You, Strawberry! Hit a home run!
It won't be popular to say it, but in our last two games we got four points and, to these jaded eyes, we probably deserved one.
When we played against the Seattle Sounders, we really didn't deserve a damned thing: Eric Hassli's goal-of-the-season was a great individual effort but hardly indicative of how the team play and, of course, the penalty Camilo Sanvezzo drew in the first half by flopping never should have been a penalty at all. The run of play tilted heavily Seattle's way and Sounders fans were rightly frustrated by their failure to get maximum points.
On Saturday against the Philadelphia Union, of course, we won and good for us. But I'd say Philadelphia had more quality scoring chances (I'm not counting "man, Eric Hassli could have got a great shot off if that pass had been on target!" as scoring chances) despite playing a somewhat weaker than usual lineup that included a 33-year-old Serbian forward playing his first professional soccer game in more than two years. During the last twenty minutes Philadelphia subjected Vancouver to a heavier bombardment than the Somme and just struggled to put their shots on goal. Of course, Vancouver did pretty well controlling possession for the first hour but I still think that a draw would have been fair.
It's not like the Whitecaps aren't owed a little good luck this season but the performances haven't been nearly as inspiring as the results.
So is this a segue into a rant about Tom Soehn's coaching and how the team isn't really improving? Another frenzied burst in defense of our old Icelandic boss? Quite the contrary. Good coaching often first presents as good luck. What I call the Whitecaps "getting lucky" in Seattle was because the defense stuck together and refused to give the Sounders much in the box while Camilo thundered into the box time after time and got the referee's attention. Against Philadelphia, the team was under heavy pressure in the last quarter hour but they were also playing textbook "bend but do not break" defense that the 2010 Whitecaps had down to near-perfection (and that the 2009 Whitecaps could have used a lesson in).
I've been outspoken in my distaste for some of Soehn's coaching. There's just a chance, though, that he's getting the big things right.
Of course, sometimes good luck is just good luck. That isn't stopping my optimism but it is slowing it down. There's a chance that the team simply got up hungry for a rivalry match/first home game in many moons, took on teams that underestimated them a little, and enjoyed the results.
I'm not sure that is the case, though. The Whitecaps clearly aren't a dominant team under Soehn and they have a lot of work to do, but if the coin toss games start coming their way more often then that means a lot. When I see the Whitecaps against Seattle or Philadelphia, I see improvements in key areas which might just be making the difference.
I don't mean the great skilled plays, like the Chiumiento - Hassli - Rochat exchange which gave us our goal against Philadelphia or Hassli's thunderbolt from heaven against the Sounders. I mean the little things and let me give you an example with the team's offense.
I rag on Camilo playing left wing because he's shit. There's plenty of effort and hustle but he hasn't got the speed to make up for his mistakes, he hasn't got the positional instincts to provide an accurate outlet for his teammates, and he has the defensive stopping power of a sodden sponge. What he does well, however, is get into the box and finish his scoring chances. On the other side, Shea Salinas is a human dead ball but he can also haul ass into dangerous positions.
So Camilo and Salinas are horrifying defensively but, on the attack, they're crowding the area and pulling fullbacks out to deal with them. Eric Hassli is, of course, Eric Hassli and must always be treated with the greatest respect. Davide Chiumiento is no threat to shoot but he's a serious risk to beat your midfielders off the dribble and knock a stupidly good pass to somebody, so you damned well better mark him too. All of a sudden your defense is being stretched in three directions. All of a sudden, even if Hassli and Camilo are the only guys likely to create goals on their own, that defense has a real problem because they're trying to deal with too many angles. With Teitur Thordarson's system, the "wingers go wide, forwards go in the middle" style gave Hassli and his partner their greatest chance of scoring individually but also meant that the defense had to respect the wingers but only had to aggressively mark the forwards.
This exposes the Whitecaps defensively. Badly. Camilo and Salinas are effectively non-factors defending. Luckily, the Whitecaps quietly have an extremely good defense: Jay DeMerit might be MLS's best centreback and Alain Rochat is the best left back. Jonathan Leathers could start for almost anybody and whichever one of Greg Janicki, Mouloud Akloul, or Michael Boxall you choose depends on the mood you're in but the Whitecaps are still spoiled for options. The team also has the advantage of having two fine defensive central midfielders in Terry Dunfield and Gershon Koffie as well as another two guys who can do the job in Peter Vagenas and Jeb Brovsky. So, in spite of the disadvantage on the wings, the Whitecaps do just fine in their own area. The fact that they're outmanned out wide means the other team enjoys most of the possession but their relative control of the middle means that quality scoring chances are hard to come by.
This is more-or-less what's happened in Seattle and against Philadelphia, with the Sounders' two goals both coming through cracks in the middle of the park (cracks that will hopefully be papered over with practice). Philadelphia didn't get anything going against Dunfield and Brovsky until they made some substitutions and turned up the pressure and even after doing that their chances were mostly Sebastien le Toux shooting wide from weird angles.
Now, Tom Soehn's had luck on his side in some other ways, like having Jay DeMerit and Shea Salinas both healthy and fit. Then again, he also lost Jonathan Leathers for a few games (replacing him with the thrice-damned Bilal Duckett of all people), has endured a typical Hassli Suspension, lost Terry Dunfield to the Gold Cup, still hasn't had a glimpse of Atiba Harris, and generally has had to do some roster juggling of his own. I'm not convinced "oh, the team is healthy now" holds water as an explanation.
It's too early to say that Tom Soehn is making a large, positive difference. There's a lot I'm still worried about, but early indications are positive.