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Is the Sky Still Falling?

Whitecaps fans were in turmoil 3 matches into the season. 3 matches later, we discuss whether there is still cause for concern or whether the team has turned a corner.

Three matches into the 2017 Major League Soccer season, there was mass panic amongst Vancouver Whitecaps fans. The Caps had narrowly passed New York Red Bulls in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal, but drew their home opener against Philadelphia Union. Then, after jumping out to a quick 2-0 lead in San Jose, lost 3-2. Three days later, Vancouver lost 2-0 to Tigres and finished the week losing, in the1 third country in seven days, at home to Toronto FC 2-0.

It was a sad time in Whitecaps land. There was some pessimism heading into the season and the Caps early form only increased that pessimism. However, as the calendar turned from March to April, the Whitecaps began to look better. They defeated LA Galaxy 4-2. Followed that win up with a strong-in-defeat match against Mexican powerhouse Tigres (1-2). They stumbled a bit in a throw away match against Real Salt Lake, losing 3-0, but came back strong, if unconvincing, defeating Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders 2-1 last Friday evening.

The ‘throw-away’ match against Real Salt Lake was interesting, as it featured one of the worst, if not the worst, blizzard in MLS history. However, the weather overshadowed another important Whitecaps moment. On short rest and facing mounting injuries, Carl Robinson marched out an unexpected lineup of defenders and defensive midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation. I was nervously excited at the formation as I had been a strong advocate for it in the past, believing that Kendall Waston, Tim Parker, and Christian Dean would be a good backline, given their speed (well, Parker and Dean at least), strength, and height.

It was a colossal failure. While I have felt that Dean would do well in this formation, he had one of the worst matches from a Whitecaps defender since Klazura against Seattle Sounders. Some pointed to Marcel de Jong as being culpable for some of Dean’s poor defending, but Christian made many poor decisions independent of de Jong, jumping in on attackers and being poorly out-of-position. If de Jong had anything to do with the poor showing by Dean, it was simply that he made it look worse than it was. However, there was no getting around it, Dean was terrible.

With the season-ending injury to David Edgar, Christian Dean had a great opportunity to get his career back on-track, after his own injury plagued 2016 season. Despite starting well, with a strong performance against the Union in the home opener, he has faltered since. You will recall that prior to the RSL debacle, it was his misplay which led to David Ousted’s red card in San Jose. Given that the Whitecaps will not compete in multiple competitions again until the end of May, combined with the strong play of Parker and Waston, I do not expect to see Dean starting for the senior squad again in the immediate future. That is, of course, unless the injury woes that have faced the attacking side of the team travel back to the defense.

Although Dean has not had a strong start to his season, there are several players who have. Christian Techera has been great, looking especially dangerous in his passing/crossing. After a shaky 2016, where his leadership and decision-making were questioned multiple times, new captain Kendall Waston has returned to 2015 form, looking dominant in the air and not getting pulled out of position. Parker has also looked more confident. Together, they are beating up opponents, and apparently each other.

Of course, a team recap would not be complete without talking about Alphonso Davies. Did you know he is only 16-years-old? Davies strong play this season is what led to the Whitecaps being able to part with Kekuta Manneh. In many ways, Davies is already better than highly-touted Manneh, having better vision and stronger two-way play. We recounted several times during Davies past few matches why he made Manneh expendable. When he loses out on a ball, he is quick to track back and attempt to recover the ball. What has impressed me the most has been his attitude on the field. He has been a focal point of some defenses, being double and triple teamed, however, he has learned to fight through the attention. If you rewatch any of the matches this season, you will see other teams trying to intimidate the youngster with aggressive play, but Davies is quick to give it right back and stand up for himself. It is impressive from someone so young, playing against players much older. Despite his age, it is clear he has the respect and trust of his teammates.

While the Vancouver Whitecaps got off to a poor start, they have begun to come around. There are still certainly a lot of issues (e.g., possession and passing accuracy) but the team is headed in the right direction. They are beginning to perform better at home -a must for playoff teams- and they are looking a bit more dangerous on offense.

One final note, placing David Edgar on season-ending injury reserve means that the Whitecaps have freed up a roster position and cap space, provided they acquire a replacement player in the current transfer window. The window closes May 8th, which means that the Caps have three weeks to acquire a new striker or lose the cap relief they acquire from Edgar’s injury. It is a small, but very important point. Combined with the allocation money acquired in the Manneh deal with Columbus, the Caps could still make a big splash some time in the next month. However, as many here will note, the issue is not whether they CAN make the acquisition, but whether the team is willing to pay the actual money required. It has always been a sticking point for this team. I believe the poorer attendance to begin the season has sent a message from the fans to the owners about what is expected and hopefully that leads to a change in the near future. If a move is made, do not expect there to be too much notice ahead of time. Many of the past Caps signings have come out of left field and I would expect much of the same going forward (sorry to those expecting Atiba Hutchinson).