The Vancouver Whitecaps seem to have their discipline in order this season. Gone from this season is the parade of red cards and supplemental suspensions handed out by the league discipline committee that was so glaringly characteristic of last season. 2016 saw such a succession of ejections and suspensions that the team quickly garnered a reputation as a dirty team, quick to make the egregious foul, and quick to go down cheaply in order to draw the foul. This reputation was a few seasons in the making, as fans across the league lamented the ‘Caps tendency to play beyond the rules. The team was often accused on discussion threads of fouling too aggressively or taking the young South Americans to task for diving for fouls.
Some of this reputation was well earned. There is an obvious culture shift to the North American game that Latin players need to come to terms with in North America. Here we expect players to play through contact, where in the Southern hemisphere players would rather look for the foul than lose possession on an errant pass due to a clipped heel. But the ‘Caps gave as good as they got, and over the last few years played an aggressive game. The trend came to a head last season as their reputation caught up with them and it seemed they were called for everything they did, while at the same time, unable to draw the foul when they were similarly abused.
No one on the team suffered more by this bad reputation than Kendall Waston. His mix of size and aggressive play made him so conspicuous it seemed every time a player went down anywhere near him he was called on the foul. In 2016, the referees’ opinion of him seemed to make him snap, as a rash of ill conceived tackles and rough and tumble defending throughout the season made it hard for even the most die hard of ‘Caps fans to run to his defense.
Now, just past the quarter mark of the 2017 season the ‘Caps are re-writing their reputation on the pitch. After an early spat of red cards, the team has settled down into a disciplined style of play that is at times aggressive on the press, and stalwart on defense, while the ejections have been eliminated for the time being. And, as before, no one epitomizes this new-found restraint as Kendall Waston.
Gone from his game this season are the wildly reckless tackles that flew in from behind, the side or over the touchline. Waston is back to controlling the air in front of goal and his positioning is more defensively sound, making the last ditch lunging effort unnecessary. And for the first time in two seasons, he is finally getting the benefit of the doubt and being allowed to play his game. In Montréal, Waston missed the ball and kicked Jackson-Hamel squarely in the inner thigh. Waston was quick to motion for help for Jackson, and where he surely would have received either an in game card or supplemental suspension had this happened last year, this year it was seen as an innocent football play. This is a notable turn of events for the player.
But it is more than just Waston’s more disciplined play that is changing referees’ perception of him. By making him captain, Robbo has given Waston the opportunity to directly mend his reputation. TV close-ups of him throughout last week’s game in Houston showed Waston, time after time, have respectful consultations with the referee to understand the calls made against his team. Waston repeatedly showed respect by hearing the referee out and shooing away complaining teammates so the ref could state his case. As captain, these in-game conversations are his right and his responsibility, and Waston’s demeanour is fast-tracking a new reputation for him that is buying him some leniency on the pitch.
So what then, was that PK call against him in Huston all about? Well, as successful as he has been rebuilding his own reputation, even he is not all-powerful enough to improve the reputation of the beleaguered MLS referee.