This is a rant. I am well aware of that. An emotional, frustrated rant written too soon after the final whistle for rational reflection.
What use is Erik Hurtado to the Whitecaps if he cannot score. I know this will be a controversial stance considering he seemed to play well Saturday night. He hustled to the end of the game. He chased down balls, fought determinedly to bring down long balls out of the backfield and managed to set up the odd chance on goal. That sounds like a pretty good night at the office. The TV broadcast crew thought so, as they awarded him the man of the match for his spirited play and his continuous involvement in the game.
Here it is - you knew it was coming. But that missed header in the first half! The very best chance the Whitecaps had to score in the entire game and Hurtado blew it. It was a golden chance to score a goal and like so many of his other attempts on goal it missed the mark. In fact, his goal last Tuesday against KC in CCL play was his first goal in forever. Hurtado's MLS goal slump dates back well into last season (someone please post the date of his last regular season goal). I so want to root for Hurtado because he has been paying his dues by riding the bench and spending his time on loan in Norway. Because of that, when he is on the pitch he has a desire and fire in him to gut out a performance, which is so refreshing in this year's squad. And, on Tuesday he fought through an endless assault of elbows to the head, face rakings and the proper amount of kicks to the leg for a player involved in the play as much as he was. But, time and time again when the ball is on his foot, or head, with a great chance on net he finds a way to miss the target.
It is tempting to want to give Hurtado the benefit of the doubt on his first half miss. Perry Solkowski wrote it off as bad luck and you could see the disbelief on Erik's face after the blown opportunity. His discouraged smile that said, "how could I have possibly missed that?" But his miss was consistent with his season and not a fluke. If all of Hurtado's shots fly in every direction but the net when he is flush in front of goal, maybe we should be questioning whether technique and not bad luck is the problem. And don't get me wrong. I know he was on the pitch because Robbo rewards players who bring it in training. So, I must conclude that Hurtado can perform in training. And, while I never see training, I can imagine his technique is sound enough that he can put balls in the net on the practice field or Robbo would not have the confidence to put him in on match day. If Hurtado's technique completely abandons him in front of goal on match day, then it is a mental problem (I can hear you thinking, "duh!") and all this talk of bad luck and how-did-that-not-go-in doesn't serve him at all. The ball didn't go in the net because he headed it straight into the turf instead of down and towards the net. If he is going to get out of this rut he is going to have to realize that the calm, or precision, or whatever it is that he does in practice that allows him to be successful, is part of the technique of striking a ball on net. He is a high performance athlete and he is learning about the high performance part: that it is about being able to play to his abilities under the stress of competition, and part of that is not losing your cool when opportunity presents itself. Playing with adrenaline is part of the deal of pro soccer and part of the technique of performing under pressure. Ultimately he has to take responsibility for that and not look to himself and not the heavens when he shanks his next close attempt.
I like Hurtado and I want him to succeed; for himself and for the team. But, he continually proves that he can't score when we need him to in the big game, and it begs the question, "Can the Whitecaps afford to play a striker who cannot score?" Octavio Rivero was a Whitecap who could not score, but we knew he had the ability to so we continued to hope. Hurtado hasn't proven he can yet despite his five goals in 2014 and Tuesday's goal against a Kansas City ‘B' team. The argument that his speed makes him able to get into the scoring positions in the first place doesn't sway me, because he showed just how ineffective he can be in a AAA grade scoring chance when he found himself clear of his defenders at the top of the eight yard box with a wide open net and a perfectly placed ball at his head and still managed to send it straight into the ground, off the crossbar and out of play. What good was it to get in the perfect position to score when he still found a way to miss the net?
So, can we afford to continue to play a striker who has shown he cannot score? Even one that is positive in other areas? There are clutch positions on a team: centre-back, keeper and defensive-mid are crucial positions because if they mess up the ball is often in their net. Striker is also a clutch position because there may only be one legitimate chance to score in a game and a clutch striker puts more of those away than he misses. It is a shame, because the Whitecaps needed three points and the only thing marring a truly excellent team performance in a difficult venue was a blunder on what seemed like should have been a sure goal.
If the ‘Caps don't make the playoffs this year, Hurtado's miss will be yet another example of why they fell short.