What was it I said in my preview of this match yesterday afternoon? Oh, yes, now I remember.
I have the Whitecaps winning this one but for crying out loud don't underestimate the Stars. You'll get burned.
Yeah, that's why I put all those italics in there. The Whitecaps go into Minnesota to take on a team that's probably folding at the end of the season and have lost four more games than they've won. The Whitecaps hadn't lost for nine matches in a row, although admittedly with their predilection for drawing they hadn't won many either. Truth be told, the Whitecaps didn't play terribly, but they lacked killer instinct, lacked the drive to get forward and bury chances, lacked cohesion, lacked having a right midfielder other than Alex Elliott for most of the match, and as a result they came out with a 1-0 loss that didn't reflect the run of play but was still absolutely deserved.
It was, at times, almost charming how much more talented individual Whitecaps were than their Minnesotan counterparts. Martin Nash and Terry Dunfield were on terrific form distributing the ball: it seemed they need only will it and the ball would arrive as if guided from the heavens. Randy Edwini-Bonsu had the Stars defense combusting at moments with his pace and some surprisingly tricky footwork by Edwini-Bonsu standards. But there were just enough spots where Vancouver struggled, particularly on the flanks, and too many spots where they couldn't work as a team. That was the end of it. Minnesota saw weakness, took advantage, got a win they were desperate for. Vancouver laid back, saw the game as an attempt to get an individual roster spot in 2011, and got a loss they don't really have to worry about. That's soccer.
The Whitecaps had fairly decent buildup through the centre. Terry Dunfield and Martin Nash, once again, looked like they were playing on Pro while everyone else was playing on All-Star. The central defense of Greg Janicki and Luca Bellisomo was... it was the central defense of Greg Janicki and Luca Bellisomo, which means it was reliable and hardly put a step wrong and made every stride the Minnesota attack tried to make to exploit the heart of the pitch a difficult one. It can't possibly be a coincidence that three of those four impressive Whitecaps have been with Vancouver since the beginning of the year and omnipresent in the first team: however skilled our new players are, they're not used to North American soccer and they're essentially in beginning-of-season form physically and mentally.
The great flaws were on the flanks. At left back, Willis Forko was competent enough defensively but struggled both positionally and in trying to turn the attack up. Considering his professional experience and previous time in MLS, one would hope that Forko would be the new arrival that fit in most easily: while he hasn't been bad he also hasn't made us forget about Zurab Tsiskaridze. Midfielder Blake Wagner didn't have a very good time of it either; his form has dipped a bit since his earliest appearances. On the right side, Wes Knight occasionally struggled but the real problem was starting midfielder Alex Elliott: his pace and positioning were both wonderful, but on the other hand he misplayed a simply staggering number of balls. He slung crosses into the stands, passed carelessly into Minnesotan feet, and late in the second half missed one of the most outrageous sitters with keeper Joe Warren out of the play from point-blank range. Elliott has had a decent season and is still only twenty-three years old, but he was an utter liability last night.
So the Whitecaps kept possession, moved the ball around, and completely failed to do anything with it. Up front, Edwini-Bonsu did his best but he's not a real playmaker: he worked what would have been a nice give and go with Cody Arnoux in the first half if not for the fact that he played Arnoux straight into three Minnesota defenders. Meanwhile, Arnoux had his least bad game as a Whitecap, which is to say he didn't do much but didn't fail too badly either. The substitutes didn't help: Ridge Mobulu was off his previous good form and Jonathan McDonald was exactly on his horrendous previous form.
Then just after the half-time interval, Minnesota's Devin Del Do caught a ball as he rain behind Willis Forko at left back. He had far, far too much room, got it past Jay Nolly, and the Stars had their winner.
That's the difference between a team and a group of talented individuals. Certainly, the Whitecaps would beat the Stars most of the time, but less often than their skill would indicate. This may be a try-out season for 2011, but I don't have to like it.
Game Ball: Nobody really stood out, but Martin Nash was probably the best of a mediocre lot. He placed his balls well and didn't really have any good chances but tried to create them from others: he had one opportunity on a shot from the edge of the box and hit it into a defender but it was really only half a chance.
Most Disappointing: It can't be anyone other than Alex Elliott, and in this case I do mean "disappointing" since Elliott has generally had a decent season in limited appearances. A competent enough right midfielder, Elliott actually did a better job than any other Whitecap in beating the Minnesota defenders and getting into dangerous positions but his passes and shots were so utterly, heinous incompetent that he put Vancouver at a heavy disadvantage.
Next Up: Vancouver returns home on Friday, September 24 for what may be a playoff preview against the Montreal Impact at Swangard Stadium.