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Step Back From that Ledge My Vancouver Whitecaps Friends

While it feels like the sky is falling in Whitecaps land, it is not all bad news. We look at the reasons to be optimistic (and pessimistic) about the season going forward.

Based on the GREAT discussion here in the comments section of Saturday’s post-match review of the Vancouver Whitecaps loss to Toronto FC, and the hate the Caps are receiving on Twitter, I felt it was time to write an article suggesting fans to step away from the ledge a bit.

Being a ‘logic’ person rather than an ‘emotion’ person, I have tried to incorporate facts into this as much as possible. With that in mind, if there are facts you would like me to try to compile, let me know in the comments and I will try to get the numbers for you.

I also realized that this was going to be a bit of a long (winded?) article, so I have included headers so it is a bit easier to read. And, it allows you to skip past the parts you are least interested in reading. With that in mind, let’s get into the discussion.

The Sky Has Not Fallen

Although I must admit, the sky is slowly sinking down to the horizon. Nevertheless, let’s be part of the optimism club for now and see what we can come up with.

1. The Last Two MLS Cup Winners: Two years ago, Portland began the season with 3 draws. They followed that up with 3 losses and 2 wins. After that, they drew Vancouver, beat Montreal, and then lost to Houston and Toronto. They started the season with 5 losses, 4 draws, and 3 wins. Last year, Seattle started their season with 3 losses. They then went on a bit of a hot streak, winning 4 of their next 6 (with 1 draw mixed in), before losing 8 of their next 11. After 20 matches, they had 6 wins, 12 losses, and 2 draws.

My point is that we do not need to look at the beginning of the season with too large of a magnifying glass. New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy have proven that multiple times in the past. In a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs, the start of the season is not as crucial as the end of the season.

Full disclosure: I can poke many holes in this argument too for the Whitecaps specifically, so know that I will agree with you in the comments section on this.

2. MSL and CONCACAF: The Vancouver Whitecaps are playing across two competitions right now and, whether we agree or disagree, the ‘better’ lineups are being played in CONCACAF. It means that the MLS squad is going to suffer a bit. It also means short turnarounds, which can have an impact on performance. PHI came on the heels of the NYRB match while TOR came after returning from Mexico. Am I making excuses? Possibly. Are people underestimating the impact of these additional matches? Maybe. It is worth point out that Seattle started last season against Club America. In 2015, when Montreal went to the Champions League final, they started the season L, D, D, L, L.

3. Injuries: Couple the dual competitions at the beginning of a season, while players are still trying to get to full fitness, with injuries and it can be a sad start to the season. The loss of Jordy Reyna and David Edgar have been huge blows to this team. Reyna looked solid in preseason and Edgar can be a driving force behind a solid defense. Couple in Christian Bolanos and Nicolas Mezquida missing time to begin the season and the team was looking a bit thin. When combined with trying to field teams across two competitions, it can mean that the best players are not available for the Whitecaps.

4. The Matches: I already mentioned that bad starts are not the end of the world, but let’s try to be even more optimistic. I will focus on the San Jose match while touching on the others too. If not for a miss-timed jump by Christian Dean, it was quite possible the Whitecaps could have won in San Jose. Getting out to a 2-0 lead that quickly can be good. Of course, we will never know if they would have won, but the odds were probably quite high. Yes, the (Saturday) Philadelphia match was a major letdown after the high of advancing to the semi-finals against New York (Thursday). But, a draw was not terrible. True, the Caps needed to start strong, especially against an Eastern Conference opponent, who is considered weak (although they drew Toronto last weekend), but don’t forget the last two seasons have started with losses at home against an Eastern Conference opponent (Montreal and Toronto). So, not the end of the world. Finally, yes, Toronto did not have Giovinco, but they are still a solid squad. Not much more I can say about that, as even I have to admit it was a pretty poor showing by the Whitecaps. Nevertheless, if the Caps won in San Jose, they would have started with 4 points out of 9. Not great, but middle of the pack; and let’s be honest, we don’t expect the Caps to challenge Dallas at the top right?

Reasons for Concern

Now for the fun, easy, part of this article. Everything in Whitecaps land is not peachy. There are some serious problems that need to be addressed. Here are a few that I feel are most important. Feel free to add your thoughts on the concerns I raise, or add your own in the comments. Here goes.

1. Don’t Have Full Lineup: I noted the injuries, but let’s pretend everyone is healthy and ignore that argument. As has been noted many times before, a concern has to be that the Whitecaps do not have a full compliment of players. By that, I mean that they do not have players to play every position. It is my opinion that Carl Robinson is continually bringing in the same player rather than bringing in compliment of players. The Whitecaps have an abundance of wingers but little else. It was asked on Twitter why the Whitecaps were playing Brek Shea up top against Tigres. Didn’t they have anyone else? I had to reply ‘no, they really don’t’. I noted that Hurtado had played a few days prior and there was no other options (as apparently Kyle Greig is not playing). Traditionally in a 4-2-3-1, one of the two defensive midfielders are considered more ‘attacking minded’ than the other. Currently, the Whitecaps do not have that. In addition, the Caps are lacking playmakers. Last season they relied heavily on Pedro Morales, which was to their detriment. The team did not replace him in the off-season, so while Nico was injured in the pre-season, we saw Manneh playing the central attacking midfielder role. YIKES! Manneh has skills. Vision and quick passing is NOT one of them. Mezquida is back and seems likely to occupy that #10 role, but he has been very frustrating. He seems to show glimpses of being what the Whitecaps need, and then disappears. I am an advocate of his, but then he suddenly has a very poor outing. So inconsistent.

2. Possession and Passing Accuracy Lacking: I discussed the poor possession and passing accuracy numbers of the Whitecaps on Twitter during their first five matches. While they improved in both stats in the TFC match, here are how the Whitecaps are doing:

Poss and Pass.csv

Vancouver Whitecaps at NYRB vs NYRB vs PHI at SJ at TIGRES vs TFC
Vancouver Whitecaps at NYRB vs NYRB vs PHI at SJ at TIGRES vs TFC
Possession 32% 27% 46% 22% 21% 42%
Pass Accuracy 69% 50% 77% 57% 56% 74%
Possession and Passing Accuracy for Vancouver Whitecaps for First 6 Matches of 2017 AtlantisB

I am not too concerned about the possession numbers as the Whitecaps have never been a possession team under Robbo (or even Rennie). I don’t expect them to be now. Having said that, numbers in the 20’s and low 30’s is alarming. The important statistic is those passing accuracy numbers. They have been better in the two MLS home matches, but when you have only managed to complete less than three out of four passes in all but one match, that is a major problem. While the team is not possession based, you cannot get an offense going if you cannot string together a few passes. This has to be a major concern for the Whitecaps and fans. From a fan’s perspective, the argument has been the lack of a midfield. Not going to disagree with that. But is that the only cause?

3. Same as it Ever Was: I think what is frustrating for most fans is that what we are seeing right now is nothing new. Despite all my optimistic comments above, an easy answer to them all is ‘yeah, but this isn’t an isolated incident. This has been happening for the last 18 months!’. True. Again, some numbers for you. Since May 22nd, in MLS play, the Vancouver Whitecaps have 4 wins (at PHI, vs RSL, at COLU, and vs POR). During that same time, they have 12 losses! This leads to the next point.

4. Terrible at Home: Last season, the Vancouver Whitecaps had 6 wins, 5 losses, and 6 draws at home. That means, they achieved full points in 35% of their matches. What was the home record of the 12 playoff teams last season? (112-34-58). Playoff teams received the full three points 55% of the time at home. The two Western Conference playoff teams with, only, 8 wins (LA and RSL) also lost 1 match each at home. Meaning that even if they were not receiving the full three points, they were getting something out of their matches. The most frustrating part of a draw and loss out of the first two matches at BC Place this season is that teams in MLS need to get full points at home and the Whitecaps have started this season off the same way they played last season: giving away points at home.

5. Discipline: I could touch on this one, but I feel it has been driven into the ground. The one stat I will leave you with though is that since the beginning of the 2016 season, the Whitecaps have received 10 red cards in their 37 matches. Yeah, let that sink in for a bit.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

1. One or Two Players Away: I say this honestly, with no homerism (I think). I believe the Whitecaps are one or two players away from being successful. There is no reason to believe that the Whitecaps defense cannot be solid. They have not been great this season, but they have only conceded MLS goals when down a man. That is a positive. They Whitecaps need to fix the position beside Matias Laba. In writing this article I did some research on the 4-2-3-1 and I actually think it could be quite successful with the Caps. The problem I see is that the Whitecaps do not have an offensive player (box-to-box) beside Laba. The other problem is that the formation requires attacking midfielders to defend or they leave their full-backs stranded, but I will leave that discussion for the comments section and focus on the ’2’. I do not believe Atiba Hutchinson is coming in the summer to save the Whitecaps. Even if he does come, he will have just played an entire season, including Europa, and players who come in the Summer rarely have a major impact. So, I am not holding my breath. However, if the Whitecaps can fix that problem and get someone who can be a playmaker in the midfield, I think they could be very dangerous. The major problem I see with that solution is the lack of cap space to make such moves. With David Edgar out for the season, the Whitecaps can use his salary to obtain another player, but they have to do that before the current window closes. If they don’t, they will not get the cap relief.

While we can remain optimistic, I think a major struggle many fans have with that concept is that the Whitecaps have shown little in recent memory to suggest that a change is possible. I don’t believe firing Robinson (right now) is the solution, but I do not see realistic solutions going forward. While the Whitecaps can point to Portland and Seattle as evidence that the start of the season does not matter, and they can blame Champions League for a poor start, and they can point to injuries and red cards as contributing factors, at some point the finger needs to be pointed inward. Portland and Seattle had the parts necessary to win or were able to go get what they needed (e.g., Lodeiro). I am trying to be optimistic, but I don’t feel the current squad has the ability to win it all and I don’t see the team being able to get that one or two key players that they need to be successful. However, maybe it is foolish to be basing success as winning the MLS Cup as I am not sure this team is at that level. Maybe the Caps are at the level of success being making the playoffs. As a fan, maybe that is what we have to accept, even if it is hard and we don’t want to.