When you look at the MLS Western Conference standings and see our beloved Vancouver Whitecaps FC sitting near the top of the standings it seems silly for me to say that Saturday's match is of the "must win" variety because prior to the start of the season we all would have been very happy to see the Caps in third place a third of the way into the year.
The Whitecaps started the 2015 season with a bang winning four out of their first five matches, but since the two-all draw against the Columbus Crew SC on April 8th reality has caught up with the them.
Or has it?
Out of the four victories at the start of the year the win over the LA Galaxy certainly stands out over the others. Why? The Galaxy, who are coached by Bruce Arena, are perennial contenders year-in and year-out to win MLS Cup, and they are a team that the Caps have struggled to beat since they joined MLS in 2011.
In the victories over the Chicago Fire, Orlando City SC and the Portland Timbers one could argue that perhaps the Caps weren't playing their best, but I preferred (and still prefer) to look at it from the flip side: good teams somehow find ways to win matches even when they are not playing their best football.
The points from those matches were won when the Caps were momentarily the masters of "Smash 'n Grab" football. Many of us, myself included, were not overly concerned by some of the deeper issues that were lurking beneath the surface, because the team were finding ways to win thanks to the likes of Rivero, Pedro Morales and Robert Earnshaw.
There have been some times to become upset and despondent over the past month, but there have been, despite the results, some promising performances during that time as well. Let us not forget that despite falling at the hands of D.C. United and referee Dave Gantar, the 10-man Whitecaps still had several excellent opportunities to salvage at least a point from that match, but just could not finish any one of their chances.
The San Jose match, which I was willing to write off at that point in time, was just an all round disappointing and flat performance from the team. Seattle, on the otherhand, wasn't quite as bad as the match against the 'Quakes, but the Sounders really only had two decent opportunities to score all night long, and they did - both times.
My concern at this point in time has more to do with the formation that Vancouver employs each and every match. I am, of course, referring specifically to the 4-2-3-1, or as it is known around MLS the "Vancouver Special".
I do not have a problem with Carl Robinson using that formation, but it seems that it has become too much of a known quantity. Of course, Robbo and his coaching staff will go with the formation and line up that they believe will give them the best shot at winning, but perhaps now it's time for a change?
I had remarked in the aftermath of the loss to the Sounders that Rivero and Morales were marked by two, or in Rivero's case, three Seattle players, which effectively limited their ability to positively influence the match. Last weekend against the Rapids it was more of the same: shut down Rivero to shut down the Vancouver attack.
Saturday afternoon's match against Real Salt Lake will be the second of three matches against the Claret and Cobalt this year. The Whitecaps have already beaten RSL once this season thanks to a 0-1 victory at the RioT back on April 18th. Since that match, however, the Whitecaps' form has dipped and have a record of W1-L3-D1 since these teams last faced each other.
I have been quite reluctant to say it before now, but I do believe that this match, even though we are still in the month of May, is one of the "must win" variety. I say this for a couple of reasons: firstly because the Whitecaps need to get their mojo back, and secondly, after this weekend the Whitecaps will not play another match at BC Place until July 12th.
Real will definitely be out to settle the score after the last match. Vancouver's Jamaican striker, Darren Mattocks was the hero on the night when he headed a beautiful cross from Russell Teibert into the back of Nick Rimando's goal only a few minutes after Sebastian Saucedo was sent off for a dangerous two-footed lunge at Mauro Rosales.
Interestingly that night Robbo and Co. abandoned the trusty 4-2-3-1 and opted for the untried (well, untried in a match situation at any rate) 4-3-1-2. This never before seen formation featured a starting XI of David Ousted, Sam Adekugbe, Pa Modou-Kah and Steven Beitashour, Russell Teibert, Matias Laba, Gershon Koffie, Nicolas Mezquida, Octavio Rivero and Darren Mattocks. Although it may not have been a line up that created an offensive juggernaut, it was, however, a tactically sophisticated formation and a good road win for the Whitecaps.
If the Caps are to have success against RSL this weekend I would suggest a return to such a formation, or perhaps, the 4-4-2 Diamond (a drum with I have been banging for the past several weeks). It is clear at this point that if Rivero plays as the lone forward, and is tightly marked by the opposition then his effectiveness, and therefore Vancouver's offence, grinds to a halt.
Keys to the Match:
- Be nice to Ousted - the backline was caught out badly twice against Seattle and again last week against the Rapids. Ousted is a fantastic 'keeper, but Vancouver's defenders cannot expect him to bail them out each and every time they have a defensive lapse.
- Get Rivero out of solitary confinement - use a two striker formation and have someone, i.e. Earnshaw, Mattocks, etc. who can play off of or next to Rivero.
- Help the Caps get their mojo back - there is no question that this is a talented group of players, but it's time for them to get on the same page and playing with some confidence. A win over RSL would be the perfect way to head into a five match road trip during the FIFA Women's World Cup.
Predicted Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Ousted, Harvey, Kah, Waston, Beitashour, Teibert, Laba, Manneh, Morales, Rosales, Rivero.
Preferred Starting XI (4-4-2 Diamond): Ousted, Harvey, Kah, Waston, Beitashour, Laba, Teibert, Rosales, Morales, Rivero, Manneh (does anyone remember Se4tt1e?)
Predicted Man of the Match: Matias Laba