When I see the Vancouver Whitecaps, I see an average soccer team. I was saying it when the Whitecaps were winning, and now that the team's lost to San Jose I'm sticking to my guns. We are gloriously mid-table. We are better than some teams and worse than others. We are moving in the right direction but by Canadian Soccer Jesus we're sure not at the top of the elevator shaft yet.
It's only natural to hurl a glass at the screen when your team gives away a won position to lose its first game of 2012. A 1-0 win against San Jose, a win that looked in the cards for so long, would have been an artillery strike into the heart of the Western Conference. San Jose is beating all expectations: they hold the ball, they get shots, they have few real stars other than Chris Wondolowski but also very little deadweight. Many of their players know each other well and it shows on the field, while the Whitecaps continue to look unacquainted. San Jose's only loss this year was against the Houston Dynamo, where Brad Davis cashed in a questionable early penalty and the Earthquakes spent 76 minutes destroying Houston in open play without getting a flicker of good luck. The Earthquakes are good, and taking three road points off of them would have been staggering.
Instead, the Whitecaps got zero. They failed to get a penalty when John Thorrington was enveloped by Steven Beitashour trying to reach an Eric Hassli cross, the team protested (even the Earthquakes announcers chuckled in disbelief), they grew a bit less crisp, and while I was up making a London Fog Vancouver conceded three goals.
Those are the sorts of mistakes teams like the Whitecaps make. Teams where many of the players aren't yet familiar with each other, where the coach's job is still teaching as much as tactics, and which frankly doesn't yet know the best way to win. We saw a repeat of last week's narrow diamond formation on Saturday, with better offensive results but still a lot of disappointment in a formation seemingly built to get the old, oft-injured Thorrington his touches. It didn't work, but Thorrington played very well while Chiumiento (who would surely be out wide if anyone was) looked clumsy.
The Whitecaps are still experimenting on the field and off. The way that game ended sucked. But, big picture, aren't we all pretty happy?
The Whitecaps still haven't laid an egg, haven't stunk out any joints. They continue to play basically competent mid-table soccer. The San Jose Earthquakes have done terrifically so far this season and boy, they showed us a thing or two. It sucked, losing our first game of the year like that, but this team isn't just an improvement over 2011's consistently craptastic crew but also over 2010's startlingly subcompetitive side which never met a 0-0 draw it didn't like.
The Whitecaps could have been luckier, John Thorrington maybe should have drawn a penalty, and in the end 60 good minutes of soccer were sunk by 30 bad ones. Vancouver had a few games like that over the past two seasons except for the 60 good minutes. The defensive collapse is getting the headlines, but does it take away the way Vancouver held a damned good Earthquakes attack in check on the road for so long? Even without Alain Rochat around, Jay DeMerit and Martin Bonjour were ruling the roost in the middle... until they weren't. DeMerit seemed rattled by the refereeing and should know better: that's a mental mistake and can hopefully be coached out.
Meanwhile, Eric Hassli got an assist he earned the hell out of and made some terrific positive touches, proving once again that even if he's still searching for his scoring boots he's a worthy part of any MLS attack. Sebastien Le Toux's work rate and ability to get into position are living up to their billing, and he's taking control of much of Vancouver's attack just because he deserves it so much and does so many things well that even Hassli naturally defers. New arrivals like Jun Marques Davidson still look legit, and while I'd love Lee Young-pyo to show more speed up the right and some Premier League-calibre crossing he's at least a huge defensive upgrade on Jonathan Leathers.
I continue to rail that the Whitecaps must do a better job using the wide areas of the field. What little wide play we get is so often one-on-one: Le Toux spraying Hassli down one side or the other, where he's largely unsupported, his somewhat clumsy touches let him down, and nothing comes of it. Or Chiumiento going a-wandering and, again, nothing much happening. Tom Soehn and Teitur Thordarson at least presented a threat from the flanks. With Russell Teibert's return from the Olympics I hoped for improvement; when he didn't even make Vancouver's 18 I went a little bananas. It was aggressively stupid; when the Whitecaps were going like hell for a goal they simply didn't have enough options to challenge the Earthquakes as they sat back. Teibert on the left and I don't care who on the right (Thorrington? Chiumiento? Tan?) would have made a world of difference.
We saw what Shea Salinas did for San Jose, right? I was never a Salinas fan and he got one more good shot on Saturday than he did in his Whitecaps career; I was frankly happy to see him go. But even when he was just doing the usual (running, challenging a fullback, going nowhere, causing a giveaway) he was forcing Jordan Harvey and Lee to respect him. They couldn't cheat towards the middle the way San Jose's fullbacks could, and they couldn't take for granted that if a wide threat did emerge it would be telegraphed clearly enough they'd have plenty of time to deal with it. Even when Salinas was just providing spark rather than skill, it was still enough to open up Vancouver's back four in a way the Whitecaps couldn't emulate.
That's my rant. I don't think Martin Rennie is set in his ways yet, and he'll have to change things up anyway when Barry Robson arrives. For the most part this is a pretty good start, isn't it? Take that, basement predictors.