's easy! Nobody could be more delighted than I was at how BC Place looks as a soccer venue: in the south end, with the retractable seats extended and the upper deck covers hanging from the rafters, you could fool yourself into thinking it was a real soccer stadium. It was lovely, lovely, lovely; as lovely as the Whitecaps themselves weren't for about seventy of those ninety minutes.
After the game, Tom Soehn harped on about the lack of energy. Well, that's not news. This team has been short on energy for months. Yet there was some pick-up in most of the team, just the faintest hint of vigor and desire in the first half. Peter Vagenas, practically the official site whipping boy at this point, was storming through central midfield, setting up scoring chances, and making a bloody nuisance of himself in the best way. Jay DeMerit shouted, dove, tackled. Alain Rochat ran, passed, competed. They didn't bolt out of the gate like eleven thoroughbreds but neither did they stagger out lamely. There wasn't enough, but there was something.
They wasted too many passes, though: knocking their long balls too long, crossing vaguely into the box just hoping a Whitecap could get on the end of it. They'd lug the ball into dangerous positions and we'd go "ooh" and they'd waste it. I'd like to blame it on a lack of energy but there were so many, more serious problems out there it would be a distortion of the truth.
We're going to hear words like "pathetic", "feeble", "lifeless" from fans, from players, from coaches. There'll be some truth in that but it'll miss the point. The team had what I'd call a professional amount of energy. The Whitecaps could have played harder but what they did could have been, and very nearly was, enough. If a few of the players had knocked in a few of their chances, nobody would have complained about the effort.
The problem wasn't effort. The problem was the team.
A game like that was a great opportunity for the Whitecaps to show off their inherent flaws. They were playing on a fine new artificial surface: one on which each step was easy and the ball ran straight and true (a few Whitecaps managed to fall over more often than you'd expect but the Timbers seemed immune: one for the equipment manager, maybe). They were also playing an opponent of mediocre quality: this was no Los Angeles Galaxy situation where we risked being dazzled by our opponents' skill.
So where did it go wrong?
Take this example. The Whitecaps rotated a fistful of players through their wing slots. Camilo Sanvezzo started at left wing, then Davide Chiumiento moved back before half time. Shea Salinas was the starting right winger but he and Chiumiento switched sides at half. Mustapha Jarju's substitution for Chiumiento saw Camilo move back to the left, then when Long Tan came in for Salinas John Thorrington moved to the right wing. So that's three left wingers (Camilo, Chiumiento, Salinas) and three right wingers (Salinas, Chiumiento, Thorrington) in ninety minutes.
And the fascinating thing was how little difference it made. None of them could cross worth half a damn. Camilo tried some cute playmaking no matter where he was on the field: as a winger attempting to sling balls in and set up his teammates is a core responsibility, of course, but as a forward it's much more important for him to charge up himself and score. Chiumiento tried, and largely succeeded, at beating every defender the Timbers threw at him but but only got one quality scoring opportunity out of it. The guy never even plays a position: he just does as he sees fit. Salinas was typical Shea Salinas, although he had one good shot on goal and actually managed to test Troy Perkins. Thorrington's time on the right wing was brief but he was the only one who looked like a winger, which is ironic because he isn't.
You could extrapolate that out to much of Vancouver's lineup. Eric Hassli played fairly isolated as a target man, but didn't even attempt to unleash one of the shots for which he is feared: instead he was trying to walk the ball into the goal. Late in the game, when he managed to beat four Timbers challenges in the area and get nothing out of it, Hassli pretty much summed up the way he's played for the past two months. When he attempted to get through on goal he was marked into oblivion by Eric Brunner and simply seemed out of ideas.
Fullbacks Jeb Brovsky and Jordan Harvey were all wrong for this system: Brovsky is a canny passer along the ground but struggled with the long crosses required from his position while Harvey, though relatively engaged and even managing to intercept a few tough passes, had the offensive guys and ability of a rotting fish. Brovsky got demolished defensively although neither was great. In central defense, watching Alain Rochat give the ball away en route to the goal against was tough but it was even tougher seeing him forcibly restrain his instinct to attack so he could keep his unnatural position.
Many of those I just named are quality individuals. I'd take Hassli, Chiumiento, Rochat, and Camilo on my team any day of the week. Thorrington would be welcome if he didn't make so much money, and I continue to insist that Brovsky is a midfield prospect worth keeping. Every coach who comes into Vancouver and beats the hell out of the Whitecaps continues to insist that "they have some fine players" and John Spencer was no exception. The players are handy but the team is incompetent. It's a FIFA 12 team attempting to play real soccer: good players who would make a good team if they weren't playing with each other.
A bit of praise is called for in central midfield, though: Peter Vagenas and Gershon Koffie did a fairly good job closing down the Timbers attack. It's not much of an attack, of course, but every chance of quality from Portland came around the flanks. Koffie is evolving into a bit of a giveaway machine, perhaps too fired up by the team's struggles and trying to do everything himself, but he remains an omnipresent defensive threat. As for Vagenas, his intelligent positioning during his fifty-seven minutes was overwhelmingly valuable. A clever header back to Salinas gave the Whitecaps their second-best scoring chance of the whole game, and though he's not exactly an offensive force he completed his passes well and made life very tough indeed for Portland. Yes, this was Peter Vagenas. Naturally, this is the game Tom Soehn chose to pull Vagenas after less than an hour.
This team is the most frustrating thing I've ever seen.