When the Vancouver Whitecaps beat Chivas USA away on Saturday, they weren't good. But they were good enough.
Possession, shots, passing accuracy; every statistic but the one that counts heavily favoured Chivas. Apparently their mediocre home crowd inspired them to the lion's share of the ball, but didn't inspire them enough to sneak a gorgeous Casey Townsend shot past a diving Joe Cannon.
If there's one thing I've learned to fear it's the phrase "bend, but do not break." It's meant to describe a team which may allow too many shots and give up too much possession, but which limits quality scoring chances, snatches a goal, and deserves a positive result despite questionable underlying statistics. It can range from full-out bunkering and hoof-and-hope soccer to carefully playing a disciplined shape the opponent is unable to break through, while your own attacks are simply quicker and more economical.
This can be a legitimate strategy; Jose Mourinho's teams are famous for getting consistent results that way. It can also be a bit of puffery to hide a poorly-played game that went well. It wasn't that an inferior team got lucky, or had just the right finish and better goalkeeping. It wasn't good luck, or a few fine plays making up for a below-average team. It was strategy, you see.
Last Saturday, we were told that the Whitecaps were "good enough". That they "bent, but did not break." That "these are the sorts of games they didn't win last year" but where they have made some intangible, unquantifiable improvement. The truth is they won because of a little luck and a mediocre opponent. If we try that against a decent team, we'll see how "good enough" we are.
Vancouver's luck wasn't all good on Saturday. Their passing was much poorer than usual; they've been playing on the ground a lot under Martin Rennie and I think the torrential rain in Los Angeles before kickoff marred the pitch and put the Whitecaps at a disadvantage compared to the aerial-loving Goats. It's enough to ask a team as revamped as ours to play a cohesive style in their second game of the year, let alone being able to change styles on the fly. Of course, many of Vancouver's players just had an off day. It happens.
The result, anyway, was that Chivas had the bulk of the play. I was hoping to save this article until I had a few hours to go over the scoring chances; that hasn't happened yet, but I think we'll all agree that Chivas had more chances to score. Vancouver wasn't without resources, and had a few should-have-been-chances that were bobbled on the final ball. But Joe Cannon and Brad Knighton were the busier of the three goalkeepers, with Cannon's stop off Townsend deservedly being named MLS Save of the Week.
If that shot had gone in, which by all rights it should have, how much would this game have been turned on its head? 19 times out of 20 it's 1-0 Chivas USA in the first half, and Cannon gave us that other 1 time in 20 with a fantastic save that you absolutely cannot rely upon. Maybe the Whitecaps open it up and beat Chivas's brains in, or maybe they open it up and the Goats snatch another goal or two on the break, or maybe we keep playing ineffectively and wind up with a 1-1 draw. That's without considering other good opportunities which tested Cannon, or Knighton's Hoovering up every ball into his box that could have been a goal with slightly better service. Chivas's best attacker, Juan Pablo Angel, was out with a concussion and the replacement forwards were each making their first MLS start in a game where the only thing they needed was finishing. That's not a situation that will repeat itself often.
Even our goal was the sort of thing that doesn't happen every day. It was well-taken by Jay DeMerit, but goals off corner kicks are rare even for teams that are good at them. In 2010, Dr. Jay Williams suggested that a goal results from about 2% of corner kicks, while looking at the data another way that same year Gabe Desjardins suggested that, in the English Premier League, a corner kick was worth about 0.5% of a goal. We got a little lucky there too.
This is not a call for pessimism. That game was dull and unpleasant but the Whitecaps played many worse road matches last year. The team was mentally strong and what most pleased me was the fact that, late in the game when Chivas was pouring on the pressure, the Whitecaps kept their composure and played sensible soccer to relieve the danger rather than 2011's uncontrolled panic. In fact, the more aggressive Chivas got the better Vancouver looked; what a refreshing change! This time we had Floyd Franks and Jordan Harvey available to come off the bench and be steadying influences and we had a team that had, at least, planned for "up 1-0 late against an opponent with every chance of scoring."
I don't believe that, in isolation, Rennie or the Whitecaps are dumb enough to take that game as a sign of major progress. After the Montreal game they made sure to remember their mistakes as well as their successes, and that game was far better played. What I'm worried about is fans and media getting on the "they've learned to win" bandwagon when, in fact, a somewhat improved team just had the dice roll their way for once. If the Whitecaps' luck turns the other way, as it so often did in 2011, the last thing we need is for the knives to come out and the press to angst "what happened to the glory days of Chivas?" We also don't want positive press to go to the club's head as, let's face it, sometimes happens. More players read these sorts of articles than will ever admit it.
Already we see headlines trumpeting that winning your first two games is 90% of a ticket to the playoffs. Don't be fooled and don't let yourself expect quick triumph. I guarantee there will be some tough times in the season to come, and they may start on Saturday.