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The Tactical Ways of Carl Robinson

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Seven matches into the 2018 MLS season, we have a lot of the same from Carl Robinson’s Vancouver Whitecaps. Is that enough though?

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at Real Salt Lake Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

We are seven matches into the 2018 Major League Soccer season, and the Vancouver Whitecaps sit 3rd in the West (6th in points per match) with a respectable three wins, three losses, and one draw record. Despite the perfectly adequate start, Caps fans are anything but satisfied.

Being a Whitecaps fan is difficult. They are a middle-of-the-pack club that have the players to potentially be more, but seem to float in mediocrity. Just when you feel there is a possibility for something special, they seem to let you down. Last season, they challenged for their first Western Conference first-place finish. Needing five points over their final five matches, they were only able to obtain four and had to settle for third. Then, after demolishing San Jose Earthquakes in the knockout round 5-0, they came out....-I can’t even think of a proper descriptive word- and were easily dismantled by Seattle Sounders. There is a reason why leading into the final month of the 2017 season, no one knew what to expect from the Whitecaps. They were consistent, but never impressive. They were okay at shutting people down, but could not score.

For a team that finished one point out of first place in the Western Conference in 2017, there was substantial turnover during the offseason. Ousted, Harvey, Laba, Montero, Bolanos, Tchani, and Parker never played another match for the Caps. In came Anthony Blondell, Kei Kamara, Doneil Henry, Efrain Juarez, Jose Aja, Jordan Mutch, and Felipe Martins.

Heading into the 2018 season, there was the usual pessimistic optimism among fans. There was rumors that Carl Robinson might change up his formation. That was quickly dismissed after the first few preseason matches. There was hope that the introduction of Kamara finally gave the Whitecaps a striker who’s skill-set matched Carl Robinson’s style (cross and pray). #HeightXI signaled that they would be a force on set-pieces. However, after seven matches, the Whitecaps seem to be the same confusing and unpredictable team they always are.

The Whitecaps begin the season with a nice 2-1 victory at home against Montreal, where they show some dynamic play and possession (gasp!). They then go down to Houston and win for the first time at BBVA Compass Stadium. They follow that up with a loss at Atlanta, but with the excuse of a terrible call by Ismail Elfath. They draw an undermanned LAG club at home, but then go to Columbus and put a stop to their dominant start (and home success). However, they then lose to a very poor Salt Lake club and then look completely toothless and lost at home against LAFC.

Coming off back-to-back losses, for the first time in 40 MLS matches, and failing to score at home in their previous two matches -a 0-0 draw against Los Angeles Galaxy and a 2-0 defeat to Los Angeles Football Club. I don’t think anyone has any idea what to expect heading to Kansas City. They could easily win 2-1 or they could lose 3-0. In my mind, both possibilities are equally likely.

While fans have become frustrated with the Whitecaps of late, the counter-argument is that ‘you know what you get with the Whitecaps’. This is very true. Do not expect an attacking club, who is dynamic, and controls the match. Expect a team that bunkers and attempts to exploit mistakes on the counter with long balls and crosses. While this is not an ‘entertaining’ strategy, you cannot argue that it has not been successful.

Last season, I ran a series called ‘Behind the Numbers’, in an attempt to explain what leads to success in MLS. What I found was that the Whitecaps were defying most statistics and being the anomaly. Does that mean they were lucky last season? Maybe. However, I am more inclined to believe that Carl Robinson developed a strategy that worked for him and was successful because he played it well. We know that the prettiest and best team does not always win. The Caps relied heavily on crosses and set-pieces last season and were successful in those regards. This off-season, they brought in the ‘kink’ of crossing/header goals in Kamara. Translation, Robinson brought in the pieces that supported his unorthodox style.

Without Kamara, a late scratch, against LAFC, the Vancouver Whitecaps looked lost. They had 5’9” Felipe and 3’5” Techera waiting in the box for crosses. Remember how often those crosses got on the head of 5’9” Montero last season? The one positive I take from this was that Felipe was playing more forward in the lineup, rather than his usual position sitting between the two center backs.

It seems Carl Robinson has one way of playing and refuses to deviate from that plan. I commend him for sticking to the plan. It is easy to have a plan and then go away from it. That can cause even more problems as players can be confused and disjointed. However, the players looked confused and disjointed against LAFC, so who knows.

In an interview with AFTN’s Michael McColl, for Major League Soccer, Carl Robinson was asked: Standing at 6-foot-1, Blondell is just two inches shorter than Kamara. In theory, he’s a similar big target man for Vancouver, but he likes to run with the ball at his feet. Does this mean we might see a different kind of playing style from the Whitecaps in the coming weeks?

What was his response? “I wouldn’t say different style,”.

This is SO frustrating to hear. Carl Robinson has players in his lineup that don’t fit his style, so instead of adjusting to utilize a player’s strengths, it seems Carl would rather stick with what he knows; and it seems the only thing he knows. I am not saying the entire game plan should be switched around, but you have players like Yordy Reyna, Felipe Martins, Alphonso Davies, and Anthony Blondell, who are great playing with the ball at their feet and dribbling past players; however, even with all four of those players in the lineup, we should not expect any deviation from the game plan of lump it forward, cross it in, and hope.

I have highlighted numerous times that I commend Carl Robinson for sticking to his game plan, but at some point it stops being ‘sticking to your game plan’ and more ‘too stubborn/scared to change’. If you are going to bring in players that play a certain way, then stop trying to make them play different.

I will leave you with a comment from the preseason that seems to sum up this team well, and seems to be the requirement for Whitecaps victories.