Two pretty long Major League Soccer losing streaks coming into yesterday's game between the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes. Surely something's gotta give!
Of course it hasn't, not really, and indeed nothing did give. Both San Jose and Vancouver will carry on without a win and with plenty of "what if"s. But the win had been a possibility for both teams. For San Jose, of course; they took an early lead on a goal from Chris "Best Value in Major League Soccer" Wondolowski and aaaalmost didn't relinquish it, until the pressure from the Whitecaps got to be too much and they did. But Vancouver could have won this game very easily as well: they were buzzing around the goal, seemingly had a shot at a penalty for hand-ball in the dying second (not seconds), and had a few other promising buildups as well. I'd say the Whitecaps outplayed the Earthquakes but the Earthquakes out-chanced the Whitecaps. Very even sort of affair, as both coaches quite forthrightly acknowledged.
Of course, the incredibly dramatic 90th-minute equalizer by Davide Chiumiento will take a lot of the stink off that game. The Whitecaps weren't nearly incisive enough in the final third until the last half-hour. Eric Hassli tweaked his hamstring after an effective but by no means dominant performance. Chiumiento, pre-goal, farted around and blew his positioning even more egregiously than usual. Terry Dunfield crapped all over the field for ninety of the worst minutes I've ever seen him play. They were good, but the Earthquakes have one freakin' win this season: they arguably weren't good enough.
Still. I don't want to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth. I'd have loved the Whitecaps to have won this game; loved them to have been a bit more ruthless, shown a bit more guts and intelligence. But this was perhaps the most complete game we've seen from them since the Sporting Kansas City match. With the exception of some atypical performances from some solid players, the Whitecaps were actually very strong and showed some decent team play. It looks like the Whitecaps can win games, even if they aren't, and hopefully that bit of Chiumientan drama will keep the baying wolves at a safe distance.
Soccer is all about chemistry and confidence. Right now, Vancouver doesn't have much of either, but you can see the pieces coming together.
The Vancouver Whitecaps are making a habit of frustrating draws that weren't quite good enough. I can't help but compare it to another first-year team that scored a 90th-minute stoppage time goal to snatch a 1-1 draw tonight: the difference is that, for whatever reason, nobody expects much from NASL expansion team FC Edmonton (give Chris Kooy an MLS trial in 2012, for God's sake, Tom Soehn) and everybody expects the world from MLS expansion team the Vancouver Whitecaps (give Blake Wagner an NASL trial in 2012, for God's sake, Tom Soehn).
The difference is that we all know the Whitecaps could be better. It's incredibly obvious how much skill there is on this team; you just have to watch them. Guys like Mouloud Akloul were almost afterthoughts in the preseason, then he shows up and he's side-stepping MLS defenders and playing the ball like an accomplished veteran (he's high-risk, of course, but the reward is higher). Wes Knight comes off the bench for his first game of the year at right back, has a little trouble at times, but keeps his head and acquits himself pretty decently. And most of the big names show all the talent we expect of them.
So why isn't this team generating as much as they need to? I can nail down some causes for this game, at least. I've mentioned this already but I can't get over how poor Terry Dunfield looked. I can't even blame it on Jeb Brovsky, of whom I am no fan, for Dunfield was making mistakes all on his own. He looked... well, he looked exhausted. Partially physically but mostly mentally. He'd turn the ball over as soon as look at it and defensively, where he's ordinarily strongest, he achieved nothing. Brovsky wasn't great either. The weakness (virtually the sole weakness) for the Whitecaps in the first half was in central midfield, where Sam Cronin was excellent for the Earthquakes and Vancouver just had no reply. Dunfield's inability to clear the ball led directly to Wondolowski's goal. It was that sort of game for him, the poor bastard.
Of course, when Jay DeMerit came in, things improved immensely. Not so much because of DeMerit himself (although he was very good: strong, commanding, and aggressive), but because his arrival shifted the Whitecaps into a 3-5-2 formation and moved Alain Rochat up as a holding midfielder. Rochat played the Gershon Koffie role in the last minutes and played it very well indeed, holding the ball up and finding the available Vancouver attackers with his playmakers' eye. With the pressure to generate offense relieved, Dunfield was less of a liability late simply because he wasn't doing as much, and of course we know how that game ended as a result.
What I'm most worried about is whether the chemistry is developing, because that's what'll carry the Whitecaps into the playoffs if anything will. You can see it in parts. Greg Janicki and Mouloud Akloul seem to be getting along very well, and the tragedy of Jay DeMerit's return is that one of those fine men will have to come out of the lineup (I hope it's Janicki, simply because Akloul's ballhandling lends such an explosive "X" factor). Davide Chiumiento and Alain Rochat are borderline reading each others' minds now with their clever passes and overlapping runs. The defense worked with the midfield much better than it has in the past and long balls were mostly avoided. The area of greatest concern is at forward, where Eric Hassli and Camilo seem to have as much chemistry as peanut butter and castor oil. Camilo in general seems to be "chemistry-proof". He'll do his own thing no matter what anyone else does. This isn't working. If it weren't for Terry Dunfield he'd be most disappointing in a walk.
But it's coming together. With every game you can see it coming together. I know this draw won't silence the naysayers and it probably shouldn't. But for those of us with a more optimistic view, there's a lot to hope for.
Also, if you want to bench Jay Nolly after that game you need a smack upside the head.
Man of the Match: Chiumiento would be an easy pick for his equalizing goal and general offensive performance. But he was a bit flaky, particularly in the first half, and his lack of desire to play his position did catch us out a couple of times. I'll give it to Jay Nolly, who more-or-less kept us in the game with a string of excellent saves. The goal by Wondolowski was one on which Nolly had no chance and, indeed, Nolly made a hell of a save off of Cronin just to get it to that point. Bravo, Jay.
Most Disappointing: Since you've been reading this article, you don't need me to tell you. Poor Terry Dunfield. Unless he looks amazing in training I hope Teitur rotates him out against New England: the guy's just bagged. He's been going ninety minutes game after game and giving it his all, but for all his guts and his fitness the guy can't play indefinitely. His is a very high-energy style. With DeMerit coming back, hopefully the pressure on Dunfield will be lessened and he can take a night off in favour of Kevin Harmse or Peter Vagenas.
Next Up: The Whitecaps are on their way to Boston, Massachusetts as I type this to take on the New England Revolution on Saturday. Kickoff is at 4:30 PM PDT; the game's broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet Pacific.