After the first three months of regular season action, many facets of this current Whitecaps team remain unknown quantities. Diego Rodriguez's fitness, or lack thereof, is one that immediately springs to mind and the same can be said about the role Erik Hurtado occupies in the roster nowadays, however it's the ever-rotating wide options that seem have split opinion the most. Consistency in selection yields chemistry between sets of players, it is the most natural way to develop relationships on the field, and yet head coach Carl Robinson has approached the flanks by committee to this point of the campaign. He is vindicated in this method of thinking though, boasting a reservoir of talent from which to choose from every week the 38-year-old can lay the foundations for how he sets up his side with the personnel he stations on the wings. This strategy has gone some way in removing the predictability of 2014, where the depth paled in comparison to the squad of today, and has paid dividends through sixteen matches with the Blue and White battling for real estate towards the top of the Western Conference standings. Opposing managers and full-backs ought to beware of the variation in age, experience, physique and style of play this group of individuals harbour amongst themselves, and with it exerting continued influence on proceedings it feels necessary that we delve into the contrast.
Kekuta Manneh is very much a different entity to every other attacker in Major League Soccer for his explosive pace, effervescent charm whilst terrorizing defenders and for the bipolar nature to the start of his professional career. While it's a joy to watch him steal the spotlight against the likes of Seattle and LA, the Gambia native failing to meet expectations as a member of the starting line-up has become the status quo, leading many supporters to question whether he is ready to start every week. That debate is commonplace in certain corners of the fan base for good reason - the sight of Scooter showing immense promise with the ball at his feet before losing possession in the final third is one that incites great frustration. If not for its lack of end product, for how the kid is perpetually restricted from realizing his sky-high potential by his failure to incorporate any semblance of regularity into his game. That said, Manneh finds himself in the ideal environment to make that so elusive of leaps; he has a coach with faith in his talent and he is entrusted as the main outlet to one of the most efficient counter-attacking outfits in the league. Add some confidence and the electrifying speedster is damn near unstoppable, recently going after the consensus best centre-back in MLS at the StubHub Center as if he were Marlo Stanfield on the streets of West Baltimore. Kekuta will have gained a lot in self-esteem from his winner in Carson and will no doubt be rejuvenated to pick up where he left off when the Caps return from some much deserved time off.
The South American scouting network installed since Robbo took the helm has reaped an abundance of success for the club, and from what we have seen of Cristian Techera so far we can only acknowledge a continuation of the trend. El Bicho's 5-foot-2 frame cuts a meagre silhouette among the often imposing defenders of North America and he has earned his fair share of skepticism because of that. More are abandoning their initial impressions though because Techera appears more assured within his new surroundings with every appearance he makes and with that his physical deficiencies are far less noticeable as a detriment to his play. Instead of letting his height hold him back he has harnessed it to torment those tasked with tackling him with his low centre of gravity. Moreover, he is unique to the other options in how he reads the final third, owing his impressive goal-scoring record in his homeland of Uruguay to the same instincts that created his decisive strike against Real Salt Lake. Techera capitalized on a costly piece of miscommunication between Justen Glad and Nick Rimando to pounce on the loose ball unnoticed, slotting home into an empty net while the RSL defence looked at each other in stunned bemusement. Pedro Morales' license to roam has given Cristian the chance to attack from central areas too, presenting a constant source of danger to the opposition's net as he drifts between full-back and centre-half seamlessly. An exciting start to life in British Columbia indeed for the man affectionately known as The Bug.
The Caps have conveyed a lot of youthful energy in their endeavours to join the league's elite this year, but were it not for the presence of elder statesmen like Mauro Rosales the inexperience would make the team helplessly erratic. His influence in this regard hasn't claimed as many column inches as it perhaps deserves, yet it's something glaringly evident whenever the wily Argentine calmly dictates the attack to betray his 34 years of age and often injured body. Mauro is productive too, flashing countless deliveries into the eighteen-yard box with a baseline of accuracy among the very best in MLS at the moment. This service is yet to translate into the goals each cross seems to promise, however has been invaluable in creating a different dimension when sides find an answer to the threat in transition poised by Vancouver and hold a deep line. In the aforementioned meeting with RSL at BC Place, Rosales and Techera started on either side of Rivero and supplemented El Cabeza's very complete repertoire of abilities to great effect. The two compensated for what their presence forfeits in speed with intelligent decision-making and an unparalleled three-headed playmaking machine in collaboration with Morales. Furthermore, his terrific foray into the #10 role when the skipper has been absent from the starting eleven has given incentive to afford the Chilean Maestro rest when needed. Although it's unclear whether the former Sounders talisman will return in 2016, there is no doubting his importance to Robbo's blueprint for success in the meantime.
Darren Mattocks' shortcomings have been discussed ad nauseum in the comments section of this site and in other outlets covering the Caps, but much of the scrutiny the much maligned Jamaican has received is largely unwarranted. He has returned from training stints in Europe during the offseason rejuvenated and is desperate to seize what could potentially be his final opportunity to become a key figure in Robbo's ranks. He's now more concerned with the benefit of his colleagues rather than his own numbers, to that end happy to feature out wide as opposed to centrally in order to accommodate Rivero. Last term was a rough one for Darren as he struggled with the onus placed on him to contribute goals on a weekly basis and the move in position has been positive for all parties involved thus far. He's a convenient alternative to Manneh as the main outlet, the defensive work-rate demanded of him is making him a more diverse player and he's discovered a new use to his manager to keep himself active ahead of a busy summer with his national team. That experience at the Copa America and at the Gold Cup should place Mattocks in good stead heading down the stretch and will help him to become more mature too. Hurtado shared the duties leading the line in 2014 yet hasn't risen to the increase in quality around him, on the periphery and reportedly on the trade block at the moment. Mattocks has been eager to meet his new-found competition, whereas E-Money has maybe lacked the self-confidence to do that - that's what distinguishes the two the most in my view and could come to decipher their respective futures at VWFC.
In principle the notion of a 19-year-old being one of the most dynamic players in the roster is almost unheard of - more so when that 19-year-old has only made half a dozen appearances in MLS - but Kianz Froese is an exception to the rule. From his 45-minute cameo at CenturyLink Field in October of last year the Canadian youth international has displayed a composure beyond his age and has used that calming influence to make his presence felt around the club. Kianz has enjoyed his best performances off the bench where his wise decision-making and ability to keep hold of the ball on either flank are most valuable, but did very well in the first half against the Rapids as a starter last month. He was granted more freedom to express himself, as he normally is with Alan Koch's Thundercaps, and fans were treated to glimpses of his exceptional dribbling in that outing. He has the perfect blend of flamboyance and selflessness, his progress will certainly be fascinating to document over coming years and the forecast points only to great things. The road trip ongoing at present forces rotation to some degree and Froese will be determined to make the most of any chance he receives to further impress the coaching staff. Nico Mezquida is another who could see increased action this summer and will also be eager to earn heavier participation after enduring a prolonged spell out of favour. I would advise anyone who has forgotten how the Uruguayan can change games to rewatch the 2-0 victory over the Galaxy back in April, wherein his energetic pressing and link-up play with Rivero went a long way to secure maximum points on the day.
There has been something of a tactical dilemma facing Robbo at times this term with regards to his favoured formation, the 4-2-3-1, and the 4-4-2 diamond he used as an alternative last campaign. Tactics are always subjective and change based on the opposition, for that reason the 4-2-3-1 has been profitable against most teams this season but to varying extents as certain sides are better prepared to deal with what the Whitecaps throw at them than others. At some juncture in 2015 the Welshman will look to shake things up and means in which to achieve that could be through the diamond. The premise for this is rather simple; Manneh could start up top next to Rivero with Morales in behind them, while Russell Teibert and Gershon Koffie could flank Laba in the pivot. This would arguably be the smartest call against those orienting their attack around both their wingers and full-backs as Teibert and Koffie would flatten to nullify that threat and leave the frontmen isolated in the company of Kendall Waston and whoever partners him. Another advantage of this system is how it compensates for Pedro's relaxed effort defensively with the three midfielders behind him more than competent out of possession. This would go a long way in making Vancouver tougher to break down and far less vulnerable to counters, particularly on the road where the guys tend to struggle at keeping the ball for sustained swathes of time. There would also be benefits for marrying the defence to the attack with build-up play ostensibly more cohesive because of the balance attached to a midfield including the likes of Laba, Teibert, Koffie and Morales, all of whom far more technically gifted than most of their foes.
Going forward, to provide the wide play abandoned by leaving the 4-2-3-1, more would have to be asked of the full-backs, with Sam Adekugbe representing an intriguing solution at left-back. Adekugbe has the athleticism to thrive in the final third, but he is limited from marauding forward by his cover of Kah so this would only come into full effect with the more composed Rodriguez alongside Waston. Steven Beitashour or Tim Parker should face less demand to leave their comfort zones in such an event, which would create a far more stable back-line when the opposition release the pressure absorbed from the attack. The same could be said when Techera and Rosales start on the flanks in that Sam may prove a remedy to the congested central areas of the field once he returns from injury. More responsibilities can only be a good thing for the 20-year-old as he will come on leaps and bounds in his development towards becoming one of the most dominant full-backs in the league as a result. It must be noted that Jordan Harvey has been nothing short of excellent since regaining his place in the line-up, but the competition for starts will rage on when Adekugbe is healthy again and will give their coach a selection migraine throughout the rest of the season. The Whitecaps are winning with width currently and if they wish to maintain their place in the standings during the ridiculously busy summer ahead they will need to stay true to the flanks that are proving so crucial right now.