During preseason I was concerned at the Whitecaps' lack of killer instinct while in front. Sure, they kept holding leads and getting wins, but the tactics were too passive to last. While not ignoring possibilities on the counter Vancouver was content to sit back, avoid pressure in the two front thirds, keep a disciplined shape, and dare the opponent to break them down. It's not accidental: Martin Rennie's made the point a few times. "We don't have to chase the game, we don't have to open up. The chances will come to you." You could make it a drinking game.
I despise such tactics as a rule, particularly when a team does as well by fighting and pressing as the Whitecaps do. But they seem to keep working out, as not only are the Whitecaps holding those leads but they're not looking terribly threatened while they do it. It might be a bit dull when the midfield drops back, the Whitecaps let their opponents pass around them, and wear the bad guys out on a loose but very real bunker... but the three points keep making up for it.
Tonight, once again, the Whitecaps played to that oddly successful script. Camilo Sanvezzo put the Whitecaps in front eleven minutes in and the rest was lean back and take it. Vancouver had 43.1% of the possession in the second half and wound up with only two shots on target. Yet apart from a few mad scrambles, did FC Dallas really look like they might get one? The majority of the shots went to Dallas but, even while they played so far back, the best chance after the goal went to Vancouver. It's a now-familiar routine. Not always great to watch, but better than last year. It's getting us into the playoff picture.
A good sign for a team is when it wins, and wins well, while playing a bunch of lesser-known players for the second game in two weeks. The midfield troika of Jun Marques Davidson behind Gershon Koffie and Matt Watson was Vancouver's best trump. Davidson's awareness lends so much to Vancouver's defensive game, and the way he can rotate into the back four seamlessly helps out when the team's trying to hold on. He also had a dandy pass over the top early in the game when Vancouver was still going for goals.
Watson, in a rare start with an offensive role, played weirdly but well. A fine 73rd-minute chance saw him beat his marker to set up Camilo on a five-bell chance that really ought to have been a goal. Watson has his limitations; he's got a turnover habit and his lack of speed costs him when he tries to get aggressive. On the other hand he's productive with his touches, roams all over the field and looks comfortable where he does it, and keeps up a good pace as the second-line attacking man. Her orchestrated attacks from the left, the right, and in the middle with equal aplomb. Last year in Carolina, Watson made his bones behind Jonny Steele, roaming about and picking the right time to go forward. He found the same role in Vancouver today and looked equally useful. If he could just reduce the damned turnovers (which I don't think are typical of him) he'd be worth playing every day.
They didn't have much opposition, and the badly-injured patchwork Dallas midfield didn't come through. Bruno Guarda and Bobby Warshaw, in particular, spent more time gawking on their back foot than is healthy, and winger/forward/general Atiba Harris clone Brek Shea spent most of his game being stymied and the rest of it going one-on-one, showing his physical abilities, and nailing a lousy shot right into Joe Cannon's breadbasket.
The Eric Hassli Hate Brigade would have smiled at Camilo: his bona fides as the target striker are not in doubt. But the triangle midfield did the job getting the ball, while Camilo had his usual blinders on (I think particularly of a late first half chance when he really should have sent Omar Salgado running in for the easiest goal of his life). What a goal he scored, and of course he should play every day... but he's not the straw that stirs Vancouver's drink. Camilo represents excellent heavy artillery, but you need more than big guns to win battles. And in his substitute appearance Eric Hassli once again played hard, chased down every ball, and contributed to closing out the win.
The first half was not entirely Vancouver's, and when Dallas had time over the ball they did damage. Vancouver continues to play great defense on the run but does a poor job defending when the situation is more static, be it on a set piece or just when Bobby Warshaw or someone has the ball out wide and not much pressure. The solution is pressure on the attacker, but it's hard to get useful pressure when you're the slower, less energetic team. Dallas just plain had the advantage there.
The more the game wore on, the more of the ball Dallas saw. But they also did less with it. What the Whitecaps do well is becoming a rock that the other team's waves can sweep over. More often than not, defending takes more energy than attacking, but Vancouver's defensive system is efficient enough that it forces average teams like Dallas to overexert themselves. The low-pressure style is vulnerable to individual scoring runs: witness Fabian Castillo nearly creating a lovely chance all by himself simply because none of the Whitecaps could close him down. If Camilo ever played against Vancouver's holding-a-lead defense he'd probably take them to pieces. It also doesn't take much of an individual mistake to break such a defensive team, and Cannon's poor ball control nearly sunk us too.
But in that game, against that team, it worked. I'm not sure we'd have the same success against opponents with more punch, but the team's job is to beat what that's in front of them, not what's coming up later.