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Whitecaps Wrap Up Their Arizona Friendlies: What Have We Learned?

Omar Salgado may be the Vancouver Whitecaps' striker of the future, but in the present he isn't the only member of the team who's struggling to finish. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
Omar Salgado may be the Vancouver Whitecaps' striker of the future, but in the present he isn't the only member of the team who's struggling to finish. (Photo by Ned Dishman/Getty Images)
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After spending almost all of February training in Arizona, the second stage of the Vancouver Whitecaps' friendly schedule came to a close today. In a match against the National Premier Soccer League Arizona Sahuros, the Whitecaps put six goals past the amateurs in an entirely expected, thoroughly comprehensive 6-1 victory against marginal opposition in a fairly mundane run-out.

The Whitecaps are finished with their friendlies for February and will soon make their way back to the west coast, heading to Seattle for the Supporters' Summit friendly tournament against Cascadian rivals the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. They kick off March 5 against Portland at Seattle's Starfire Sports Complex, giving MLS their first taste of the Cascadian rivalry and, presumably, fans of both teams a good look at the potential starting lineups for the 2011 season.

Those friendlies are going to be pressure-packed environments even without points on the line, as traveling fans are coming in the hundreds from Portland and Vancouver to cheer on their boys in hostile territory. But their eight Arizona friendlies came without any pressure at all. Quite the contrary, three of them weren't even played to a ninety-minute clock: they were an opportunity for trialists to get a look, players to get into game shape, and Teitur Thordarson to try out formations and strategies against what was mostly MLS-calibre opposition.

It's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from those sorts of games. But they're the only chance we've gotten to see the Whitecaps in action, and so far the results have confirmed many of our prejudices. While the Whitecaps have by no means been terrible, their finishing has been wanting and their defending just hasn't been good enough to make up for it. There's plenty of promise but so far not much concrete success. After the jump, a look at our first seven friendlies at the 2011 season, where we faced sturdy opposition and, unfortunately, may have seen our team's weaknesses laid bare.

February 1, Real Salt Lake 1 - 2 Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps got their exhibition season off to a promising start by knocking off Real Salt Lake in their first ever match in their MLS strip. Of course, one can't tell too much about either team from a game like this. It was openly and unabashedly a scrimmage: a chance for everyone to get a run out, get into shape, and show off their quality a little bit. The game went three forty-five-minute halves, with the Whitecaps mostly starting the game with their best eleven and bringing on the bench players while Real Salt Lake started with scrubs and brought in their established veterans as the game rolled on. The only members of either squad to miss out on the game were injured.

18-year-old Russell Teibert and 29-year-old Terry Dunfield scored the Whitecaps' goals. The performance of Teibert was a highly pleasant surprise: Teibert battled injuries last year with the Whitecaps Residency team and spent so much time on international duty or in the infirmary that he struggled to establish chemistry at a level where he should have been dominant. A good, healthy winter and a training camp with the senior Whitecaps clearly did Teibert a world of good, though, and the two-time Canadian U-17 player of the year would figure prominently into more and more exhibition games. The Real Salt Lake defense made life a little too easy for Vancouver, giving up solid scoring chances to Davide Chiumiento, Atiba Harris, Teibert, Dunfield, and even Shea Salinas. Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis singled out the defense for his criticism post-game, but the attack looked occasionally strong: former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Arturo Alvarez bagged Real Salt Lake's goal and their "Blue Team" of first-team players forced a couple pretty dandy saves out of Residency goalkeeper and American U-20 international Brian Sylvestre.

It was, all in all, a fairly convincing performance for the Whitecaps, albeit in the most uncompetitive circumstances. But their defense gave up a surprising number of chances to Salt Lake, and that's a trend that would unfortunately continue.

February 4, Seattle Sounders 1 - 0 Vancouver Whitecaps: Another scrimmage, this time made up of three 35-minute-halves, against the Seattle Sounders. Once again, the result would hardly indicate anything meaningful, but once again the Whitecaps could have soothed a lot of nerves with a solid performance.

The Whitecaps were not devoid of chances in the 1-0 loss. Davide Chiumiento tested Kasey Keller a few times and generally kept the Sounders defense guessing with some slick moves. Long Tan and Terry Dunfield both missed decent opportunities in the second period. The Sounders got only one shot on goal against Jay Nolly in the first hour, but with the Whitecaps defense missing Alain Rochat and Jay DeMerit the Sounders did manage to break through a few times. Osvaldo Alonso had a near-goal, and a few Sounders crosses just went errant as Seattle had a little too easy a time with possession in the final third. Finally, late in the second period, with most of the Whitecaps first-teamers off midfielder Brad Evans buried a shot past Jay Nolly. The third period was mostly in the Sounders favour, though the Whitecaps mustered a couple of counters, and it was a 1-0 Seattle final.

Overall, the Whitecaps turned in a decent effort on both sides of the ball given the circumstances, and Teitur Thordarson was not displeased. But the Sounders were clearly superior, earned their result, and on another day could have gotten more. Among the Whitecaps, only Davide Chiumiento looked a cut above as an attacker, although Long Tan had a good drive that hit the crossbar and a header from a Philippe Davies cross that bounced just wide.

February 8, Columbus Crew 1 - 2 Vancouver Whitecaps: Finally! A ninety-minute game, like the soccer gods intended! The first game in something like real soccer conditions was also a relatively chippy affair: a penalty kick went either way and Columbus midfielder Eddie Gavin was forced to go off with an ankle injury. The Crew went with a strong eleven in the first half, with the only notable trialist being goalkeeper Ray Burse, before turning over the entire roster in the second. The Whitecaps also started with a fairly solid lineup that featured the debut of Alain Rochat, as well as Jay DeMerit coming off the bench later in the game.

Against most of the Crew's best, the Whitecaps all-but-owned the first half. The best opportunity came at the half-hour mark when Shea Salinas, dancing into the penalty area, was pulled down. Davide Chiumiento kicked from the spot but was stopped by former FC Dallas backup and one-time Portland Timber Burse. Columbus's first shot on goal didn't come until the second half when 15th-overall pick Justin Meram tested Jay Nolly around the hour mark. Almost immediately, the Whitecaps turned it up the field and got a goal from Atiba Harris, his first of the preseason. Long-time Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven equalized from the spot after Nolly gave away a penalty, but the lead soon returned for good when Harris this time played distributor and crossed a lovely ball to Omar Salgado who headed home his first goal as a Whitecap.

This was, perhaps, Vancouver's most complete match of their exhibition schedule so far. Playing ninety minutes against a good team featuring many of their first-team players, the Whitecaps largely limited Columbus's scoring chances while getting a few themselves. Harris was obviously a highlight, while Greg Janicki put in a good all-areas performance, both helping to stifle the Columbus attack and getting a decent scoring chance himself off a header.

February 18, Chivas USA 1 - 0 Vancouver Whitecaps: And then it all came crashing down. After ten days between games, a few spent in Vancouver, the Whitecaps drew swords against Chivas back in Arizona and promptly did very little. It would be a refrain familiar to any Whitecaps fan from 2010: they had a few close calls, including a well-taken Terry Dunfield free kick and lovely shots from midfielders Russell Teibert and Nizar Khalfan, but failed to put the ball home. While Teitur Thordarson praised the team's defense for its composure they did allow a couple decent opportunities, most glaringly a fine shot from veteran forward Alejandro Moreno that was ably saved by Jay Nolly and a chance from Mariano Trujillo, who was allowed to get into the area a little too easily but mis-struck his shot.

The game was mostly a defensive battle in the truest sense: Atiba Harris tackled veteran Jimmy Conrad and took a yellow card that led to some pushing and shoving between the two. But as the second half wore on opportunities started to come. Trujillo missed a penalty kick wide left after a tackle from Jeb Brovsky, while on the other end Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo seriously tested Big Zach Thornton in the Chivas goal with a furious shot in the 75th minute. The Chivas USA match report praised Davide Chiumiento for his creativity (even if they think his name is Steve) but he failed to get any clear-cut opportunities.

The dramatic moment came in the 89th minute. A long bomb from Chivas veteran right back Michael Umaña found 23-year-old Jesús Padilla past the Whitecaps defense but onside. Padilla knocked the ball past Jay Nolly and that was the difference. Though the Whitecaps picked up their share of opportunities they failed to convert, and while the defense was solid it wasn't solid enough to make up for the strikers' shortcomings. It's a very, very familiar story for Whitecaps fans already.

February 19, United States U-18 2 - 2 Vancouver Whitecaps: Just a day after the hard-fought lost to Chivas, the Vancouver Whitecaps took on the United States national U-18 team in what was mostly a tune-up friendly for Vancouver's "B" team. Most prominent Whitecaps took the day off, and only Atiba Harris, Camilo da Silva Sanvezzo, Ryan O'Leary, Nizar Khalfan, and Long Tan returned from the previous day's game. All of these players saw limited action in both games, and in the cases of O'Leary and Sanvezzo in particular the Whitecaps were obviously interested in getting some promising trialists into game shape.

Given the circumstances, it's impossible to read too much into the game. The Americans played very smartly and took advantage of a Whitecaps defensive miscue on a corner to get their first goal, while their second was a tricky deflection that Brian Sylvestre had no chance against. But the Whitecaps hung tough and showed their professional quality. The goals came via Tan and Sanvezzo: Sanvezzo's in particular was very smartly taken as he gathered up a rebound from a Philippe Davies cross, strode herky-jerky forward through the American defenders, then neatly placed a ball without much power but with plenty of accuracy into the lower corner.

February 21, Los Angeles Galaxy 2 - 0 Vancouver Whitecaps: Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Whitecaps came out strong, generated some chances, but couldn't finish and ultimately their composure started to break down. The other team snatched a couple of goals, perhaps against the run of play but at the same time chances don't matter if you can't finish. As a result, the Whitecaps played a good game but came out with an ignominious defeat.

Yes, the Whitecaps did it again.

They did test keeper Donovan Ricketts a little, and the veteran Jamaican was singled out for praise in almost every match report. Ultimately, it was the Galaxy's veteran finishing punch that decided this game. Chris Birchall finished off a lovely passing play between Paolo Cardozo and Landon Donovan in the first half-hour, and with the Whitecaps still pressing the other way it fell to Juan Pablo Angel to knock in a rebound from Jay Nolly and finish the scoring.

The Whitecaps boasted most of the chances for the first seventy minutes, but their discipline did slip and the Galaxy came close to extending the lead in the late minutes. Chris Birchall hit the post on a blasted shot from distance and Leonardo headed a Donovan free kick off the crossbar. Meanwhile, after their initial spurt of offense the Whitecaps' sights were out, with Long Tan putting our best chance well over the goal.

February 22, Los Angeles Galaxy 2 - 0 Vancouver Whitecaps: The Whitecaps lost 2-0 to the Galaxy, again. They got their chances, again, but in their second game in two days couldn't collect a goal, again. Second verse, same as the first,

Well, not exactly. The second game of the Galaxy - Whitecaps fracas went for two forty-minute halves, and as you'd expect both teams started many of their bench players in the second game. Russell Teibert, back in the spotlight for Vancouver, was an active force up and down the wing, slinging in some strong crosses and keeping Los Angeles's second-rate defense on its heels until he was replaced by Bedri Gashi. Philippe Davies was another active teenager on the other wind, and a late Davies free kick was Vancouver's best chance of the game: it was only barely punched away by Galaxy backup goalkeeper Josh Saunders.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, had their share of chances. When you're playing Chad Barrett up front you're going to have a few missed opportunities, but the Whitecaps gave Barrett too much time and he wound up picking up a goal on his third chance in the 74th minute. The other goal was from former D.C. United midfielder Adam Cristman, knocking a Miguel Lopez cross past Brian Sylvestre.