Not even I can call that a moral victory.
Let's be honest, just between us. We didn't lose this game because "oh, MLS is so tough on the road." We also didn't lose this game because we played a mid-week game last Wednesday. There were no heavy feet, no sagging shoulders, except for the obvious when the team was falling behind in high heat and humidity, struggling to come back against an unexpectedly tenacious Houston midfield. The Whitecaps struggled to develop anything through the middle, resorted to a bit too much hoof-and-chase, played themselves into worse trouble. They got a beautiful goal but conceded two off nasty mistakes. It wasn't a good game and there weren't many redeeming virtues. It was ninety ugly minutes and I'm glad they're over.
I hate looking for excuses, but the truth is that the Whitecaps had some pretty good ones in this game. Considering what a makeshift unit their midfield was, the fact that they got bossed around in midfield is pretty significant. But far more dangerous was the play of guys who should be established in this team, as well as a few coaching mistakes. This was simply not a well-played game from the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Houston Dynamo won themselves a deserved 3-1 victory.
There are always lessons we can take, though. Even from a beating like that.
First... and I hate to harp on old whipping boys, but here we go anyway... I am so sick of Atiba Harris. So bloody sick of him. He got his defenders in the first few weeks for the actually quite reasonable reason that he was getting numbers. A couple goals and some assists; it all looked very good. And, indeed, there have been forwards in history who looked like hell but managed to keep putting the ball in. I just couldn't get around the fact that Harris's skills simply didn't seem to match up with being a professional forward.
Yesterday, we saw the worst of Harris in action. Without getting a series of great feeds from the midfield, Harris was useless. When the ball did get to him he did a magnificent job turning it over without generating so much as a half-chance. I keep telling you people, Harris can't do this. I like him fine as wing depth but no, not as a forward. And when Teitur Thordarson kept Harris in late in the game, substituting out the (reasonably effective) Camilo Sanvezzo to bring on Omar Salgado, I wanted to bury my head in my hands. Hopefully Teitur was just as fed up with Harris as I am, saw the game had been lost, and didn't want to risk Sanvezzo tweaking a hammy whereas he didn't care if Harris got his leg blown off.
We also saw Jonathan Leathers's first poor game of the season. Part of it wasn't Leathers's fault. When we went down 1-0 and then 2-1, Leathers was one of the most active Whitecaps pushing forward. That's just the way he plays, and when we were hunting for a goal he was practically a second right winger. Obviously, this got him burned; he was the one who should have been covering Will Bruin on Houston's eventual third goal. But, in general, Leathers seemed to struggle. His best attribute was his physicality, which he put to good use, but the passes weren't connecting and the runs weren't going anywhere. It was a garden variety bad game from a fullback, and I'm still kinda leaning towards "good" on "is he good or is he lucky?".
Blake Wagner was terrible. He's not somebody we should be relying on for big minutes and he was in a bad position for the first half, having to haul around Jay DeMerit's corpse. But still, boy was he bad. Did one decision he made turn out well?
I can't let the captain go either, seeing as he was personally culpable for Houston's second goal; the one that really botched the match for us. He played it precisely wrong. Perhaps hampered by his groin injury, DeMerit hung back in the box, playing two Houston attackers onside when the rest of the defensive line was well forward. Then when the inevitable pass came in he reacted too slowly, allowing an easy shot past Jay Nolly. He could hardly have done it any worse.
I partially forgive DeMerit because he clearly wanted so badly to start that game. He wanted to lay it all on the field for his team because that's what Jay DeMerit does. Unfortunately, he had a case of Janicki-itis, where he wants to help the team so badly he winds up hurting it. He would have done us all much more good if he'd told Teitur Thordarson that he needed another week to recover. Instead, he played forty-five incredibly ineffective minutes, possibly aggravated his injury, was responsible for a goal against, and put the Whitecaps behind the eight ball. Considering that we were going for offense the entire second half, the defense looked much better with Alain Rochat in DeMerit's place (Rochat, incidentally, sucked as a central midfielder). I definitely admire his attitude and his spirit, but it was self-evidently the wrong decision.
It was midfield where the game was really lost. The wing play was all right, though nothing special: Davide Chiumiento played fairly well and when Russell Teibert came on for the second half the left wing was okay too. Centrally, though, we were almost a non-entity. We were knocked around by the Houston midfielders and weren't able to get any transition game going in reply. Alain Rochat was clearly out of his comfort level and seemed instantly improved when he was back at centre back. Nizar Khalfan, who may have to legally change his name to "the erratic Nizar Khalfan", was in full-on Bad Khalfan Mode. And Jeb Brovsky, the poor devil, looked like a second-round SuperDraft pick making his MLS debut. He wasn't really embarrassed out there but the level was clearly above him; he played so conservatively it actually hurt the team and was utterly petrified of making a mistake to the point that he didn't make any plays either. Almost all his passes went backwards and that's not a winning strategy for a central midfielder.
Teitur Thordarson wasn't quite on the ball either. Of the three Whitecaps who struggled worst... Harris, Khalfan, and Wagner... all three played all ninety minutes. He didn't make any of the clever impact substitutions which turned around the Sporting Kansas City game. He inexplicably left MLS veteran Kevin Harmse on the bench after he had a fairly tolerable debut against New England while running Khalfan and Brovsky into the ground. He brought Omar Salgado on too late to do anything besides have a nice jog in front of his family. His lineup choices were extremely difficult, but the picks he made were questionable (where the hell is Philippe Davies?). It didn't go well for him. Mind you, it didn't go well for anyone in blue or white.
The Whitecaps got their butts whooped. Another MLS milestone out of the way. Now to see how they recover.
Game Ball: none? Was anybody even decent? I guess I'll give it to Camilo Sanvezzo, who scored the goal, had a few nice runs, and at least showed the potential to make something happen. Incidentally, I thought the trip by Andre Hainault was a penalty; Hainault had his knee out and sure, Sanvezzo wasn't trying real hard to get away from it but Hainault initiated the contact. But it was marginal either way and at game speed I thought it was a dive; no complaints about the refereeing in this game.
Most Disappointing: bear in mind that this award isn't called "Worst Whitecap", since if it were I'd have had to rename it "the Jonathan McDonald Memorial Award for Sucktasticness" after last season. So Atiba Harris might not be the winner, since he wasn't disappointing: I expected him to be bad and he was. So I give it to Jay DeMerit, whose display of selflessness and desire to win may have cost the Whitecaps a point. Sorry, Jay, but part of being a leader is knowing your limits.
Utterly Unrelated to Anything: it was nice to see Mouloud Akloul again. It was really, really nice to see Mouloud Akloul again. That's all I have to say about that. That's all that could be said.
Next Up: the Whitecaps return to Vancouver to take on some guys I've never heard of and Chivas USA on Saturday. Good seats doubtless still available.