Is it just me, or are even the moral victories starting to get a little less inspiring?
The Vancouver Whitecaps played about fifty pretty mediocre minutes and forty pretty good ones against the Columbus Crew yesterday evening. Unfortunately, those fifty minutes were five minutes too many. Jay Nolly took a bad foul leading to a penalty, and by "bad" I mean "it was not, reasonably, a foul". Mouloud Akloul and Gershon Koffie, both of whom had quite nice games otherwise, teamed up to blow coverage. The recipient of both gilt-edged opportunities, Emilio Renteria, cashed them both in. Omar Salgado scored a freakin' dandy of a first professional goal and pumped his fist like the greatest striker in the world, and the Whitecaps pressed hard for the equalizer. They didn't get it. The result is a 2-1 loss. One which pundits were quick to look on the bright side of. Yet a game in which the Whitecaps were clearly, indisputably, and deservedly beat.
We have plenty of excuses. I've already foisted some of them upon you and I'm definitely going to serve up a few more. And I don't think anybody who's paying attention could have expected the Whitecaps to beat the Crew; just because the game was winnable doesn't mean we were favourites. The Crew also played a blinder, putting in the best all-positions performance I've seen from them since their hey-day. As losses go, that was actually a fairly dignified one.
But our running total of MLS points on the road stays at "zero". I think I'd take a sloppy, completely undignified 0-0 draw right now.
It's not difficult to see where it went wrong for the Whitecaps. In the game-day thread, I made a big deal out of fearing Robbie Rogers. As it transpired, Rogers was left entirely off the scoresheet and only had a single quality scoring chance himself. But it didn't matter, because he almost singlehandedly demolished the Whitecaps' defensive strategy.
Lining up at left midfield, Rogers was up against Vancouver right winger Wes Knight and right back Jonathan Leathers to start the game. He promptly spent most of ninety minutes tearing them a new one. Knight was so badly pummelled that at one point he seemed to resort to trying to gouge Rogers's eye out. Perhaps winded by Rogers or perhaps just because he was having a lousy night at the office, he was also offensively inert and wasted every single cross he attempted as well as most of his less audacious, short passes. When Knight eventually came out for Shea Salinas, you could see an immediate difference (it was no coincidence that Salinas's arrival corresponded with the Whitecaps' mini-rally and attempt to draw the game).
And having said all that, Knight did far better than Jonathan Leathers. Knight made a couple of stops but Leathers didn't even come close to getting a handle on Rogers, with Greg Janicki often cheating to the right to try and help Leathers's thoroughly-beaten hide out of trouble. It wasn't just Rogers; 26-year-old journeyman Kevin Burns (career professional goals: zero) corkscrewed Leathers a few times as well. It was an appalling effort, one which shocked and horrified even me (and I'm no Leathers fan).
Most glaringly, Leathers was directly culpable for Columbus's first goal when, under pressure deep in his own end with possession, he made one of the most unbelievable, unforgivable panic passes I've ever seen from a professional. Rather than put the ball out the side for a throw, or out the back for a corner, or generally do anything that might even theoretically ease the pressure, Leathers hoofed a ball into his own box to nobody in particular while running backwards and having no idea who he could possibly have been passing to. The ball eluded Greg Janicki, who could have re-injured his hip the way he tried to change direction and get that damned thing, and wound up on Emilio Renteria's foot. Jay Nolly did the only thing he could do and charged out to try and beat Renteria to the ball; there were no defenders in a position to play Renteria and if he'd stayed in goal then Renteria could have scored at his leisure. Nolly actually got to the ball in time, showing he'd made the right decision, but sadly Renteria went for contact with Nolly, made a meal out of it, and got an incredibly soft (but understandable) penalty call from referee Terry Vaughn.
I rambled about that pass like an insane man when I saw it. Because it was an insane pass. Short of drilling the ball past Nolly himself, Leathers could hardly have done anything more incompetent. And it's not like he had no other options. Leathers's lousy decision far outweighs the lousy call from Vaughn to award the penalty: that is definitely a "referees are not perfect" case. In Columbus, with the home crowd howling, and at an angle where he couldn't tell conclusively whether Renteria had dove or not and he was blocked from seeing that Nolly had gotten to the ball rather than the man, I can understand why Vaughn missed the call. I can't understand why he didn't give the Whitecaps a call in the second half on one of a couple of occasions when Omar Salgado was cut down in the box, but never mind that. That's life and the game was mostly well-refereed, even if Vaughn was a little too active with his whistle.
Most of the rest of the Whitecaps acquitted themselves reasonably. In the middle of the park, Terry Dunfield and Gershon Koffie generally fought the Crew to a draw and even mounted some decent attacks of their own. Akloul and Janicki, apart from one mistake (the second goal, when both of them should have been watching for the through ball to Renteria and instead neither was) hardly put a foot wrong. The Whitecaps actually did very well on the left-hand side, with Alain Rochat looking vigorous and Davide Chiumiento single-handedly providing most of Vancouver's offense until late in the second half.
Of course, the offense would have been helped if Russell Teibert had been around. Teibert spent the entire game on the bench, apparently because of squad rotation: Teibert went the full ninety against Montreal on Wednesday and is only just recovering from a calf injury. There were also, doubtless, tactical considerations. If Teibert played at left wing, Chiumiento would have moved to the right wing. That would have meant that Chiumiento, a marginal-at-best defensive player, would have been facing Rogers for the whole game. Knight can at least theoretically play strong enough defense to slow Rogers down; Robbie could have gone past Chiumiento as if he wasn't even there. I see Teitur Thordarson's logic, but as soon as it became clear that Knight was overwhelmed anyway he should have brought Teibert in and gone for broke. A lack of good, creative wing play was a major reason the Whitecaps struggled to break through for most of the second half.
The forwards were not strong, but it wasn't always their fault. Omar Salgado looked almost overawed by the occasion. He struggled to get into useful positions and was afraid to use his physicality to make space. Then he scored a lovely goal and, from then on, was a magnificently dangerous player just like we all hoped he'd be. Camilo Sanvezzo is quite obviously a supporting cast member and, when he was trying to do it all himself, we saw rather sadly how ineffective he is in that role. Nizar Khalfan came in for Camilo in the second half and was reasonably good up top, one missed chance aside. He was active, he made room both for himself and for his teammates, and while he had no moments of conspicuous he was constantly keeping Columbus off balance: classic Good Khalfan but without enough time and enough finish to do much good.
Sadly, our defenders seem to be falling back into bad habits. There were too many long balls up to the midget Camilo and the inexperienced Salgado fighting through the experienced, talented Columbus defense: this went about as well as you'd expect. Part of the reason was sheer panic (oh boy, Leathers...), but the midfield wasn't helping them. The centre of the park was too crowded for effective passing and, as soon as the defense had possession, the wingers took off up the field. There was nowhere to pass; long balls were inevitable. The problem built upon itself: the Whitecaps would lose possession, the Crew would counterattack, the Whitecaps would eventually get the ball back and, antsy, knock it forward with even less care. Repeat until we get scored on.
It was an ugly game, both for a neutral and a Whitecaps fan. The best I can say is that it's over. Hopefully our next road game will be a little less dignified and a little more effective.
Game Ball: I'd be just as happy not giving it out, but at the end of the day I give the honour to Terry Dunfield. When in doubt, take the midfielder who did the best job. Dunfield made no conspicuous mistakes (a few minor turnovers but that's it), and playing in a more active offensive role than usual still managed to prevent the Crew from moving the ball through central midfield too easily. Koffie got consideration, but he made one mistake (he should have closed down Dejan Rusmir on the pass that led to Renteria's second goal) and that was the difference. I still think Koffie played well, but even if he didn't go the full ninety minutes Dunfield gets the edge.
Most Disappointing: I've had youth coaches who would have benched Jonathan Leathers's sorry ass for the crap he pulled out there yesterday. That was, by far, the worst game by any Whitecap so far in 2011. I find myself longing for the stability and reliability of Kevin Harmse, and that's not promising.
Next Up: The Whitecaps return to Empire Field on Wednesday to take on the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup first round. Vancouver leads 1-0 on aggregate, but if they play the same game we saw against the Crew that lead definitely isn't safe.